After reading articles such as “The Cosmic Shell Game“, “Divine Blackmail“, or “An Almighty Screwup“, obvious objections arise. Maybe each religion has some part of the truth, so that there is no one single right faith, but many. Maybe holy books aren’t intended to be taken literally as history or science, but should only be read as conveying spiritual truths. Or maybe it’s not even one’s choice of religion that matters; maybe it’s simply what’s in one’s heart. After all, many liberal theists reason, if God truly is loving and forgiving as he is depicted in most belief systems, he will not condemn someone for calling him the wrong name or reading the wrong holy text. Instead, he will accept anyone who behaved morally and made an honest effort to find him. This is an eminently sensible view, and is supported by at least a plurality, if not a majority, of theists in America today.
Nevertheless, there are several severe problems with it.
The first one is that, although it’s a perfectly rational stance (perhaps because it is a perfectly rational stance), it finds no support in any major religion’s holy book. The Jewish Old Testament practically starts off by ruling it out – the very first of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Exodus 22:20 specifies the penalty for disobeying this absolute law: “He who sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed.”
The Christians’ New Testament agrees, although its choice of god is slightly different. According to it, anyone who does not believe in Jesus Christ for any reason is doomed to eternal torment (see, for example, John 3:18: “…he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God”). There are no exceptions, no loopholes, and no allowances made anywhere in the Bible. Believe in Jesus, or you’re going to the lake of fire.
The Islamic Qur’an agrees as well, though, again, it specifies a somewhat different god. In sura 5:72, we see this: “He that worships other gods besides Allah, Allah will deny him Paradise, and the fire shall be his home.” No hint of compromise, no willingness to cut anyone slack. Believe in our god and our god only, or you’re damned to Hell – this is the unmistakable message of all three of the world’s major monotheistic religions.
Worse yet, there are many adherents of these religions and others who not only do not deny, but gleefully accept these commandments for vindictiveness and intolerance – and this is where the second major problem for liberal theists lies. Why, it is fair to ask these people, are there those who believe in a cruel, vengeful, and warlike deity? Where did they get this idea from? The Aztec religion’s human sacrifice, the brainwashing and thought control practiced by the Church of Scientology, the divinely commanded genocide recorded in the Hebrew Bible, the church-sanctioned torture of the Catholic Inquisition, the viciously repressive sharia laws of the Taliban, the Christian Scientists who let their children die painfully from easily treatable conditions because they trust prayer over medicine – were the people who did these things acting out of a glimpse of the true nature of God? And are these belief systems paths to God as well?
Liberal theists might say that only the gentle, compassionate and humanistic believers, of whatever faith, are those who understand the true nature of God. But, again, such views find no support in any major religion’s holy book – in fact, they are explicitly denied in these holy books. Rather, these are the personal views of these individuals alone, and again it is fair to ask how they came by them. On what basis do they reject these rules? How do they know that God actually isn’t cruel, vicious and bloodthirsty, as opposed to being merciful, compassionate and loving? It would not be difficult to find people who would readily affirm their belief in a god who really is harsh, exclusivist and legalistic, who really does demand unquestioning obedience above all else, and who really will send kind-hearted nonbelievers to an eternity of conscious torture, and many of these people will cite scriptural verses to defend these beliefs. How can we know that it is not they who have it right?
Of course, I do not deny that the ethical systems of liberal and moderate theists are superior to those of their fundamentalist brethren; far from it. I understand that most theists are not dogmatic fundamentalists, and I have nothing but respect for those believers who are able to rise above the darkness in their own traditions and recognize the common thread of humanistic values that tie us all together. As Dan Barker of the Freedom from Religion Foundation says in regard to one particular tradition, “most Christians today are good people in spite of the bible. They are smarter than Jesus. They are nicer than God.” And, I would say, the same goes for members of most other religions. Given that a worldwide mass conversion to atheism is unlikely to happen any time soon, it is these intelligent, rational, and compassionate believers who are humanity’s best hope for the foreseeable future.
But again, these people’s views are theirs alone, and are difficult if not impossible to support from their holy books. People who say, “Jesus wouldn’t send anyone to Hell, because he taught us to love each other” are missing the point – Jesus quite plainly did say nonbelievers are going to Hell. People who say, “God would never command acts of terrorism, because he is a God of peace,” are overlooking the numerous verses in the Old Testament in which God commands acts of violence and war. People who say, “God does not approve of dictatorship and tyranny, because he gave every human inalienable rights,” are unable to produce a single scriptural verse saying so. And therefore, people who believe in such a humanistic moral code, yet remain with the religion of their choice complete with its atrocities and injustices, must find a way to reconcile the two. The technique used to accomplish this is aptly called “salad bar theology”. Liberal theists look through their religion’s teachings and scriptures, pick out and keep the laudable parts, and ignore the rest.
I certainly do not deny that this produces a far better moral code than would be obtained by uncritically accepting all the acts of violence, injustices and barbaric rules in the Bible and other holy books. However, it begs the question: If you don’t believe most of your holy book, why do you believe any of it? If you create your moral system by picking and choosing from the Bible, then what do you need the Bible for at all? Anyone who can do that can figure out what’s right for themselves without the dubious help of scripture. How can you honestly claim you believe in your religion when you only accept the parts of it that don’t conflict with your own values? The only difference between liberal and conservative theists in this regard is which verses each side chooses to throw out and which verses they decide to keep. Liberals emphasize the parts that deal with forgiveness and mercy; conservatives prefer to highlight those that deal with wrath and punishment. Again, I find no fault with the conclusions of liberal theists in this regard; I merely wish to point out they are clinging to their scriptures only out of habit, when they already have a perfectly sufficient moral guide in their own consciences.
Another common conclusion reached by liberal theists is the rejection of some or all of the miracle stories in the Bible and other books as historical. For example, the “Twelve Theses” of the well-known and controversial liberal Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong dismiss the virgin birth, physical resurrection, and heavenly ascension of Jesus, among other Bible miracles. Spong also rejects the traditional conception of God as an anthropomorphic being who periodically invades human history, and writes in his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism that “God might not be separate from us but rather deep within us” and calls God “the sum of all that is”.
The question that arises is this. If God does not intervene in human history miraculously, then what does he do? Does he do nothing more than confer on us qualities such as love, reason, compassion or curiosity? But these are purely human traits whose existence no one denies in any case, and atheists can explain them just as well. Does the liberal god do anything clearly distinguishable from random chance and human action?
Again, I wish to emphasize that I find nothing blameworthy about these views in and of themselves. The mind is to be commended which can recognize that the Bible and other holy books are superstitious relics of a bygone era. For far too long, humanity has been haunted by angels and demons; for far too long, the spirit of free inquiry was hampered by beliefs that the natural world was not something we could rationally investigate and learn to control to our advantage, but something governed by capricious spirits that could be placated, appeased, or entreatied, but never understood. We are only beginning to emerge from this darkness into the light, but remnants of this ancient and outdated mode of thinking persist. The miracle stories in most scriptures are a symptom of this age-old devotion to mysticism, the superstitious belief that the unchanging laws of the cosmos may at any time, without warning or reason, be suspended by the inscrutable whim of a mysterious Deity. Anyone with the wisdom to set aside this primitive mindset and view reality through a rational, naturalistic lens, whether atheist or theist, is worthy of commendation. But if one has gone this far, why not take the logical next step, and conclude that the supernatural itself is equally a figment of human imagination?
The deist or pantheist god who does not intervene miraculously in history has in its favor that it is not contradicted by reality. On the other hand, such a god does not seem to be useful for much. What is the difference between a god who never acts in any way distinguishable from chance, and a god who does not exist at all? Even if such a god did exist, what would be the point of believing in it?
And that brings me to my final argument. There are those who claim that God loves everyone, that he will not send any good-hearted person to Hell, that all religions have it at least partly right, and so on. Well and good. But if this is what God is like, then for what reason should I – or anyone – believe in him? It seems (in a sort of reverse Pascal’s Wager) that we have nothing to gain thereby, and if lack of belief does not by itself doom one to Hell, why not just discard the unverifiable supernatural baggage and instead devote one’s life to being the best human being possible? It is even conceivable that God has purposely withheld evidence and allowed the claims of religions to become exaggerated and go unsubstantiated because he does not want us to believe in him. (Something for a liberal theist to think about: Could God be a spiritual “parent” whose desire is that humanity grow to the point where it no longer needs him?)
Why do we even need religion, according to liberal theists? Do humans not have a conscience that allows them to know right from wrong on their own? Why live by holy books at all if they are full of unhistoric miracle stories and commands for violence and intolerance that fundamentalists can so easily twist to their own purposes? Indeed, a god who loves everyone, who doesn’t especially care when it comes to one’s choice of religion, and has left no good evidence of himself, is all but identical to a god who does not exist. The god of the fundamentalists, cruel and vindictive though he may be, at least has these two things in his favor: his followers offer real reasons to follow him (“believe or burn” may be a simplistic and atrocious reason, but it is still a reason), and if he existed, the world would be a noticeably different place than if he did not. However, if the liberal god did exist, the world apparently would be no different than it is now. This god demands no worship, sets no rules, and requires no behavior except in the most general “be nice to people” terms. Believing in him does not seem to have any point at all – yet this is the god a majority of theists profess to follow.
Paradoxical though it sounds, I believe that many of these people are atheists who believe in God. They follow a humanist moral code, reject the miracle-drenched world and judgmental afterlife of the fundamentalists, and believe in the power of human conscience and reason. In this respect, they stand much closer to the atheists than their fundamentalist brethren. The only real difference is that they wrap themselves in a thin cloak of genuine but inconsequential deity-belief.
To these people, I offer commendation for having come thus far, and now I urge them to take the final step. Cast off that worn-out garment! Study your belief, test it against the hard evidence; do your best to cast off preconceptions and examine it critically. Put it under the light of rational analysis and see how it fares. What do you have to lose?
Atheism is not a depressing or restrictive worldview, but an enlightening and liberating one. It offers true intellectual freedom, the ability of the mind to go wherever it wishes – it offers a renewal of hope, beauty and wonder in a world so often bereft of them. By contrast, what can organized religion offer? A corrupt church hierarchy that demands absolute obedience? A share of the guilt in the atrocities committed in God’s name throughout the long and all too bloody history of religion and still ongoing today? Holy books that most people already rightly reject as the sole source of knowledge and truth anyway? Liberals are right to reject these things, but there is no reason for them to persist in dressing themselves in the tattered trappings of a belief system when they are already better people than it could ever make them. By contrast, humanism gives us the chance to look ahead to the future with a fearless outlook and a free intelligence, liberated from the darkness of the old superstitions that for so long held humanity in the grip of ignorance. Is there any real reason not to take such an opportunity?
 For more on this, see the results of an October 8, 2002 study by Barna Research, a Protestant polling group. The survey found that a full 50% of American Christians believe that anyone “who is generally good or does enough good things for others during their life will earn a place in Heaven”. The study also found that 44% of Americans believe “the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon are all different expressions of the same spiritual truths”, 59% believe that Satan is only a symbol of evil as opposed to an actual being, and 54% believe that truth can be discovered only through logic and human reason, as opposed to relying on scripture. These views neatly sum up the liberal/moderate theistic viewpoint discussed throughout this article.