A few days ago, I had an epiphany that I think sheds considerable light on the difference between liberal and fundamentalist believers. This principle seems to me to be underappreciated, and if it was more widely understood, I think it might head off some of the misunderstandings which I’ve seen atheists commit. Here it is:
Fundamentalist believers view their sacred text as an instruction manual; liberal believers view it as a chronicle of events.
This difference is important in shaping the religious groups’ respective worldviews. In the eyes of the fundamentalists, the Bible (or Qur’an or Book of Mormon or whatever other text) is God’s word, dictated with infallible perfection to the minds of his followers. It’s meant to be the deity’s instruction manual, telling human beings everything we need to know about how to live. Therefore, every verse in it – whether explicitly directed at future readers or not – contains some lesson, some moral, whether implicit or explicit, that we should try to figure out and then apply to our own lives.
For liberal believers, by contrast, the Bible is not a direct pipeline to God, but a chronicle of events put together by human beings doing their best to interpret history in the light of their beliefs. God did not speak directly to his followers and tell them what to write down – or, at best, he only did so rarely. Instead, God’s followers tried to discern his will in the flow of events and infer what messages he meant to convey. Sometimes they guessed correctly, and therefore these books can provide valuable glimpses of insight into God’s character and desires; but other times they guessed incorrectly or let popular prejudices color their writing, and therefore these books, for all their beauty and complexity, inherit all the fallibility that human beings are prey to. To this group, scripture is a way to learn about human nature at least as much as it is a way to learn about God’s nature.
It’s the former group that atheists most often criticize, and with good reason. A person who reads about, for example, Joshua’s war of extermination against the Canaanites, and concludes that modern-day Christians have a similar mandate from God to subdue all nonbelievers, will likely pose a serious threat to the life and liberty of the rest of us. By reading the violent verses of scripture (and there are many such verses) as instructions to go and do likewise, believers become dangerously militant and dogmatic. Atheists are absolutely right to point out the evil and cruel nature of such a moral system and condemn the readings that inspire it. Granted, the fundamentalists are an easier target, but they’re also far more likely to be the ones trying to force their beliefs on others.
On the other hand, the liberal view is not subject to criticism in the same way, and we weaken our own case if we treat it as though it was. Pointing out how evil it would be to obey these violent verses is a meaningless criticism, because liberal believers do not believe these verses should be obeyed. They consider them just as flawed as we do.
However, that doesn’t mean the liberal position can’t be criticized. We just have to go about it in a different way, bearing in mind that the direct attack effective against literalists is not going to be effective.
First: Unless they believe that God spoke to one people exclusively – and most liberal believers don’t – then they should acknowledge that their own view of scripture as a chronicle implies that other cultures will also have had contact with God, and other religious texts will reflect the same interpretive process. Why, then, would a believer define themselves exclusively in the symbols and language of one particular religion? Why call yourself a Christian if just as much genuine understanding of God can be found in the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita as in the Bible? Why not rely equally on those texts in your weekly services? (Indeed, doesn’t any book, whether written in a religious context or not, convey something of humanity’s understanding of God?) Of course, most believers, whatever their views, rely mostly or exclusively on one text, which makes little sense given their own assumptions.
Second: What are the liberal believer’s criteria for deciding whether a given verse reflects God’s message or human error? Since they don’t credit all parts of scripture with equal truth, they must have some way to decide which verses to follow and which ones to disregard. In most cases this process is guided by the believer’s own moral intuitions and by the moral progress society has subsequently made. Now that we know slavery, racism and sexism to be evils, modern liberal theists disregard the parts of their text that teach these things. Other verses which have better stood the test of time are assumed to be true lessons from God.
However, once you’ve come this far, what do you need scripture for at all? Clearly, once a theist has reached this point, their own conscience is a superior and perfectly sufficient guide. And note that this approach works equally well if we assume that scripture has no divine revelation, but is wholly the product of fallible, conflicting humans. A reader can still employ their own conscience to decide which parts are good to follow and which should be rejected. Why, then, continue using the text which they have already admitted to be flawed? Why not discard it entirely and instead use reason to determine what ethical behavior consists of? At the very least, why not edit it, as Thomas Jefferson did, to keep only the good parts and get rid of the rest?
The final useful line of argument is one that works equally well against believers of all stripes. Namely, by what evidence do those believers conclude that their particular text reflects the will of God, in whole or in part? What makes them so certain that the text reflects any divine influence at all, rather than simply being the product of men, some of whom were benevolent and kind and some of whom were vindictive and cruel? Liberal believers acknowledge that the authors of scripture were wrong about many things. How do they know that those authors weren’t also wrong about the existence of God?