Thoughtful Atheist Essays

These days when people think of atheism, the “new atheists” often come to mind – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Of these, all but Dennett are intensely anti-religious. Hitchens, for example, wrote a book entitled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. But I’ve just discovered a book in which atheistic philosophers reflect on religion. In browsing through this volume I was impressed by the diversity of opinion expressed, and the general tone of respect for faith traditions.

The book is called Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Antony, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Many of its essays express positive feelings about various religious traditions, even though the authors do not accept the doctrines of these organizations. Contributors include several whose work in philosophy of mind I have appreciated – Joseph Levine, David Lewis, Georges Rey, Kenneth A. Taylor, and Daniel Dennett himself. I look forward to reading these papers in detail, and I’ll share my reactions in a future post.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Einstein’s Antipathy Toward Atheism (and Traditional Theism)

I recently spoke to the Humanist Community in Silicon Valley, a group that meets on Sundays in Palo Alto. My theme was “Bridging the God Gap: How to Find Common Ground with Theistic Friends and Family Members.” Part of my presentation involved communication between atheists and unorthodox theists – deists, naturalistic theists, and those who believe in an impersonal god. Many (though not all) of these individuals are “functionally atheistic.” They do not expect deity to help them in any specific ways.

Even when their beliefs about the nature of reality are quite similar, there may be considerable tension between non-believers and orthodox theists. I think of Albert Einstein, for example. Einstein said some very negative things about atheists, and yet his own beliefs about the universe were similar to the world-view of scientifically oriented atheists such as Richard Dawkins.

Einstein used personal-god language to metaphorically speak of the universe and/or its laws. Sometimes he sounds like he might be speaking literally, as when he said, “That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible Universe, forms my idea of God.” But his statements rejecting a literal personal deity are numerous and emphatic. At one point he wrote, “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but expressed it clearly” (cited by Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, p. 271). Those who quote Einstein to support traditional religion are way off base.

Here’s a glaring example: In The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren used Einstein’s famous statement that “God doesn’t play dice” to support the idea that God carefully plans each of our lives (p. 22). This is as blatant a distortion of Einstein’s intent as if an anti-gambling group had used this quote to show that Albert wanted to ban crap games.

Since Einstein sharply criticizes personal theism, one might think he would affirm atheism, but sometimes he condemns this lifestance. In Jesus Was a Liberal, Scotty McLennan quotes him as saying, “In view of such harmony in the cosmos, which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for support of such views” (p. 51).

I like to imagine Albert and Richard Dawkins having a beer together and sorting out their differences. Surely they could have looked beyond labels such as theist and atheist, realizing that what they had in common was much more important than that which divided them.

Roger Christan 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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James P. Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief, Part Three

In the first two parts of this series on The Religious Case Against Belief (Penguin Books, 2008), I’ve considered James P. Carse’s idea of a “higher ignorance,” the humility which some people achieve when (after years of study) they realize how much more there is to learn. As Socrates, one of the most brilliant minds of his time, put it, “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance” (

Although Carse sometimes expresses himself with great confidence, he invites readers to critique his work: “… the argument presented in these pages must provide the basis for its own rejection” (p. 213).

Both theists and atheists will find themselves challenged by The Religious Case Against Belief. Many theists will be disturbed by his claim that holy scriptures do not provide information about how Earth was made, why we’re here, why we so often do evil, and how we can be saved. Despite the fact that religious texts contain many thousands of words, Carse maintains that, “like poetry they say nothing. There is no point to any of them” (p. 104).

Although atheists may appreciate this rejection of Biblical literalism, Carse criticizes the “new atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for attacking “a hasty caricature” of contemporary God-concepts” (p. 2). “Typically, the god unbelievers are rejecting is one found nowhere within the living religions” (p. 31).

Several other writers, including Karen Armstrong, have made similar comments, but I find it utterly baffling to imagine that religious texts have essentially zero factual content. Certainly many Christians emphasize factual statements about deity. Surveys show that in the U.S., a great many religious people believe in highly traditional beliefs about God. For example, about 80% of American Christians believe that Jesus will return to Earth. (See “A new poll from the Pew Research Center finds that roughly four in 10 Americans believe the Second Coming will happen by 2050” (Tom Krattenmaker, USA Today, August 23, 2010, p. 9A). It seems perfectly reasonable for atheists to critique the merits of these widely-accepted doctrines.

Carse also denies that churches should preach a literal belief in an afterlife, partly because he says it’s a horrible idea. Like the Christian theologian Paul Tillich, he thinks that an unending afterlife would be hell. Endless personal consciousness, Carse maintains, would drive us mad with boredom (p. 169). He also concurs with Karen Armstrong’s suggestion that ancient religions did not focus on eternal life (p. 173). But ancient stories from all over the world mention visitations from the dead. Traditional cultures have typically assumed that we do go on in some form. Thus the Bible would not have announced the afterlife as an astonishing revelation. It was taken for granted.

Although I don’t agree with everything in The Religious Case Against Belief, I recommend this compact little volume as a meditation on how little we know and how many ways we can interpret what may at first seem like clear and straightforward religious doctrines. “The higher ignorance” is, indeed, the beginning of wisdom.


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Karen Armstrong on God, Part Two

In Part One I discussed ideas from two of Karen Armstrong’s publications:

A History of God, Gramercy Books, 1993

The Case for God, Knopf, 2009

Both books discuss the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and deny that these traditions emphasize the idea that God is a supernatural being. Instead, Armstrong suggests that these religions have often maintained a respectful silence about what God is like. Today, on the other hand, “People of faith admit in theory that God is utterly transcendent, but they seem sometimes to assume that they know exactly who ‘he’ is and what he thinks, loves, and expects” (The Case for God, p. ix).

Armstrong notes that whereas Christianity has focused on doctrine, Judaism has not enforced theological orthodoxy: “Any official doctrine would limit the essential mystery of God” (A History of God, p. 74). And in Islam, “the Koran is highly suspicious of theological speculation, dismissing it as zanna, self-indulgent guesswork about things that nobody can possibly know or prove” (p. 143).

On p. 126 of A History of God Armstrong mentions an approach to theological reflection in which one first affirms what God is, including God’s existence; then denies those affirmations, saying for example that God does not exist; and then denies the denials. This conceptual discipline is intended to disintegrate our use of typical words and concepts in speaking of the Ultimate.

Armstrong definitely rejects some common teachings about deity, such as the idea that God created plants and animals. Life originated because of natural selection, and not because of divine planning:

“Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course – at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death, and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core” (,

Furthermore Armstrong does not think most religions emphasize immortality, and she herself is completely agnostic about this issue. She made that statement September 9, 2009 in a radio interview with Michael Krasny ( Her view is that only Christianity and Islam have made the afterlife central, and even there it is often seen as some-thing like a parable rather than a definite statement of fact. She contends that religion should be about transcending our egos, not ensuring our own survival.

When Armstrong says that God is indescribable, here are three things that this might mean.

1. Something is indescribable if we can say virtually nothing about it. For instance, some think the Big Bang must have had a cause, but they haven’t a clue what that was.

2. On the other hand, “indescribable” may just mean we lack a good description. In some cases we can make many accurate statements about something, but even in combination these statements are pitifully incomplete. Suppose someone grabs an elephant’s leg in the dark and thinks it’s a tree. Even if the beast held still long enough for this leg-seizer to make 50 accurate statements about this massive limb, those statements would not add up to a good description of the elephant.

3. Finally, “indescribable” may be mere hyperbole, dramatic exaggeration for effect. After one’s first sexual encounter, one may exclaim, “Words fail me! All I can say is ‘Wow!’” – after which one scrawls pages of intimate descriptive detail in a diary.

So God could be utterly indescribable, partially describable, or “indescribable” as poetic exaggeration. I am not sure which of these fits Armstrong’s approach. If pressed I would bet on #2, but perhaps she would select #1 instead. In any case, there is a big difference between:

“We can say nothing about deity.”

And: “We can say many things about deity, but these statements are quite incomplete.”

I would hazard a guess that Karen Armstrong would affirm some things about the Ultimate, including qualities such as creativity, transcendence, and goodness. And I certainly applaud her effort to correct overly-literal theologies. Her many books have conclusively proven that spiritual teachers throughout history have considered God beyond human comprehension. That is such a refreshing contrast to those who think they know everything about deity except (perhaps) the Lord’s favorite pizza toppings.

Since she denies that the Abrahamic faiths require belief in a supernatural deity, Armstrong thinks contemporary atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins are attacking the wrong target. She charges them with having “an extremely literalist notion of God. For Dawkins, religious faith rests on the idea that ‘there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence, who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it’” (The Case for God, p. 304). (For her critique of the new atheism see pp. 301-09.) She maintains that this concept is woefully out of date.

Atheists could reply that if Armstrong is correct, even liberal congregations are chock-full of literalists. Believing that God designed and created the universe is middle-of-the-road Christianity, not extreme literalism. Although many theologians no longer think of God as a super-powerful being, Armstrong admits that contemporary theology has “rarely reached the pews.”1

One more point: In A History of God, Karen Armstrong shows that virtually all spiritual communities emphasize compassion (p. 391). She has now followed up on this theme with Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. I saw her lecturing about this book last June, and it sounds excellent.


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Karen Armstrong on God, Part One

To encourage positive dialogue between theists and atheists, I’m going to comment on some publications that should be interesting to both believers and non-believers. I’ll start with two of Karen Armstrong’s offerings:

A History of God, Gramercy Books, 1993

The Case for God, Knopf, 2009

These are very similar books. Both are substantial works of scholarship, offering rich and complex historical information about the Abrahamic religious traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I strongly recommend reading one or both of these books for background, savoring them slowly so as to absorb their subtlety and rich detail.

The Case for God is a more recent publication, with more emphasis on current developments including the controversy about the “new atheism.” The title implies that this book offers reasons for believing in God, but Armstrong says little about why she affirms deity or why anyone else should do so.

One of Karen Armstrong’s more controversial claims is the suggestion that Abrahamic religions have not emphasized the existence of God as a supernatural being: “In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call ‘God’ is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence….” (“Man vs. God,”,

“Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have insisted for centuries that God does not exist and that there is ‘nothing’ out there….” (The Case for God, p. xvi)

Many religious leaders are startled by this claim. For example Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, brands Armstrong as an atheist. ( And Richard Dawkins speaks of theologians who “say something like this: ‘Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists…. It doesn’t matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me.’”

“Well, if that’s what floats your canoe, you’ll be paddling it up a very lonely creek,” Dawkins admonishes. Most believers say God truly exists, “just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists.” (Ibid.)

James Wood concurs. “Theologians and priests are always changing the game in this way. They accuse atheists of wanting to murder an overliteral God, while they themselves keep alive a rarefied God whom no one, other than them, actually believes in.” (James Wood, The New Yorker, August, 2009, p.78.)

Sigmund Freud said something similar in The Future of an Illusion: “Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of ‘God’ to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines.” (http://www.

Despite these complaints, many of Armstrong’s readers are delighted by her rejection of popular god-concepts. Simon Blackburn, a philosophy professor, writes that “Armstrong is not presenting a case for God in the sense most people in our idolatrous world would think of it. The ordinary man or woman in the pew or on the prayer mat probably thinks of God as a kind of large version of themselves with mysterious powers and a rather nasty temper…. as long as they think like that, ordinary folk are not truly religious, whatever they profess. (

In Part Two of this essay I’ll say more about Armstrong’s unorthodox concept of God.


Stephen Prothero’s “God Is Not One”

Since completing Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, I have read a book that might interest both theists and atheists: Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter.

When Americans talk about spiritual matters they tend to focus on the majority religion, Christianity. However I have found it helpful to look at religious issues from a long-term, world-wide perspective, and reading Prothero’s book is a fine way to do that.

God Is Not One is well-researched and well-written. I have studied comparative religion for some time, but this book taught me new things about traditions such as Islam, Confucianism, Daoism, and the African-born Yoruba faith.

One of Prothero’s insights is that “What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world” (p. 11). That makes sense, and I find that theists, atheists, and agnostics can often agree about what is most challenging about the human condition. Furthermore there is often quite a bit of agreement about how we should treat each other, as Prothero observes: “The world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics” (p. 3).

I was also enlightened by the book’s discussion of Hinduism. I had thought that Hindu concepts of deity tend to be impersonal, describing God as an It rather than a Thou. I knew that Hindus who lack formal education often view God in personal terms, but I thought this contradicted mainstream Hinduism.

Prothero says that at one time Hindus did worship an impersonal deity. “Philosophical Hinduism was functionally atheistic; while the gods existed, they were largely irrelevant to the task at hand. [Liberation] was something you achieved by yourself, not something handed to you from on high” (p. 152). But today Hinduism emphasizes bhakti yoga, meaning loving devotion to one or more gods. For Hindus, “The notion that God is impersonal and ineffable is now confined to the rare philosopher” (p. 153).

The book also includes “A Brief Coda on Atheism,” dealing mainly with science-oriented atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. The author is quite critical of this approach, and he sometimes makes sweeping, stereotypical statements, e.g., “Atheists argue that the human problem cannot be solved by religion, because religion itself is the problem” (p. 318). That’s true of Dawkins and Harris, but I have known many atheists who would deny that religion is “the” core problem. To his credit, however, Prothero says there are many different approaches to rejecting God’s existence, and not all atheists are angry and rigid. Taking a swipe at Dawkins et al., he notes that ” . . . most atheists today are far less dogmatic than the high priests of the New Atheism” (p. 327).

I thank Stephen Prothero for this eye-opening survey of the world’s faith traditions, a book that gives us the gift of greater understanding.


God-Talk: Ways to Break the Ice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See my blogroll for links to these authors.

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

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