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:


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:


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

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

The Hundredth Post

This is my one-hundredth posting in Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground. I’ve enjoyed the chance to share ideas, and it’s been exciting to see that people from all over the world visit this site. Yesterday someone from Turkey viewed one of my posts, and a few days ago I had a visitor from Nepal. I’ve had over 7000 page views so far.

I plan to continue this blog, but I admit I’m currently a bit distracted by my current book project. I’m writing about philosophical and scientific attempts to understand the mystery (or mysteries) of consciousness. I’ve been researching this topic for 20 years, and I’m afraid the project has been even more time-consuming than I anticipated. But I’m halfway through my fourth draft, and I hope to finish by this fall.

At some point I’ll begin a blog on puzzles about consciousness. I also plan to resume Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. I’ll let you know when those things happen.

Finally, here’s a special thank-you to those who have subscribed to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground. It’s good to connect with people who truly care about building bridges, bringing people together instead of pushing them apart.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Unitarian Universalist Humanism

Recently I’ve been following a discussion thread about how Unitarian Universalist humanists should relate to their UU congregations, and to the Unitarian Universalist Association as a whole. Unitarian Universalism is a denomination that accepts people of all faiths and philosophies. It seeks unity by supporting common values rather than a common theological or philosophical creed.

Some of our churches contain sub-groups that focus specifically on one sort of lifestance, such as liberal Christianity, neo-Paganism, or non-theistic humanism. The Humanist Roots group that I sometimes attend at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto is an example. But there are those who favor the formation of local UU congregations that are explicitly non-theistic.

Some discussants have been enthusiastic about this possibility, while others have been disappointed at the suggestion that our local congregations should be philosophically homogenous.

What do you think? Is there value in groups that include theists, atheists, and agnostics, and focus on common values? Or is it better for theists and atheists to attend different congregations?

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Trey Medley on NOMA

I have appreciated Trey Medley’s blog, Whytheology. His latest post is called “Why NOMA is inadequate.”


NOMA is Stephen Jay Gould’s acronym for “Non-overlapping magisteria.” A magisterium is “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” Gould said the scientific tools of empirical observation work well in dealing with facts, whereas the tools of religion are suitable for non-empirical areas such as meaning and value. “The two are entirely distinct according to Gould. … There is no conflict because the two are talking about fundamentally different things, and thus the two can’t even be in dialogue, much less disagreement.”

Trey Medley thinks Gould is mistaken. I’ll second the motion, but for slightly different reasons. For one thing, I want to encourage theist-atheist dialogue. NOMA undermines the possibility that believers and unbelievers could fruitfully discuss factual matters.

I agree with Trey that Christianity typically sees the Bible as making lots of claims about the physical universe. Some of these assertions, such as the notion that Earth is just a few thousand years old, can be ignored without undermining core Christian doctrines. The same could be said about demon possession, which Medley mentions. Many church-goers agree with psychologists who say that all serious mental illnesses are due to brain malfunctions. But other Biblical claims are more essential to traditional Christianity, such as the idea that God interacts with the universe and even suspends natural law to perform miracles.

Trey also points out that acceptance of the empirical method can’t be justified by using the empirical method. He’s right to say that would be circular. But of course choosing a method for understanding reality is a prelude to actually using that method. When we decide to try using science to understand the universe we are not at that moment using science.

Medley’s essay states that when science makes claims about events that are non-observable, those “are, by their very nature, more than empirical claims.” I’d analyze that issue a bit differently. ANY scientific claim must go beyond empirical findings. A report which asserts facts based on scientific findings has already gone beyond the data. Typically data are fitted into theories which are considered well-grounded. Based on theory + data, we draw conclusions.

Suppose I observe that every time a one-ton boulder falls on someone’s head, that person dies. That is an empirical finding. To claim that the boulder killed those people, I have to go beyond this datum, although in this case not by very much! By using a widely-accepted theory of physical causation I can assert that the fatal results were more than mere coincidence.

I think Trey may be suggesting that claims about events in the very distant past or future are not scientific claims, because such events are not observable. But they are empirically-based claims, if research data is combined with scientific theories.

Without theory, science is mute.

Note, however, that sometimes scientists speculate about the cosmos in ways that seem to be based more upon their personal world-views than on well-proven facts. I’m thinking, for example, of some statements made by Stephen Hawking. Such speculations may be brilliant or misguided, but they are theology or philosophy, not science.

Medley is planning to say more about NOMA, and I’m looking forward to reading his next post.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

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

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.


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

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.