Pope Francis on Christian-Atheist Cooperation

While reading a blog called Finding My Ground, I was surprised to see that Pope Francis has said some very friendly things to atheists. In one passage he imagines a fellow Catholic asking if Jesus has redeemed atheists, and he responds affirmatively. Later he invites those of all viewpoints to create a “culture of encounter” by cooperatively doing good. He acknowledges that an atheist might find this possibility hard to imagine, I presume because Christian churches have condemned non-believers so vigorously. Again he suggests that we can all cooperate by doing good works. Here’s what Pope Francis said:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Remarkable! I actually looked up the quote to be sure he really said these things:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/22/pope-francis-good-atheists_n_3320757.html

Sadly, many comments on this statement were either unrealistically optimistic – “Wow! Francis says I’ll go to heaven if I’m a good person, no matter what I believe!” – or cynical – “No reason to feel good about this. Vatican officials are now saying that atheists will still go to hell if they don’t accept Jesus.”

Does anyone think it is likely that Pope Francis would formally announce that all Roman Catholics should henceforth believe in universal salvation? He’s an intelligent fellow, and I suspect he’d rather continue for some years as pope rather than having a tragic “accident” or being stricken with a mysterious and fatal illness just months into his papacy. It would be physically dangerous to make such a radical change in Catholic theology. If Francis or some other pope ever endorses universal salvation, that will show remarkable courage. In any case, the attitude shown in Francis’ comment is warm, respectful, and non-judgmental, and that is a most welcome development.

It may well be that the Pope is ambivalent about non-believers. Perhaps on other occasions he has said things about them that are hostile or demeaning. I don’t know. But it’s a fine step forward for the Holy Father to say this sort of thing even once. And of course, I’m hoping the pontiff is actually a closet universalist.

The author of Finding My Ground is an agnostic who writes that “too much of this country sees all atheists as without morals and absolutes, … selfish, freewheeling relativists who do whatever our reptilian brain dictates.” I encourage you to read her entire post, which includes comments about raising two children who do not believe in standard theism:

http://findingmygrounduu.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/pope-francis-atheism-and-words-of-thanks/#comments

For now, I’ll take the Pope’s words as an encouraging sign, and hope he says similar things in the future.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Is Atheism a Faith?

I was involved in interfaith work for quite some time, and I’ve quoted atheist Chris Stedman who has been very active in interfaith groups and wrote a book called Faithiest. One question that often comes up is whether atheism is a “faith,” and I’ve recently read some wise words about this issue from the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist blogger James Ford.

Ford mentioned an interfaith meeting at which “a colleague I really like offered how she told a mutual friend who is a prominent local Humanist that he has a “faith” as well. … Her description of faith was something I was familiar with from seminary. Faith is a verb, it speaks to an active engagement with one’s experience. … I offered that she had re-defined that word faith in that very attractive way, but also one that ignored ordinary use. And by ordinary use, … our mutual friend is not a “person of faith.”

Rev. Ford concludes that pinning the “faith” label on someone who doesn’t want it blocks “any hope of genuine understanding …”

James’ post includes a lot of other ideas which are well worth reading. See http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/2013/04/faith-of-a-liberal-buddhist.html.

So what do you think? Should we redefine faith more broadly? My main comment is that whenever we use incredibly vague terms from religion and philosophy, it’s important to clarify what we mean with a brief elaboration or a helpful example.

Yes, this takes more time. But it saves SO much wasted breath by lessening the chance that people will experience the illusion of communication when actually they’re talking right past each other!

Roger Christan Schriner

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More Thoughts about Unitarian Universalist Humanism

I’ve been following an on-line discussion about the way Unitarian Universalist humanists should relate to their UU congregations. Some want to form local UU congregations that are explicitly humanistic, while others like the diversity of groups that include theists, atheists, and agnostics, and focus on common values.

After I posted about this topic recently, one person commented that a theologically homogeneous group “too easily falls into nasty habits, sneering at those not there to hear it, making ‘jokes’ that are little short of hate speech, not quite realizing how far down that path they’ve gone in the absence of anyone present to call them on it.”

I couldn’t agree more. I have seen this sort of thing happen many times – even among good people. We humans find it so difficult to respect those who disagree with us about religion (or politics, or morality).

I also have another concern about setting up explicitly humanistic Unitarian Universalist congregations. Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion. In the past few decades few if any of our churches have taken a formal stand in favor of some theological position. If we start setting up humanistic congregations, we’ll soon see congregations that formally privilege liberal theism, neo-Paganism, etc. That sort of theological fragmentation sounds very destructive.

On the other hand, forming more humanistic groups within UU churches could be quite positive. Within Unitarian Universalism, theism is now more commonly affirmed than it was 30 years ago. As a result, some atheists and agnostics have felt marginalized. They need to feel the supportive community of their fellow humanists. And having different theological groups doesn’t need to be divisive. If one congregation contains local chapters of groups such as HUUmanists, the UU Christian Fellowship, and the Covenant of UU Pagans, that could actually encourage respectful conversations across theological boundary-lines.

Roger Christan Schriner

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The Paradox of Popular Anachronism

Sometimes an idea, a strategy, or a style of communication becomes boring due to sheer repetition – and yet it remain popular. That’s especially puzzling when it’s never even worked. I’ll give two off-topic examples, and then get back to religion.

Example 1: Obsessing about who’s to blame for a problem instead of what we can do to solve it.

Is global warming caused by human activity? Who cares? The important question is whether human activity can slow warming or even stop it. I realize some people think global warming is a hoax, but that’s a different issue. Right now I’m focusing on how we think about problems: Let’s spend lots of time assigning blame.

Example 2: Emphasizing persons instead of systems. Who caused the financial crisis and the Great Recession? Everyone and no one. The system was set up in ways that rewarded imprudent risk-taking. Eventually we got burned.

Example 3: Dealing with religious differences by attacking, denigrating, and mocking those who disagree with us.

In his book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, Chris Stedman gives an example, quoting a prominent atheist named PZ Meyers:

“I say, screw the polite words and careful rhetoric. It’s time for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer on the lunatics and idiots.”

This statement is frequently quoted on the internet by people who dislike atheists. Meyers probably thought he was striking a powerful blow against religion, when actually he was handing a big box of ammo to his adversaries.

I am so weary of polarizing, overheated rhetoric. It is so boring, so tedious, so passé. To use an old-fashioned analogy, it sounds like the record got stuck in a groove. And yet this approach is still popular. It’s out of date, and yet widely acclaimed: The paradox of popular anachronism.

On January 17, 2012, in a comment on Julian Baggini’s essays, I noted the popularity of shallow attack-rhetoric:

“Yesterday while perusing comments by Baggini’s readers, I decided to see which ones scored the highest approval ratings…. Posts given the thumbs-up by 25 or more readers often contained language that was hostile and demeaning: ‘Rubbish,’ ‘You’re making ridiculous leaps,’ ‘Atheism is essentially irrational,’ and a scornful reference to ‘Dawkins and all you “atheist” lot.'”

Don’t people ever get tired of self-stimulating their own combat hormones?

There is nothing so pathetic as an idea whose time has come and gone … when people still think it works.

Nevertheless, I am still hopeful that more of us will wake up to the wastefulness of antagonism and the power of cooperation, among those of all faiths and philosophies. Reflecting on his own experiences with interfaith work, Stedman writes that our world needs “people of all different stripes and convictions coming together to deal with things that matter, announcing our differences without fear, enthusiastically embracing our commonalities, and intentionally seeking out points of mutuality and understanding in the face of vastly different metaphysical commitments.” (Faitheist, p. 133)

This is not yet an idea whose time has come. But I think it’s on its way.

May we live to see that day.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Reflections on Faitheist, by Chris Stedman

“What is most personal is most universal.” So said the great psychotherapist, Carl Rogers. I saw this principle confirmed years ago in my personal growth workshops. When people who were feeling lonely and isolated told their personal stories, they were often surprised by the way other group members empathized, identified, and responded.

Today I finished reading a highly personal memoir that will speak to a great many people – Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. The author, Chris Stedman, is smart and passionate. He is also ruthlessly honest, even about his own faults. With this combination of brains, intensity, and candor, it’s not surprising that he sometimes takes unusual risks. During a high school retreat, for example, he got up the nerve to tell his classmates why he’d taken course-work at a community college that year: Because of being gay, he said, “I didn’t feel safe here.” He received a standing ovation, led by a fellow named Nate, a popular athlete that Chris had assumed would look down on him. Afterward Nate “approached me and gave me a hug. ‘I’m not sure I agree with you, dude, but that was brave’” (pp. 80-81).

Even when we don’t identify with someone’s actions or ideas, we may admire that person’s courage.

It also takes courage to criticize both religious and non-religious viewpoints, running the risk of being sniped at from both directions. A religion teacher said to Stedman, “‘When I talk about God, I mean love and justice and reconciliation, not a man in the sky. You talk about love and justice and reconciliation — why can’t you just call that God?’” Chris replied, ‘Why must you call that God? Why not just call it what it is: love and justice and reconciliation?’” (P. 123)

Chris has also critiqued prominent atheists and atheist organizations. At his first atheist conference he heard “speeches comparing religion to sexually transmitted diseases. It was, for me, a nightmare. … I called friends of mine back home — atheists, no less — and recalled what I’d seen. They were shocked and appalled. One friend said to me: ‘You see, this is why I don’t want to call myself an atheist” (p. 145).

Stedman wrote an article suggesting that organized atheism often talks about religion in ways that deepen divisions. After it appeared in the Washington Post, he got “unexpected feedback. ‘This is exactly what I think, but I didn’t know anyone else agreed with me,’ wrote one reader” (p. 138).

Faitheist contains several other remarkable stories of risk and (mostly) reward. It’s a moving and readable memoir, highly recommended for theists, atheists, agnostics alike.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Faitheist: An Important New Book by Chris Stedman

On November 6 Beacon Press published Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Just from reading the reviews and browsing through the text on line I know this book will be helpful in promoting theist-atheist dialogue. I ordered it today.

When I wrote Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, there were virtually no other works available that focused on what theists and atheists have in common. Stedman addresses this subject personally, by recounting his own experiences with atheists, Christians, and interfaith work.

According to the Unitarian Universalist Association Bookstore, “Chris Stedman makes a passionate argument that atheists should learn to respect religious identity while remaining secular. Drawing on his personal transformation from born-again Christian and closeted homosexual through full-throated atheist with a disdain for religion, and finally to a modern, more tolerant atheist, Stedman is uniquely positioned to present a way for atheists and the religious to find common ground. Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University…. His work appears in Huffington Post, the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, and Religion Dispatches.”

Thanks, Chris, for telling the story of an unusual and courageous personal journey.

Roger Christan Schriner

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