Theists and Atheists, on the Common Ground of Mystery

Julian Baggini has suggested that in seeking common ground between theists and atheists, “we should not look to substantive beliefs about the purpose and nature of life, but to shared values …” (See

Although I agree that shared values are crucial, I can also see a way of finding conceptual common ground between some believers and some skeptics. In each camp, many people are amazingly confident that they have The Truth about God. But others place their personal beliefs within the context of an underlying agnosticism. Those of us who realize that we could be wrong about deity have something extremely important in common with each other.

These days many of us have become “broad-spectrum” agnostics, willing to admit that we are fallible in dealing with all sorts of topics, including religion. Yet even though we realize that our knowledge of complex and controversial issues is limited, we need beliefs to guide our actions. So we place our bets – yes, there is a person-like god hidden in the darkness, or no, there is not. All opinions about ultimate reality are spiritual wagers, “leaps of faith” into belief or “leaps of doubt” into unbelief.

Two people who are genuinely aware of the limits of their own knowledge have thereby established important common ground, even if one is a theist and the other is an atheist. One could even argue that the difference between belief and disbelief is less important than the difference between dogmatism and intellectual humility.

We can think of belief-systems as metaphors rather than as literal facts, and learn from each other’s metaphors. Using the metaphors of theism, some atheists might consider thinking of the cosmos as having personal characteristics. I have known atheists who appreciate James Jeans’ comment that the universe seems “more like a great thought than like a great machine.” Similarly Albert Einstein, who did not believe in a personal deity, saw the universe as manifesting a profound intelligence. He spoke of this intelligence as God, but he could have also have described this cosmic intelligence in atheistic language.

Similarly, theists can learn from atheists who write about the absence of God, since God frequently seems to be missing during the trials of everyday life. (The phrase, “God hides his face,” occurs repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible, so even in ancient days God’s absence was often palpable.) Many atheists and agnostics have learned important lessons about living as if we are wholly on our own, with no invisible allies. Thus believers could benefit from reading, e.g., Andre Comte-Sponville’s work, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.

In short, “belief and disbelief can meet on the common ground of mystery. Mystery-affirming theists and mystery-affirming atheists are brothers and sisters in disguise.” (From Bridging the God Gap, p. 101, emphasis added.)

A personal note: I’ll soon be leaving for a gathering that relates to my current book project. It’s the 10th annual Toward a Science of Consciousness conference, in Tucson Arizona. I’ll resume blogging around April 20.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

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


To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

The Heathen Manifesto

For several weeks I have been commenting on Julian Baggini’s “Heathen’s Progress” essays on the Guardian web site. He has now concluded his series by proposing a “heathen manifesto,” “an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.”

This manifesto is being widely read and will be widely discussed. It is a significant step in the attempt to find common ground between theists and atheists. I will comment on it in later posts, but for now, a bare list of his twelve principles will suggest Baggini’s general direction:

1 Why we are heathens

2 Heathens are naturalists

3 Our first commitment is to the truth

4 We respect science, not scientism

5 We value reason as precious but fragile

6 We are convinced, not dogmatic

7 We have no illusions about life as a heathen

8 We are secularists

9 Heathens can be religious

10 Religion is often our friend

11 We are critical of religion when necessary

12 This manifesto is less concerned with distinguishing heathens from others than forging links between us and others

I encourage you to read Julian’s statement in its entirety:

Roger Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Postcard from Santa Ana

I must confess that I haven’t yet mastered the art of blogging while traveling. So this entry will be the internet equivalent of a postcard, sent from Southern California … where it’s chilly and raining.

My simple message: check out Julian Baggini’s latest blog. Here’s his title:

 “Give me a reasonable believer over an uncompromising atheist any day — In a coalition of the reasonable, I might have more fruitful dialogue with an evangelical or Catholic than a fellow atheist”

I’ll comment further on another occasion, but his essay is very much in the spirit of my book, Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics. Theists, atheists, and agnostics who sincerely seek to discover deeper truths are kindred spirits despite their differences. And the greatest gap of all is not between belief and unbelief. It is between those who dedicate their lives to a greater purpose and those who care little for the common good.

For Baggini’s blog see:


To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Speaking of Non-Sequiturs …

On the Guardian web site, January 26, Julian Baggini critiqued an essay by Mark Vernon. Vernon, who is an agnostic, was criticizing “the modern atheist,” basing his critique on uncontroversial ideas “such as the fact that cognition is ‘embodied’ and does not take place in some kind of Cartesian ego which is distinct from our physicality.”

Supposedly atheists, under the influence of science-oriented philosophical traditions, value “knowledge that can claim objectivity,” while denigrating “subjective knowledge, which is gained by introspection, turning inwards … The upshot is that the modern sceptic is suspicious of subjective convictions.”

Baggini replies: “I’m afraid it’s all too common for defenders of faith to start off by piling up a whole load of interesting scientific findings, only to follow up with a plethora of non sequiturs.”

I agree, and I’d broaden that statement considerably. I wish I had a quarter for every time I’ve read some article that mentions two or three new (and still controversial) research studies, and draws sweeping conclusions about psychology, economics, politics, religion, etc.

Vernon notes that “spiritual directors advise individuals to make pilgrimages, to experience liturgies and rituals, and to discipline and pattern their lives.” He seems to suggest that these activities lead to new discoveries. Baggini, on the other hand, claims “that subjective experience, in all its forms, is a very unreliable detector of objective reality.”

My reply: You’re both right. Mark is right, in the sense that subjective experience gives us data about issues that would be hard to study scientifically. Example: When I worked as a psychotherapist I led personal growth workshops in which people delved into their own emotions, motivations, memories, fantasies, hopes and fears. It was common for them to make discoveries about values, priorities, and personal needs that would have been difficult to unearth through a scientific investigation.

Inward exploration can also deepen our understanding of what we already know. For instance, regardless of whether Joe Jones knows that he wants to be more assertive, after a few therapy sessions this fact may move from the back of his mind onto center stage, so that he acts upon it much more frequently. Facts such as these are not “known” in the same sense as knowing whether to check “true” or “false” on a quiz. They are known by degrees, and it’s the degree of knowledge that makes all the difference.

On the other hand, Baggini is right that subjective experience isn’t a particularly reliable way to establish theological truths. I notice that in Vernon’s essay, his comments about the benefits of spiritual practices mostly have to do with how these practices make people feel and act, not with whether the beliefs that grow out of these practices make any sense.

By the way, there is an intense debate among contemporary philosophers about whether we can learn about our own mental processes via introspection. See for example, Describing Inner Experience: Proponent Meets Skeptic, by Russell T. Hurlburt and Eric Schwitzgebel. I am currently writing a book about this issue and related topics. One of these days I’ll start a new blog on problems of consciousness.

For Julian’s essay see:

For Mark Vernon’s: 


To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Can Atheists Receive the Benefits of Theism?

(For a follow-up to this post, see my March 21 entry.)

In reading Julian Baggini’s “Heathens Progress” blog, I am impressed at how hard he tries to be objective in the theist-atheist debate. Although he’s an atheist, he often takes his fellow “heathens” to task, and he acknowledges positive aspects of religion that non-believers tend to ignore.

On January 5, for example, he posted “Can it be rational for the religious to be non-rational?” In this post and the next (January 12), he showed why the answer may be a qualified “yes.”

“We heathens may be proud that we have refused to sell off our reason to pay the unacceptably high price of faith. But we should admit that as a consequence, others are enjoying the rewards of their purchase while we have to make and mend do with alternatives that are adequate, better in some ways, but very possibly inferior overall.”

Seeing erroneous belief as the price people pay for practical benefits “offers atheists a richer credible error theory for why people persist with religious belief. Putting it down to just human stupidity or wishful thinking won’t do.”

Baggini also provides solid support for what I call broad-spectrum agnosticism. “[Decades of research in psychology have shown us to be unreliable, distorting, self-serving creatures who routinely reason with prejudice.” It is difficult or impossible to think our way out of these limitations. In fact, highly intelligent people “sometimes seem to be more capable of distortion than others, since they are clever enough to construct whatever argument they need to prop up what they already believe.”

Have you known bright people who outsmart themselves, glibly rationalizing irrational behavior? I certainly have!

Because we tend to be irrational, some philosophers despair of knowing anything at all, but I do not agree with such extreme skepticism. In principle, I admit that radical skepticism could be correct. In could be, for example, that the entire universe came into being five minutes ago, in a way that endowed every person with false memories of past experiences. But setting aside such unlikely scenarios, what we know about human cognition demonstrates that our beliefs are sometimes highly accurate, sometimes off-base but good enough to get by, and other times almost totally unreliable.

Obvious cases of well-justified beliefs: I’m now sitting in a chair, I’m quite hungry, and as I glance out the window I see that it’s sunny. These are the kinds of concerns we were evolved to address, and we deal with them well.

Politics and religion, on the other hand, are hard for us to get right. Although I have strong opinions in each of these areas, I know that I am probably wrong in at least some significant ways. Such issues are complex, involving many unknown factors. They also tend to be emotionally loaded. Complexity and emotionality befuddle us, especially in combination.

Even so, some of the reasoning power that helps us get ourselves in out of the rain also enables us to figure out some important things about more challenging issues. I’ll explain what I mean in a subsequent post.

Julian is also interested in finding atheistic analogues of traditional spiritual practices. His January 12 essay begins, “I’ve recently started praying. Well, not exactly praying …” He’s spending a few minutes each morning reflecting on topics such as: how he should be living, his responsibilities to others, his own failings, and being grateful for his relative good fortune.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister I have suggested something similar to UUs who are atheist or agnostic: Find out what “sings the god-song” for you. What plays roughly the same positive role in your life that belief in God plays for theists? Those who reject the concept of god can look for a related concept, a conceptual cousin of theism. Or if you dislike the very idea of deity, then just add an o to “god” and focus on your vision of the good.

Baggini doubts that non-theistic spirituality will ever amount to more than “small, fringe movements. Much as I appreciate the non-realist Sea of Faith movement and the non-creedal Unitarian church, there just isn’t a strong enough reason for most people to join such groups.”

Since he’s from the UK, I assume he’s referring to the Unitarian Church in England. American Unitarian Universalism is somewhat different, but we certainly aren’t as large a denomination as I would hope. Even so, it may take a long time to shape new ways of meeting age-old psychological and spiritual needs. Success in this endeavor is not assured, but it’s well worth the effort.

Roger Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Julian Baggini’s Quest for Common Ground


In his Heathen’s Progress blog on November 25, Baggini noted the “complaint that ‘new atheist’ criticisms of the supernatural aspects of religion miss the point. If that’s true, then it should be possible both to set the atheists straight and establish the credibility of religion by clearly stating what faith without silly, primitive beliefs looks like.”

I’m glad Baggini is addressing this topic. I have found it extremely puzzling to read statements such as these:

“Typically, the god unbelievers are rejecting is one found nowhere within the living religions.” — James P. Carse, The Religious Case Against Belief, p. 31 (For more comments on this book see my postings on October 25, November 18, and November 21, 2011.)

Similarly, philosopher Mark Johnston scoffs at Dawkins and his allies, referring to them as “undergraduate atheists.” In Saving God, p. 39, he writes, “The ‘undergraduate’ atheists, if we may call them that without reflecting adversely on actual undergraduates, uncritically share a defective premise with their secret fundamentalist allies, namely, that religion is essentially supernaturalist . . . (Did they meet in a back room with the fundamentalists, long ago, to agree to collaborate in the task of obscuring real religion?)”

Importantly, Johnson says most churches are peddling idolatrous superstition. But since he knows that few churchgoers would agree with his theology, he could actually make common cause with atheists, applauding their critique of popular religion.

“[T]he worry,” writes Julian, “is that people who do not at all represent real, existing religion are defending it by appealing to characteristics it doesn’t actually have.” Indeed, and I also appreciate his suggestion that it may be better to focus on agreed-upon values rather than on theories about what Douglas Adams called Life, the Universe, and Everything.

In his October 12 post Baggini affirms “the sacred trinity of open dialogue, mutual respect and finding common ground.” Even though I’m a Unitarian, that’s a trinity I can revere.

In the same essay he critiques Jonathan Chaplain’s proposed basis for theist-atheist dialogue: “We acknowledge that both atheistic and theistic beliefs can legitimately claim reasonable epistemic warrant and therefore proceed in debate on the basis of an attitude of mutual intellectual respect for each other’s convictions.”

“Of course I do not think that theistic beliefs can ‘legitimately claim reasonable epistemic warrant’”, Baggini replies. “It is precisely because I think belief in God lacks sufficient (and so reasonable) epistemic warrant that I don’t believe in him.”

He goes on to say that “I also keep channels of communication open out of disrespect to my own intelligence. When you look out into the world and see that it’s insane, you have to accept the likelihood that you probably have your little pockets of insanity too.”

Exactly! So here’s a common-ground proposal that may get at what Chaplain is driving at:

“We acknowledge that both atheistic and theistic beliefs can be held by sincere, intelligent and knowledgeable individuals. We therefore enter into dialogue on the basis of mutual respect for each other’s search for truth.”

What do you think? If we truly believe this statement, is it a sound basis for fruitful conversation?

Roger Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Julian Baggini’s Articles of 21st-century Faith

I’ve been commenting on Baggini’s on-line series, Heathen’s Progress. One of his goals is to find common ground between atheists and non-supernatural theists, people who worship a god but do not think this deity is an invisible, miracle-working, thinking-and-feeling super-person. On November 21 he presented four articles of 21st-century faith which he hopes will be agreed upon by many atheists and progressive theists. This proposal is related to my idea of a theological Plan B, a theological position we are confident would be true even if it turns out that we are seriously mistaken about deity.

Here’s a possible theistic Plan B: “Even if there is no god, by living in accord with spiritual principles I am finding beauty and goodness in this Earthly life.” Similarly, an atheist might say, “Even if I find myself in a supernatural realm after I die, my secular humanist path has helped me savor life and act in ways that make this world a better place. And I’m not worried that God will smite me for having the ‘wrong’ theology. ” (For more about Plan B, see Bridging the God Gap, pp. 165-68.)

Here is an abridged version of Julian’s four principles, with my responses.

“1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices.”

Response: Right! It is absolutely crucial to move from belief-centered to value-centered philosophies. Beliefs about ultimate reality will be debated for centuries, but people of many different faiths and philosophies can agree upon core values.

“2. Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles …”

Response: There is a difference between not requiring assent to miracles and rejecting the possibility of miracles. I think it is unlikely that miracles occur, but I do not reject their possibility. I suspect Julian wants to completely rule them out.

“3. Religions are not crypto- or proto-sciences. They should make no claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe.”

Response: If someone makes such claims, based upon, e.g., mystical experiences, I see no problem as long as these claims are testable in a publically verifiable manner. They seldom are.

“4. Religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination. None need be taken as expressing the thoughts of a divine or supernatural mind that exists independently of humanity.”

Response: It’s hard for me to object to this principle. I think divine inspiration of sacred books is unlikely, and every sacred book I have read absolutely oozes with obvious signs of human flaws and foibles. But many intelligent, well-educated, and sincere individuals believe that some texts are divinely inspired. If I were smarter, more knowledgeable, and/or more sincere than any of these folks, I might dismiss their opinions. But I’m not, and I don’t.

In short, I appreciate Julian’s attempt to find common ground, but I would frame these articles of faith more broadly. I think he wants to include only those who categorically reject all supernaturalistic or non-physicalist orientations. That’s a legitimate approach, but few who consider themselves religious will sign up.

A lot more would come on board if he welcomed those who are open to both physical and trans-physical interpretations of reality: “I think there’s a God, but I realize this may just be a human projection” and “I don’t believe in God, but it’s conceivable that we will eventually discover something at least vaguely godlike that now escapes the reach of science.”

For Baggini’s full statement, see:


To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Beyond Bad Religion

In response to one of my recent posts about Heathen’s Progress, ChristianAtheist wrote:

“OK, so we know what bad religion looks like, in terms of lots of propositions, ineffability at the points at which you need clarity, lots of cognitive biases, irrationality and an emotional investment in a group membership that is hard to shake. What would good, non-fundamentalist, realistic, eyes wide open, flexible religion look like? And will a group of people adhering to such a theology be able to form a cohesive, sustainable group?”

That’s a good list of what’s bad about some faith communities. I would add: a heaping dose of arrogance and self-righteousness, hostility toward other spiritual pathways, and suffocatingly-tight control over the personal behavior of group members.

What would constructive and creative religion look like? Certainly the quality of relationships within the community would be crucial. People would treat each other with care and respect, allowing flexibility for individual differences instead of embracing members in a vise-like grip.

Instead of being belief-centered, such a community would be value-centered, focusing on the commitments we make to each other and the larger world. One such commitment would be: Always stay open to new discoveries, including the discoveries of the physical and social sciences.

I have met many people who have felt a deep need to belong to a positive and non-dogmatic spiritual community. When they meet like-minded individuals they are delighted to make those connections. The formal and informal groups they create are often strong and viable.

Any other suggestions?


To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

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:


To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.