Secular Bible Study / Circle of Reason

Secular Bible Study / Circle of Reason

“Religious pluralism is meaningless” without atheists, contests Dr. Frank Burton, Executive Director of The CircleIn some Pagan traditions, a “circle” refers to the people who gather for a ritual. When standing in a circle, all the participants are able to see each other, with no one member elevated over any other. This practice is often felt to encourage egalita... of Reason and a local organizer of the First Minneapolis Circle of Reason and Secular BibleThe Greek term biblia means the “books.” Bible is used in both the Jewish and Christian traditions to refer to the book which gathers together their sacred writings. The Hebrew Bible includes the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings—a collection re... Study. Burton founded the Circle of Reason, an international community for “pluralistic rationalismRationalism is a philosophical tradition that understands reason to be the foundation for all knowledge. Empiricism, or the idea that all knowledge comes from sense experience, is key to rationalism.,” on January 1, 2000, with the intention of harnessing a small piece of the simultaneous worldwide celebration and introspection that ushered in the new millennium. In doing so, Burton sought to create a space for “reasoning dialogue,” where theists and non-theists could come together and have respectful, rational, and meaningful conversations about their worldviews. Burton broadens the idea of “interfaith dialogue” by referring to this kind of intentional engagement as “transbelief dialogue,” an approach that attempts to builds bridges between theist and non-theist as well as different religious communities. Burton contends that, “atheists can help…bring out the assumptions that theists share…If all the theists are trying to figure out how to get along with the atheists, then they’ll figure out how to get along with each other a little bit better.”

The Circle of Reason, like the Secular Bible Study it sponsors, is an all-volunteer organization that draws a diverse crowd. Burton describes the Circle of Reason’s regular meetups as gatherings of “fundamentalists, liberal religious members, non-Christian religious members, spiritual people who don’t define themselves as religious, agnosticsA person who believes that it is impossible to know whether or not a god exists. One can be an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist and the term is often seen to be seen as a kind of “middle ground between theism and atheism., atheists, and people who just define themselves as rationalists.” Meetups, which are announced through a subscription-driven website, are organized by group members and discussions can range from the Bible, ChristianityChristianity is the religious tradition of Christians: those who confesses faith in Jesus Christ, follow the path Christ taught, and gather together in the community of the church. (the focus of the Secular Bible Study), or religion, philosophy, or politics more generally.

The Secular Bible Study began as a joint effort between Minnesota Atheists and TrinityThe Trinity is the Christian doctrine of the three natures of the One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The language of the Trinity bespeaks the complexity of God, who can be spoken of as the transcendent creator, the one who accompanies humanity as the ... United MethodistThe Methodist church is a Protestant communion of churches which began in England with John Wesley (1703-91) and has become a worldwide movement. In the U.S., the United Methodist Church—one of the largest Protestant denominations—is known for its str... ChurchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ..., and today is offered jointly with the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis. Participants examine the secular impact of the Bible and Christianity through a series of expert presentations and discussions.  Examples of past talks include “From Parchment to Barnes and Noble: History of Biblical Translation” and a presentation on creationism and quantum mechanics.  When weather permits, Circle of Reason meetups take place outdoors, with members enjoying a nature walk while they discuss various issues— “following the footsteps,” according to Dr. Burton, “of the Greek Peripatetics.” The First Minneapolis Circle of Reason and the Secular Bible Study adopt a consensus-based approach to leadership: “If the atheists don’t like it, it doesn’t get done, if the Christians don’t like it, it doesn’t get done—but if they can all agree on doing something then they’ll all do it together.”

Burton says that the essential goal of The Minnesota Circle of Reason and the Secular Bible study is to cultivate an attitude that can “see and explore the assumptions that underlie one’s own belief and the belief of the other individual.”  He would like to see the individuals who attend Circle of Reason or Secular Bible Study meetings to view their participation as a form of “charitable outreach,” namely, that “the Christians in Secular Bible Study are not coming here to convert the atheists.  The atheists in Secular Bible Study are not coming here to ‘de-program’ the Christians.  Instead…all come here simply to engage in reasoning dialogue and then use it as an opportunity to build bridges across what would normally be a very large chasm of differential belief.”  The basic principle at work is simply that promoting understanding, trying to engage in “reasoning, trans-cultural, trans-belief dialogue,” is more effective than simply countering the opinions of the other.

Bringing together people who are devoutly religious and committed atheists is not without its challenges.  It can be difficult to engage individuals with often wildly different understandings of the Bible and its legacy.  Despite this, Dr. Burton notes that while “we do get people espousing their belief[s], it tends to go over okay, because what we’re trying to do in this group is make sure that everybody understands where everybody else is coming from.”  The goals and methodology of The Circle of Reason and Secular Bible Study work closely together: to understand, rather than disprove or debate, the beliefs of those with whom you may not agree. This can be reached through the focus on reason, rationality, and a sense of respect that characterize discussion in these organizations.   

The connotation of “interfaith” is one that, in Dr. Burton’s view, urgently needs to be broadened: everyone on the vast spectrum of belief and non-beliefMultivalent terms that often are used to describe people (or their worldview) who reject the practices, dogma, and creeds of established religious traditions. Some people, on the other hand, may identify as Humanist and also consider this either a belief ... should be included in the conversations that affect how they relate to one another.  Secular, humanist, and otherwise non-theist individuals and groups “can have good insights into disagreements between Muslim, Christian, and Jewish groups,” among others.  The Circle of Reason and Secular Bible Study are insistently all-inclusive: “think of it as food for the mind,” Burton says, “that we’re giving out free, to all those folks who might want to understand your viewpoints, and the assumptions that underlie your faith.”