Are Atheists Basically Just Like Liberal Believers?

The title of this post is intentionally provocative. It reverses the similarity that some conservative religious believers (and some atheists) will at times use polemically, claiming that liberal believers are, for all practical purposes, no different from atheists.

I don’t want to deny that there is a distinction, or that there are similarities. What I want to say is that, to the extent that there are similarities, the resemblance and direction of influence is in most cases the other way around.

When atheists point out errors, historical issues and stories that defy belief or moral acceptance in the Bible, for the most part that information (when it is accurate) derives from the scholarship pioneered and for the most part carried out by liberal religious believers. Liberal Christians have been denouncing much of popular piety as superstition long before atheists, advocating pioneering, expanding and embracing scientific understanding even when this infringed on what was traditionally considered God’s turf.

A blog called “Atheist Revolution” describes itself as “breaking free from irrational belief and opposing religious extremism” – both emphases that characterize historic Liberal Protestantism in particular, and were associated with it for as long as, and independently of, atheism.

Recognizing that “the criticism of the myth does not end with the rejection of the polytheistic mythology” is an articulation by Paul Tillich, one of the great Liberal Protestant theologians of the 20th century (Dynamics of Faith, p.57). Theologians have long recognized that myth is not something that others have but the Judeo-Christian tradition does not. Tillich, through his writings, continues to speak against the kind of “faith” that atheists are also concerned to combat (albeit for reasons that only partly overlap).

Below is a video with some atheists, agnostics and skeptics (including P. Z. Myers!) speaking in their own words (HT Hemant Mehta). How many of their points and emphases are ones that liberal religious believers also affirm? And of those, how many were articulated from such a religious perspective before they were articulated by atheists?

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While I have no objection to atheists emphasizing these things, I do find myself disappointed by the fact that arguments and knowledge which are a product of  liberal religion are being viewed as atheist arguments and viewpoints, to such an extent that when liberal religious believers say the same things, they are viewed as borrowing from atheists, rather than vice versa. On one level, it really doesn’t matter who borrowed from whom. On another level, it can be frustrating to have someone say many of the same things that you do, and marginalize you because of a relatively minor disagreement without acknowledging that those points on which you agree were largely the work of people with an outlook like your own.

How do you feel about this, if you are a liberal religious believer, an atheist, or a person with some other sort of stance? And what, if anything, do you think really separates liberal religious believers and atheists? Is it the willingness to use or (not always successful) attempt to avoid using religious language to express our ultimate concern? Or is it merely the fact that liberal religious believers still have social gatherings, with donuts? And to the extent that there are similarities and differences, what are the most useful ways that we can collaborate and work together on things that we agree on, and have fruitful discussions or at least mutual respect and acceptance regarding things that we disagree on?

  • Craig Benno

    I will argue that an honest liberal and an honest Atheist are in fact what I term to be “Agnostic Theists” 

    • IB

      So you are claiming that an honest Atheist is actually someone that claims that according to his or her current knowledge there is no way to actually know for sure whether there is or isn’t a god, so he or she will go ahead and believe in a god or gods anyway? Do realize that there are Agnostic Atheists (will go ahead and NOT believe in a god or gods) as well as Agnostic Theists (the definition I gave in my question above). 

      Gnosticism and Agnosticism deal with knowledge whereas Theism and Atheism deal with belief. To try to argue that an Atheist is actually a Theist is to misunderstand the definition of those words.

    • Aceofspades25

      It’s called Possibilianism :)

  • Robin

    I’ve heard this argument before, and I always find it a bit unfair. It may be entirely true that these arguments came from “liberal believers” first, it’s important to remember that historically, there were few times and places where one could admit to being an atheist at all. So I have a hard time imagining atheists arising after these movements and claiming them for themselves. Instead you have to ask if atheists were able to be out of the closet at all during these movements, and if not, how many (like so many early philosophers) were masquerading as believers simply to keep status/family/livelihood intact? I don’t mean to say all of these arguments clearly originated with non-believers, but I think it’s impossible to know how many reformers were atheists who couldn’t admit to non-belief. (And not just reformers- even today in America, only in certain parts of the country and within certain subcultures is it possible to admit openly to atheism without ostracism from community and family. They are devoted church-goers to all observers. I just can’t imagine that historically, there weren’t atheists trying to quietly fight from within. I know dozens of people who are closested atheists in the US even now, and can only talk about their true beliefs online behind pseudonyms. And there’s a reason I’m only mentioning the US; Admitting atheism in so much of the rest of the world can get you killed.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Miles-McCullough/1026691196 Miles McCullough

    I think atheists tend to be more “Just the facts, ma’am” to the point of rudeness. As an atheist I rather pride myself on it, which shows just how indoctrinated I am into the scientific cult of truth at all costs. I value reason, evidence, skepticism, parsimony, peace, absolute freedom of expression (I’ll face down a mob to protect your right to burn a bunch of books/flags, insult the president, cross-dress, and piss on the fire while you flip off the mob), and equal opportunity (level the playing field by helping those with disadvantages).

    Having grown up in a UU church, I know a few liberal Christians who have read Tillich and Spong and Dawkins and love all three, yet disagree with all of them. I find liberal Christians still have a soft spot for language about spirituality, about God and faith and church, but that kind of talk just makes me want to puke. It feels sycophantic to me, like a victim of abuse who is passing on the abuse to others, because that’s all they know. I’d much rather sing a hearty Pirate Song in praise of the FSM than “Spirit of life, come unto me.” If I have to acknowledge human stupidity, I’d rather mock it than emulate it. I’d rather sing “This land is my land, this land is your land” than “Swing low, sweet chariot.” If I have to fight the power, I’d rather do it without relying on divisive and false religion.

    I think all faith is bad. I don’t have faith in humanity; I trust humanity to the extent of the evidence. It helps that I am not attached that much to possessions or even my life, so I am willing to make risks for the greater good, but I understand that putting faith in humanity is just asking to be disappointed. I wouldn’t join the Peace Corps without accepting that I might get kidnapped or killed. I wouldn’t try to hug a mugger; I’d just give him the money and walk away. I don’t expect someone else to sacrifice for the greater good; I have to be the change I wish to see in the world. There is no such thing as good and bad faith; all faith is opposed to reason and evidence or it wouldn’t be called faith.

    I don’t get the obsession with the myth of Christianity; Jesus wasn’t that great. There are much better lessons about how to stand up against fascism in Harry Potter. Gandhi and Dr. King were better pacifists than Jesus – Jesus couldn’t imagine nonviolent civil disobedience, and he paid the price. Jesus said to render unto Caesar and praised meekness, but power concedes nothing without demand, so he was doomed to ineffectualness and abandonment by his people. His message of peaceful love was inevitably twisted into coercion by his followers who couldn’t stand having no power, as people are too weak to practice powerless pacifism – they need an outlet for their anger even if it is just marches and demonstrations. According to his own stories, Jesus succumbed to temptation when he scoured the money changers from the temple by force.

    There are other community organizations besides churches: Rotary and Kiwanis and Sierra Club, outdoor sports groups for biking and hiking and canoeing, wining and dining and book clubs, scouts and school clubs, unions and political groups. Freethinkers groups on meetup are becoming popular too. I do miss UU church, but I just wish they could be a proudly atheistic fellowship. It is easy to dismiss another person’s interpretation of a vague book of multiple choice; it is much harder to dismiss their demand for scientific evidence for beliefs.

    • Truth Unites… and Divides

      I think atheists tend to be more “Just the facts, ma’am” to the point of rudeness. As an atheist I rather pride myself on it, which shows just how indoctrinated I am into the scientific cult of truth at all costs.

      “Becoming an atheist is not in the cards for me at this point. But if ever I find myself an atheist, here’s my pledge to you.
      I will not set up websites or troll others’ websites trying to get people to see why I lost my faith or why they should as well. I probably won’t even waste my time frequenting other skeptic/atheist blogs, either to shore up my non-belief, or to help me cope with my loss of faith, or to poke fun at those who still believe. If I step into the void of a godless universe, I’ll know exactly what I’m getting into (which, not coincidentally, is one reason it’s unlikely to happen any time soon).
      If anything, I will spend my time trying to bridge the great divide and getting people to stop demonizing one another long enough to understand the positive aspects of the other side — and to exhort the true believer and the disillusioned alike to recognize that there are indeed positive aspects on both sides that we would all do well to cultivate. From what I’ve seen, you can remedy most of the bad aspects of the other guy’s belief system by helping to inform his beliefs more easily than embittering him by forcing your system onto his or trying to make him your clone.
      I’m just so blasted tired of the bitterness and the negativity. Whether the God of love exists or theism is pure hogwash, I simply won’t live my life like that. Whatever ad hoc meaning I can contrive out of a purposeless universe will not include debunking the purpose currently bringing about good in other people’s lives. Yes, I can see myself delicately augmenting their current purpose with concepts of open-mindedness and goodwill, perhaps, but not popping their balloons just because mine got popped and I’ve convinced myself I’m happier without it.
      I guess you could say that I’ll continue to serve, worship, and even proselytize for what Christianity has identified as good, right, and lovely, even if I abandon my faith in the Ultimate Basis for those concepts. So in a very real way, I can pretty much promise you that even if I lose my faith in God, I’ll never really lose my religion.
      And hence, I pledge to you that my religion won’t ever grant me permission to be a jerk, a troll, or an evangelist for self-made and self-defined purpose.”

      From:  http://undeception.com/if-i-become-an-atheist/

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Miles-McCullough/1026691196 Miles McCullough

        And hence, I pledge to you that my religion won’t ever grant me permission to be a jerk, a troll, or an evangelist for self-made and self-defined purpose.

        I’ll just assume I’m being called an “evangelist for self-made and self-defined purpose,” as that is the most polite interpretation. In fact, I think it’s half of a wonderful summation on why I comment on discussions like this: I wan’t to spread scientific truths and inspire people to free themselves, to seek their own purpose in life. That sounds like a beautiful thing to me.

        When people hold faith and scripture to be more important than reason and evidence, they come up with some wacky ideas. It is not enough to attack the hate if they think their hate is love (saving immortal souls from hellfire by passing faith-based laws); you have to correct their mistaken assumptions about the reality of the situation in such cases.

        In America alone, potentially life-saving stem cell research is being prevented, proven sex ed methods are being foregone, birth control and abortions are under attack and women’s health organizations like Planned Parenthood are taking the brunt in the process, same-sex couples are denied equality in the eyes of society and under the law making it harder for loving couples to adopt, share insurance, and receive visitation rights when the love of their life is in hospital, and that’s just for starters.

        Secularists have to fight to hold our ground on issues that should be common sense in a world without religion, and that distracts from real issues like corporate dominance of our media and government, our religious focus on absolute liberty to the detriment of equal opportunity, economic efficiency, and other worthwhile government missions, our puritanical vice laws and our unwarranted military aggression, our malfunctioning health care system, and many other things.

        41% of Americans think Jesus will or may come back in their lifetimes and that is one major factor in our political shortsightedness with regard to environmental protection, financial regulation, debt reduction, etc. Faith, biblical authority, clerical authority, and disregard for science and reason prime a voting population for ignorance, deference to authority, and general willingness to swallow propaganda/advertising.

  • Anonymous

    Um, what scholarship do I need to read to be able to know that much of the Bible is morally repulsive? I don’t need form or redaction criticism to tell me that much of what is supposedly god-commanded in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy is abhorrent to modern moral norms.

  • Andrew Tatum

    The irony here is that the most popular modern atheists (Hitchens, Harris and perhaps Dawkins) are, in fact, politically and socially conservative. At least here in the U.S., the relationship runs opposite: many (if not most) religious liberals are also socially and politically liberal.

    But to your questions, I wouldn’t consider myself “liberal” mostly because the term has no substantive meaning in the postmodern world. While I may hold some viewpoints that are outside of what has been historically normative for Christian faith, I am by no means theologically in-line with the classical theological liberalism of the 19th century.

    That being said, I suppose you are right to be frustrated when people cannot see the nuance between your own positions and those of atheists. Many (if not most) “religious” people today (liberals and conservatives) are solely lacking in necessary skills of critical thought that allow them to offer any sort of nuanced articulation of their own beliefs and practices, much less the beliefs and practices of others. The same is true of many atheists who, once they have “seen the light” of atheism, are unable to even countenance the idea that they might be wrong. This is another irony of modern atheism (of the Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc. ilk). The repudiation of religious belief is undertaken in much the same fashion of religious fundamentalism (of, say, the “religious right” or contemporary Southern Baptists) which, once it has compiled its various “sources” for beliefs, refuses to move beyond certain “foundational” beliefs.

    The question of the extent to which cooperation is possible is not a difficult one. The root of the problem is pride (or arrogance) which does not allow people to cooperate on even the most important of tasks. We can clearly cooperate on shared social aims if people can get past the mutual hatred (or even mere rudeness) toward those who do not share their belief systems.

    Things like intellectual formation get somewhat tricky since there are many Christians especially who understand intellectual growth in spiritual terms that would clearly be a “turn off” to atheists or secular humanists.

    But, in the end, I think it all goes back to pride and willingness to put our own systems to the side when the need for cooperation arises.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Miles-McCullough/1026691196 Miles McCullough

      Dawkins has said he is a lifelong Labour voter, but he is mostly silent on politics except for advocating the education of the youth in all world religions and preventing their indoctrination into any particular religion.

      Harris has shown some support for progressive redistribution of wealth and strong opposition to the acceptability of collateral damage, but his criticisms of multi-culturalism and his musings about torture, censorship, and immigration restriction make him appear to be a proto-fascist or ultra-nationalist. I say appear, because he has not advocated any of those last three musings in practice, but I would argue he has lent ideological support to them by imagining ticking time bomb scenarios.

      Hitchens is an old-school anti-Imperialist, pro-democracy, communist; he just has this crazy idea that the only way to defeat fundamentalist Islam is by military force. I think military force is actually counter-productive on that front, as American military force will inevitably further American Hegemony and puppet Islamofascist regimes, and that we should be fostering internal revolution and reform instead of occupying countries, but I’d hardly call Hitchens a conservative for wanting to fight fascism out of a sense of solidarity with the oppressed.

      In short, the Big Three are progressive, but focus on absolute liberty and a good education without indoctrination. They see religion as a the greatest obstacle to such goals and aren’t shy about using state force to prevent others from forcing “truths” on children and forcing “god’s laws” on their community. I consider that staunchly liberal.

      • Andrew Tatum

        I stand corrected (or, should I say, properly nuanced)…

  • Jonathan Burke

    //So I have a hard time imagining atheists arising after these movements and claiming them for themselves.//

    James’ point is that atheists typically think that when Christians raise and hold these views, it’s copied the ideas from atheists. In the vast majority of cases (and that’s a qualification just for the sake of it, because I can’t actually think of an exception), that hasn’t been the case; Christians have come up with them independently, typically centuries before.

    //Instead you have to ask if atheists were able to be out of the closet at all during these movements, and if not, how many (like so many early philosophers) were masquerading as believers simply to keep status/family/livelihood intact?//

    Ok, let’s look at a few key names and movements in Biblical interpretation and see which of them look likely to have been crypto-atheists.

    * Documentary Hypothesis: Talmud Babylon (tractate Baba Bathra, folio 15a), rabbi Isaac ibn Yashush (d. 1056), rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (c.1089-1164), rabbi Joseph ben Isaac (12th century), rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah (13th century), rabbi Joseph Bonfils (15th century), Catholic bishop Totastus of Avila (15th century), Catholic Andreas van Maes (16th century), Jesuit scholars, Benedict Pereira and Jacques Bonfrere (16th century), Calvinist Isaac de la Peyere (17th century)

    * Demythologization: Philo Judaeus (1st century), Flavius Josephus (1st century), Moses Maimonides (12th century), Laelius Socinus (16th century), Strauss (1835-1836), Gunkel (1895), Davies (1956), Bultmann (1958), McKenzie (1959), Childs (1960), Cross (1973); I am not forgetting Hobbes, Spinoza, and Hegel, but they were preceded by Jewish and Christian demythologizing exegetes (and I’ve omitted a few medieval-Renaissance Jewish and Christian exegetes, because I can’t recall them at present)

    How about we start with those two lists and play ‘spot the crypto-atheist’?

  • Anonymous

    Can anyone guess what Neil Godfrey is?  Hehehehe!

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Thanks to everyone who has chimed in so far. Let me reply first to Robin, who I am delighted decided to be part of this conversation.

    I’m not persuaded that those who used another term, whether Deist or pantheist, did so because being an atheist was too controversial. Spinoza was accused of atheism even though he was a pantheist, and so many theists seem to have agreed ahead of their time with Dawkins’ assertion that pantheism is merely “sexed-up atheism.” (I must confess that I still don’t understand why he thinks that is an argument for preferring atheism to pantheism, but that is another topic). And Deists like Paine and Jefferson scarcely avoided being controversial. (About some there is more debate, such as Hume, but accurately labeling their stance often has as much to do with how one defines atheism as with what they actually wrote. There have been plenty of thinkers who were genuinely skeptics and rationalizes, who found the term “God” useful as a way of referring to whatever obscure and mysterious reality gave rise to our ordered universe. And since the truth is that we are still stuck with the same mystery, it isn’t unclear why using the same term in the same way should be considered in our time a sign of irrational superstition, by atheists who essentially agree with the classic Deists for all intents and purposes, and are no better poised to eliminate the mysteriousness of the fact that anything exists at all than those of previous generations. If we posit a universe that arises naturally from laws of physics, it remains mysterious as to why those laws of physics are there in the first place.

    Do understand that, unlike conservative and moderate religious believers, as a liberal/progressive with panentheist leanings, I am not trying to inject a personal God into the picture as an explanation for the mystery. I think that’s a key point that often gets missed. For many of the classic rationalists and Deists and Liberals, God is not the explanation for the mystery, but a way of referring to the mystery itself.

    I don’t know whether you’ll consider this a satisfactory reply, but I do hope that either way, you’ll let me know! :-)

    • Pseudonym

      If it helps, a lot of the great liberal reformers of Christianity were often doing their thing at times in history when atheism was popular or trendy. Schleiermacher and Channing, for example, were contemporaries of Marx and Schopenhauer. Rudolf Bultmann and Leslie Weatherhead were contemporaries of the likes of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein.

      There have been plenty of opportunities for liberal Christians to self-identify as atheist if that’s how they really felt. After all, it’s not like they shunned controversy.

    • benjdm

      “God is not the explanation for the mystery, but a way of referring to the mystery itself.”

      The word God gets used in everyday American life – in the Pledge of Allegiance, on every piece of American currency, in churches, prayers, etc., all the time. In person I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use it the way you use it. Congress certainly didn’t mean it that way when they passed the insertion to the pledge or the change to the national motto. The churches I went to as a child (Catholic) certainly never used it that way.

      So…to answer your title question, using ‘liberal believers’ in your context (where the liberal belief encompasses no supernatural beliefs), I would answer yes. I think atheists just stick to more commonly accepted vocabulary.

  • Anonymous

    Modern European (and hence US) atheism has grown out of various forms of religious dissent, both liberal and conservative. It is still characterised by the same desire to reason theologically against doctrine. (It rarely functions, as sometimes claimed, as merely the non-existence of belief).

    I see a continuum among liberal religionists. From folks who have a genuine theistic belief on one side to the Sea of Faith or Christian Humanism at another (who’s views on God may be indistinguishable from mine or any other atheist).

    At the latter extreme, there is an unwillingness for people who clearly are atheists (in that they do not hold a theistic belief) to admit to that.Partly because historically “atheism” is often held in false-dichotomy with “religious” (rather than its true dichotomy of “theist”).

    Not all liberal Christians are there, of course. But I think many are. And it is rarely faced up to honestly.

    I personally think this is damaging. Because religious humanism is denied a body of people who are willing to stand up for what they actually believe. To say, in effect, you *can* be an atheist and a Christian, you can be interested and moved by religion and be an atheist, one can be an atheist and have a spiritual life, and a religious community. 

    Non-belief is ceded to anti-theists, and folks whom we mutually dislike are free to draw succour from the way the majority of atheists are unwilling to confidently emerge from the shadow of their mythology.

    So I do think there is a dividing line, yes. But it is more often drawn between the labels one is brave enough to admit to, rather than the nature of one’s beliefs.

    • Pseudonym

      At the latter extreme, there is an unwillingness for people who clearly
      are atheists (in that they do not hold a theistic belief) to admit to
      that. Partly because “atheism” is often held in false-dichotomy with
      “religious” (rather than its true dichotomy of “theist”).

      FWIW, Spong calls himself a “non-theist” and I think it was Leslie Weatherhead who coined the term “Christian agnostic”. So there certainly is precedent.

      But do you think that the other side is also responsible for perpetuating this? Many in the modern atheist movement also have a fixed idea of what “religious” or “Christian” means which is sometimes difficult to shift.

      • Anonymous

        There were Christian Atheist, too. A prof at Emory, I think his name was Thomas Altizer, who incorporated Neitchean “death of God”…into his theology..

      • Anonymous

        Yes, both sides I think. 

        I haven’t come across a significant movement for atheists to be proud of their religious sensibilities.

        And consequently the large number of atheists for whom religious life is more important that doctrinal labels have to be content to either lie about their faith, or constantly re-interpret everything that is said in a metaphoric way and avoid conversations that are too specific. I have a particular interest in this regard about ministers in this position, of which I have encountered several.

  • Brent Hege

    Very interesting questions, James! I have had many, many encounters on progressive political blogs in which fellow members helpfully pointed out to me that I should just come on over to their side and admit that I’m an atheist already. I found myself having thoughts very similar to yours here.

    I think there are two important and related distinctions between progressive, critical Christians and atheists. First, contemporary atheists often (but not always) come to their atheism from a mechanistic, materialist, or even reductionist scientific worldview, which is precisely why God cannot serve as a meaningful concept for them Where is the material proof for God?. Short answer: there isn’t any. While that’s often a dealbreaker for atheists, it’s not for theists. Progressive, critical Christians, on the other hand, often (but not always) come to their theism from a very different place – an acknowledgement of the mystery of life, a desire for symbolic characterizations of their experience, etc. This means that asking for material proof is the wrong question and will never be a foundation for a genuine faith, so why look for it? Floating above this distinction is the fact that when atheits and progressive Christians talk about God, they are very rarely talking about the same thing. The God atheists reject is typically a God that has not functioned as a meaningful object of faith for progressive Christians for a very long time, which might be why, when atheists and progressive Christians have a conversation about God, atheists could be partly justified in assuming that progressive Christians are stealing from their playbook.

    Second, modern atheists often (but not always) tend to engage in demythologization and other forms of criticism to demonstrate the irrationality or futility of faith (or, in the case of the New Atheists, the pathology and the danger of faith). Progressive, critical Christians, on the other hand, often (but not always) engage in demythologization and other forms of criticism to strip away everything that gets in the way of living faithfully in the mystery and they often see this as something demanded by faith itself. So while the two groups sometimes seem to be saying very much the same thing, it typically comes from very different places and has very different goals.

  • http://jamesbradfordpate.blogspot.com James Pate

    I think that theology during and after the Enlightenment was responding to some “elephant in the room”, whether or not that elephant was explicitly stated by particular people or movements.  Theology was trying to show that Christianity was true despite the unlikelihood of supernatural intervention, or the Bible appearing to be merely a human work.  So what was that elephant?  To what was theology responding?  Was it atheism, or something else, or maybe a variety of factors?

  • Gary

    Miles said, “I find liberal Christians still have a soft spot for language about spirituality, about God and faith and church, but that kind of talk just makes me want to puke”…I think that illustrates why conservative, literal-bible interpreting, Christians, and atheists are alike. They generally have an outward looking response to people (in a negative sense) that do not believe what they believe. Both want to convert others, and are rather derogatory towards those that do not convert to atheism or conservative Christianity. My view, the liberal Christian is actually more inward thinking, and rational. They take data in, analyze it, and come to conclusions to reconcile (atheists/conservatives would say rationalize) differences they recognize between religous beliefs and scientific fact. The liberal Christian, from what I have seen, comes to conclusions for inward satisfaction, not to say people are stupid (atheists), or morally inept (conservative Christians). So the arguments generated by liberal Christians for their own internal peace are used by atheists as a weapon against all Christians. Dawkin and Myers are the ultimate example of this. Their motivations are not for inner peace for themselves, but to put other people down. Same for conservative Christians. They are not satisfied to believe they are going to be “raptured”. They want to make sure others know how morally corrupt both liberals, and non-believers are (and, I think, have an internal smile on their face when they think of all of us on the outside will be burning in hell forever:-).

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Miles-McCullough/1026691196 Miles McCullough

      I do not think atheists are motivated by a desire to put people down, and I very much resent such an allegation. I know that I take no glee from the stupidity of humanity; if anything it fills me with despair.

      I am concerned with ridding myself of false beliefs, and since faith is unreliable that means eliminating religious beliefs and other rationalizations from my worldview. I do not care to engage in wishful thinking. Simply looking on the bright side of the truth is enough for me. For example, the beauty of a self-organizing universe brings me to tears, while “God did it” makes me want to yawn. Eternal life seems the true horror; I am quite relieved to know that I won’t have to live forever. I am quite happy to make up my own moral rules, to live without an interfering parent telling me what to do all the time and guilt tripping me for disobedience.

      Perhaps atheists and conservative christians are similar in our desire for truth first, but our tools are rather different. Conservatives feel safe relying on faith and scriptural, clerical, and communal authority, while naturalists prefer to rely on reason and evidence. The other difference is that atheists are right.

  • Anonymous

    What is the human? The Atheist would answer that the human is his biological, chemical make-up within his brain and genes. Atheist are materialist, as they seek to understand the human within the context of their phsyciality.

    The Liberal Christian would understand that the human cannot be reduced to chemicals, biology, and brain function, but are also responsive to enviromental stimuli. These are political contexts that make for the humane. The social structures of family, community, and government impact “the human”.

    In this sense, the Atheist and Liberal Christian are different as to nature and the nurtue issues..

    But, the Atheist and Liberal Christian are similar in their approach to the transcendent arena. These are realist, not idealist, as to the world. But, the differences would lie in whether they would believe there was any value in language. Some Atheist might be absolute materialists such that language has little impact on what the brain and genetics have determined. These are hard determinists.

    Others might give credibility to language in “human development”, and cultural impact, even as to brain development, itself! One might err on the side of cultural differences, as to cultural distinctives and the other might err on the side of the similarities that define “the human”.

    Faith development via James Fowler would lend the Liberal Christian an avenue to understand the world via symbols (which is language) or the human psyche via Jung.

    So are the Atheist and Liberal Christian similar, yes, in their approach to ‘life’ through the Academy, but different, as to their discipline and its approach to “the human”.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Miles-McCullough/1026691196 Miles McCullough

      Environmental stimuli are just as real as genes. I don’t know why you would think atheists would disregard nurture’s influence on the mind.

      If anything, it is theists who believe in an eternal, unchanging soul; I should think that theists are the ones who would have trouble accepting that nurture has an influence. In fact, I don’t understand how theists can believe in a changing soul and believe in an eternal soul at the same time. Surely that is a contradiction, no?

      • Anonymous

        I didn’t mean to imply that Atheists had no interests in the environmental impact upon the human. What I meant was that these would be more interested in the results in the brain and if that does or does not impact human action/choice. That is understanding human action or behavior as conditioned, or predetermined by the environmental influences.

        I think there are more innate variables to understand, regarding human action/choice. Of course, the human has to have liberty in their environment to be able to express these differences. And these innate attributes include all creative endeavors….which are part of the individual person.

  • Jonathan Burke

    //The Atheist would answer that the human is his biological, chemical
    make-up within his brain and genes. Atheist are materialist, as they
    seek to understand the human within the context of their phsyciality.//

    I’m a fairly liberal Chrisitan, and I would say the same.

    //The Liberal Christian would understand that the human cannot be reduced
    to chemicals, biology, and brain function, but are also responsive to
    enviromental stimuli. These are political contexts that make for the
    humane. The social structures of family, community, and government
    impact “the human”.//

    I can’t see atheists disagreeing with the statement that ‘the human’ is also ‘responsive to environmental stimuli’, and that ‘the human’ is affected by ‘The social structures of family, community, and government’.

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t there a difference between the hard determinist and a soft determinist?

    The hard determinist says there is only one world, not two, meaning that the natural laws that rule the universe are the laws that rule human society.

    The libertarian would not believe that natural laws rule the universe regarding the human person. Human choices are self-determined, or not determined by nature. Some would still be soft determinist regarding the “context” or causal forces that influenced a particular choice, while others believe that choice is an independent deermination of the person themselves. So, is choice a matter of mind (beliefs) or natural law?  Choice is a “free radical” in this sense.

    Soft determinism would argue that language is understood differently by people. The same word has different meaning to different people. Is this because of personal experiences that are associated with a particular word? Or is the word given meaning because of political persuasion or interests?

    So, which is it? an outside law that imposes consequences irregardless of belief or opinion? this is the way the world works. Or is the world made of many complex variables that all interact to make for human choice/decision? Is the human a machine that can be programmed and determined, or is human choice and decision more about the internal process?

    Atheist or Liberal Christian ceases to have meaning, really, as both are inclined toward investigation of ‘the human” not “God”.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Miles-McCullough/1026691196 Miles McCullough

      If the mind is natural, then where is the contradiction between mind and nature? In a materialist conception, there is no free will, but there is a will; the will is simply determined by nature.

  • Jonathan Burke

    //Isn’t there a difference between the hard determinist and a soft determinist?//

    I thought we were talking about materialism and the mind/body problem.

  • Scott Ferguson

    Funny, but when I read Thomas Paine I realize just how little the debate has advanced over the centuries.  His critiques are still in circulation. 

    So do we count Deists as 20th Century Liberal Christians ™? ;)   I think that the enlightenment is the ultimate inspiration for most thinking atheists.  Were there 18th Century Liberal Christians who were providing the material that Paine and his ilk propounded?  I don’t have that historical background handy but it seems to me that atheism’s roots go pretty deep.

  • Anonymous

    I thought that I was equating materialism with natural laws, as causal forces on the human. Although the laws of gravity and other such natural laws do impinge on certain aspects of human activity, the question is, can the human choose freely, or be a self-determining agent, in their social reality? Will that look different from another human in a similar social reality? The politcal must allow for the liberty of human choice, otherwise, the human is determined by religious or statist “laws”.

  • Jonathan Burke

    //Were there 18th Century Liberal Christians who were providing the material that Paine and his ilk propounded?//

    You could go back further than the 18th century; great chunks of Paine’s objections had already been raised by the Socinians in the 16th century; rejection of the trinity, rejection of penal substitutionary atonement, rejection of hell, rejection of Mosaic authorship of the Penateuch (which various medieval rabbis had already discounted centuries earlier), separation of church and state, rejection of the virgin birth.

    Paine’s own protests against North American slavery were a little late to the table. Historic atheism doesn’t have a great track record on this subject, unfortunately (though of course Paine himself was a Deist).

  • Jonathan Burke

    Don’t worry Miles, mind/body materialism (without an immortal or unchanging ‘soul’), has a history of around 2,500 years in Jewish religious thought, and at least 2,000 years in Christian religious thought. I apologize that we beat atheists to that one as well.

    //The other difference is that atheists are right.//

    Don’t forget that atheists are also more handsome, and they smell better.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Miles-McCullough/1026691196 Miles McCullough

      //Don’t forget that atheists are also more handsome, and they smell better.//

      Evidence, please. I haven’t heard this.

      As for beating atheists to materialism, this gets back to James’s original thesis that atheists steal from liberal theologians. I guess my only response is, “So what?” Liberal theists made some good arguments that scripture isn’t literally true and we adopted them; liberal theists made other arguments that religion is useful and/or true as a metaphor, but fewer atheists agree with that.

      Not that it really matters, but not all atheist arguments were discovered by liberal theists; many of our arguments come from ancient atheists: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism#Classical_antiquity

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    It might be worth asking whether Deism could be included within the realm of the phenomenon of “liberal religion.” But either way, both Deism and Liberal Protestantism engaged in critical, skeptical inquiry that was sparked at least in part by the Protestant Reformation, which led many Protestants to realize that the challenge to authority and tradition which it embraced did not naturally stop at the Bible but needed to include challenges to the way the Bible was viewed as well, since the Bible itself is a product of the church.

  • Bill

    I was raised Episcopalian, but I don”t think I got much of my current sense of morality from that.  Rather, it feels to me like I get such morality as I have from having had the great good fortune to be adopted, when I was about three months old, into a family for whom people were more important than things.  It seems to me that morality comes from culture, of which religion is certainly a part, but not the whole thing.  I guess I’m arguing here that liberal Christians and liberal atheists get their morality independently for much the same set of reasons.

    As regards conservative Christians calling liberal Christians atheists, this strikes me as the same behavior as some extreme political conservatives calling everything except hate radio and Faux News liberal.  I wouldn’t pay any attention to it.  <aside>I just finished Richard Carrier’s Not the Impossible Faith…, and I was struck by the similarity between present-day conservative Christians and those of the first century who did convert to Christianity:  the only goal is to believe, immediately and uncritically, whatever the preacher says.  All you dang folks who insist on checking the facts are downright demonic. 8-)</aside>

    As regards the video in particular, I get the sense that it’s mostly just atheists “comming out” and saying, yes, we have morality, too.

    [I don’t see a way to preview this, so I hope my HTML entities get rendered correctly.  If not, I'll try again.]

  • Jonathan Burke

    //I mean, I get that you were just mocking my confidence, but mockery in
    return is all you deserve if you have no argument other than being
    scared of knowledge.//

    Easy Mike, it’s called humour. Nothing to do with mocking you.

    //As for beating atheists to materialism, this gets back to James’s original thesis that atheists steal from liberal theologians.//

    Actually I don’t believe he said that. What he seems to have said is that atheists often triumphantly reach conclusions independently, which they fondly imagine have never crossed the mind of Christians, when in fact Christians beat them to the conclusion a long time before.

    And yes, so what? I agree. It’s ‘so what?’ to you, it’s ‘so what?’ to me, it’s ‘so what?’ to James. However, it’s not ‘so what?’ to the atheist who happily trumpets his ‘new discovery’, and I think that’s what James was getting at.

    //Not that it really matters, but not all atheist arguments were
    discovered by liberal theists; many of our arguments come from ancient
    atheists://

    Oh I certainly agree. It’s refreshing to see an atheist aware of the historical pedigree of their philosophy; many atheists I encounter have absolutely no clue that the ‘New Atheism’ to which they want to introduce me is merely a rehash (and typically an inept rehash), of arguments raised centuries earlier, and well discussed by Christians for over 1,500 years.

    Dawkins’ anti-design argument is exactly the same argument as had been
    made by well over two thousand years ago by Epicurus (4th-3rd century
    BCE), and Cicero (1st century BCE), among
    many others. Dawkins’ ‘theories on memes’ is simply used in a
    ‘religion-propagates-because-of-its-perceived-social-benefits’ argument,
    and that argument is exactly the same argument as had been made by
    Critias (5th century BCE), and Cicero.
    Even the arguments from materialism and evolution are exactly the same
    arguments which had been made over two thousand years ago by the Carvaka
    (7th century BCE), Epicurus, Cicero, and Lucretius (1st century BCE), among others. These are not new arguments, and they’ve been discussed by Christian thinkers for a very long time.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Miles-McCullough/1026691196 Miles McCullough

      My apologies, Jonathan, for misinterpreting your humour. I wouldn’t have minded if you were mocking me though. I don’t take offense to a well made point, merely to false claims.

      I have heard Dawkins and Myers use the term Gnu Atheism as a way of mocking the term, as many are aware that all atheistic arguments are old, old, old. Atheists are just starved for publicity so we take what we can get, and the fact that the nonreligious have doubled as a portion of the US population over the past twenty years does indicate a new trend of atheism, so it’s not entirely false.

      I’m sure many young atheists unfortunately are misled by the characterization of New Atheism in the media to think that new arguments are being proposed. I apologize on their behalf as well xD

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @facebook-1026691196:disqus , did you notice in that Wikipedia article that pretty much everyone mentioned is “strictly speaking” not an atheist?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Miles-McCullough/1026691196 Miles McCullough

      If believing is spirits and souls disqualifies you as an atheist, as Socrates argued, then can we atheists excommunicate Scientologists? Except that if believing kings hold power over other men makes you a believer in demigods, then I must renounce my atheism. After all Augustus and Alexander were naturalistic gods.

      The definition of atheism has changed over the centuries. It meant something different in the Hellenistic world to what it meant in the Roman Republic to what it meant under Catholic Hegemony to what it means today. By the definition of the lack of worship of any particular god, I would claim all the Greeks in the Wikipedia article as atheists, strictly speaking.Democritus and Epicurus were materialist atheists, and they had the largest followings. Less is known about the particular beliefs of other ancient Greek critics of religion, but many were of the opinion that “if there were gods, then so what?” Homer even said the Greeks were descended from the gods, so the Greeks definitely had a funny understanding of godhood.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PJ6PZMYZVJL4CGQBUYBVMQSDPQ james Harrison

    A lot of the confusion/rhetorical cheating that goes on in these debates involves the unwitting/strategic use of the fallacy logicians call paralogism, which is the use of a word in two senses in the course of a single argument. Sometimes “atheist” simply refers to anybody who doesn’t believe in God; but most of the time it is refers to a member of one of a number of social groups that have an entire ideology over and beyond simple disbelief. Consider the argument, which is pretty common, that atheists are dangerous because, as we learned in the 1930s, atheists in power persecute millions and throw them in gulags, etc. It is perfectly true that Marxist-Leninists are atheists in the sense of not believing in God and the so-called new atheists also don’t believe in God; but the two ideologies are different in many other ways. All cats are carnivores and so are all dogs, but cats are not dogs. Atheism simpliciter doesn’t determine your other social, political, historical, or philosophical beliefs. Indeed, for some of us, disbelief in God is more a default than a positive feature of our thinking and atheism is much more interesting as a social and political phenomenon than as the philosophical issue.

    To judge by my experience, if you subject most people, atheists or believers, to Socratic questioning on just what it is that they claim to believe or not believe, you don’t get very far; but the social role of protestations of belief/nonbelief looks a bit clearer. For a lot of folks, belief in God seems to function as a loyalty oath more than anything else. It’s our version of sacrificing to the emperor or, in the case of the new atheists, engaging in an act of defiance, even if the glorious martyrdom currently in prospect is rather notional. Presumably the affirmation of liberal theism has a specific social meaning over and beyond worship at the church, synagogue, mosque, holy grove, blood stained altar, or coffee bar of your choice ecumenicalism. Trying to understand what the social meaning of this faith might be is part of the reason I visit this site.

    • Anonymous

      Humans need perdictability. Humans look for causes to explain the world in which they live. Science does this through the scientific method. Religious cultures do it to make sense out of “reality” too. Where science looks for natural laws, relgions looks to the mystical/metaphysical or human laws. Humans like to predict.

      Laws are ways to form society to maintain social order. Socal order maintains the standards whereby people can make judgments and have expectation about life and what happens. In free societies, we do not limit opportunity to go outside a particular class, race, or gender in pursuing such opportunities. So, laws are not to define life in unflexible ways.

      Human experience trauma due to unpredictability. Change is hard to made as humans like consistancy. It is a way to socially identify and connect groups of people. But, when change happens, adjustment is necessary, as life is never the same. Some resist social change because of percieved breaches, to a traditional social order. Identity is bound within such resistance.

      Individuals experience trauma due to unexpected tragedies, irregularities in their experiences, where something or someone becomes the scape-goat or blame. Such blame-shifiting often happens in divorce. Children of divorce internalize much of the pain, as they have no other way to understand it.

      Blame-shifting is a method to ignore responsibility. But, some individuals take it on themselves all the time. These are co-dependents. They internalize the issues to the extent that they blame themselves and don’t see or understand that blame for problems are diverse and complex at times.

      Responsibility especially in group behavior is hard to unwind, because roles and functions become a part of the system. Such systems are unhealthy to the indivduals within them. Families systems, but also group dynamics often lead to such consequences. They system must be broken, because it is the system that feeds of itself, and starts to have its own life!

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  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    McGrath“But either way, both Deism and Liberal Protestantism engaged in critical, skeptical inquiry that was sparked at least in part by the Protestant Reformation, which led many Protestants to realize that the challenge to authority and tradition which it embraced did not naturally stop at the Bible but needed to include challenges to the way the Bible was viewed as well, since the Bible itself is a product of the church.”

    Hey!  No making ingratiating feints to get in good with Roman Catholics!

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Just telling it like it is. This isn’t about Roman Catholicism but about Protestantism. Unless you believe the Bible dropped down from heaven as a complete package, or that the table of contents in your translation is divinely inspired?

  • Anonymous

    Your comment is one of the main reasons, it sickens me to listen to sermons. I feel it is a power grab. The  Authority of the church is not where I want to entrust my life. But, neither is the State a place where I want authority to reside, regarding my life, except to protect it through the law, a negative view of authority. I’ll take the positive authority for my life, thank you very much! And this s what our country affirms as to indivdual liberty and free association.

  • Anonymous

    It just seems to me that Christian agnostics and Christian atheists use language as a deceptive tool. The end of such theologizing is to gain a power base for “good works”….Language games with the end of gaining power over another is not “kosher” to/for me.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t think it is a power thing. At least I think that Christian atheists are woefully underpowered in the debate.

      In my experience there are a huge number of Christian atheists. But they wouldn’t call themselves that. They sublimate their views on god to accommodate the myths of their religious context. Because being an “atheist” will draw condemnation from the religious, while being religious draws condemnation from atheists. 

      If one is among the millions (as I contend) who is atheistic and religious, one is in a bind. Admitting so could potentially remove one’s access one’s religious community.Professors who work in a seminary context are another group who have serious issues with being honest about their god-beliefs, in my experience – though please don’t take that comment as being directed at anyone here – I’m referring to folks I actually know irl.

  • Anonymous

    I think a much better way of teaching concepts is using Greek mythologies, instead of “scripture”. Greek myth can be understood for what it is, while using “scripture” might be misunderstood and literalized as “the truth of God”. That causes many conflicts due to the “God factor”. I like to at least think that my attempt at communication is straightforward and not deceptive “up front”. And that I’m not adding to people’s view of themselves as “the obedient”. Such is too black and white for me….

    History also is something that could teach people about the human experience…..then, myth and history isn’t a mixed bag.

    As to Christian Atheism, why should there be such a thing? 

    • Anonymous

      I think that the social and political arenas are much more interesting than the religious!!! Religion is too personal for people to talk sensibly about. And that can get volatile! Rational debate, of discussion of issues (unless it is a religous social hot topic issue) can be hashed out….that is pleasant engagment of a human’s mind, and not engaging in emotion!!!

  • Brad Matthies


    While I have no objection to atheists emphasizing these things, I do
    find myself disappointed by the fact that arguments and knowledge which
    are a product of  liberal religion are being viewed as atheist arguments
    and viewpoints, to such an extent that when liberal religious believers
    say the same things, they are viewed as borrowing from atheists, rather
    than vice versa.”

    Wow! Busy thread! I had planned to comment sooner but did not have time.

    My response is mainly to the above quote. It’s based on having been on both sides of this riddle.

    For sure there are liberal theists who are the originators of certain viewpoints that many atheists espouse. The problem is that, for the most part, these liberal theists keep mostly quiet and limit their conversations to certain private circles.

    It’s great that these notions are explored in seminary, in graduate school, etc. However, if religious leaders do not pass it on to their congregants then nothing much will ever change. It needs to trickle down to John Q. Public.

    I had one priest explain it to me like this:

    “If I told half of what I truly thought to my congregation I’d be out of a job.”

    -B

     

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    I had one priest explain it to me like this: “If I told half of what I truly thought to my congregation I’d be out of a job.”

    This liberal priest says this like it’s a bad thing.

    • http://twitter.com/matthies67 Brad Matthies

      Well, in this economy and after you have spent a significant amount of time and money, I can understand his point. :-)

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Professor McGrath“On another level, it can be frustrating to have someone say many of the same things that you do, and marginalize you because of a relatively minor disagreement without acknowledging that those points on which you agree were largely the work of people with an outlook like your own.

    How do you feel about this, if you are a liberal religious believer, an atheist, or a person with some other sort of stance?”

    With regards to the question, here’s a substantive response:

    http://theologicalsushi.blogspot.com/2011/08/mind-your-presuppositions-or-they-will.html

    Excerpts: 

    “Mind Your Presuppositions or They Will Mind
    You

    In reading
    this post
    (http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/2011/08/22/are-atheists-basically-just-like-liberal-believers/)
    by James McGrath, who is a liberal New Testament scholar, I am struck once again
    at how oblivious scholars are to their own presuppositions. Let me say a few
    words to give background here first.Most people think that scholars are
    so well educated that they have thought through their positions from A to Z and
    back again. Nothing could be further from the truth. A scholar who has done this
    is actually a rare bird. Most scholars simply regurgitate information and ideas
    that they have read in other people, especially when those ideas/theories are
    widely accepted. If you’re careful when you read them, many of them make what is
    called ad populum arguments. An ad populum argument is one where
    the majority opinion is appealed to in order to establish some authority for
    that opinion. Of course, this is a logical fallacy if it is given as the sole
    argument for a position. The majority of scholars once held to numerous
    positions we now know are false.Other scholars tend to suggest new
    things based upon the information they’ve read in yet other scholars, but this
    often assumes that those things widely accepted by other scholars are true. Most
    scholars don’t go over that ground again. They accept the conclusions, if only
    in a very wide sense, of those who preceded them.Now, addressing
    McGrath’s post, I think he has misunderstood the relationship between liberal
    scholarship and atheism. He is right that atheists adopt some things from
    liberals, but the relationship largely goes back to presuppositions shared
    between the two groups. Liberal scholarship accepted similar conclusions to
    atheism because they both presuppose the same things in their methodologies of
    inquiry. They are both empiricists in determining truth for our world. The
    liberal just adds some spirituality via other avenues; but they both
    interpret what can be known about reality through empiricism, and that assumes
    first an absence of revelation embodied within the biblical text (or any text
    for that matter). It assumes a particular view of human ability to
    comprehensively know something, since the naturalist believes in a closed
    universe, and ironically (and in contradiction to his worldview I might add)
    that humans are capable of knowing reality as it exists. The facts he knows are
    not, therefore, partial (i.e., with both physical and spiritual properties), but
    complete, as long as he has exhausted his physical analysis of those facts.”

    (Do read the rest of this post.  And if you should like to engage the author of this post, comment directly on his thread.  Not here.)

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Well, that’s of course the marketing claim made by Christian fundamentalists, as though they have access to divine revelation unmediated by their assumptions, upbringing, experience and much else. 

    My own story is one I have told many times, including recently in a post with the title “Not Born This Liberal” (it makes sense if you read the backstory). I became a liberal against my will, because the Bible forced me to. The conservative Christian, on the other hand, is someone willing to defend their doctrine about Scripture even from the evidence in the Bible itself.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve found more in common with Atheists and Fundies than with Liberal Christians. 

  • newenglandsun

    That’s right. I remember reading this in a book by Hugh Ross.