How To Tell When Your Mind Is Closing

One of the goals of this blog on theism and atheism is to help people become more open to the ideas of other people. If I can successfully encourage theists to be more open to the views of atheists, and encourage atheists to consider theistic perspectives, finding common ground between, say, Muslims and Christians or Hindus and Sikhs should seem easy by comparison.

Not surprisingly, few people seem motivated to become open-minded, especially about political or religious issues. I think of a comment by Rabbi Steven Reuben: “the only person in the world who really likes change is a wet baby” (A Nonjudgmental Guide to Interfaith Marriage, p. 31).

If we want to escape the prison of self-justifying beliefs, we can try to 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.

So ask yourself now, what warning signals occur when you start blocking out a good idea that might disturb your preconceptions? For example, is an alarm going off in your mind right this minute, just thinking about learning to notice when your mind is closing? If you can identify cues that alert you when this is happening, you can learn to catch your mind-gate just as it starts to swing shut.

Some cues are felt in the body and others are more “mental.” You may feel a vague unease, a mild irritation, or physical tension such as tightening your jaw.

Personally, I tend to hold my breath and focus on counter-arguments. I may not even state these counter-arguments out loud, but by concocting a rebuttal that I find cogent and clever, I feel relieved. I have succeeded once again in fending off the threat of mind-expansion.

As you read entries in Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, watch for moments when you encounter something plausible that disturbs your preconceptions. When that happens, check what you’re feeling inside. Once you know what you experience when your mind is “threatened with expansion,” you can watch for that cue when you’re with people who challenge your belief system.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Should Children Think for Themselves About Religion?

In my latest post, I mentioned that many churches ask children to commit themselves to a particular theology, even though they lack the knowledge and the intellectual ability to make an informed decision. One reader commented that “Children are able to cope with hearing more than one side of the story from quite a young age, even though their abstract reasoning skills are still developing. It would be great to hear of a church where they are told ‘Some Christians believe X, and others Y, and others Z’ …’”

I certainly agree, and I’ve been thinking about why this so seldom happens. It seems likely that the human brain is wired up so as to make small children believe just about anything grown-ups tell them. Although some of us revise our views later on, the words of Ignatius of Loyola still ring true: “Give me a child till he is seven, and I care not who has him after.”

Parents want to give their children factual information about safety, social customs, good health habits, and so on. Since people tend to think that their own religious views are correct, they naturally want to provide this accurate information to their sons and daughters.

Unfortunately this leads well-meaning grownups to systematically indoctrinate impressionable young minds. But they will continue to do this until they realize that sincere and well-informed individuals can disagree about spiritual matters.

Humility is a virtue, and true intellectual humility is one of the hardest virtues to attain.

Roger Christan Schriner

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More Ideas About Self-Correction.

My last two entries suggested developing the habit of practicing self-correction. Here are a few specific suggestions:

* Keep a diary. Write down experiences that involve topics such as open-mindedness about religion and learning to notice ourselves rejecting an unsettling idea without considering its merits.

* Digital diary. Regularly jot down notes in a computer file. Review the file regularly.

* Find yourself a buddy. Look for an ally who also wants to break out of the self-perpetuation trap. Meet or talk on the phone every week or two to discuss your progress and encourage each other when you slide back into worshiping your own viewpoint.

* Practice a regular discipline of prayer or meditation. Select a theme such as “arguments,” “becoming more charitable,” and “finding the grain of truth in ‘stupid’ opinions.” 

* If you are a Roman Catholic, focus on open-mindedness when you go to confession.

BTW, it occurs to me that the basic concept of confessing our sins is incredibly out of date. Confession is still important, but these days we know that positive reinforcement typically works better than shame and self-recrimination. How about confessing the times we fall short and celebrating times when we take a step forward?

Roger Christan Schriner

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How’s Your Compass Working? And What’s in Your Toolkit?

Last week I talked about getting into the habit of practicing specific strategies for self-correction. Self-correction is a much broader topic than the theme of this blog (Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground). But becoming more open-minded about religion is a key to respecting and communicating with those who disagree with us about theology. So I’ll say a little more about self-correction.

To foster the expectation that all of us will practice self-correction, we need simple ways of expressing this idea. Perhaps we could talk about having a compass and a toolkit.

A compass tells us which way we’re going, so we can see if we’re off course. But correcting our direction is not as simple as turning a steering wheel. We need a toolkit of tactics for changing the way we think, feel, and/or behave.

Every religion suggests ways of correcting our course, and in recent years psychotherapists have added helpful new approaches. What’s missing is the shared realization that:

* We are self-perpetuating systems, but we can learn to self-correct.

* Each of us needs a compass and a toolkit, so we can detect and correct our direction.

* If we don’t regularly use our compass and our toolkit, we are diminishing the person that we could become.

I get so tired of the way religious leaders keep repeating, in sermon after sermon, statements that boil down to, “You should become a better person” — without specifying how we can do this. How many times, for instance, have you heard a preacher pound the table on how important it is to love one another? This sort of vague exhortation seldom improves the listener for more than mere minutes. What we need is ideas about HOW to become more loving. If we do not practice reliable ways of strengthening the active power of love within us, mouthing pious love-rhetoric is worse than useless.

I don’t mean that we should be striving to improve ourselves every minute. Many of us would find that quite oppressive. But fairly often (once a week at minimum?) we should check an inner compass to see which way we’re headed, and do what we can to get back on our chosen path.

So how does this relate to finding common ground with those who disagree with us about religion? 

If we assess ourselves honestly, we will often find that:

* We shut out ideas merely because they challenge our preconceptions.

* We overestimate our own knowledge and goodness.

* In talking with others about theology, we play the ancient dominance game that our genes learned from primate ancestors.

* Because we are social animals, we often fail to question the values and morality of our “tribe.” Every group has important blind spots, and most group members are oblivious to these lacunae.

Dialogue with those who disagree with us about religion is one of the best ways to check and correct our personal course.

So — what inner compass helps you detect your direction? And what’s in your toolkit? If you have specific, well-practiced ways of checking and correcting your course, I’d love to hear about them.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Remembering to Get Back on Track

Sometimes we stumble across something that’s “invisibly obvious,” something we’ve overlooked even though it’s sitting right in front of us. Then we have one of those Duh-OH! moments – “Why did I never realize this before?”

I had one of those Duh-OHs recently, thinking about the way people tend toward self-perpetuation instead of self-correction. In particular, people perpetuate their own beliefs about politics and religion. Even if they have only a rudimentary understanding of these topics, they may block out anything that challenges their opinions. (See, for example, “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/nyhan-reifler.pdf.)

Like many religious and psychological professionals, I have studied and taught various strategies for shifting from self-perpetuation to self-improvement. But I wish I had emphasized what now seems like an obvious idea: Establish the expectation that all of us will learn and practice specific strategies for self-correction.

Many cultural expectations are widely shared. With few exceptions, most people expect to graduate from high school or college, find gainful employment, live on their own, establish a stable love relationship, plan for retirement, and take care of their health. But we could also try to establish the cultural expectation that virtually everyone will practice self-correction techniques. This blog entry is a tiny step toward this goal.

In a recent workshop on values, participants were asked to make a new list of Ten Commandments for Twenty-First Century Living. This was one of mine:

Seek a path that brings you fulfillment and makes the world a better place. Know that you will often wander away from this path. Learn the habit of sensing when and where you are off track and putting yourself back on course.

If you do not have specific ways of noticing when you are off course, and specific ways of getting back on track, and if you do not practice these strategies regularly, you are killing the person you might otherwise become.

So how does this apply to you? What are the most important clues that warn you when you’ve lost your way? And what are your most effective strategies for self-correction?

I’ll develop this theme further in my next entry.

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: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/mar/25/atheists-please-read-heathen-manifesto

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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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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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 http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/series/heathens-progress.)

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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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: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/nov/21/articles-of-21st-century-faith

Roger

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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?

Roger

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