Different themes have come to dominate this blog at different times as my mind both meanders and evolves. This year one of my primary preoccupations has been working out why I reject the option of liberal theism and making strongly worded appeals to such theists to reconsider their positions. And for all the posts I’ve put out already on this topic, several more remain partially drafted and unpublished. Through writing these posts and engaging with some liberal theists throughout the year, a few points in particular have crystallized.
The first of my core frustrations with liberal theists is that they quite often pat atheists on the head as though we have no idea that you can be religious without being a fundamentalist, whereas if only we understood that, we’d totally be on board with their whole faith (or with some faith). In so many words, they basically say to us, “No, you don’t understand! We can save God!! There’s no need to become an atheist! Don’t be such an ignorant extremist!”
What remarks that convey this message indicate is that they really don’t get what outspoken atheists are saying. They don’t get it that we know plenty about their strategies for saving God. We just don’t want to save God. And they’re the ones who can’t seem to imagine that there really could be other options beyond their own narrow horizons. The liberal theists are all too often lacking in imagination. They are, in their own ironic way, comparably bad like their fundamentalist brethren when they show a fundamental inability to empathize with the atheistic humanist or to see our lives as filled with meaning, purpose, and hope comparable to believers’, and so condescend to us as just crude, benighted, militant fundamentalists because we refuse their viewpoint as the enlightened compromise they think it is.
In other words, they are tempted towards their own kind of know-it-all self-righteousness and dogmatism. And, I would argue, that their self-satisfaction in being able to devise a way to salvage their faith and be more enlightened than their reactionary, restorationist fantasist, fundamentalist brethren tempts them to a form of complacency. Being able to see yourself as not one of those fundamentalist rubes can be quite flattering to the ego such that you may not realize how much further beyond the fundamentalists’ mistakes you really can get. Or should get.
And, at the risk of coming off arrogant myself, this is where we unapologetically atheistic humanists come in. We are here to challenge the liberal theists to realize they really can go further. That it really is possible to do the constructive ethical work, social justice work, and community building work that they are attached to without having to do it all in the context of trying to salvage their faiths that are centuries outdated. And they should realize that in so many ways even though their values are better and more empirically justifiable and some of their beliefs are more soberly realistic, they still retain any of a number of irrational strategies for reasoning theologically or defending their faith as their more conservative brethren do. And we are here to challenge them to knock that off as intellectually dishonest. We’re not clueless to the endless possibilities to rationalize and update a faith tradition, we just (with good reason) think that it’s a very poor way to go about thinking and that it involves kinds of leaps of logic and special pleading that wouldn’t be taken seriously anywhere outside of religion.
Now, some liberal theists really do get quite far away from all or almost all of the supernaturalism and from almost all of the leaps of logic and special pleading of others. Some are to the point of being rationalists in most respects. They just translate what their reason and empiricism works out about their beliefs and their values into their religious tradition’s resources and speak in this coded way to be understood by the others in their faith and in order to spiritually engage with these rationally defensible ideas in a way that has symbolic resonance for them. It’s those rationalist quasi-theists who are highly equivalent in actual beliefs and values to someone like me. Often these are actual atheists just using the word “God” to mean something far divorced from the kind of ontologically distinct being the vast majority intend by the word. They will either admit as much if pressed or they will at least admit to positions which are philosophically classifiable as atheism even if they resolutely refuse the “atheist” designation.
In either case, it is such people who I want to see really expand their minds about the possibilities that could be realized if only they all joined us atheistic humanists who want to create explicitly rationalistic religions or quasi-religions that wouldn’t involve so much traditional baggage and could do everything they want to preserve but under a banner of honest atheism. And, no, the UU’s, good as they may be on many issues and as relatively hospitable as they may be to atheist members, still are not thinking revolutionarily enough. We can go further. I don’t think it’s the atheistic humanist who lacks imagination. At least not those of us constructive about building new institutions and new communities. I think it’s you who cling to the old traditions and the word “God” as though they’re inalterable boundaries to all creation.
But, you say to me, I should be tolerant and accept the liberal theist and her own possibilities for depth in her own framework just as I demand she accept me as an atheistic humanist. So long as we share the same values, I should put aside my own differences of belief and find all the room for common cause. To that I answer two things.
First, I can only do that to the extent that such liberal theists return the favor and stop condescending to us atheistic humanists as confused sops in need of an explanation that not all religion is fundamentalist religion. Wherever these lazy dismissals of us persist the liberal theist just rankles me.
Why are the liberal theists allowed to criticize the fundamentalists’ absurd and regressive beliefs and values and it’s all well and good, but when an atheist does it we’re just attacking a “strawgod”, or going after low hanging fruit, or being theologically ignorant? Yes, we get it, not everyone believes in the fundamentalist God. But we can still attack it for so long as some do. And more liberal conceptions of God are usually no better candidates for truth either. Stop treating us like just because we sometimes put our energies into disputing the fundamentalists’ conceptions of God that that means we have no idea about yours or no argument against yours. Instead ask us how we would answer your beliefs or look up the places we address you, instead of lazily patting yourself on the back for not being like those silly fundamentalists and taking a nice intellectual nap. Assuming atheists completely miss the target just because in some critiques we’re not aiming at you—and assuming even that we didn’t hit you but only hit those who you look down on—is not very introspective or self-critical of you. You will only learn and grow from your interactions with atheists if you open yourself up to hearing us and scrutinizing your own beliefs instead of just pretending we’re ignorant and so can just be ignored.
And if you don’t want to deal with our criticisms of your beliefs but just instead want to be fully accepted as sharing values with you, then you have to treat us as full spiritual and moral equals to you. Not as people you graciously are kind to. Not as people who are in any way your inferiors on account of our supposed spiritual cluelessness. Equals. Until you start saying “atheistic humanism is as valid an option as my faith (or as faith in general)” stop complaining that we atheistic humanists don’t always treat you like friends. Because for as long as you implicitly or explicitly continue to slip into the stance of thinking that you’re more enlightened than us, you’re not being our friends.
But don’t you atheistic humanists do that to the liberal theists? Don’t you look down on them too? The frank fact of the matter is that we atheistic humanists simply think our liberal theist friends drop the ball on the value of truth and commit to fallacious forms of reasoning in order to preserve their faith commitments or their commitments to inclusiveness to the point of sloppy moral or intellectual relativisms over their commitment to the truth. Truth and rational consistency are the values we are trying to uphold. We are not always better at them but at least in our earnestly sincere conception of the good these are our highest priorities. The compromises you liberal theists make for your commitments to your traditions disappoint us. Some of us brush this off more easily than others.
But definitely for the confrontational among us, this is a sticking point and usually it’s because we think it is a moral issue and/or a basic issue of being responsive to logic. Now, if you get defensive and accuse me and others like me of being hypocrites for this, sobeit, but I (and others) think it’s a defensible moral and rational ground we’re standing on when we criticize. If, on the other hand, you want to say that you just have a superior rational ground because you understand the validity of faith whereas we don’t, then have that argument with us and we can at least respect that conversation and whatever intellectual conscience you exhibit during it. But if you start slipping into special pleading and rationalization in ways that no other realm of thinking would allow in order to defend faith, sorry, but it’s a scruple here. We’re turned off morally, intellectually, or both, by your inconsistency and its obvious service to your preexisting emotional and social commitments. We don’t (or shouldn’t) say that we’re smarter than you or intrinsically more enlightened, but if we can demonstrate greater logical consistency and honesty in our beliefs than you can in yours, we will make our stands on those principles.
I’m all for acknowledging our common values where we have them, for working in common cause where we can, for having interpersonal friendships that transcend disagreements, for engaging in sincere dialogue for understanding, for recognizing and appreciating your personal and collective excellences. But I think all of that is consistent with insisting on a moral and rational stand when you drift into irrationalism on behalf of your faith. I think that’s more defensible than if you judge me on account of not buying into the arbitrary belief in God or the right to believe in advance of evidence and inspite of lack of evidence that is faith. I don’t see your reasons that you tend towards looking down on me and other atheists as morally defensible values. They’re ultimately the same as the fundamentalists’ in their arbitrariness and tribalism. I don’t think my judgments of moral and rational inconsistency are so flimsy. At least they aren’t in principle bad grounds for criticizing others, even if you think my charges are in fact wrong in your case.
Finally, let me stress very hard that I have come across a surprising number of both liberal theists and conservative ones who explicitly stress to me that they are fine with me being an atheist and don’t want to change me, or who implicitly make such an attitude clear. There are plenty of people who in this way escape the criticisms of this blog post. If that’s you, great, I’m not criticizing you. Please don’t get defensive as though I was. I just ask for introspection, not admissions of guilt from every theist.
My related posts from this year on Liberal Theists: