Theists, Atheists, and the Holiday Season

During the holiday season, family members with diverse opinions about theology are often thrown together in religiously-themed celebrations. This web site includes five entries that focus on this challenge:

November 25, 2011: “How Was Thanksgiving with Your Religious Relatives? Or Your Atheist Relatives?”

November 29, 2011: “A Highly Recommended Article – ‘Holidays: Time for interfaith dialogue with your parents.’”

December 16, 2011: “Do You Dread Christmas Because of Religious Disagreements?
Perhaps It’s Time for ‘The Positive Dodge.’”

November 16, 2012: “Family Time at the Holidays: A Challenge for Theists and Atheists .”

November 26, 2012: “A Song for the Holidays.”

If you can’t access any of these I’ll be happy to send you the link. Generally if you just keep scrolling downward, all 121 entries will eventually appear.

May the remaining days of December offer memorable moments of love, insight, and fulfillment, sending you into 2015 with confident anticipation.

Roger Christan Schriner

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A Song for the Holidays

To get yourself in the mood for holiday gatherings with your theist or atheist friends and relatives, check out this humorous and yet insightful parody of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “I Am Sixteen”:


Roger Christan Schriner

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How To Tell When Your Mind Is Closing

One of the goals of this blog on theism and atheism is to help people become more open to the ideas of other people. If I can successfully encourage theists to be more open to the views of atheists, and encourage atheists to consider theistic perspectives, finding common ground between, say, Muslims and Christians or Hindus and Sikhs should seem easy by comparison.

Not surprisingly, few people seem motivated to become open-minded, especially about political or religious issues. I think of a comment by Rabbi Steven Reuben: “the only person in the world who really likes change is a wet baby” (A Nonjudgmental Guide to Interfaith Marriage, p. 31).

If we want to escape the prison of self-justifying beliefs, we can try to identify early-warning signals that tip us off when our minds are closing. We can learn to feel ourselves slamming the door against new truth.

So ask yourself now, what warning signals occur when you start blocking out a good idea that might disturb your preconceptions? For example, is an alarm going off in your mind right this minute, just thinking about learning to notice when your mind is closing? If you can identify cues that alert you when this is happening, you can learn to catch your mind-gate just as it starts to swing shut.

Some cues are felt in the body and others are more “mental.” You may feel a vague unease, a mild irritation, or physical tension such as tightening your jaw.

Personally, I tend to hold my breath and focus on counter-arguments. I may not even state these counter-arguments out loud, but by concocting a rebuttal that I find cogent and clever, I feel relieved. I have succeeded once again in fending off the threat of mind-expansion.

As you read entries in Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, watch for moments when you encounter something plausible that disturbs your preconceptions. When that happens, check what you’re feeling inside. Once you know what you experience when your mind is “threatened with expansion,” you can watch for that cue when you’re with people who challenge your belief system.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Should Children Think for Themselves About Religion?

In my latest post, I mentioned that many churches ask children to commit themselves to a particular theology, even though they lack the knowledge and the intellectual ability to make an informed decision. One reader commented that “Children are able to cope with hearing more than one side of the story from quite a young age, even though their abstract reasoning skills are still developing. It would be great to hear of a church where they are told ‘Some Christians believe X, and others Y, and others Z’ …’”

I certainly agree, and I’ve been thinking about why this so seldom happens. It seems likely that the human brain is wired up so as to make small children believe just about anything grown-ups tell them. Although some of us revise our views later on, the words of Ignatius of Loyola still ring true: “Give me a child till he is seven, and I care not who has him after.”

Parents want to give their children factual information about safety, social customs, good health habits, and so on. Since people tend to think that their own religious views are correct, they naturally want to provide this accurate information to their sons and daughters.

Unfortunately this leads well-meaning grownups to systematically indoctrinate impressionable young minds. But they will continue to do this until they realize that sincere and well-informed individuals can disagree about spiritual matters.

Humility is a virtue, and true intellectual humility is one of the hardest virtues to attain.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Reflections On the Aurora Murders

It’s troubling and depressing. Yet another young male has acted out a melodramatic cartoonlike fantasy of egocentric rage. There are already lots of instant theories about why he did it, but frankly I doubt that anyone truly understands why some people think it’s worth destroying their own futures to go kill lots of strangers.

In the aftermath, we can think about which responses to this tragedy help pull us together, and which ones drive people farther apart.

Regardless of whether they believe in God, many people are sincerely committed to making this a better world. That’s one thing that can unite us, regardless of whether we are theists or atheists. After the shootings, people of many faiths and philosophies are wondering what they can do to stop this from happening again. (In a moment I’ll share some thoughts about that.)

Unfortunately, some religious leaders have responded in ways that drive a wedge between believers and non-believers. Perhaps the worst offender is a prominent minister named Jerry Newcombe, a spokesperson for a religious group known as Truth In Action. Jerry thought this would be an opportune time to tell non-Christians that they’re headed for hell. He claimed that out of those who were gunned down in that Colorado theater, the Christians will go to heaven but those who are not “in Christ” will wake up in hell There, they will find, a loving and compassionate God has sent them to be tortured for all eternity with no way to ever get out.

In Newcombe’s words, “… if they knowingly rejected Jesus Christ, then, basically, they are going to a terrible place.”


Some would view Newcombe’s statement as relatively liberal, since he said hell was for those who knowingly rejected Jesus. I assume “knowingly rejected” means they have heard that Jesus offers forgiveness for our despicable sins, but have not chosen to become Christian. But some theologians think that even those who have never even heard of the Nazarene are going to hell if they don’t accept him as their savior. That puts them in a tough spot, since they know nothing of Jesus or Christianity.

I hope atheists and progressive Christians will consider making common cause in condemning the standard notion of hell, the idea that a loving deity would cause people agonizing, endless, unavoidable pain to punish them for things they did in their relatively brief lifetimes. Most atheists will certainly see this as a bizarre doctrine, but many Christians can also agree that the orthodox concept of hell is a savage relic of ancient vengeful fantasies.

For an excellent, Biblically-informed Christian discussion of hell, read Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. If every Christian read Love Wins, I am convinced that many of them would either reject the idea of hell or radically modify this concept.

And now back to my earlier question. How can we prevent future Auroras?

The best I can do is to suggest that if young people feel bonded in positive and loving ways with family and friends, they are quite unlikely to lash out in spasms of random violence. Person-to-person connections make a huge difference.

If what happened in Colorado troubles you, think about what you can do to love and care for those who live on the margins, who feel like outsiders. There is a deep human need to belong. Can you help someone feel included? Can you help some specific person become a participant instead of a detached observer? Can you welcome someone more fully into the human family?

And perhaps one of those persons who needs this welcome is you.


Roger Christan Schriner

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Conversational Generosity

I recently read a brief paper called “Let Your Wisdom Shine as a Reflection of the Other,” by essayist Charles MacDermed. His words manifest a rare generosity of spirit, expressed in elegant language. With Charles’ permission, here are some excerpts:

“Can you show as much genuine respect for your fellow conversationalists as you would have sincerely shown to you? Do you grace your correspondents in dialog with deferential esteem and appreciative admiration? Can you in working fact give them a higher quality of camaraderie than you expect or require of them? Don’t stint. Rather be radically bighearted: give more than you get – by far more. Don’t wait to get before you give. Be the very epitome of outgoing benevolence. Display an affable gregariousness that is the manifest paragon of conversational engagement. Outdo yourself as though your partners in talk were the source of your inspiration: demonstrate to them the degree to which they indispensably are your cherished personal muse. Let your wisdom shine as a reflection of them.

“Speak the language of the other: use their words – as an efficacious means of proving that you both hear and value what they say (be they right or wrong). . . . [T]hey are offering you a look into their own personal thought. Treat their confession of trust with reciprocal sincerity. . . . Make even more of their intended meaning than they themselves might imagine.”

Reading Charles’ essay reminded me of a passage from Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics: “Attitude is crucial. If you are sincerely interested in connecting with another human being, he or she will probably feel safe enough to open up. Even if you stumble and stammer, your good intentions will come across. But if your goal is to attack, debate, or dominate, it’s hard to conceal this agenda with handy-dandy communication techniques” (p. 51).

In MacDermed’s essay I especially appreciated these comments: “Don’t stint. Rather be radically bighearted . . . Don’t wait to get before you give.” And: “Make even more of their intended meaning than they themselves might imagine.”

Although Charles was not specifically discussing conversations about theology, his suggestions would certainly apply to that context. I admit that generosity of spirit may do little good if the gap between world-views is too wide, or if tensions are too high. But even then, being “radically bighearted” may produce surprising results.

Thanks, Charles, for the opportunity to share your thoughts with others.

Roger Christan Schriner

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A Bridge-Building Vision

I recently read a blog by the Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern about her vision for her congregation in Palo Alto. Some of her ideas were relevant to my goal of building bridges between many different philosophies of life. She wants her church to be a place:

“where we confront every dogma–the ones we receive and the ones we promote. …

where we accept and celebrate the gorgeous variety of humanity, and dissolve all categories. …

where we seize on every nugget of wisdom, however unlikely the place we find it, and hold it up and share it so that everyone can have every bit of insight human experience can offer. …

where we allow no differences of theological language, spiritual practice, chosen metaphor, or life story to prevent us from walking together.

where we move again and again from false either/ors to encompassing, empowering both/ands. …

where we claim the heritage of all wise thinkers, all brave heretics, all unflagging activists, all teachers and disciples, all artists, all speakers of wise words, all lovers of humanity, all carers for the small and delicate.

where we stay in the circle and know we will not give up even when we don’t know how to make this crazy quilt of community hang together. …

where we ask the hard questions

. . . and listen to the answers

. . . and listen even when the only answers seem to be silence and mystery.”

Thanks, Amy, for these bridge-building ideals. For the full text of her essay see:


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