The Heartblink

I’ve been thinking about the way good people often disagree about important life issues, especially in dealing with politics, morality, and religion. Part of the problem is that we don’t like feeling uncomfortable, and one way to stay comfortable is to close our minds.

With controversial issues, strong arguments may pull us in opposite directions, and it’s no fun to feel like the rope in a game of tug-o’-war. So we choose one side of the controversy, and screen out information that supports the other side. Blocking out threatening facts is similar to the way our eyes blink when we get hit with a bright light. It’s a sort of mindblink. Shutting out data in this way can be soothing, but it can also be dangerous.

What’s especially dangerous is a related phenomenon we could call the heartblink. To block out disturbing data we momentarily disable our moral instincts.

When I was a child, I read the Bible all the way through. But even though the Bible contains some extremely problematic verses, I didn’t let myself realize their significance. I remember sort of “blurring” after reading a troubling passage, feeling confused and quickly moving on. Mindblinks and heartblinks shielded me from distress.

Here’s an example: Leviticus 20:9 states, “For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” Exodus 21:17 also demands the death penalty for parent-cursing.

Many Christians have been startled at this teaching. In Is God a Delusion? theistic philosopher Eric Reitan asks incredulously, “Would a good God call for the execution of children who curse their parents?”

Notice that this commandment is clearcut, black-and-white. Execute the child, period. Nothing is said about the child’s age. Are we talking about a twenty-year-old? A ten-year-old? A four-year-old? Nor are extenuating circumstances mentioned, such as mental illness, low intelligence, extreme provocation, or the child’s repentance. What if the child was temporarily enraged and apologized immediately? Or suppose a little boy or girl had reason to hate the parent, such as being the victim of sexual abuse? Sorry, little one. No excuses are allowed.

Furthermore, if this was the voice of higher guidance speaking, one would think that God would have revealed helpful principles of communication and mutual understanding. The creator of the universe would presumably realize that there are other ways of dealing with an angry child besides killing it.

I never cursed my parents, but as a child that passage should have gotten my attention. I should have asked myself, “If one of my classmates got mad and said, “Damn you, Mommy!” does God actually want that little kid to be stoned to death?

No doubt many Christians and Jews quickly heartblink Leviticus 20:9 and Exodus 21:17 because they are so obviously not the Word of God. But both of these verses are embedded in a long list of rules that are explicitly presented as God’s commandments.

I have posted a version of this essay on my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible ( which focuses on Biblical literalism. In that blog I suggest that in order to accept verses such as Leviticus 20:9, people resort to mindblinks and heartblinks – suspending their ability to think and their ability to care. We can all learn to notice when we cope with an unsettling datum by momentarily immobilizing our own moral instincts, and learn to open our hearts instead.

The true visionaries, both religious and secular, urge us to open our hearts rather than hardening them. Regardless of their theologies, I think they would agree: Beware of the heartblink.

Roger Christan Schriner

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A Case for the Existence of God

In my most recent blog-entry I invited readers to post Comments with arguments for and against God’s existence. Thank you for submitting items such as the cosmological argument and the argument from design.

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at a Unitarian Universalist church called “Does God Exist? Pastor Chris Debates Dr. Schriner.” In that presentation I debated with myself about the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe. I defined “personal deity” as a God who does things persons do, such as thinking, feeling, and communicating.

Here are excerpts from the opening statement I made as Pastor Chris:

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.” 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.

God’s communications show us what God is like, and mystical experiences are especially important. In a wonderful book called Is God a Delusion? Eric Reitan notes that the typical features of mystical experiences are exactly what we would expect if mystics were in contact with a loving and powerful deity, a transcendent reality which has both the power and the desire to fulfill our deepest hopes.

So God’s communication with countless humans shows that deity is a personal being. My second point is that this personal being created the universe. People have always wondered where the world came from, but atheism has no answer to this question. Someone on the Internet defined atheism as:

the belief that there was nothing
and nothing happened to nothing
and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything
and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself
for no reason whatsoever into self-replicating bits
which then turned into dinosaurs.

“Makes perfect sense,” the author ironically concluded.

Some dedicated individuals have devoted their lives to spiritual exploration, with the same commitment as those who have studied physics or chemistry. Many of these spiritual seekers have felt an intuitive realization that this is what brought the cosmos into being. So these teachers have connected their own religious experiences with an understanding of how the world was made.

On top of that, there is compelling scientific evidence that the universe was created on purpose. Physicists report that if certain cosmic laws had been infinitesimally different, intelligent life would have been utterly impossible. Many scientists say that it looks as if the whole shebang was deliberately set up as a home for creatures like us.

So science shows that the cosmos was intentionally created, and the religious experiences of innumerable individuals show that a powerful and caring deity exists. These two ideas fit together. There is a God, and God created the universe.

What do you think? Do these ideas from “Pastor Chris” make sense? If not, what are their flaws?

After the Pastor spoke, I removed my ecclesiastical stole and put on my glasses, thereby transforming myself into the atheistic Dr. Schriner. Next week I’ll share his remarks.

Roger Christan Schriner

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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

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).


God-Talk: Ways to Break the Ice

Suppose you disagree about religion with a friend or family member, and you want to try discussing this topic respectfully. How do you bring up the subject? Here are a few ideas:

First, find out whether your friend is receptive: “You and I sometimes criticize each other’s ideas about religion. But your friendship is important to me, and I wish this disagreement didn’t get in the way. I wonder if we should sit down some time and see if we can understand each other better. Do you think it’s worth a try?”

You could also watch for a time when tension about religion flares up, and then say something like this: “Religion has been coming between us for quite a while, hasn’t it? Maybe we should talk about the whole God-thing.”

If the person seems receptive, encourage a specific commitment. “I have some time tomorrow when we could get together. Would that be OK? Or what would work for you?”

Before having a conversation about theology, try to establish realistic expectations. Instead of hoping to iron out all religious differences, your goal might be to find out more about what the other person believes. People’s theological opinions are often more complex than they seem on the surface. Maybe the two of you have been stereotyping each other unfairly.

One excellent approach involves learning about each other’s religious journey. What were each of you taught about religion when you were children? How did your beliefs and practices change during adolescence and adulthood? Are you dealing with any important issues about religion today? How do you imagine your views about religion or spirituality might change in the future? Try to just listen to each other’s story, without getting into debates about who’s right and who’s wrong.

If both of you enjoy reading, you could peruse some book about theology and discuss it. Or choose two books, one supportive of belief in God and one critical. For example: Read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Eric Reitan’s Is God a Delusion? A religious person will need a thick skin to read Dawkins, because he can be sarcastic. But his critique of some common forms of theism is worth considering. In general, Eric Reitan is thoughtful and fair-minded. Many atheists and agnostics will find him approachable even if they don’t agree with him.

See my blogroll for links to these authors.

Of course, I also recommend my own book, Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics. You could show this to your friend and say, “Our relationship matters to me, and it makes me sad that religion causes frictions between us. I’ve been reading this book about finding common ground in spite of theological disagreements, and I’ve been trying to get up my courage to mention it to you.”

Over the next few months this blog will briefly review Dawkins’ and Reitan’s books, and other works on this topic by writers such as Bob Altemeyer, Karen Armstrong, Rob Bell, James P. Carse, John B. Cobb, Jr., Don Cupitt, Daniel Dennett, Michael Dowd, Greg Epstein, Anthony Freeman, Sam Harris, John Haught, Christopher Hitchens, Bruce Hunsberger, Mark Johnston, Michael Krasny, Ian Markham, Scotty McLennan, Bradley Monton, William R. Murry, Tom Owen-Towle, Stephen Prothero, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Charles Taliaferro, and Rick Warren.