Guest Blogger: ChristianAtheist on Theological Anthropology

I have just returned from a trip to North Carolina, where I presented workshops on Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics in Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro. I learned some lessons I’ll be sharing in future posts, but for now here is a guest-post by ChristianAtheist, who sometimes comments on my essays. She writes about an idea that might be called “theological anthropology.”


Working at Oxford University is a wonderful way to get to know people from other cultures, and many of my conversations with visiting or newly employed researchers from abroad revolve around the bewildering unwritten rules of English culture. (These are amusingly described in Kate Fox’s book Watching the English, which I recommend to them.)

As part of their Oxford experience, I also recommend attending the service of choral evensong at an Oxford college chapel. This, like many other English rituals such as tea drinking, needs some deconstruction, both for the non-English and the non-religious.

I hate the idea of people going to a church service for the first time and not at least glimpsing some of the nuances of the rituals and symbols – it seems such a waste of an aesthetically rich experience. But, like most art forms, if you don’t get the references, you will only engage at a superficial level, and if you have any hang ups about religion, these can get in the way.

So maybe we should think about the cultural gap between English and non-English as similar to the gap between theist and non-theist: both should try to bridge that gap by explaining the unwritten behaviours, values, norms and beliefs of the alien culture. This can be done without any suggestion that one is right and one wrong, but just as a way of gaining insight into the culture and, in the case of evensong, appreciating its liturgy in greater depth.

This is an email I recently sent to a group of social psychologists before going to evensong and dinner at New College, Oxford:

Dear fellow amateur anthropologists of English culture,

If you are thinking about whether to come to evensong, but are worried you will feel like a member of the outgroup because you’re not a religious person (or maybe because you have negative feelings towards the Church as something oppressive or outdated), it may help to re-frame the experience of evensong in a non-religious way. The Church of England encompasses a broad spectrum of beliefs, and is very un-dogmatic; although it is Protestant, in many ways it is not like the Protestant churches in the rest of Europe.

You will see the word “inclusive” used to describe New College Chapel on their website (as most of the college chapels do): this means they welcome people from all backgrounds, whatever their beliefs, sexuality, class, etc, and is a way of communicating that the chapel does not believe in the Bible as literally true, but attempts to find contemporary meaning in its stories (just as one might in other forms of literature).

The tradition of evening prayer goes back to at least the fourth century and at New College it has been conducted almost every day since the fourteenth century, so it can help to think of yourself as taking part in a historical tradition. It is also an uplifting aesthetic experience, which it is possible to describe as transcendent in some way that may or may not involve some kind of supernatural dimension! In other words, there can be some continuity between the aesthetic and the spiritual.

So I would suggest not thinking too much about the theological content or truth value of the words but about their poetry; and about how the symbolism of the architecture and rituals contribute to the experience.

There is also a political dimension to it – look out for the words in the Magnificat about the rich and the poor, for example. Oxford is very liberal theologically and politically, and this is the way many people come to a service like evensong, so don’t feel you are a member of the outgroup, but instead as a member of a superordinate group of people who are intelligent, sensitive, open minded, politically aware and with good taste.

I look forward to discussing your experiences over dinner!


Thanks to ChristianAtheist for suggesting ways of transcending ingroups and outgroups from a superordinate perspective. The more we identify with the group called “all humanity,” the more we will sense our kinship, regardless of our theological orientations.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Beyond Theological Tribalism: A Checklist of Challenges

I recently read a helpful comment by ChristianAtheist on my March 30 entry, “The Tribal Trap.” I asked permission to share her comment, so here it is. (I have bolded some key phrases and I slightly modified item number two.)

[The comment begins:] Being an atheist often seems to be defined purely in terms of what one does not believe or how one is different from believers, which makes it more difficult for atheists to avoid outgroup derogation. Religous believers similarly are often defined in terms of how they are separate from non-believers, and how they must try to convert them. So the challenge to the tribes of atheists and non-atheists is:

1. To see oneself as a member of multiple ingroups, some of which one will share with the outgroup on the belief category.

2. To value … [outgroups] on dimensions other than those which seem most salient [or which] enhance the ingroup.

3. To resist the temptation to succumb to the outgroup homogeneity effect, in which we see all members of the outgroup as more similar than they actually are, by e.g. getting to know outgroup members better and allowing our emotions to become involved and reducing depersonalization processes. Research shows that friendship is the best way to reduce prejudice (cognitive, behavioural and affective), and increase empathy and trust.

4. To resist the temptation to succumb to the accentuation principle, in which we exaggerate the similarities within our ingroup and the differences between ingroup and outgroup.

5. To be humble, relaxed and not defensive about our current beliefs: to make the boundaries of our group more permeable and allow overlap between ingroup and outgroup.

6. To resist the temptation to make beliefs a test of loyalty or a “marker” to our group membership.

7. To ensure our self-esteem is not dependent on this one group membership.

I expect there are more, but this is a start! [End of Comment]

We could use these points as a checklist, in thinking about communication between different theological and political viewpoints, as well as interactions between different national and ethnic groups. Thanks to ChristianAtheist for these ideas, and I welcome additional suggestions.

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(

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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