Anger and Atheism

Much to my surprise, I recently found myself questioning the validity of atheism.

Since college days I have seen both atheism and some forms of theism as legitimate options, useful and potentially correct ways of understanding the universe. We cannot yet prove the truth of any lifestance, but we can rule out some alternatives and decide which of the remaining world-views seem most accurate to us.

So I was startled to notice myself doubting that atheism is a legitimate, reasonable option. What I noticed was subtle, only a half-conscious thought, and I immediately realized that this thought was ill-founded. It was, in essence: “I’ve been reading some angry statements by atheists. Anger prevents people from thinking straight. Maybe atheism is irrational, based on emotion rather than reason.”

That half-conscious thought makes no sense because atheism (and some forms of theism) can be well-supported by clear-minded reason. Besides, as a Unitarian Universalist minister I’ve served congregations that include many atheists, as well as agnostics and liberal theists. These atheists, as a group, are not filled with rage. And even those who are intensely angry at religion have good reasons for feeling resentful. Atheists are one of the most widely-despised groups in the United States, and it’s only natural that they would resent this sort of marginalization.

But of course when people are extremely angry they are especially motivated to express themselves, so in any persecuted minority some of the loudest voices are the voices of rage.

When I found myself wondering if atheism was irrational, I had just read a series of email exchanges on a secular humanist chat list. I won’t quote individuals, but let’s just say people were speaking freely. Even when I didn’t agree with them, I could understand where they were coming from. But the strong emotional content of some statements engendered a doubt (irrational, I realize) about the validity of their world-view.

So should angry atheists tone down their rhetoric? Not always. To everything there’s a season. But people have a hard time hearing hostile communications. If you’re just “venting,” and don’t care whether people agree with you, you may choose to let it all hang out. But if you’d like to make this world a friendlier place for non-theism, the raw edge of rage may be best expressed in private.

Roger Christan Schriner

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More Thoughts about Unitarian Universalist Humanism

I’ve been following an on-line discussion about the way Unitarian Universalist humanists should relate to their UU congregations. Some want to form local UU congregations that are explicitly humanistic, while others like the diversity of groups that include theists, atheists, and agnostics, and focus on common values.

After I posted about this topic recently, one person commented that a theologically homogeneous group “too easily falls into nasty habits, sneering at those not there to hear it, making ‘jokes’ that are little short of hate speech, not quite realizing how far down that path they’ve gone in the absence of anyone present to call them on it.”

I couldn’t agree more. I have seen this sort of thing happen many times – even among good people. We humans find it so difficult to respect those who disagree with us about religion (or politics, or morality).

I also have another concern about setting up explicitly humanistic Unitarian Universalist congregations. Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion. In the past few decades few if any of our churches have taken a formal stand in favor of some theological position. If we start setting up humanistic congregations, we’ll soon see congregations that formally privilege liberal theism, neo-Paganism, etc. That sort of theological fragmentation sounds very destructive.

On the other hand, forming more humanistic groups within UU churches could be quite positive. Within Unitarian Universalism, theism is now more commonly affirmed than it was 30 years ago. As a result, some atheists and agnostics have felt marginalized. They need to feel the supportive community of their fellow humanists. And having different theological groups doesn’t need to be divisive. If one congregation contains local chapters of groups such as HUUmanists, the UU Christian Fellowship, and the Covenant of UU Pagans, that could actually encourage respectful conversations across theological boundary-lines.

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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A Song for the Holidays

To get yourself in the mood for holiday gatherings with your theist or atheist friends and relatives, check out this humorous and yet insightful parody of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “I Am Sixteen”:


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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