In Theory: Can believers and nonbelievers find common ground?

Can believers and nonbelievers connect? Is there a common ground they can agree on?

Writing in the New York Times, T. M. Luhrmann thinks there may be, but admits it's going to be difficult. The author of "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God," about how evangelicals develop the skills to speak to God and how it can change their minds, says that there's a line in the sand between those with faith and those without, a line that cannot be crossed because of the fundamental differences in beliefs and outlook. She tells of being at a dinner party and telling a friend about her work with evangelicals. Her friend's response was, "You talk to those people?" Luhrmann says this "in-your-face" attitude is rooted in an anthropological phenomenon called "schismogenesis," where a move by one side makes the other side dig its heels in further, and vice-versa. Evangelicals believe those without religion are dangerous to their beliefs and rights, and those without religion believe evangelicals are dangerous to their beliefs and rights. "Perhaps there is hope," Luhrmann says, "... [issues such as] same-sex marriage and abortion should not be approached by drawing a line in the sand and demonizing everyone on the other side." She says a conversation is needed to at least keep moving forward and not end up with separate camps that are permanently in conflict.

Q: What do you think?

I begin by protesting the division of humanity into "believers and non-believers." There's neither such as a thing as one who always believes everything nor one who never believes anything.

Everyone believes in something, at least some of the time — if not in God, then in some other form of transcendent truth or ultimacy; in love, or art, or justice, or patriotism or the goodness of humanity. Everyone believes in something.

And no one believes in it perfectly. The staunchest of believers in any principle or religion is subject to doubts and crises and tenets called into question, and to just plain changing their mind. Belief is a dynamic, elusive, maddening wisp of a thing, which loves nothing better than to slip like quicksilver out of our grasp and pop up someplace new.

I'll also protest, as ever, the equation of all religious people with evangelicals and fundamentalists. There are plenty of religious people who have brains as well as souls who are not threatened by differences in perspective, and even seek them out — you know, like smart people do, who enjoy lively conversation. There are plenty of us quite capable of making our way through a dinner party without bludgeoning the other guests with our religion.

Protests dispensed with, I'll end with a simple guideline for civil conversation. Don't hate me because I learned it in seminary. But I went to an ecumenical seminary where even we believers didn't see eye to eye — sometimes on anything. We quickly learned that the way we could still love each other was this:

Ask: What do you believe? And then, instead of asking why or how they believe it, say: Tell me what's beautiful about that to you.

It works. You might never agree with someone's truth agenda, but you can almost always see the beauty they see, and see how their eyes and face soften when they describe it. You don't have to agree, or even find it beautiful yourself; you just have to see that it's beautiful for them.

Problem solved. Humanity saved. Next question?

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George's Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge


Here is Luhrmann's account in her column of being grilled by a Christian radio talk show host: "The more he put me on the spot, the more I wanted to say that I shared nothing with him and that his beliefs were flimsy dreams. And the more I resisted, the more he just got mad. He was determined. I was exhausted."

Sounds like some conversations when my siblings and I get together, with our spouses trying to stay out of the crossfire. We aren't the only family with a diverse mix of believers and nonbelievers. So yes, there can be connection across differences and finding common ground is good, in families and in society.

Luhrmann seems to be more worried about conflicts over religion in a political context, and she mentions in particular the last few election cycles. My preferred solution is not more discussion but rather to lessen the emphasis on religion in our political discourse. This is not to say of course that citizens won't continue to live their individual beliefs in their public participation.

Before the rise of fundamentalist, right-wing Christianity (not to be confused with evangelicalism) as a political force, religion in the U.S. was more of a personal, private experience, shared within families (or not) and in congregations. This was certainly true in my neck of the woods when I grew up in a religion many moons ago.

Luhrmann says "we're in real trouble" if we can't move forward in a dialogue between believers and unbelievers. I think avoiding trouble needn't involve the supernatural. Our pressing problems need rational solutions in the real world. To move forward we need to overcome schismogenesis and other dysfunctions in our government, where church and state are constitutionally separated.

Roberta Medford


My answer to the question of whether believers and non-believers can connect is "Yes." The reason I say that is because I have seen it happen many times — most recently in the congregation that I serve in La Crescenta, where we have an incredible diversity of beliefs.

But without a sense that all people have inherent dignity and value, a discussion about religious issues can simply degenerate into personal attack rather than legitimate dialogue. I am reminded of a quote by Robin Williams, who said: "I'm sorry. If you were right, I'd agree with you." With that kind of attitude, it's difficult for meaningful interaction to take place. That is not to say that two opposing people or groups will reach complete agreement. But they can each come to a respectful understanding of where the other is coming from and provide the opportunity for further learning and growth.

The second problem with the idea of connection across lines of belief and unbelief is that such a description creates a false dichotomy. Belief and nonbelief are not opposite poles of a straight line, but comprise incredible diversity along a spectrum. Most people, even those from the same religious tradition, have a variety of spiritual and religious beliefs within their groups. But if we were able to have an open and respectful dialogue, we might well find that we have more similarities than differences, unless we are totally unwilling to admit any belief other than our own.

Unfortunately, what some have called "schismogenesis" keeps us from having those conversations and encourages many, particularly our young people, to walk away from religion in favor of an unfettered spirituality that constructs bridges. I hope we can do more of that within and among our religious communities and with those beyond our artificial boundaries.

Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta


Believers and non-believers can by all means make meaningful personal connections by virtue of what we have in common. We are all created in the image of God. We have common basic physical and emotional needs. We all experience similar joys and trials in life. I enjoy connecting with non-believers by simply asking about their lives and listening to them. The basic similarities always surface and they foster an authentic human connection.

God commands believers to make connection with unbelievers by helping them with practical acts of love. "While we have opportunity, let us do good to all men...." says Galatians 6:10. He commands us to proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ to them. This proclamation stands best on a foundation of proven integrity and concern for others that is developed by personal relationship.

The degree of this connection is limited, though. "Do not be bound together with unbelievers," says Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:14, "for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?" Believers can and should relate to unbelievers' situations, but we must never emulate their lifestyles of separation from God. Believers are in this world that is beset by spiritual darkness; but by nature, we are not of it. "They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" said Jesus in John 17:16. Jesus told his followers: "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men" (Matthew 5:13).

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church


Are there things that you believe are morally good or perhaps just supremely immoral? If so, by what authority do you hold such opinions? If it's by what seems personally sensible, or what stirs you emotionally, then your opinions are like all subjective opinions and have no authoritative moral weight. Who's to say, for example, that child molestation is bad or good? You say "bad," some pedophile says "good." Both cannot be correct, and the answer to this would be crucial, right?

If people simply go with majority rule or the fiat decisions of politicians, child-protection laws might get established, or we could get another Holocaust. Presently, America leads in a modern Holocaust via the abortion industry, which may not regard gestating human children as rats, but still as inhuman — "not even alive," some argue. Who'll object when society demands murder as legal right? Evangelicals, and not because of limp-wristed, personal, yucky feelings about it, but because God has spoken clearly regarding the value of human life and the curse of taking it from the innocent. We cannot recoil from issues to which God has spoken, even if society doesn't share his opinion. His alone matters, so evangelicals form ours from his all-knowing opinion, i.e., the Bible, rendering ours forever different from unbelievers and scripture negators.

Evangelicals believe Jesus Christ, the author of the "evangel" (i.e., "good news) for which we are named. We don't force him upon others, but we forcefully stand for him when unbelievers try to crucify him afresh, and we actively evangelize for the necessary salvation he established. So let's respectfully converse at social gatherings, regardless of whether we respect one another's origin of opinions. We're together in this same game of life, and without demonizing, must truthfully acknowledge we're on opposite teams.

"Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10).

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


As a Christian, my role model for relating with others is Jesus Christ. I notice that he never became strident or argumentative with the unbelievers of his day. He often socially associated with them, and never turned them away when they came to him for healing. He didn't see them as targets for questions about spiritual beliefs. I've never found an instance where Jesus confronted someone by asking, "If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?"

Instead he offered them words of encouragement and reassurance that God was interested in them and loved them. He did reserve harsh words for the ultra-religious leaders who saw themselves as morally superior to the unbelieving sinners that Jesus befriended.

I believe that we can communicate and be friends with persons who do not share our faith. While there may be some issues upon which we will never reach agreement, we can agree to disagree without being disrespectful or becoming hostile. It's important to keep communicating and listen to the meaning the other person is trying to convey.

While being respectful of differences, we can also mutually seek areas of agreement where we can work together. For example, I sincerely believe that life begins at conception. While I may never be able to agree on the issue of abortion with someone who is pro-choice, we may still be able to collaborate in providing counseling and assistance to women who are in the process of making their own decisions about abortion.

I have never met an unbeliever with whom I had nothing in common, and conversely I've never met a believer with whom I had perfect agreement. I think openness and respect for every person is not only desirable, but is my freely chosen response to Christ's directive, "Love one another."

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church


I strongly believe that people of all faiths — and no faith — can and must find common ground. To be sure, the various camps with which each of us identify will never come to agree on all points of contention. However, for the good of humanity, we need to respectfully agree to disagree on the few issues in dispute so that we can focus on the many over-arching, critical challenges that all of us must address together.

The issues that immediately come to mind concern human suffering such as hunger, abuse, neglect, and bigotry. These persistent problems are equal-opportunity offenders that can affect anyone, regardless of their beliefs.

We should be able join hands and support any effort to alleviate food shortages and ensure that no child ever goes to sleep hungry. The fact that this problem still exists should be a source of shame.

We need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and protect the vulnerable among us so that they are not subject to abuse — physical, mental, or otherwise.

Together we should support groups that fight child abuse, elder abuse and the mistreatment of women.

Then there are so many people with special needs — both children and adults — who are utterly neglected and often don't have a single person in this world whom they can call a friend. Can't we commit to reaching out to at least one special soul and infinitely improve their lives in the process?

And finally, there is bigotry. So much of the suffering that humanity has endured can be traced directly back to this vile trait. Every single one of us, irrespective of who we are, what we do or where we live, has a moral obligation to do everything in our power to obliterate this abomination from our midst.

All of these are issues that people of good conscience can see eye-to-eye on. Subject like these offer common ground, and should be the driving force of the conversation.

Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center


Luhrmann is certainly correct that there is a great deal of polarization in American society today. I hope that she is also correct about ways that skeptics and believers can connect. We see around us and in the media signs of the schismogenesis she describes.

Luhrmann makes the point that most people are in the vast, noncombatant group that is not at the extremes. They are likely the best hope for us all. Most people in the U.S. have some type of faith but do not reject people without faith. Most people have concerns with the decisions others make, but are unlikely to impose their own moral views on those other people. Most people live with strong ideas and loyalties while at the same time having unresolved doubts, anxieties and yearnings. We can count on most of our fellow citizens to put reasonableness and neighborliness first and differences of belief second.

We still need to work with the small number of people who put division first. We need to make decisions about our shared roads, our shared schools and our shared taxes. Perhaps we need to talk to people who disagree with us about our shared decisions with a spirit of shared responsibility and a willingness to listen. Everyone will never agree about everything, but everyone should be willing to talk.

Steven Gibson


It's always good to keep the conversation going, even if finding some sort of middle ground seems hopeless. That's why diplomacy and more diplomacy and even more diplomacy should be engaged in, rather than war. For example, the little pipsqueak who runs North Korea is certainly an irritating presence, but is eliminating him worth your son/daughter or your grandson/granddaughter? Probably not. So we need to try to keep that conversation going.

As far as the conversation between believers and non-believers is concerned, I find that I have always had close friends on the other side, in both politics and religion. I don't find it hard to have a relationship with those with whom I disagree. One of the tenets of my faith is that everyone is a child of God, even if he/she is not of my religion. I think Jesus was on to something when he said to love your enemies and to pray for those who persecute you. That sly dog! He realized that once you pray for an enemy, he's really no longer your enemy. From Native American wisdom is the advice to walk a mile in somebody else's moccasins before you judge him/her. That's good advice.

A 20th-century theologian wrote a book called, "Jesus, the Man for Others." If we all could put ourselves in the other person's shoes instead of demonizing that person or persons, if we could all realize that the person on the other side has legitimate concerns and isn't simply trying to be disagreeable, then the world might not be such a "them" versus "us" place to live. Worth a try, don't you think?

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge


Jesus told stories where the protagonist was a nonbeliever. While the Samaritan woman at the well had a dim hope of some future Messiah, she had no belief that her deliverer, the Messiah, was now in her midst, else why would she go off in John 4:29 marveling that Jesus had told her everything that she had ever done?

Perhaps the most famous confrontation between Jesus and a nonbeliever came in Luke 10, when an expert in the law questioned the teacher: "Just who is my neighbor?" Jesus, in telling the marvelous parable of the Good Samaritan, pointed out that everybody believes in something. The expert put his belief in principles; Jesus' focus was on grace.

Believers and nonbelievers can connect as they respectfully encounter each other. Neither the great 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms nor the great 20th-century mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne profess any allegiance to any higher power, but Horne was a noted interpreter of the Verdi Requiem and the Mahler 2nd (The Resurrection Symphony, which states I am from God and shall return to God), and Brahms composed his own requiem at the death of his mother. In both instances music of faith, reaching for something higher, comforts and transports admitted non-believers.

Perhaps believers and nonbelievers can come together most fully if the issue is not one side trying to convert the other, but rather if both sides are working together to correct some ethical issue. Is that not a belief in the greatest good for the most people? The eradication of poverty could certainly bring believers and nonbelievers together. Equal rights for women, humane treatment of prisoners, and respect for those who seek same-sex marriages with all of the rights and privileges of heterosexual couples are other areas where believers and non-believers can work together to great effect.

The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel


The first step toward common ground is recognizing how many types of religious people there are in our country. I fear that nonbelievers read of experiences like that of Luhrmann and make unwarranted extrapolations about the whole of Christendom. Many of us have followed Jesus into the messiness of shared humanity and are not in any way camped out on the edges, with forts erected and lines drawn.

We work hard there on the common ground for justice and human rights, for the dignity of all people, for peace. But it's also kind of a party, where you can strike up a conversation with anyone and enjoy the journey of finding connection and commonality.

We agree that the party has thinned out a little of late, as more folks dig in their heels out of conviction or fear or shallow assumptions about who thinks what and why. Also the conversation has gotten a little boring, with some people just parroting what they heard on TV instead of getting original and creative.

The kingdom of heaven is a like a little idea that becomes a big solution. The kingdom of heaven is like a party where someone puts on a good song and soon everyone is laughing and dancing to it. The kingdom of heaven is like a fountain of champagne that never runs out. The kingdom of heaven is like a city where the gates are open because there is nothing to guard and everything to share.

The Rev. Paige Eaves
Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church

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