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Galen Guengerich: Even atheists need a religious community

'God Revised' author Galen Guengerich
'God Revised' author Galen Guengerich. Photo courtesy Guengerich.
'God Revised' author Galen Guengerich

‘God Revised’ author Galen Guengerich. Photo courtesy Guengerich.

Can religion evolve in the age of science?

Rev. Galen Guengerich, author of the new book God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age, argues that it must—and that nontheists should embrace it.

The Senior Minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, Guengerich is also a regular columnist for Psychology Today. Below, he tells me why religion must embrace science, why he left conservative Christianity, and why he thinks even the nonreligious need a religious community—a point that many nonreligious nontheists (including me) might take issue with.

Chris Stedman: God Revised rejects scriptural literalism—you write, “As a child of the age of science, I refuse to place blind faith in a scripture that contains obvious scientific and historical errors”—and urges readers toward a spirituality that embraces science and reason. What inspired you to write this book?

Rev. Galen Guengerich: I felt pummeled by the opposing sides in the God wars. One side believes a supernatural God has handed down a divinely-inspired revelation that’s always true for everyone, everywhere. The other side insists that this God does not exist, and therefore all religious activity is superfluous. I became convinced that the problem here was a lack of imagination on both fronts.

In the modern world, science and reason must take precedence when it comes to establishing the facts. But knowing the facts won’t necessarily tell you how to live a life of meaning and purpose in light of what you know. I wanted to speak up for people who are caught in the middle—those of us who believe deeply in science and reason, but who seek a source of meaning and purpose as well.

CS: What do you hope readers take away from God Revised?

GG: I am an ordained minister who has rejected the traditional views of God and religion. But this rejection doesn’t mean we have to make our way through life by ourselves. Everyone wants two things in life: We want to be free, and we want to belong. People today are leaving traditional religious communities in order to be free of beliefs and practices they don’t believe in. But the experience of freedom can be lonely, especially when tough times come. I want people to know about another way to experience belonging, one anchored by a religious community that fully embraces the modern world.

CS: You were once a conservative Christian; what changed?

GG: Three factors forced me to move. The first is deeply personal. My niece Krista was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age three. Eight years and five brain surgeries later, she died at age eleven, by then mostly blind and immobile. Theologians call this the theodicy problem: how can a good and just God permit the innocent to suffer?  I believe in the experience of God, but not a magical one that’s all-knowing and all-powerful.

Second, I came to understand that the natural world operates according to laws that are knowable, reliable, and predictable. The idea of a supernatural God who can step into the natural order and change the rules is an archaic remnant of a bygone era.

And third, the more I learned about religions and how they developed and changed over time, the more I became convinced that religion is a human construct in response to our experience of the divine, not a divine construct in response to the existence of humanity.

CS: You write: “If I were to distill everything I know about religion and faith into a single dictum, it would be this: find your place in a religious community.” What do you make of the quickly growing number of American Millennials disaffiliating from religion—most saying they’re not looking for a religious community or house of worship?

GG: We experience seasons of the soul as we move through life. Sometime we feel hemmed in or held down, and we want our freedom. At other times, we feel the crush of disappointment or the burden of loss, and we want to feel like we’re not alone. My own view is that some of the received wisdom about the Millennials–their wariness of institutions, for example, especially religious ones—will turn out, over time, not to be wholly true. I’m seeing this trend in my own congregation in progressive New York City. When it’s time to raise children, or bury parents, or deal with a serious illness, it helps to be part of a community of people who care deeply and can help grapple with ultimate questions. And there are numerous published studies showing that people who participate in a religious community are generally happier and healthier than those who don’t, and they live longer.

CS: Do you think people can find this kind of community in a nonreligious context, such as in a secular Humanist community?

GG: No, I think religious communities are different than other types of communities. We can certainly feel a sense of belonging as part of a family, or an advocacy group, or a political party, or a soccer team, or a book club. At some point, however, we may begin to wonder how we belong on a larger scale. We begin to ask big questions about the meaning of life, even ultimate questions about existence itself. We wonder about belonging not just to a family, or community, or even a nation, but to everything.

The experience of ultimate belonging—the experience of transcendence—lies at the heart of the spiritual quest and the religious journey. What is the experience of ultimate belonging? I describe it as the experience of God: an experience that intimately and extensively connects us to everything—all that is present in our lives and our world, as well as all that is past and all that is possible. My own sense is that even avowed atheists can believe in such an experience.


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  • I agree with the analysis of community and the specific benefits of a religious community, but the statement about “I believe in the experience of God …” is confusing. He left Christianity behind and seemingly any organized religion, presumably including any sacred texts. My conclusion at this point is that Geungerigh and anyone else is now totally free to make any interpretation of a god, deity, spiritual force without any support, history, accountability or structure. So this god can be anything you want, but how will that help form a community of support, encouragement, etc. that has strong bonds? You seem more united over what you are against rather than what you are for. No matter all the (answerable) issues in Christianity over events and interpretations, at least there is a history, real people, and sacred texts around which to rally. Sorry, I just am not understanding the quest for spiritual transcendence/religious journey when that which you are seeking is undefined. So we are spiritual beings, but putting more definition on that is resisted. Go figure…

    E – EMPTY
    N – NARROW

    There is no room for Religion in a decent, modern civilization.
    Nor is there any use for it.

    “Execute them in front of me” – Jesus
    “I have come to burn the world” – Jesus
    “drown him with a millstone” – Jesus
    “If they are unworthy remove your blessings of peace” – Jesus
    “slay them where you find them.” – Allah

    How can such inane nonsense be applied
    to any good purpose in a modern world?

    Religion is shameful and despicable.

  • So for this guy a “sense of belonging” equals religion…therefore a religious journey.

    To obtain this sense of belonging, it implies a community of similar believers exists to reciprocate the individual. Which is odd because I thought a religious person could experience a practice a relationship with god individually if necessary. As in times of persecution.

    Oh well. Another thing I don’t understand I guess. I wonder how a religious community should encourage its own existence with a government like ours….and friends like athiest max? Seems they are prettt adament about telling us how bad religion is for us as long as its christian.

  • Question: why should you be listened too? As I evaluate your message, which is redundant mostly, against the idea that you might be absolutely correct.

    Implying you are one of billions of human animals who all have only this moment to live. As your audience, the cost of listening is high as my main asset, time, always grows short and you are again, redundant.

    Further, unless you demarcate yourself with some brilliant insight that seperates you in the minds for the other human animals, you too will be forgotten and the time I spent as your audience would yield me little benefit.

    So my costs of listening are high, and statistically the chances if you being both repetative with the message and a legend among humans is small.

    But I am glad you mixed it up this time with the cheerleader-ish acronym. I could imagine it painted across a huge sheet of paper with slut cheerleaders and marilyn manson holding it on each side as football players in all black burst through. Fireworks going off in the background, etc.

  • Nature can be defined as all that exists and all that occurs naturally. Humans are part of nature so of course we belong to everything, without the need for religion or for a concept of a human-like persona that controls nature for our benefit.

    We have a need for community but it would be better founded upon human compassion and curiosity than on the scam of religion. I think the author too readily discards the idea that Humanists can commune with nature and particularly each other in ways.that satisfy human needs.What Humanism currently lacks is the numbers of people that would make it a widespread solution to human community needs, but that will develop.

  • @Lles Nats the Clueless,

    1. Who was talking to you?

    2. You support Al Queda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Zionism, terrorism, suicide bombers and countless other evils and you wonder why I question this despicable thing called ‘faith’. Their argument for their faith is exactly the same as yours. “Ya just gotta believe.” BS!

    3. Unfortunately, you religious people won’t leave us alone – I really wish you would. Not a day goes by without the dangers you promote:

    Religion WORKS AGAINST:
    All Science, Reason, free inquiry, evolution, women’s rights, gay rights, Church State separation, establishment clause of the US Constitution, Socratic method, contraception and sexual health, mental health, intellectual freedom, International Peace, Middle East diplomacy

    Religion PROMOTES:
    Bigotry, Misogyny, Surrender to Eschatological Armageddon, Gullibility, Theocracies, Ignorance of Scientific and Medical methods, Intellectual repression, superstition, Faith Healers and other Con men, Surrender to unaccountable authority, pseudo-science, para-psychology, sexual repression, genital mutilation, Israeli settlements, Islamic hegemony, honor killings, faith-based suicide bombings, holy war, holy terror, etc…

    Religion sanctifies evil by forgiving it – over and over again.

    There it is.
    You demonstrate exactly what I mean by the pitiful disgrace and immorality of religion – the blatant, fascist nonsense against women and sex such as shown in the HOBBY LOBBY CASE.
    This is EXACTLY why I fight your delusional, disgusting philosophy.
    Immoral to the core.

    Religion is a cancer on civilization. Thanks for demonstrating how serious and how important it is that it be abandoned while we are still free to do so!

  • “…But that will develop,” a poster says.

    But Humanism has been around for decades. Ain’t happened.

    Atheism and Humanism offer nothing, and most folks want something.

  • Humanism is no “flash in the pan”, it takes a long time for any ism with staying power to become widely accepted. Christianity took a long time and even had to resort to forced conversions.

  • “Doctors Without Borders” is one of the thousands of examples of humanism sweeping the globe and doing great things without religion.

    Religion is proving very easy to dispel since the internet
    has de-authorized and de-centralized the libraries of knowledge.

    God is nonsense – but people are real.
    Humanism is superior. There is no debate.

  • Dear Max

    I think I have mentioned this before, so please forgive me for repeating myself.

    When you get a chance, visit some Unitarian Universalist communities – they really are different. If you are too busy for that see their online magazine, UU World.

    best wishes

    ps you might also want to check out Julian Baggini as an example of an atheist who is popular yet non-hostile to his neighbors

  • Doc,
    Humanism has been around for a while, however, many were not aware of it until the internet, giving everyone information. The internet is one of the main reasons religion is suffering. Access to information regarding genetics, biology, religions, etc. makes it difficult for more and more people to believe the silliness of literal interpretation of ancient religious texts. Religions are no longer able to hide their bigotry, child predators, incomes, etc. An educated, informed person cannot be pacified with trite phrases and excuses from their religious leaders.
    People may WANT to believe someone is watching over them and that they will see their granny again when they die. But wanting something doesn’t make it exist. Children WANT Santa to exist, however, they get to an age where the facts will no longer permit their belief. Young people are now being raised in an era of information thus are not threatened by scientific facts.
    You say that atheism and humanism offer nothing. That is absurd. You may be able to believe something because it makes you feel better and it offers comfort. Many people cannot disregard reality and do not find it threatening. Knowing this existence is finite makes us value it all the more. We cherish and find comfort in each other and value all life forms. It is so much more fulfilling than gathering to worship a mythological being.

  • @Dudley Jones,

    Thanks for the invitation. Yes, you’ve invited me before; very kind of you.

    But I see evidence that all religion is a disease on humanity.
    The Universalists do not see it that way, they welcome almost all ‘faiths’.

    Faith is the disease. It is not a valid method of learning or knowing and it should not be respected at all. Though the people who have faith must be allowed to have that faith – I must also be allowed to laugh at it, ridicule it and do all I can to rid the world of this evil.

    Faith is a decision to believe something without evidence. Mohammed Atta and the 18 hijackers had ‘faith’ when they destroyed 3000 people on 9/11.

    Faith is the decision to obey something based on a claim from an unaccountable authority rather than from following your own thinking.

    Faith is the problem not just the lack of a God.
    Until such time as a god is proven to me, religion and faith in particular must be abandoned.

    I am anti-theist. Not Unitarian. All religion is a threat to humanity – albeit I am not against the right to practice it in peace and without challenging American laws.

    I would rather allow your parishioners their Constitutional right to practice their religion without a person like me in their midst.

    I hate all faith. It is too stupid.

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