The Pastor Strikes Back

My recent posts are based on a presentation I sometime make in which “Pastor Chris” debates “Dr. Schriner” about whether God exists. (I take both sides, wearing an ecclesiastical stole when Pastor Chris speaks.) So here is the pastor once again:

How sad that such a smart fellow as Dr. Schriner has to fall back on such outdated atheistic ideas. It is so “Twentieth Century” to proclaim that the grand march of science is closing every gap in our knowledge. Today new discoveries are opening up astonishing new mysteries! At one time we had no idea that the laws of nature are fine-tuned for the existence of life. Not all scientists have realized this is so, but it is revolutionary to hear brilliant physicists say the cosmos seems precisely designed to make our existence possible. Schriner quotes Bradley Monton to dispute this idea, but Monton himself is an atheist, so he’s hardly unbiased! Continue reading

Pastor Chris Makes His Case for Deity

I recently made a presentation in which I argued with myself about whether God exists, and I’m posting it here, one speech at a time. For details, see my previous entry. As you read, notice what you think and feel when you are reading statements by the “other side.”

This talk was set up on a modified college debate format. The master of ceremonies begins:

And now, ladies and gentlemen, speaking for the affirmative on the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe, here is Pastor Chris. (Pastor Chris steps to the lectern.)

Good morning and thank you for attending this important debate, in which I will show that a personal deity exists and created the universe. By a personal deity, I mean a God who does things persons do, such as thinking, feeling, making judgments, and communicating with us.

Obviously God is not literally a person, with arms and legs, and fingernails that need trimming once a week. But calling God a person conveys more truth than any other way of describing our Creator. As Thomas Aquinas wrote, we speak about God “indirectly, through analogy.” “The Lord is my shepherd,” means that God’s relationship to me is analogous to a shepherd’s relationship with sheep, even though God doesn’t actually walk around carrying a shepherd’s crook. So in saying that a personal God exists, I mean that God is like a human being in many ways, and also far beyond us.

One thing persons do is communicate, and countless individuals testify that they have clearly experienced the presence of God, listening to them and speaking to them. Some communications are subtle, as when Elijah heard the still, small voice. Others are dramatic, as when Paul was struck blind while hearing the voice of Jesus.

And here’s what’s really important. This sense of communication with deity is extremely common. I do not believe that so many people, in all cultures, in all periods of history, and at all levels of education, could be so deeply mistaken. Continue reading

Is God Real? Pastor Chris Debates Dr. Schriner

I recently enjoyed making a presentation in which I argue with myself about whether God exists, debating the issue to a decisive draw. Pastor Chris, my theistic persona, makes a case for theism, and skeptical Dr. Schriner pokes holes in it.

In my university days I loved debate, so I decided to use a modified college debate format, with pro and con statements on the proposition:

Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe

Each side makes one five minute opening presentation and two shorter rebuttals.

It’s usually harder to prove that something is true than to show that it could very well be false. So because the negative side has an inherent advantage, the affirmative side is allowed to begin the contest and also to have the last word. Therefore Pastor Chris, who maintains that a deity exists, will begin AND end the debate.

In listening to a debate, people typically root for “their team” while inwardly arguing with the other side. Research shows that we strongly resist data that contradict our preconceptions. We are, then, in a prison of our own making, the prison of self-justifying beliefs. If we want to break out of this conceptual jail, we can 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. Continue reading

Anger and Atheism

Much to my surprise, I recently found myself questioning the validity of atheism.

Since college days I have seen both atheism and some forms of theism as legitimate options, useful and potentially correct ways of understanding the universe. We cannot yet prove the truth of any lifestance, but we can rule out some alternatives and decide which of the remaining world-views seem most accurate to us.

So I was startled to notice myself doubting that atheism is a legitimate, reasonable option. What I noticed was subtle, only a half-conscious thought, and I immediately realized that this thought was ill-founded. It was, in essence: “I’ve been reading some angry statements by atheists. Anger prevents people from thinking straight. Maybe atheism is irrational, based on emotion rather than reason.”

That half-conscious thought makes no sense because atheism (and some forms of theism) can be well-supported by clear-minded reason. Besides, as a Unitarian Universalist minister I’ve served congregations that include many atheists, as well as agnostics and liberal theists. These atheists, as a group, are not filled with rage. And even those who are intensely angry at religion have good reasons for feeling resentful. Atheists are one of the most widely-despised groups in the United States, and it’s only natural that they would resent this sort of marginalization.

But of course when people are extremely angry they are especially motivated to express themselves, so in any persecuted minority some of the loudest voices are the voices of rage.

When I found myself wondering if atheism was irrational, I had just read a series of email exchanges on a secular humanist chat list. I won’t quote individuals, but let’s just say people were speaking freely. Even when I didn’t agree with them, I could understand where they were coming from. But the strong emotional content of some statements engendered a doubt (irrational, I realize) about the validity of their world-view.

So should angry atheists tone down their rhetoric? Not always. To everything there’s a season. But people have a hard time hearing hostile communications. If you’re just “venting,” and don’t care whether people agree with you, you may choose to let it all hang out. But if you’d like to make this world a friendlier place for non-theism, the raw edge of rage may be best expressed in private.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Family Time at the Holidays: A Challenge for Theists and Atheists

The holiday season sometimes triggers tensions about religion, when family members who disagree about theology are thrown together in religiously-themed celebrations. For ideas about enjoying each other instead of arguing, see my entry of November 25, 2011, How Was Thanksgiving with Your Religious Relatives? Or Your Atheist Relatives? If you’d like suggestions about Christmas gatherings, see my December 16, 2011 post.

For a lighthearted yet thoughtful look at this topic, check out “The Christians and the Pagans,” a song about a modern family Christmas by Dar Williams. For the lyrics go to

There may be YouTube versions available as well. Here’s how the song ends:

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table,
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able,
Lighting trees in darkness, learning new ways from the old, and Making sense of history and drawing warmth out of the cold.

May your family gatherings be a time of love and laughter, regardless of how you answer the Great Big Questions.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Concluding the Debate: Which One of Me Won?

Today I’ll finish reporting on a debate about the existence of God, in which I took both sides of the argument. I have become convinced that, in general, if a person cannot persuasively argue for both sides of a controversial issue, then he or she does not adequately understand that issue. So I tried to practice that principle a few weeks ago at a Unitarian Universalist church, and I had some fun in the process. When you read my posts quoting the debate, remember that debates tend to be feisty, so these entries are different in tone from most of my other blogs.

I began my presentation by assuming the role of a Christian minister, “Pastor Chris” (Chris is my nickname), and I responded to the pastor as the atheist, “Dr. Schriner.” In last week’s post, Pastor Chris quoted atheist Daniel Dennett as saying that religion gives people “sturdy support” in dealing with challenging life issues. The pastor concluded:

“Schriner never denies that the vast majority of people have sensed the presence of this sturdy support, for centuries, all over the world. The overwhelming testimony of this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism.”

Dr Schriner then strode to the lectern:

“That great cloud of witnesses is a whole lot smaller than Pastor Chris thinks. I realize that the vast majority of Americans say they believe in God. However in Canada around 20 or 30% are atheists or agnostics. In the U.K. it’s 30-45%, and 65% in Japan. (See The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, p. 109.) Besides, he is supposed to prove there’s a personal God. But in a survey of sixty countries, only 45% thought a personal God exists, so those who believe in a personal deity are actually in the minority.” (See

Dr. Schriner then critiqued the claim that the universe is “fine-tuned” for intelligent life: “My opponent never responded to the idea that there could be an infinite number of universes, many of which could not support life. His claim that God created the universe is based on flimsy speculation and taking the word of assorted mystics about highly ambiguous religious experiences. It’s ironic that mystics often say they can’t even begin to put their spiritual experiences into words, and then they turn around and draw all sorts of theological conclusions from those experiences.

“I admit that religion does some people some good, and probably belief in leprechauns was helpful to some of the ancient Irish. But if religious people were in touch with a supreme goodness, they would tend, as a general rule, to be morally superior to us ‘heathens,’ and they are not. Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg’s comment rings true: Without religion ‘you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.’

“Thank you for listening. I hope you will agree with me that there is very little evidence that a personal God created the universe.”

Pastor Chris had the last word:

“As a religious person I get laughed at for believing in fairy-tale mythologies. But when scientists dream up wild stories about there being an infinite number of undetectable universes, all the secular humanists solemnly nod and agree. There is only one reason these bizarre multiple-universe scenarios get any press. People see that if this is actually the only universe, then it looks like the universe was fine-tuned for our benefit. Some great creative power intended for us to be here.” (For the context of this discussion of fine-tuning, see my October 14 and 20 posts.)

“When I try to think about the universe reasonably, I reject the idea of existence without any deliberate cause. This is not a faith-based argument. The idea of a godless cosmos offends my intelligence.

“When Dr. Schriner presents evidence that believers are no more moral than non-believers, it makes me sad but it is completely beside the point. Perhaps the human tendency to be selfish and unloving is so strong that religion has not overcome these faults in most people. But those who truly open themselves to God’s presence are changed for the better. I’ll again quote the atheist, Daniel Dennett, who says that from a sincere theist’s point of view, ‘God is the greatest thing that could ever enter our lives. It isn’t like accepting a conclusion; it’s like falling in love” (Breaking the Spell, p. 250).

Those who are open to God’s love do become better persons. The tragedy is that so few of us fully accept this boundless grace. But we always have the freedom to open our hearts to redemption, and perhaps some who are here today will embrace this possibility. At least I hope you will agree, based on a preponderance of the evidence, a personal deity did create the universe.”

Looking back at this debate about deity, ask yourself what you experienced when you heard something plausible that pushed against your own opinions. What did you feel inside? If you discover what happens when a good argument disturbs your belief-systems, then you can learn to notice your own mind closing, and perhaps learn to prop it open.

And here is an 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.”

Many people believe they have attained The 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. Honestly admitting that no one knows the truth about god is likely to make us squirm (unless we happen to be agnostics).

It would be more comfortable if we had certainty about this important subject, so that all people who are good, smart, and well-informed would agree, but that is not where we find ourselves. We cannot dismiss either the testimony of intelligent and well-informed believers or intelligent and well-informed unbelievers.

Does ultimate reality have personal qualities, or should we think of it impersonally, in terms of an It rather than a Thou? Each of us makes our choice – yes, there is an invisible person hidden in the darkness, or no, there is not. Both theists and atheists are speculating, and that is unavoidable. But theists, atheists, and agnostics who understand that life is deeply mysterious and who sincerely search for greater truth are kindred spirits despite their differences.

Roger Christan Schriner

P.S. I would be happy to debate the existence of God in any public setting. I’ll take either side. Contact me by commenting on this posting.

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Does God Exist? Pro and Con

In Bridging the God Gap, I suggest that both believers and atheists can make a good case for their positions. To back up this claim, I recently gave a talk in which I debated with myself about the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe. I used a modified college debate format in which each side made one initial five minute presentation followed by two shorter rebuttals


The title of my talk was Does God Exist? Pastor Chris Debates Dr. Schriner. To help people keep track of the two contestants, I wore an ecclesiastical stole as Pastor Chris, doffing the stole and donning glasses when Dr. Schriner stepped to the mike. Why not have a little fun while discussing such weighty topics?

Pastor Chris had to show that (1) a personal deity exists and (2) this being created the universe, and he had to accomplish this task in about 10 minutes. Chris defined “personal deity” as a God who does things persons do, such as thinking, feeling, making judgments, and communicating with us.

It’s usually harder to prove that something is true than to show that it could well be false, so the negative side has an inherent advantage. To compensate for this imbalance, the affirmative side of a debate is allowed to begin the contest and also to have the last word. Next week I’ll share a few of the Pastor’s remarks, and then I’ll recap Dr. Schriner’s replies.

In the meantime, think about this matter yourself. What do you see as the most substantial arguments for and against the existence of a personal God that created the cosmos? I encourage you to pay special attention to arguments that contradict your own viewpoint.

When I ask people to think of the best arguments against their own position, they often come up with ideas that are emotionally appealing and yet unsound. For example, some people may want to believe in God because they feel lonely and would like to have a companion, but “I feel lonely” is not evidence of God’s existence.

So I’m not looking for the reasons people do or do not want to believe in God. I’m looking for legitimate reasons for believing that the existence of God is likely or unlikely. What do you see as two or three of the strongest points on each side?

Tune in next week for excerpts from Pastor Chris’ opening salvo.

Roger Christan Schriner

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More Ideas About Self-Correction.

My last two entries suggested developing the habit of practicing self-correction. Here are a few specific suggestions:

* Keep a diary. Write down experiences that involve topics such as open-mindedness about religion and learning to notice ourselves rejecting an unsettling idea without considering its merits.

* Digital diary. Regularly jot down notes in a computer file. Review the file regularly.

* Find yourself a buddy. Look for an ally who also wants to break out of the self-perpetuation trap. Meet or talk on the phone every week or two to discuss your progress and encourage each other when you slide back into worshiping your own viewpoint.

* Practice a regular discipline of prayer or meditation. Select a theme such as “arguments,” “becoming more charitable,” and “finding the grain of truth in ‘stupid’ opinions.” 

* If you are a Roman Catholic, focus on open-mindedness when you go to confession.

BTW, it occurs to me that the basic concept of confessing our sins is incredibly out of date. Confession is still important, but these days we know that positive reinforcement typically works better than shame and self-recrimination. How about confessing the times we fall short and celebrating times when we take a step forward?

Roger Christan Schriner

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How to Lose an Argument by Winning It

I’ve been following a helpful and prolific blog called Tafacory, which explores a wide range of theological and philosophical topics. Tafacory sometimes “reblogs” the work of other writers, and recently included an essay by Mila Jaroniek called “The Proper Way To Argue.” Jaroniek’s piece is clever and well-written, and in some cases its ideas would be quite useful. In other cases, however, they could backfire. Knowing whether to use her approach requires asking, “What is my agenda?” Here are some typical agendas that motivate conversations about religion:

1. I want to change the mind of the person I am addressing.

2. I want to change the mind of someone who is observing the discussion.

3. I want to humiliate someone whose views on religion are inferior to my own.

4. I want to make myself feel clever and superior.

So let’s be honest. What is our real agenda? What are we actually trying to accomplish?

Jaroniek’s approach would work well for agenda items 3 and 4, and it could work with #2. But if your goal is to change the mind of the person you are addressing, this is a questionable strategy. Examples:

Jaroniek suggests intimidating your “opponent” “with a steely gaze.” But as soon as you start thinking of another person as an opponent. your ability to constructively connect will diminish. And don’t forget that we are primates. With primates, a steely gaze triggers fight-or-flight responses that reduce our ability to reason objectively. I would hope we are trying to help people become more rational rather than less.

She also advocates amassing facts and references to “mercilessly lob at your opponent” – more warlike language. Note that one of her main headings is “Leave the emotions out of it” because “only weak-willed earthlings make emotional arguments.” Fine, but if you want to minimize emotionality, don’t do things that trigger fear and anger.

When I lead workshops on Bridging the God Gap, here is the statement that gets the biggest laugh, and it’s a laugh of understanding and agreement:

“Without knowing it we may approach a dialogue about religion as if we’ve entered a physical fight. When we smite someone on the forehead with a particularly weighty argument, we may expect this poor benighted soul to bow down in surrender, grateful for having been shown the light. How disappointing when people just resent us for making them look stupid.”

In other words, by humiliating someone you can win an argument “on paper,” but lose in your efforts to change that person’s mind.

I certainly agree with Mila that conversations about religion are often overly emotional. But I do think there is one legitimate use for emotional arguments in these discussions. An example or analogy that calls forth a feeling-response can help make an idea “real” rather than merely abstract and theoretical.

Suppose you are objecting to the idea that people who do not accept Jesus as their savior will all go to hell. Rather than just saying that a loving God would not send “good folks” to hell, speak specifically of Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. Many people find it hard to deal with bloodless abstractions. Putting a face on a theoretical argument may enable your friend to take that argument seriously. So an emotional appeal can actually be a prerequisite to rational discussion.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Handling Hot Potatoes, Part Two

In my previous post I invited readers to think of constructive ways to deal with provocative comments about theology. I asked people to write down helpful responses to two hypothetical situations:

1. Imagine that you are a Christian, and an atheist family member sarcastically compares God to Santa Claus. How could you respond in a constructive manner? What could you say? Write down the best reply you can think of. (It’s important to actually write it down, so you can reflect on it later.)

2. Imagine that you are an atheist, and your mother says she cries every night because you are going to hell. Again, write the best reply you can think of.


Now here’s part two – please don’t read the following instructions until you have completed part one.

Part two is simple: Just write new responses to each hot-potato comment, this time trying to say something that connects with the other person. One basic principle of communication is to join with a person before attempting to influence him or her. So write responses that join, connect, contact, empathize, and/or establish rapport. Again, feel free to post these as comments if you wish. In a few days I’ll say more about making connections.

Roger Christan Schriner

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