Here are excerpts from the Introduction of Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics. When material has been omitted I have indicated the missing text with ellipses: … I have also omitted some footnotes.
Introduction: Building Walls or Building Bridges?
Religion is remarkably effective in bringing people together, but it can be just as powerful in pushing them apart. Consider the frustration and bewilderment expressed in these two conversations:
“I’m sorry Kristen. I know you have to practically drag me out the door to get me to church, but I feel like a hypocrite sitting there listening to the sermon when religion doesn’t make sense to me.”
“Frank, I’m amazed to hear you say that. We spent months looking for a church that wouldn’t push a lot of dogma at us. This congregation seems so open-minded.”
“You’re right. But these days I don’t think I even believe in God.”
“I am so sick of you saying she’s just going through a phase! Every time she comes home from college she has to talk about why she’s become an atheist. This time she gave us a book about ‘atheist spirituality.’ She won’t listen to me, but you’re her sister. Can’t you talk some sense into her?”
“Dad, you know I’ve tried. As long as she doesn’t try to convert us to her way of thinking I want to let her alone.”
In my work as a minister and psychotherapist, I have heard so many people say they hate to discuss religion with family and friends. The conflict between theism and atheism can be particularly hurtful. But as Francis David said hundreds of years ago, “We need not think alike to love alike.”
In writing this book about belief and disbelief, I have had several groups of readers in mind. See if you identify with any of the following statements:
❁ You believe in God, and you want to communicate with people who doubt that God exists.
❁ You don’t believe in God, but some of those you care about are committed theists.
❁ Friends and family members clash about religion. You wish you could help them reconcile.
❁ You are in a love relationship with someone who disagrees with you about theology.
❁ You aren’t sure what you believe, and you want to reflect about whether there is a God and what God is like.
If you identify with any of these ideas, I hope you will read further. I wrote this book for people like you.
The clash between theism and atheism can also be an internal conflict, when one person has mixed feelings about belief. Many people are confused or ambivalent about God. They can learn to communicate more effectively with themselves, moving toward clarity by resolving inner contradictions.
But there is another reason for picking up this book, a reason that is much broader than “theism versus atheism.”
❁ You want to have candid and yet respectful conversations with those whose opinions are different from yours – opinions about religion, politics, morality, and other emotionally loaded subjects.
Many of the ideas in Bridging the God Gap may be applied to any controversial topic, including partisan politics, gay marriage, sexual ethics, abortion, global warming, and coping with terrorism.
In dealing with such matters we can learn to discuss our disagreements more skillfully. We may also discover that we don’t disagree as much as we thought. This book emphasizes both approaches. Theological differences are often less dramatic than they seem, and our real disagreements need not divide us. So in addition to working on person-to-person communication, we will consider why people think God does or does not exist, what God may be like, and how theism and atheism affect our happiness and well-being.
Bridging the God Gap challenges people to be respectful and open-hearted toward those whose opinions are “incorrect.” If you choose to continue, I salute you. Many people will shut this book when they realize it might lead them to become more accepting of those whose views they reject.
From time to time you may find yourself hesitating to read any further. In preparing this manuscript I found myself thinking, “Theists won’t like that sentence. Atheists will bristle at that remark.” But remember, other readers who sharply disagree with your beliefs will be having the same sort of struggle. At least you will have that much in common!
As we will see in Chapter One, arguments about God have intensified in the media recently. Many of us are weary of inflammatory accusations and shrill self-righteousness. Even so, by proposing a cease-fire I know I am inviting attacks from all directions. Stepping into this controversy feels risky, but several life-changing personal experiences have led me to take on this task.
Why I Wrote This Book
I have been interested in religion for almost as long as I can remember. My devout Christian mother encouraged my interest by giving me a five-volume set of Bible stories. Before Mom bought those Bible books, however, I had been reading about biology, zoology, and astronomy. So my impressionable young mind was shaped by two grand visions of reality, the scientific description of the cosmos and the Biblical drama of God and humanity – creation, fall, and redemption. I knew there were inconsistencies between these accounts, but I have always assumed that religion and research data are compatible.
My main vocation has been the Unitarian Universalist ministry. Unitarian Universalism is an unusual religion, partly because it has no fixed theological doctrine. UUs focus on a set of values rather than on a set of beliefs about “how it all is.” Unitarian churches welcome a remarkable assortment of viewpoints, from traditional Christians to lifelong atheists. I have needed to address a wide range of belief systems in my sermons and classes, and I have seen that sincere seekers hold many views about deity.
(Even though I am a Unitarian Universalist, this book is not a work of evangelism, and I will seldom refer to my own denomination.)
In addition to ministry, I was a psychotherapist for twenty years. As a therapist I practiced the discipline of trying to understand and appreciate the perspectives of my clients, including their spiritual orientations.
My thoughts about God were also shaped by a difficult life-crisis which turned out to be a splendid opportunity. In my early twenties, I had the remarkable experience of being able to identify with both theism and atheism at the same time. I had grown up with a sense of continuous daily communion with God. In college, however, I began to wonder whether there was anyone present but myself, as I silently sat praying in the University Chapel. As a result, I began to incline toward atheism.
For a while I was so evenly balanced between belief and unbelief that I could see either one with equal clarity. It was as if I were perched high on a mountaintop. If I sat facing east I saw one valley, if I turned west I saw the other, and both were equally visible. I could even switch back and forth on purpose. During this time I realized that we can understand ourselves and our world through either theism or atheism. And yet for obvious practical reasons we typically build our personal model of reality on one side of the mountain or the other. People believe or disbelieve in God because that is the only side of the question they can see.
Because of an unusual combination of factors, then, I now think of belief and disbelief as complementary rather than as polar opposites. I do not see any one perspective as having a monopoly on truth, and I find flaws in both theistic and atheistic writings. I have my own views, of course, and I don’t claim to be objective. I have done my best to correct for personal biases, and I have flagged sections in which I notice these biases intruding into the text. Nevertheless, I encourage you to read this book reflectively and even critically. Don’t just swallow an idea because I express it with great confidence. And if you are committed to some particular religion, please bring your enthusiasm about this faith to Bridging the God Gap. When something I have written doesn’t seem right to you, remember this principle of the Twelve-Step recovery movement – “take what works, and leave the rest.”
In Chapter One I will sketch the current controversy between theism and atheism. Going beyond this conflict requires understanding other viewpoints, so Chapters Two and Three include suggestions about dealing with our own biases. Chapter Four lists strategies for communicating about religion. To focus on human kinship, I will talk about what we all have in common in Chapter Five. Chapters Six and Seven show why the beliefs of theists and atheists are often more similar than they seem. These two chapters form the heart of this book, but they cannot be adequately understood without the material that leads up to them. Chapters Eight through Twelve address specific issues that divide believers and non-believers. Then in Chapter Thirteen we will consider disagreements among various forms of theism and various forms of atheism. For example, liberal Christians and fundamentalists argue about how to interpret the Bible. We also find clashes between anti-religious atheists and “spiritual atheists.” Chapter Fourteen will synthesize the book’s ideas, revealing a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Many of my examples relate to Christian concepts of God, since I am familiar with Christianity. Even so, the book’s ideas generally apply to other traditions as well. …
Any book’s benefits will be multiplied if we actively apply its principles. … I will suggest a wide variety of exercises and techniques … To me it would be quite unsatisfying to deal with theology without engaging in personal exploration, and yet I realize that not everyone feels this way. I therefore want to emphasize that all exercises and techniques are optional. Try out some of them, all of them, or none of them, as you prefer. It’s completely up to you.
Start Where You Are
Before reading further, I invite you to focus for a few minutes on your own attitudes about God. One way to do that is to make what I call a radial outline. To make such an outline, start by writing the name of a topic in the middle of a page. Then list several aspects of this topic, “radiating” from the center like spokes of a wheel. …
For your first radial outline, begin by writing the word “God” in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Think of different aspects of your opinions about God. These might include whether God exists, what God is like, what has led you to believe or disbelieve, arguments in favor of your position, advantages and disadvantages of believing as you do, as well as doubts and confusions. One of the spokes might represent past beliefs. Arrange these in a circle, all around the page, linking them to the central topic with solid lines. …
Whatever you write today serves as a partial snapshot of your current beliefs, and you can save it for future reference. If you read this book with an open mind, your radial God-sketch may change by the time you’re through. If it does, give yourself credit for having the courage to grow and change. If not, I leave it to you to decide whether you have shown closed-minded resistance or praiseworthy consistency. Most of us have at least a little of both!
Let’s begin laying the groundwork for communication and reconciliation by considering the current controversy between belief and unbelief. [End of Introduction]
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