“Coming Out” as Religiously Unconventional

Many of us have friends and family members who think we share their religious views. But what if we are religiously unconventional – atheists, agnostics, naturalistic theists, neo-Pagans, or just too creative to classify? Shall we tell others about our theological differences? And if so, how?

I’ve recently read a series of thoughtful comments about this issue on a web site called THE CLOSET ATHEIST.

This blogger is a young woman who attends a Christian college and has Lutheran parents. She recently wrote about a successful effort to tell a friend about her non-belief, but indicated that it’s still hard to imagine telling family members. Here are a few comments posted by her readers:

“Ask them whether they think someone should be free to believe in Christianity if they live in a Muslim community, or Judaism if they are in a Hindu community. Being an atheist is no different to that.” I agree, and this approach could be helpful in dealing with friends who are fairly open-minded. But I can’t agree with the next comment:

“Ask them if they consider themselves to be a Fascist, because if they don’t respect your right to freedom of belief, that is undoubtedly what they are!”

I’m confident that this line of questioning will shut off positive communication. It may indeed seem odd that so many people don’t grant others true freedom of belief. But this just points up the limitations of human nature as it’s developed so far. People live by agreement with others. Disagreement about such a fundamental point is deeply unsettling to many, many people. Another comment:

“… to the majority of people who are religious, I try to put out the concept that we have a common interest -to have a more loving, peaceful world.” Yes, look for common ground!

“Personally, if I knew you IRL [in real life], I would want to know how you really think and feel. I don’t want you to be afraid to live as yourself and not as a dancer in a masquerade.” Lovely, well put.

“… it’s OK not to tell them everything all at once. For many de-converts, including me, it took a while to discard belief … If you just drop this whole thing on your folks, that’s expecting them to be able to deal with your change all at once. If there’s any way to let them in on your journey a little at a time, with time in between to see that you have not become an evil person, that might help ease them into it.”

This line seems well worth repeating: “with time in between to see that you have not become an evil person.”

“It’s not because YOU’RE atheist it’s because it challenges THEIR own belief and they were all comfy and secure in their belief and now you’ve resigned from the club. Yikes!!”

Yikes indeed.

“…  I tend to use the term “non-believer.” Whether we agree or not, Christians have been taught that ‘atheist’ is a bad word (almost as bad as a ‘cuss’ word!” Right. Some words tend to shut down clear thought and constructive communication.

If in doubt, watch the other person’s body language and facial expressions. Start with less threatening comments, notice reactions, and keep going if it seems safe to do so.

And good luck to us all, believers and unbelievers alike!

Roger Christan Schriner

For my main web site, click http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com


I’m facing an important deadline in preparing my new book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. As a result, I’m taking a break from this blog for a few weeks.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Let’s Play “Name that Lifestance” (Revised 7/10/13)

It’s sad when a useful idea remains nameless. Words help us bring complex concepts into clear focus. Here is a lifestance looking for a label. Can you help find one for it?

What I have in mind is a form of agnosticism. Agnosticism means not knowing if there is a god, or not knowing the truth about some other contentious topic. But there are many kinds of agnosticism. One that I think is both helpful and under-utilized is based on two simple principles:

1. Whenever large numbers of sincere and competent people persistently disagree, we probably do not know who is right.

2. Principle #1 applies to a wide range of topics.

The hallmarks of this lifestance are objectivity and breadth. I have my own opinions about the existence of various sorts of gods, for example, but I also know that I could be mistaken. People who are just as smart and sincere as I am disagree with me about theology. I cannot float up above the fray and say, “Aha, that’s the truth!” Even so, I am sometimes able to sincerely acknowledge the biases and limitations of my own mind. Paradoxically, this realization helps me achieve a sort of objectivity, an ability to partially and temporarily detach from my own opinions. I can apply this principle to many issues, particularly in religion, philosophy, politics, and ethics.

What sort of label fits this wide-ranging meta-perspective? I’ve thought of several, but I’m not sure any of them are good enough.

* Wide-angle agnosticism
* Wide agnosticism
* Big-picture agnosticism
* Panagnosticism
* Metagnosticism

In Bridging the God Gap I speak of broad-spectrum agnosticism, but I’ve been told that sounds like an antibiotic.

So what do you think? And what terms would work for you? All suggestions are welcome!

Roger Christan Schriner

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A Major Endorsement for Bridging the God Gap

This just in! I have now received favorable comments from the Supreme Ruler of the Universe regarding my book, Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics. God writes:

“Intriguing, insightful, persuasive. I read every word (which was easy for Me, being omniscient), and I’m happy to endorse this work. It will help Earth’s many religions and philosophies of life build unity instead of sowing division. I must admit, however, that Bridging the God Gap has led to a bit of an identity crisis. In fact, I’m thinking of becoming an agnostic! Good luck with this project, Dr. Schriner!” (Signed) God

Happy April Fools Day, everyone.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Greater Than Ourselves

In finding common ground between those who have different beliefs, there is one unifying idea that is easily stated but very important: All of us, theists, atheists, and agnostics, can dedicate our lives to something greater than ourselves.

For some this means obedience to the will of God. But those who do not believe in God can devote themselves to another high purpose, such as allegiance to a set of core values. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until we find rest in thee.” A secular humanist might say, “My heart is restless until I rise above my own narrow interests.”

The crucial disagreement is not between belief and unbelief. It’s between those who are committed to a larger purpose and those who are unconcerned with the common good. Deep down we long to grow toward something larger and more lasting than ourselves, something that calls forth the best we can be.

When I think of focusing on the common good, I think of Frank Powell. I know Frank’s daughter Jean, who is now over 90. Jean suspects that her dad was an agnostic.

Frank was a dedicated humanitarian who founded the first bureau for handicapped children in Wisconsin and set up programs for kids with deafness, rheumatic heart trouble, and other ailments. When at last he was on his deathbed a local minister came by and asked him, “Frank, have you made your peace with God?” Echoing the words of Henry David Thoreau, the old man replied, “As far as I know, I have not quarreled with him.”

“Well then,” said the pastor, “are you confident that your soul will attain salvation?” “Reverend, I’ve spent my life up to this point thinking about other people and I’m not going to start worrying about myself now.”

At the funeral, that minister said he had to respect a man who could give those answers. Perhaps he sensed spiritual maturity in the old agnostic, Frank Powell.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Eight Points about Politics

1. People like simple ideas.

2. Many political issues are complicated and confusing.

3. Most people are too busy with everyday life to research these issues in depth.

4. Therefore most people’s political opinions are 5% fact and 95% fantasy.

5. This is true all along the political spectrum.

6. It’s true of most of the people you know.

7. Fortunately, it’s not true of you.

8. Is it?

If this seems like a useful sequence of ideas, consider forwarding it to some friends.

But this is a blog about theism and atheism, so let’s move on to religious implications. Try substituting “theological” in points 2, 4, and 5. For example, #5 would become, “This is true all along the theological spectrum.”

Regarding God’s existence, many people believe God exists, or does not exist, based on a mixture of fact and fantasy. As I wrote in Bridging the God Gap, our opinions about ultimate reality “are spiritual wagers, ‘leaps of faith’ into belief or ‘leaps of doubt’ into unbelief.”

If I realize that I’m a theological gambler, I’m less likely to look down on those who bet on red instead of black.

We’re doing the best that we know how, with the little pile of chips that we’ve got right now.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Baggini’s “Heathen’s Progress” Blog – Julian Quotes Homer

I was planning to go through Julian Baggini’s posts in chronological order, but his latest is so provocative that I can’t wait to comment. It’s called:

Struggling with the question of belief? Homer Simpson’s got the answer(http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/19/struggling-question-belief-homer-simpson-answer?)

Baggini really pulled the rabbit out of the hat this time. He managed to make a credible case for saying: “The atheist bus slogan could just as easily be ‘There’s probably a God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’” (The actual slogan, of course, started out, “There’s probably no God.”)

Baggini maintains that knowing whether God exists is irrelevant to daily living, partly because “you only need to go into one church to find that there are almost as many Gods worshipped there as there are worshippers.”

For similar arguments, see Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, p. 191, which criticizes: “the sort of agnosticism which only asks whether Christian theology is right about God. Such a narrow focus leads to odd logic, such as the claim that since the Christian God either does or does not exist, we can start by assuming that the chances are 50-50…. This would be like a simple card game, turning over a playing card after betting on red or black, but this is no two-card wager. Visualize instead a Las Vegas style ‘shoe’ holding six decks or more – and some of these decks contain cards we have never seen before. Instead of the King of Diamonds we may be dealt the Count of Rubies and have no idea how to play it. The theological possibilities before us are vast and unknowable.”

Baggini contends that merely knowing whether there’s a God tells us almost nothing. For God’s existence to make any practical difference, we need to know what God is like. That one word, “God,” covers myriad beliefs about deity. And there are many possible deities that we haven’t even thought of.

Julian discussed Tim Mawson’s suggestion that we pray in an open-ended fashion, e.g., “Is there anyone there?” But his reply to Mawson was uncharacteristically flippant: “From time to time, I’m happy to make such a request. There – I’ve just done it. No reply. Again.” Not a strong contender for Sincere Prayer of the Year. He maintains that “millions of people have done this millions of times and the number who have felt their prayer was answered in the affirmative is no more than you’d expect by chance….” Is there solid data supporting this claim?

The real problem with Mawson’s suggestion is that humans are so suggestible. Many people will imagine they hear some response, regardless of whether God is actually speaking to them, simply because they are imaginatively focusing upon this possibility. But one could compose a prayer, affirmation, or exploratory probe that reduces the possibility of self-deception. Here’s my candidate: “Setting aside my own desires, prejudices, and assumptions, I open myself to all that is real, wishing to know the truth, whatever it may be.” No doubt some atheists would become theists if they focused repeatedly on this meditation. And no doubt some theists would become atheists.

I mentioned this possible prayer in commenting on Baggini’s blog. Another of Baggini’s readers, who goes by the name of ChristianAtheist, liked the idea, noting that if there is a God, the way such a deity would “communicate is not necessarily the way we would expect … Isn’t it more likely that God is more nuanced and subtle than the kind of God the rationalist, scientific, hard atheists seem to think he would be?”

I agree – and also more nuanced and subtle than the God of fundamentalism.

Why, you may ask, does Baggini say in his title that “Homer Simpson’s got the answer”? Well, old Homer’s more theologically hip than we might anticipate. Simpson sees that our religious choices are far more complicated than just “Does the Christian God exist or not?” “What if we’ve picked the wrong religion?” he asks. “Every week we’re just making God madder and madder?”

Perhaps this remark by Baggini would be somewhat reassuring to Homer: “I think we can safely conclude that the probability of a liberal God fascist – one who doesn’t mind which version of him you believe in, but if you don’t believe in him at all, he’ll let you rot in hell – is negligible.” Indeed. And it also seems absurd that a being or force that created the universe would be even remotely interested in torturing its creatures because they are “bad.” Good and bad are all mixed up inside each of us, and you don’t have to be an all-knowing deity to figure that one out.


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Quotes about Agnosticism

Today I posted a page called Quotes about Agnosticism. I have also collected quotes about theism and about atheism, which are posted on separate pages.

If you’d like to “nominate” quotes of up to 100 words about theism, atheism, or agnosticism, please include the author you are quoting, the source, and the page number or URL. Thanks.

Here are the current contents of Quotes about Agnosticism:

From Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, p. 99:

“Theism and atheism are two ways of articulating our responses to ultimate mystery. And here is a key idea that is obviously true but difficult to fully accept: There is no objective place where we can stand and say, ‘Now I can see who is right about deity.’

“Of course, many people believe they have attained objective truth about God. Some say it is quite clear that God is real. Others find it equally clear that atheism is correct. But there is no ‘tie-breaker,’ no super-objective vantage point that settles this dispute…. We want to avoid this unsettling but undeniable conclusion. Honestly admitting that no one knows the truth about God is likely to make us squirm (unless we happen to be agnostics).

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have certainty about such an important question, so that all people who are good, smart, and well-informed would agree? But that is not where we find ourselves. We cannot dismiss the testimony of either believers or unbelievers.”

In my book I also mention a videotaped exchange between philosopher Daniel Dennett and conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, debating God’s existence. At one point D’Souza stated that God’s existence cannot be conclusively proven. In that sense, he said, both he and Dennett are agnostics. “I don’t know, and still I believe. Dan doesn’t know, and therefore, he doesn’t believe. What unites us is both of us don’t know. We’re actually both ignorant…. We are both reasoning in the dark.” (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iw7J15TeDG4&feature=PlayList.)

Ian Markham, a Christian theist, has offered a wonderful insight about our current theological confusion. The diversity of our world-views shows that reality is (for human beings) inherently ambiguous. We say we “believe” in some doctrine precisely because we cannot know it is true. “We are all … making assumptions that we cannot prove….” Markham concludes that God evidently wants us to have multiple orientations. He therefore speaks of “an inevitable provisionality that God has built into the creation.” “It is partly because this is the way that God made creation that I am confident God will be merciful to those who opt for a different [i.e., non-Christian] interpretation of the world.” “We need to learn to live with divinely intended pluralism….” (Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris Are Fundamentally Wrong, pp. 141-42).

The Christian philosopher Eric Reitan states that “… however the facts are arranged, it is possible to interpret them in theistic or atheistic terms” Is God a Delusion? p. 114).

And here’s a remark by Clarence Darrow:

“I do not consider it an insult, but rather a compliment to be called an agnostic. I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure – that is all that agnosticism means”

One of the best-known books on agnosticism is Michael Krasny’s Spiritual Envy. Here are several quotes from that publication:

“God is unknowable and so, for the present, is the universe …” ( p. 90).

“Though most agnostics eschew organized religion, many, even in their cloud of uncertainty, often take comfort in religious ritual, practice, ceremony, and community” (p. 6).

“Wishy-washy agnostic! I felt on the one hand as if I should give thanks for blessings and what seemed the miracle of birth, and on the other that I was being absurdly primitive and irrational, even cowardly, in having such mixed emotions” (p. 152).

“There is no rah-rah power in agnosticism. It enters through the intellect, not through the emotions. Stories or chants or affirmations of belief have emotional effects. Stories of uncertainty usually do not” (p. 223).

“The answer is that, until further notice, there is no answer” (p. 199).

Finally, a passage from the last chapter of Bridging the God Gap, which notes that some forms of agnosticism only ask “whether Christian theology is right about God. Such a narrow focus leads to odd logic, such as the claim that since the Christian God either does or does not exist, we can start by assuming that the chances are 50-50 and then see which way the evidence moves us.

“This would be like a simple card game, turning over a playing card after betting on red or black, but this is no two-card wager. Visualize instead a Las Vegas style “shoe” holding six decks or more – and some of these decks contain cards we have never seen before. Instead of the King of Diamonds we may be dealt the Count of Rubies and have no idea how to play it. The theological possibilities before us are vast and unknowable” (p. 191).


A Highly Recommended Article — “Holidays: Time for interfaith dialogue with your parents”

I recently read a practical and insightful essay by Michelle Richards on communication between people who disagree about religion. Although Michelle was writing for Unitarian Universalists, her ideas would work well in all sorts of settings.

Michelle points out that if we reject the religion of our childhood, our parents may take this as a personal rejection. She suggests focusing on similarities more than dwelling on differences, and I certainly agree. In my book and in my blog I am trying to show how people with “opposite” views about religion have more in common than it seems.

She goes on to say that “the arrival of precious grandchildren raises the stakes even higher.” Grandparents who were looking forward to celebrating their grandchild’s life passages in familiar ways may be deeply disappointed. Michelle draws upon her own experiences, describing her parents’ responses to her daughter’s life passages.

“Holidays: Time for interfaith dialogue with your parents” is well worth reading. Here’s the link:



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James P. Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief, Part Two

In The Religious Case Against Belief (Penguin Books, 2008), James P. Carse proclaims that we know very little about theological matters. In particular, he focuses on our limited understanding of sacred texts such as the Christian Bible.

Carse does not view the Bible as a practical guide for everyday living. He maintains that those who draw conclusions about reality from religious texts are deluding themselves. Rather than seeing such texts as collections of factual statements, he sees them as being more like poetry.

“… they are texts that demand interpretation, but without any indication of what that interpretation should be. The Bible, for example, provides no guide to reading the Bible” (p. 200).

That is an important and provocative assertion. If the Bible is God’s guide to life, it ought to include clear instructions about how to interpret it. Since it does not, it’s up to us to decipher its messages. Carse is skeptical of our ability to do so, and I find his argument persuasive. The human brain has a hard time dealing with complex theological and ethical issues, and what reasoning power we do possess is often overwhelmed by emotional biases.

Even though Christianity says that Scripture reveals God’s plan for humanity, one of the main reasons this religion has splintered into over 30,000 denominations is that Christians keep disagreeing about how to interpret the Bible. Evidently we aren’t very good at figuring out what this book is trying to tell us.

If God “wrote” the Bible, God surely would have known that humans have a lot of trouble interpreting what they read. To avoid confusion, divinely inspired scriptures should be as clearly written as a good college textbook.

If the Bible seems clearly written to you, think about the fact that others have so many interpretations that contradict your understanding of this book. Your interpretation could be the right one, perhaps because you are smarter than other people or more sincere. But of course we all want to think these things about ourselves. Remember, humility is a virtue!

Although I appreciate Carse’s ideas, I do think he goes out on a limb when he claims that religions “are not at their core intelligible….” (p. 36). “In their purest forms, they are thoroughly poetic. Odd as it may seem …, as richly verbal as religions are, like poetry they say nothing. There is no point to any of them” (p. 104).

They say nothing? That seems extremely peculiar. I admit that the Bible does not present a single coherent message, and it often contradicts itself about important matters. (See Bridging the God Gap,pp. 173-180.) But I do not think that Biblical writers were only penning poetry. In many passages it is obvious that they were making flat statements about theology, history, science, ethics, and practical matters such as child-rearing and sexual relationships.

I take it that Carse would disagree with me about that. He maintains that “essentially none of [religious] discourse is descriptive. It is not making any claims about the nature of the world” (p. 161).

Carse applies this radical idea to the Christian messiah: ” … the vast literature on Jesus is not about anything; … in fact, it says nothing. Indeed, that saying nothing, perhaps more profoundly than any other work of poetry, is its glory” (p. 112).

Many writers have suggested that scriptures are essentially poetry rather than history or science books. But let’s be careful here. Poetry, history, science, mythology, and other genre-designations are modern conceptions. Those who wrote religious texts thousands of years ago did not make these distinctions with rigor and clarity. For example, the first chapter of Genesis certainly contains elements of poetry. But it also contains factual claims about the way the cosmos was created. It would not have seemed odd to ancient Hebrews to mix these literary genres.

Furthermore, some theologians and philosophers seem to reason as follows: “A certain topic is very complex and confusing. Therefore we can reach no conclusions whatsoever about this matter.” That’s not logical. And by the way, many of those who most loudly proclaim that we can say nothing with certainty actually make an amazing number of confident and even absolutistic statements. I especially notice this among so-called post-modernists.

To his credit, James P. Carse invites readers to criticize his work. Even though many of his statements sound quite confident, he realizes that his own viewpoint is inherently, humanly, limited: “… the argument presented in these pages must provide the basis for its own rejection. Indeed, by citing the importance of disagreement to a vital and ongoing conversation is all but to beg for a critique of this critique” (p. 213). Here Carse shows that he has indeed attained what he calls “the higher ignorance,” realizing that even his most cherished opinions are subject to revision through dialogue with others.