Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a new book , Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue, that I’ve co-authored with Peter Admirand, a Catholic theologian at Dublin City University. We worked together to think about our differences and what we share in common.

I’m an atheist. Peter is a believer. We disagree about some important and fundamental things. But we share the belief that dialogue and mutual understanding are crucially important in our polarized and divided world.

The book is framed by seven virtues of dialogue: curiosity, compassion, and courage, as well as honesty, honoring our commitments, humility, and the desire for harmony. If more people exercised these virtues the world might be a better place. The goal is not to erase our differences but, rather, to journey together to find common ground.

The book includes some biographical tidbits. I share the story of how I came to realize that I am more humanist than theist, a nonbeliever who remains interested in all of the world’s religions. As I explain, this was not a spectacular conversion from theism to atheism. Rather, it was a slow realization that the religion I was raised with no longer spoke to me.

Peter, of course, tells a different story. Our differences emerge in chapters that discuss the meaning of curiosity, compassion, and courage, as well honesty, humility, honor, and harmony. It was eye-opening to engage in this process with Peter.

The book ends with an account of letters (well, emails) we exchanged. We discovered a common love of music, a common love of friends and families, and a common concern about the crises emerging around us.

As I say, in the conclusion, I think we succeeded in finding common ground. But this does not mean that the conversation is over. Rather, there is alway more to be learned.

We were fortunate to have Rabbi Jack Moline, the President of the American Interfaith Alliance write a Foreword to the book. Peter and I are both engaged in interfaith and inter-religious work. We both think that this work needs to involve atheists, secularists, and humanists as well as members of the world’s diverse faith communities.

You can buy the book on Amazon or from Wipf and Stock Books.

Abortion Ethics and the Texas Heartbeat Law

Fresno Bee, September 12, 2021

Abortion is a contentious moral and political issue. The new law in Texas, “The Texas Heartbeat Act,” gives us a lot to think and argue about.

One issue is the law’s novel “enforcement” mechanism. The law does not put the state directly in charge of policing abortion. Rather, that is left up to what the law calls “a private civil right of action.” Citizens may direct lawsuits against abortion providers.

Critics have pointed out that this is a kind of vigilante enforcement, where ordinary people are empowered to punish abortion. There will likely be legal challenges to that enforcement mechanism.

The deeper moral question is about where we draw the line that establishes the moral worth of a fetus. The Texas law draws that line around so-called fetal heartbeat. The law states that “fetal heartbeat has become a key medical predictor that an unborn child will reach live birth.” It defines fetal heartbeat as “the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac.”

Critics have pointed out that while rhythmic activity is detectable at about six weeks, this is not a heartbeat. There are no heart valves at that stage of development.

You might think that the question of fetal heartbeat would be easy to answer. But is there a “heartbeat” before the heart is fully formed? Furthermore, why does heartbeat matter?

This is connected to questions at the other end of life. Is a person whose heart has stopped beating really dead? Hearts can be re-started and even transplanted. And blood can be pumped artificially.

So, heartbeat is not the only thing that matters in thinking about the moral status of a body. Indeed, there are deep disagreements about how we determine that moral status.

Some opponents of abortion draw the line earlier than six weeks, claiming that “life begins at conception.” This perspective claims that when there is a unique set of DNA — when sperm and egg unite — a unique person is created. The “life begins at conception” idea opposes abortion as well as “contraception” that prevents fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus.

On the other hand, some defenders of abortion argue that what matters is “viability,” the ability of a fetus to live outside of its mother’s womb. Others focus on brain development. The brain-based view may be fleshed out in various ways. Perhaps what matters is sentience, the ability of a fetus to feel pain. Or maybe what matters is the development of complex neurological systems capable of desire, intentionality, and higher-thought.

Viability and complex brain development happen much later than six weeks.

A further consideration is what happens when there is a conflict of goods and values. Some pro-choice arguments will admit that a fetus has some moral value while also maintaining that the mother’s autonomy can trump that value. Sometimes this is articulated as saying that an actual person’s rights outweigh the emergent rights of a merely potential person.

Furthermore, there is the legal question of what we should do when there are fundamental disagreements about all of this. In Texas, the state has decreed that what matters is the so-called heartbeat. But what if a woman in Texas disagrees with that? She may think that brains matter.

Or she might think, as they used to in the old days, that what matters is “quickening” — the moment when a woman feels the fetus move within her. Or she may believe that a fetus becomes a person when it draws its first breath at the moment of viability.

How can we restrict abortion without violating a woman’s right to decide for herself about fundamental questions of personhood, ensoulment, and the value of her own autonomy?

Abortion is contentious because we disagree about the answer to that question and the other questions mentioned here. These disagreements are not going away. They cannot be solved by science and medicine. Nor does yelling and protesting resolve them.

These are metaphysical and moral disagreements, involving disputes about the meaning and value of life. As we continue to argue about abortion, we ought to try our best to understand the depth of these disputes and to think critically about our disagreements.

Covid Vaccines, Religion, and the First Amendment

Fresno Bee, August 29, 2021

Most of society is pushing for vaccine mandates. But a small minority is opting out on religious grounds. That’s their right under the First Amendment. If your deeply held beliefs prevent you from getting a vaccine, you can get a religious exemption.

In the United States, the First Amendment allows for “free exercise” of religious belief and other freedoms. These principles are connected to the right to have an abortion, the right to refuse to serve in the military, the right of gay and lesbian people to marry, and the right to refuse to salute the flag.

We value religious liberty in this country and freedom of conscience. This does not mean that religious people can sneeze germs wherever they want. Those with religious exemptions still need to wear masks, to self-quarantine when ill, and to undergo routine testing. But so far, no one is going to force you to get a shot, if you are conscientiously opposed to the idea.

There are complexities here involving what counts as a religious exemption. Some vaccine denial is not of the “conscientious” variety. Instead, it is based on crackpot conspiracy theories. But then again, one person’s deepest religious beliefs may be viewed by another as a crackpot conspiracy theory. That’s why we ought to tread lightly.

Official policies regarding religious exemption show the difficulty. In the California State University policy, for example, it says that a religious exemption can be granted either for “sincerely held religious belief” connected to “traditionally recognized religion” or for sincere beliefs that are “comparable to that of traditionally recognized religions.”

This means that agnostics and atheists can be granted “religious” exemptions. But would a devoted QAnon believer also qualify? It is difficult to decide what counts as a sincerely held belief worthy of exemption.

Religious exemptions in the United States have evolved through litigation. Originally, exemptions from military service were granted only for members of historic peace churches. Over time, the interpretation of what counts as grounds for conscientious objector status expanded along with religious diversity and the growth of non-religion.

The question of what counts as a religion is vexing, especially in the U.S., where new religions grow and prosper. The U.S. has given us Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Nation of Islam — along with Scientology and the Church of Satan.

When is a group of like-minded folks really a “religion”? And when are your beliefs worthy of accommodation? In the U.S., we are permissive in this regard. If you publicly testify to the sincerity of your belief, we’ll accept that for the most part.

data dump from California State University Chico provides a bit of insight about how this might play out. There are ethical concerns about the breach of privacy that occurred when Chico State’s data was revealed. But the published accounts show the kind of language used by students who were granted exemptions. One claimed, for example, to believe in “natural healing through God’s divine power.”

It would be wrong to force someone with that kind of belief to violate their conscience and take the vaccine. In the same way, it would be wrong to force a committed pacifist to take up arms or a believer opposed to state-idolatry to salute the flag.

Some people will lie about this. But how can we know? It is very difficult — if not impossible — to judge the sincerity of another person’s profession of faith. If someone publicly declares their belief in something, we take them at their word, until evidence is provided that shows they are lying. Of course, if you lie on your application, that’s fraud, and this may have legal repercussions.

It is likely that the number of people asking for religious exemptions will be small. There are few people whose religious beliefs prevent them from saluting the flag or from carrying arms in defense of the country. There are likely also few people whose faith prevents them from using modern medicine.

These religious exemptions provide a great opportunity to educate ourselves about the First Amendment and the complexity of religion. It also provides each of us with a chance to think about what we sincerely believe.

There is No American Religion

Fresno Bee, July 18, 2021

New poll shows 23% of Fresno County residents don’t affiliate with an organized religion

American religiosity is declining and diversifying. A recent Census of American Religion from the Public Religion Research Institute confirms a trend scholars have noted for decades. There is really no such thing as a typically American experience of religion. And lots of people have rejected organized religion.

This is what religious liberty looks like. In this country, you can change religions, marry someone from a different faith, or simply stop going to church. You can also openly criticize religion without fear of prosecution for blasphemy or apostasy.

Other countries lack this kind of liberty. When the State Department issued its annual report on religious liberty in May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Religious freedom, like every human right, is universal. All people, everywhere, are entitled to it no matter where they live, what they believe, or what they don’t believe.”

Blinken identified Iran, Burma, Russia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and China as nations that harass religious minorities and punish religious dissenters. He accused China of committing genocide against its Muslim Uyghur minority.

American religious liberty is a rare and precious thing. But it is also messy and complicated. It means that we lack religious unanimity. It means that quacks can start cults. It means that some people will turn their backs on religion. It means that we all need to work harder to understand each other and the value of our freedom.

This is not good news for Christian nationalists who want the U.S. to be a Christian nation. Of course, the idea is problematic. Christianity is a big tent with substantial diversity. This includes many Christians who reject the idea of Christian nationalism.

A widely shared statement from “Christians Against Christian Nationalism” says that Christian nationalism distorts “both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy.” They argue that Christian nationalism is idolatrous. And the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of any religion as the national religion.

Christianity is the identification of 70% of Americans, according to the PRRI Census. But Christianity is complex. It includes Protestants and Catholics, the Orthodox and the Mormons. The census also broke religious affiliation down by racial and ethnic lines, distinguishing, for example, between Black Protestantism, Hispanic Catholicism, and White Evangelical Christianity. One wonders how much there is in common between a white Mormon living in Utah, a Black Baptist living in Georgia, and a Hispanic Catholic living in Fresno.

Furthermore, nearly one in four Americans (23%) is not affiliated with an identifiable religion. Fresno County is typical in this regard with the same percentage of non-affiliated people (23%) as the rest of America. The Central Valley is generally more religious than the rest of California. In San Luis Obispo County, 36% are unaffiliated, for example. California is generally more diverse and less religious than the Midwest or the South.

The unaffiliated are not necessarily atheists. Only 6% of Americans claim to be either atheist or agnostic. Unaffiliated people may be spiritual, but not religious. These folks believe in God or spirits, but are not members of any specific religious community.

One interesting data point is that there are as many atheists and agnostics as there are adherents of all non-Christian faiths combined. Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists each account for 1% of the population. Hindus came in at 0.5% (Sikhs were not accounted for separately).

This census confirms that this is a big country, where people are free to believe whatever they want. But religion cannot be ignored as a social force. There are regional differences. And religious differences track race, ethnicity, and political party affiliation.

This census implies that change will continue. Young Americans are more diverse than older generations. In the 18-29 age cohort, only 54% are Christian, 36% are unaffiliated, with non-Christians making up the rest.

This suggests an optimistic outlook for the future of religious liberty. Young people are exercising their liberty and creating a future that will contain more religious diversity than their grandparents encountered. Young people will need guidance as they re-weave the religious fabric of the nation. They need education about religious diversity and religious liberty. But the youth can also lead the way by showing the rest of us what freedom looks like.

Satanism and QAnon: Playing the Devil’s Advocate

Do our leaders worship Satan? How would we know? And what would that mean?

Fifteen percent of Americans believe Satan worshipers are in charge.  The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found this in a recent study about the QAnon conspiracy.  This belief is more prevalent among Republicans: 23% of Republicans claim that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global sex trafficking operation.”

I find this hard to believe.  But then again, I find it difficult to believe in Satan at all.  I also think it would be absurd for anyone to worship Satan—both because there is no Satan—and because if he did exist, he would not be worthy of worship. 

The whole thing is a theological, ethical, and sociological mess. 

Perhaps those who say this are actually trolling the researchers.  Do 48 million Americans (that’s 15% of our population), really believe that Satan worshipers are running the country? 

This opens the question of what it means to really believe something.  A related question is about how we could know what anyone really believes.

Let’s begin with the absurdity of Satan.  The most obvious argument against Satan is the existence of a benevolent and all-powerful God.  Satan does appear in the Bible.  God empowers Satan to torment Job, for example.  But would a good God really do this?  Why would a good God create a devil who torments us?

Creative theology attempts to make sense of this and the general “problem of evil.”  One solution is to claim that evil is the absence of good and not the active power of some supernatural being.  Texts that personify evil in Satan must be reinterpreted as allegories or parables.

But lots of Americans appear to have a more literal belief.  The Gallup Poll reports that 61% of Americans believe in the devil.  A survey from the Pew Center found that 58% of Americans believe in Hell.  So maybe it is not surprising, that millions of Americans believe our leaders worship Satan.

Perhaps enlightened theology and secular critiques of religion could help cure QAnon belief.  But some non-religious people (11% according to PRRI) also claim that Satan-worshippers run the country.  A full-fledged atheist who does not think Satan exists could believe, I suppose, that others worship the non-existent devil.  This could be an ad hominem accusation, like making fun of someone by claiming they believe in fairies and leprechauns. 

This leads to questions about the sociology of belief and religious tolerance.  How can we presume to understand what strangers really believe?  Could anyone know that ruling elites worship Satan?  And what would that actually mean?

One rule of thumb is that it is wise to avoiding judging the beliefs of others.  Religious belief is complex, changeable, and internally diverse.  Religious people disagree among themselves.  Many believers are ignorant about or indifferent to the dogmas of their own religion.  We also fail to understand other people’s beliefs.

Satanists even disagree among themselves.  A group calling itself the Satanic Temple advocates empathy, reason, and secular values.  They reject the supernaturalism of another group called the Church of Satan.  The Satanic Temple appears to be Satanism without Satan.

This is probably not what QAnon believers have in mind.  But then again, how do we know what the QAnon-ers really believe about the supposed Satan-worship of ruling elites?  And how would a QAnon-er actually know what the ruling elites really believe?

These vexing questions should encourage us to be cautious and tolerant.  It is difficult for any of us to figure out what we actually believe.  It is presumptuous and rude to claim to know what someone else believes—or to condemn it as evil.  And in the U.S., the First Amendment guarantees our right to believe whatever we want.  Indeed, toleration in the United States appears to extend even to Satan worship.

QAnon will likely fade away as a fever dream of the Trump era.  But the tendency to vilify the beliefs of others will remain.  Part of the cure involves religious liberty and toleration.  Another remedy is to think critically: to play the devil’s advocate in posing critical questions about Satan, God, and what we think we know about religion.