Wrapping Up a Case for Atheism

For the past few weeks I’ve been sharing the text of a presentation in which I debate with myself about whether a personal God exists. In the previous installment, the theist, “Pastor Chris,” concluded by saying that “Dr. Schriner”

“never denies that the vast majority of people have sensed the presence of this sturdy support [theistic religion]. The overwhelming testimony of this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism.”

Now the atheist, Dr. Schriner, replies:

That “great cloud of witnesses” is a whole lot smaller than Pastor Chris thinks. I realize that the vast majority of Americans believe in God. However in Canada around 20 or 30% are atheists or agnostics. In the U.K. it’s 30-45%, and 65% in Japan.* Besides, he is supposed to prove there’s a personal God. But in a survey of sixty countries, only 45% thought a personal God exists, so those who believe in a personal deity are actually in the minority.** Continue reading

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I’ll Be Back

I’ve been taking a break from this blog which has lasted longer than I anticipated. I’m completing my new book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. I’ve also been distracted by extraneous factors, such as glitches in setting up a new computer. Your Living Mind should be out later this summer, and then I’ll return to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground.

In the meantime I encourage interested readers to explore this site. This is my 118th post, and I’m happy to respond to comments about any of my previous entries.

Roger Christan Schriner

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The Theist-Atheist Continuum

At this point I’ve made over 30 presentations focusing on communication and common ground among theists, atheists, and agnostics. In lecturing or leading workshops on this theme I try to sense what people find interesting and meaningful. One item that often strikes a responsive chord is a spectrum from very traditional theism to emphatic atheism, from Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics.

In the book I emphasize that in thinking and talking about God, there is no clear dividing line between literal and metaphorical language. Poetry and factual description shade off into each other. With that in mind, here’s the continuum:

God is a person who looks like us . . .
      God is a person but does not have a human body . . .
            Calling God a person is a human way of speaking
            about something far beyond our understanding . . .
                  The Ground of All Being is trans-personal,
                  but we can metaphorically think of it as a Thou . . .
                        The universe is physical but it has personal qualities . . .
                               The universe does not actually have such qualities, but
                               we can speak poetically as if it does . . .
                                      The universe, and whatever caused or created it,
                                      should never be thought of as personal.

People often shift and drift among these levels, sliding up or down this continuum as their moods change or when they move among their various social circles. Furthermore, there are also subtle gradations between these seven levels.

I want to emphasize the inevitable vagueness of our beliefs about all-that-is. Each person’s belief-complex is a pastiche of factual information, informed and uninformed speculation, and poetic imagery. A theist, for example, might believe that a person-like God exists, realize that in at least some respects “person” is a metaphor, but be unable to say in what ways and to what extent God is literally a person. Similarly, some atheists see the universe as a mixture of personal and non-personal features.

How many theists have carefully thought about whether and in what respects God is “really” a person? And how many atheists and agnostics have carefully considered whether the cosmos (or whatever gave rise to the cosmos) has personal qualities? I suspect the answer to both questions is “very, very few.” If they did contemplate these questions in depth, how often would believers and non-believers come to similar conclusions? I don’t know, nor does anyone else, and that is the point. We simply have no idea how much similarity is hidden by divisive theological labels. Without in-depth dialogue about religion, we can never hope to understand each other.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Is Atheism a Faith?

I was involved in interfaith work for quite some time, and I’ve quoted atheist Chris Stedman who has been very active in interfaith groups and wrote a book called Faithiest. One question that often comes up is whether atheism is a “faith,” and I’ve recently read some wise words about this issue from the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist blogger James Ford.

Ford mentioned an interfaith meeting at which “a colleague I really like offered how she told a mutual friend who is a prominent local Humanist that he has a “faith” as well. … Her description of faith was something I was familiar with from seminary. Faith is a verb, it speaks to an active engagement with one’s experience. … I offered that she had re-defined that word faith in that very attractive way, but also one that ignored ordinary use. And by ordinary use, … our mutual friend is not a “person of faith.”

Rev. Ford concludes that pinning the “faith” label on someone who doesn’t want it blocks “any hope of genuine understanding …”

James’ post includes a lot of other ideas which are well worth reading. See http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/2013/04/faith-of-a-liberal-buddhist.html.

So what do you think? Should we redefine faith more broadly? My main comment is that whenever we use incredibly vague terms from religion and philosophy, it’s important to clarify what we mean with a brief elaboration or a helpful example.

Yes, this takes more time. But it saves SO much wasted breath by lessening the chance that people will experience the illusion of communication when actually they’re talking right past each other!

Roger Christan Schriner

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Unitarian Universalist Humanism

Recently I’ve been following a discussion thread about how Unitarian Universalist humanists should relate to their UU congregations, and to the Unitarian Universalist Association as a whole. Unitarian Universalism is a denomination that accepts people of all faiths and philosophies. It seeks unity by supporting common values rather than a common theological or philosophical creed.

Some of our churches contain sub-groups that focus specifically on one sort of lifestance, such as liberal Christianity, neo-Paganism, or non-theistic humanism. The Humanist Roots group that I sometimes attend at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto is an example. But there are those who favor the formation of local UU congregations that are explicitly non-theistic.

Some discussants have been enthusiastic about this possibility, while others have been disappointed at the suggestion that our local congregations should be philosophically homogenous.

What do you think? Is there value in groups that include theists, atheists, and agnostics, and focus on common values? Or is it better for theists and atheists to attend different congregations?

Roger Christan Schriner

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Jesus and Original Sin

[For the next few weeks this site will include items from my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. Here’s another entry.]

Many Bible passages include the peculiar notions of inherited guilt and punishment. For example, one standard interpretation of the Garden of Eden story is that it resulted in “original sin.” Every human being has inherited the guilt of Adam and Eve for disobeying God in Eden.

The apostle Paul thought our inherited guilt was canceled out by a vicarious sacrifice. We became guilty by being children of Adam and Eve, but we could be forgiven because of the suffering and death of Jesus. Romans 5:18-19: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”

I don’t mean to oversimplify here. There are several major interpretations of the Christian doctrine of salvation through Jesus, and within each interpretation there are subtleties and sometimes profundities. My point is simply that in Biblical times many believed in inherited guilt, so for them this was a plausible interpretation of the Eden story. If we do not believe that guilt can be passed on to one’s offspring, that should influence our response to religious theories of sin and salvation.

So what do you think? Is the inherited-guilt concept entirely defunct? If not, how is it meaningful to you? And if we believe it is an obsolete idea, how should this influence our assessment of Christian theology?

Roger Christan Schriner

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Reflections on Faitheist, by Chris Stedman

“What is most personal is most universal.” So said the great psychotherapist, Carl Rogers. I saw this principle confirmed years ago in my personal growth workshops. When people who were feeling lonely and isolated told their personal stories, they were often surprised by the way other group members empathized, identified, and responded.

Today I finished reading a highly personal memoir that will speak to a great many people – Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. The author, Chris Stedman, is smart and passionate. He is also ruthlessly honest, even about his own faults. With this combination of brains, intensity, and candor, it’s not surprising that he sometimes takes unusual risks. During a high school retreat, for example, he got up the nerve to tell his classmates why he’d taken course-work at a community college that year: Because of being gay, he said, “I didn’t feel safe here.” He received a standing ovation, led by a fellow named Nate, a popular athlete that Chris had assumed would look down on him. Afterward Nate “approached me and gave me a hug. ‘I’m not sure I agree with you, dude, but that was brave’” (pp. 80-81).

Even when we don’t identify with someone’s actions or ideas, we may admire that person’s courage.

It also takes courage to criticize both religious and non-religious viewpoints, running the risk of being sniped at from both directions. A religion teacher said to Stedman, “‘When I talk about God, I mean love and justice and reconciliation, not a man in the sky. You talk about love and justice and reconciliation — why can’t you just call that God?’” Chris replied, ‘Why must you call that God? Why not just call it what it is: love and justice and reconciliation?’” (P. 123)

Chris has also critiqued prominent atheists and atheist organizations. At his first atheist conference he heard “speeches comparing religion to sexually transmitted diseases. It was, for me, a nightmare. … I called friends of mine back home — atheists, no less — and recalled what I’d seen. They were shocked and appalled. One friend said to me: ‘You see, this is why I don’t want to call myself an atheist” (p. 145).

Stedman wrote an article suggesting that organized atheism often talks about religion in ways that deepen divisions. After it appeared in the Washington Post, he got “unexpected feedback. ‘This is exactly what I think, but I didn’t know anyone else agreed with me,’ wrote one reader” (p. 138).

Faitheist contains several other remarkable stories of risk and (mostly) reward. It’s a moving and readable memoir, highly recommended for theists, atheists, agnostics alike.

Roger Christan Schriner

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