“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

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

An Upsurge of Skepticism about Scientific Research

This year I’ve been single-mindedly focusing on finishing my book about consciousness, but now I’m re-connecting with other projects, including this blog.

Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground is dedicated to discovering both practical and conceptual common ground among theists, atheists, and agnostics. Today’s posting may seem unrelated to this subject, but I’ll explain the connection shortly.

These days epistemology is a hot topic in several fields of study, including medicine and nutrition. Skeptical scholars have pointed out serious weaknesses in the data that guides our dietary and medical choices. John Ioannidis, for example, looked at 49 highly influential research studies, each of which has been cited over 1000 times in the medical literature. Out of these prominent studies, 16% were contradicted by subsequent studies and 16% showed effects that were quite a bit stronger than those of later analyses. In 24% of the cases there was little or no attempt to replicate findings. Bottom line: Just 44% were successfully replicated (Journal of the American Medical Association, July 13, 2005, pp. 218-228).

Other disturbing articles include “It Ain’t Necessarily So: Why Much of the Medical Literature Is Wrong,” by Christopher Labos (http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/829866) and John Ioannidis’ “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” (http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0020124). That’s an unsettling title!

I’m not an expert in research design, but several points made in these and other articles seem very troubling. For example, the article on why most findings are false points out that “As research efforts are globalized, it is practically the rule that several research teams, often dozens of them, may probe the same or similar questions. Unfortunately, in some areas, the prevailing mentality until now has been to focus on isolated discoveries by single teams.” Of course, we should be looking at the overall pattern of findings, not isolated reports that may be outliers. He also notes that many studies are motivated by the desire for tenure or a promotion. These objectives create a built-in bias toward finding something positive to write about. Who wants to conduct a study and admit that it produced no substantive findings?

As Labos notes, “There is a way to guard against such spurious findings: replication. Unfortunately, the current structure of academic medicine does not favor the replication of published results …”

The same is true in many other fields. I have read many studies about theological attitudes, and I find that many scholars cite single reports as if these findings are conclusive and replication is unnecessary.

Atheism and agnosticism are especially under-investigated. I recently read that among self-identified atheist and agnostics, 16% were women in 1993, and 43% are today (Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service, Oct. 24, 2014, http://ncronline.org/news/people/secularism-grows-more-us-christians-turn-churchless). That is a huge change in just two decades. Is it true? False? Basically true but exaggerated? Without replication, it’s hard to know.

Those who do believe in God have been more extensively studied, but many research projects are weakened by the use of an extremely vague definition of “God,” or no definition at all.

So the next time you see a headline with an amazing new factoid about religious attitudes, hum a few bars of that old Gershwin classic: It Ain’t Necessarily So.

Roger Christan Schriner

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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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Life of Pi – What’s the Main Message?

In a recent post I asked readers how they interpreted a key statement in the award-winning film, Life of Pi. Toward the end the protagonist remarks, “And so it goes with God.”

I don’t pretend to have “the” correct interpretation of this comment, but here’s what it means to me. In dealing with the biggest questions and deepest mysteries of life, people have concocted all sorts of fanciful stories, such as the creation myths of the world’s religions. Now science offers another sort of account, focusing on physical facts and the disciplined use of experiment and evidence.

Science has been stunningly successful in giving us greater prediction and control of physical reality. But we still, as a species, prefer more fanciful interpretations.

The film includes a reality-based story that contrasts with Pi’s fanciful tale. It is told in a flat, straightforward manner, reminding me of Sergeant Friday in the old Dragnet show – “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” The story is tawdry, depressing, disturbing.

Must that be the emotional impact of the scientific world-view? I don’t think so, but no world-view will gain wide acceptance unless it appeals to human feelings, human imagination, human longings.

How can we present science in a way that inspires us instead of boring or depressing us? So far the best attempt I’ve seen is what Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow call “The Great Story.” Check out these sites to see what I mean:


Intellectuals used to refer to homo sapiens as the rational animal. Given all that we’ve learned about our own irrationality, that phrase seems pathetically inaccurate today. But homo sapiens as the imaginative animal? The story-telling animal? The meaning-maker? Yes indeed, for better and for worse. Our task, then, is to use our astonishing imaginations to write reality-based stories that heal and empower us. That, to me, is the main message of “Life of Pi.”

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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The Tribal Trap

I’ve been commenting a lot lately on Julian Baggini’s Heathen’s Progress series on the Guardian web site. Baggini has completed this series, so I will conclude with posts about his last few entries.

On March 22, reviewing several months of reader comments, Julian found it “dispiriting to see how tribal so many people seem to be.” Although his readers often posted thoughtful remarks, “many more” seemed happy to find a “pretext to get in the familiar old digs against whoever the other tribe happens to be.” And whenever Julian criticized his fellow atheists, people thought this showed he was “on a certain ‘side’, as though … we only agree with friends and those we disagree with are enemies.”

Indeed. While reading responses to Heathen’s Progress, I was appalled to see childish schoolyard taunts disguised as intelligent theological discourse. In my January 17 post I noted that comments marked “recommend” by large numbers of readers often contained language that was hostile and demeaning. One very effective way to be loved by some is to be hateful to others.

Our whole world is trapped in tribalism. So how can we get out?

On March 15 Baggini talked about finding common ground between theists and atheists. “It’s just not good to have families, streets, neighbourhoods or nations divided by faith, or lack of it.” He then suggested that we can find common ground in our common flaws. Every person has prejudices, blind spots, and intellectual weaknesses, and “no matter how sure we are, we could be mistaken.”

I emphasized the same idea in Bridging the God Gap. And I agree with Julian that the difference between theism and atheism is less important than the difference “between those who show the virtues of reasonableness and those who do not.”

To get out of the tribal trap, we must face our own limitations.

We must also learn to communicate across ideological divides, especially about political issues. Whenever people who follow a particular philosophy of life advocate some public policy, they need to justify that policy in terms that people with other world-views can understand and accept. As Julian stated on February 16, this “is simply the minimum requirement for fruitful, peaceful co-operation between people with different world views.”

If we want to promote cooperation among people of all faiths and philosophies, pluralism is the only practical path. Those who do not agree with this goal want to impose their lifestance on others, by force or by guile. That is an excellent game plan, if you want to cause endless warfare all over the world. But if we want to build peace, we must first break out of the tribal trap.

For Julian’s series see http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/series/heathens-progress.


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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” 10/21/11 – 11/7/11

I’ve been reflecting on Julian Baggini’s recent series in The Guardian, called Heathen’s Progress. Here are comments about some of his earlier postings:

October 21: Baggini cautions atheists against seeing science as “our savior.” It is not “the source of all the knowledge and wisdom we need to live,” and “The most egregious recent example of this is Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, with its subtitle ‘How science can determine human values’.”

I haven’t read Landscape, but I don’t see how science can “determine” our ultimate core values. Even so, once we define these basic values, science can help us attain them. If you have read Harris’ book, what do you think? Does he justify his subtitle?

Many secular humanists in Western nations base their moral judgments on typical progressive/left-leaning political opinions. That’s OK with me, but let’s not forget to reflect on the basis of our moral commitments. Regardless of their political inclinations, few people seem to have thought much about how we ground our values.

October 28: Even though Julian is trying to cool down the overheated theist-atheist debates, he cautions against going to the opposite extreme, which he calls dogmatophobia, the fear of having any definite beliefs at all.

My favorite quote from this post: “Unfortunately, the middle ground in the God debate is occupied by too many people who screw up their eyes to create the illusion of a mist when the view is really clear.”

So Baggini warns us against both idolizing science and worshiping uncertainty.

November 7: Julian points out that even though we shouldn’t criticize a religion without understanding it, greater understanding does not automatically generate more accurate beliefs. I agree. I do not need to comprehend a particular religion as well as an adherent of that faith, in order to critique it. The devotee and I see from different angles. S/he can see things I cannot, and vice versa.

In this post Baggini once again prods both theists and atheists. Religion at its best, he suggests must “have a big fat mystery at its heart…. If there is a God, it must surely passeth all understanding.” Many of his fellow atheists will find that comment challenging.

And here’s his challenge to theists: “Too often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively. Believers … have a list of doctrines as long as your arm. It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother.”

Do check out Heathen’s Progress for yourself: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/series/heathens-progress.


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Comments on Heathen’s Progress, by Julian Baggini, Part Two

Comments on Heathen’s Progress, by Julian Baggini, Part Two

Last September Julian Baggini began a series of essays which can be found on the web site of The Guardian. His goal is to clarify issues that divide theists, atheists, and agnostics, and hopefully find some common ground. In his October 7 post, “How not to be a dogmatic fundamentalist,” he notes that people tag non-believers as “militant” if they simply state their opinions emphatically. Similarly, those who reject theism are often called “avowed” atheists, which reminds me of the way people used to be tagged as “avowed Communists” or “avowed homosexuals.”

Baggini is good at clarifying muddy issues. For example, he makes a distinction between how clearly we believe something versus how strongly we believe it, and “our willingness to contemplate its potential falsity.” Some people who know exactly what they believe are quite open to feedback and criticism, and some who have extremely fuzzy theologies hold their vague beliefs fanatically. Some who believe passionately are courageous enough to realize they may be wrong, whereas some whose beliefs are shaky are afraid to examine them for fear they’ll fall apart. So beware of jumping to conclusions that, for example, those who state their convictions strongly are always closed-minded, or that those who speak tentatively are always open-minded.

For Julian, what matters most is “how much we really engage with our critics. It’s about taking seriously the best case for the opponent being right and the strongest case that you might be wrong.” Amen to that!

If you’ve read Internet exchanges about religion or politics, it must be achingly obvious that many people enjoy insulting those who disagree with them. One would think that a blog like Heathen’s Progress would attract fair-minded readers. Some of those who read that blog do try to be objective, but others sound like schoolyard bullies.

Yesterday while perusing comments by Baggini’s readers, I decided to see which ones scored the highest approval ratings, indicated by the number of people who took the trouble to click, “Recommend.” 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.”

What a contrast to the even-handed tone of Heathen’s Progress. Merely juxtaposing Baggini’s essays with these mean-spirited jibes shows that we have plenty of room to mature as a society.

Another excellent Heathen’s Progress post is “Religion’s truce with science can’t hold” (October 14). Here Julian explains why traditional religious teachings inevitably clash with science. If taken literally, many statements of fact are clearly false. For example, it seems to me that some sacred books imply that Earth is flat. And as Carl Sagan notes:

“In 1993, the supreme religious authority of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdel-Aziz Ibn Baaz, issued an edict, or fatwa, declaring that the world is flat. Anyone of the round persuasion does not believe in God and should be punished. Among many ironies, the lucid evidence that the Earth is a sphere, accumulated by the second century Graeco-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus, was transmitted to the West by astronomers who were Muslim and Arab. In the ninth century, they named Ptolemy’s book in which the sphericity of the Earth is demonstrated, the Almagest, ‘The Greatest.'” (See Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World p. 325.)

Even religious liberals may struggle with scientific principles such as the causal closure of physical reality. Science operates on the assumption that all events which have a cause have a physical cause. So where is there room for divine action? (Quantum physicists speak in terms of probability factors rather than causes, but the same problem arises. Does God intervene in physical events, or not? Such interventions would violate causal closure.)

Science and religion will sometimes disagree, but Julian Baggini does an admirable job of showing how to disagree without being disagreeable.


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