The Paradox of Popular Anachronism

Sometimes an idea, a strategy, or a style of communication becomes boring due to sheer repetition – and yet it remain popular. That’s especially puzzling when it’s never even worked. I’ll give two off-topic examples, and then get back to religion.

Example 1: Obsessing about who’s to blame for a problem instead of what we can do to solve it.

Is global warming caused by human activity? Who cares? The important question is whether human activity can slow warming or even stop it. I realize some people think global warming is a hoax, but that’s a different issue. Right now I’m focusing on how we think about problems: Let’s spend lots of time assigning blame.

Example 2: Emphasizing persons instead of systems. Who caused the financial crisis and the Great Recession? Everyone and no one. The system was set up in ways that rewarded imprudent risk-taking. Eventually we got burned.

Example 3: Dealing with religious differences by attacking, denigrating, and mocking those who disagree with us.

In his book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, Chris Stedman gives an example, quoting a prominent atheist named PZ Meyers:

“I say, screw the polite words and careful rhetoric. It’s time for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer on the lunatics and idiots.”

This statement is frequently quoted on the internet by people who dislike atheists. Meyers probably thought he was striking a powerful blow against religion, when actually he was handing a big box of ammo to his adversaries.

I am so weary of polarizing, overheated rhetoric. It is so boring, so tedious, so passé. To use an old-fashioned analogy, it sounds like the record got stuck in a groove. And yet this approach is still popular. It’s out of date, and yet widely acclaimed: The paradox of popular anachronism.

On January 17, 2012, in a comment on Julian Baggini’s essays, I noted the popularity of shallow attack-rhetoric:

“Yesterday while perusing comments by Baggini’s readers, I decided to see which ones scored the highest approval ratings…. 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.'”

Don’t people ever get tired of self-stimulating their own combat hormones?

There is nothing so pathetic as an idea whose time has come and gone … when people still think it works.

Nevertheless, I am still hopeful that more of us will wake up to the wastefulness of antagonism and the power of cooperation, among those of all faiths and philosophies. Reflecting on his own experiences with interfaith work, Stedman writes that our world needs “people of all different stripes and convictions coming together to deal with things that matter, announcing our differences without fear, enthusiastically embracing our commonalities, and intentionally seeking out points of mutuality and understanding in the face of vastly different metaphysical commitments.” (Faitheist, p. 133)

This is not yet an idea whose time has come. But I think it’s on its way.

May we live to see that day.

Roger Christan Schriner

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The Heathen Manifesto: An Appreciative Critique

I’ve written a lot about Julian Baggini’s Heathen’s Progress essays in the Guardian website. He completed this series with a Heathen Manifesto, and I’ll make just a few comments about this document. The Manifesto includes these points:

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 

For full details see:

I appreciate the way Julian strives for humility, “acknowledging our absurdity, weakness and stupidity, not just our capacity for creativity, intelligence, love and compassion.” He likes calling his atheistic outlook “heathen” “… because in the absence of divine revelation, we are in so many ways deeply unenlightened. The main difference between us and the religious is that we know this to be true of all of us, but they believe it is not true of them.” Actually many religious individuals realize that our understanding is quite limited. This is one of the very few times that Baggini has fallen into the trap of equating religiosity with dogmatism.

Overall I think Baggini has succeeded in sketching a distinctive and constructive atheistic stance, and I appreciate his efforts. Even so, I do want to propose one “friendly amendment.” The ninth principle mentions religions that are compatible with heathenism: “These are forms of religion that reject the real existence of supernatural entities …” I have the impression that Julian sees American Unitarian Universalism as heathen-compatible, and as a Unitarian Universalist minister I would amend item nine, changing “reject” to “do not proclaim.” Thus:

“There are a small minority of forms of religion that are entirely compatible with the heathen position. These are forms of religion which do not proclaim the real existence of supernatural entities …”

Many Unitarian Universalists are atheists or agnostics, or naturalistic theists who view some part of nature as divine. But we do not specifically prohibit our members from believing that gods, goddesses, or spirits exist.

This amendment fits the overall thrust of the manifesto, which respects those who arrive at traditionally religious beliefs “on the basis of the same commitment to sincere, rational, undogmatic inquiry” as heathens do. I would be uncomfortable if a congregant emphatically asserted the existence of invisible spirits on the basis of non-debatable divine revelation. But if someone believes in such spirits after careful reflection, and is open to the possibility that other world-views may turn out to be more accurate, I would welcome his or her involvement in Unitarian Universalism. My religion is more about the values I affirm than the doctrines I reject.

I also want to especially applaud one statement in this document that many quibblers have evidently overlooked: “It is … almost a precondition of supporting [this manifesto] that you do not entirely support it.”

Amen, Julian (if you’ll pardon the expression).

Roger Christan Schriner

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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

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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


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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

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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:


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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: 


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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

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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

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Physicalism and the Puzzle of Qualia

In my previous posting I discussed Julian Baggini’s “articles of 21st-century faith,” an attempt to find common ground among many atheists and progressive theists. It seems to me that these articles require an agreement that nothing exists except physical reality, and I see this as overly restrictive.

Let’s be clear: I’m not just talking about the fact that some things are hard to describe in physical terms. For instance, I have heard people object to physicalism on the grounds that it excludes love, beauty, and humor. How could physics ever describe the thrill of a kiss or the experience of seeing the Mona Lisa? But in principle, such phenomena could be described in terms of the behavior of elementary particles, if we knew absolutely everything there is to know about such particles. We do not, so we are not remotely close to expressing love as an equation, but ultimately it might be possible.

And it might not be. I’ll mention two problems with the physicalist viewpoint. In both cases I will state my opinion, and also admit that I may be wrong.

First, scientists have not figured out how to deal with paranormal phenomena such as extrasensory perception, precognition (predicting the future in certain peculiar ways), and telekinesis (moving objects with one’s mind). I am a longstanding skeptic about such matters, but I admit that there is some evidence for paranormal events. I am not persuaded, but my skeptical stance may turn out to be mistaken.

If such events actually occur, a completed physics would probably explain them naturalistically. But this is not certain. Paranormal processes might involve mysterious entities that could never be understood by the scientific method. That seems unlikely, but it is might be the case.

Second, scientists and philosophers are not sure how even in principle we could ever have a physical explanation of conscious experiences. That’s part of the reason it seems odd to imagine explaining love, humor, etc. in terms of quarks and quanta.

Why do philosophers think it’s so hard to know how experiences could be brain events? Is it because the brain is so complicated that we don’t know where to find consciousness in its tangled circuitry? Is it because conscious and unconscious processes are so tightly intertwined that we aren’t sure how a brain scanner could ever tell which is which? Those are indeed difficult problems, but academicians seldom lie awake at night wondering about them. In fact, philosopher David Chalmers calls these the “easy problems” of consciousness, not to make light of them but to contrast them with what he calls The Hard Problem.

The hard problem of consciousness is ‘hard’ in the sense that once we understand the issue we have no idea how to even begin addressing it! We are perpetually stuck at square one.

There are actually several understandings of the hard problem and several ways of expressing it. But in brief, even though there is a lot of evidence that conscious experiences are brain activities, it seems difficult or impossible to see how this could be true of so-called qualia, sensory qualities such as our experiences of colors, sounds, tastes, touches, tingles, pains and pleasures.

As Colin McGinn writes in The Problem of Consciousness, “Neural transmissions just seem like the wrong kind of materials with which to bring consciousness into the world.” “What has matter in motion got to do with the way a rose smells? What is it that converts brain ‘gook’ into visual experience?”

I think we will be able to solve the hard problem. In fact, my current book project addresses this very issue. But having wrestled with this conundrum for twenty years, I am keenly aware that it might permanently elude physical explanation.

Those who think this problem is insoluble have two alternatives. (1) Conscious experiences are physical, but we cannot know how this is so. (2) Conscious experiences are non-physical.

Each of these options will be endorsed by highly intelligent and well-informed individuals. This is another reason the Articles of Twenty-First Century Faith should not require the acceptance of physicalism.

Roger Schriner

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