Progressive Christian Truth

Kimberly Knight wrote the following words in the conclusion to her post, “A lesbian and a fundamentalist walk into a bar”:

We as progressives tend to bend over backward to affirm all paths as equal. But to be raw and honest, I believe there is a capital T truth and I do not believe it is on the path that Billy currently is following. The true north of Scripture is Love, a love that is active with in-breaking Grace, a love that liberates us from the small minds and wills of men to live into the Spirit of freedom and justice for all. If I really, really believe this, then I can not claim that Billy’s truth is True any more than he can acknowledge my truth to be True.

Click through to read the context.

I think that it may be because many of us who are progressive Christians started out more conservative, that we tend to recognize that sometimes it takes time to develop and mature in one's views. And having changed our minds, particularly if we now think that we were previously mistaken, we may be hesitant to insist that now we have got things all sorted out.

Figuring out when to be adamant and adopt a hard line, when to simply agree to disagree, and when to recognize a viewpoint as legitimate for the immature while unhealthy in the mature, can be challenging.

Take for instance the Mr. Deity video which Hemant Mehta shared on his blog recently, asking whether one can be a good skeptic and believe in God. Its answer is a sarcastic roundabout “no.” But the video ignores that “God” can denote more than one idea, and focuses most of its attention not on the existence of God, but on dowsing rods and other such things which skeptics who do and do not believe in God would be allied in debunking.

There have been plenty of Deists and Pantheists who have been not merely skeptics, but leading skeptics and freethinkers. To claim that belief in God is incompatible with skepticism seems to fly in the face of the evidence, and to sow division where skepticism and critical thinking might have the potential to bring people together.

But maybe that just my misguided attempt to assert some progressive Christian Truth with a capital “T.”


  • Pseudonym

    I firmly believe that anyone who tries to argue that skepticism and theism are incompatible, and does not even mention Martin Gardner, has not made a serious attempt to understand the issue.

    • Sabio Lantz

      I replied — but if I don’t put it below your name, you won’t be notified.

  • Sabio Lantz

    Couple issues:

    (1) I don’t think you can be a skeptic and believe in demons. Well, wait, it all depends on how you define demons. Well, you can’t be a skeptic and believe that Elvis’ ghost lives with you. Well, I guess it depends on what you call a ghost. The list goes on.
    Sure, you have to define, but not the conversation got boring. A miracle working, natural law breaking, damning and rewarding, giving-a-shit God clearly does not exist. Play with “God” in lots of ways so you can still embrace the traditions of the dominant culture but I will stay skeptic of that too.

    (2) Can people be skeptical in part of their life, and not skeptical in others. We all lead partitioned lives. All of us have areas where we don’t question — where we aren’t skeptical. So yes, you can be skeptical in some areas of your life and still believe in God (depending how you define it or ignore it).

    • Pseudonym

      You’re absolutely right that it depends how you define your terms. Unfortunately, in the Internet forms of these debates, the fundamentalist definitions are often assumed by default.

      As to the second point, you’re right, but it’s also often assumed (in the Internet forms of these debates) that anything other than atheism implies that a person was not skeptical in the religious part of their life. (Hence, my comment about Martin Gardner, who is an almost perfect counter-example to any such argument.)

      • Sabio Lantz

        Also, their are degrees of skepticism. There are things we aren’t willing to give up. For instance, Jim probably won’t give up the label “Christian” no matter how skeptical he is. “Christian” is far to valuable for him to sacrifice without a much higher demand than reason.

        • Pseudonym

          I do have to say that this argument has always confused me. I’m not sure what relationship self-identification (“the label” as you put it) has with skeptical methodology. How is that even relevant?

          • Sabio Lantz

            Much of self-deception and tribal blindness is fed by the part of the mind which tries to hold together some temporary stable self — an identity. So to undermine self-deception, it is useful to undermine identity. Identity may be useful but when it is our master, it is often a problem for someone.

  • Nick Gotts

    The claim that scepticism and god-belief are compatible is parallel to the claim that science and religion are compatible. They are clearly true in one sense: religious scientists exist, and sceptics (in the sense of people active in sceptical movements) who believe in a god exist. Mehta wouldn’t deny that obvious truth. The interesting question is whether the epistemological stances of religion and science, or of scepticism and god-belief, are compatible. I would say that they are not: science and scepticism both dismiss claims about the world for which there is no good evidence. (This dismissal is provisional – if good evidence comes to light for Bigfoot, or alien abductions, or a god, then it should be reconsidered.) Religion, including god-belief, generally makes a virtue of belief without adequate evidence. I don’t think the case of Martin Gardner is a counter-example, because he admitted there were no rational grounds for his god-belief. He was thus being epistemologically inconsistent, because he dismissed other claims where there were no rational grounds for belief.

    Of course you can drain god-belief of any factual content, as I think James McGrath does, and as those such as Dom Cupitt certainly do. (If this is false of you, James, could you specify any discovery that would, or rationally should, lead you to renounce your god-belief?) But this is a recent fashion (except perhaps in certain forms of Buddhism), a defensive response to the growth of science and scepticism.

    • Pseudonym

      Just a few observations on this comment. You made the statement that the epistemological stances of religion and science, or of skepticism and god-belief, are incompatible.

      You then followed this up with an argument against which included the word “generally”. If the claim is that skepticism and god-belief are often or even usually incompatible, then I don’t actually have a problem with that claim. But by that measure, most atheists are epistemologically inconsistent, too.

      I disagree with pretty much all of the last paragraph, which I think is a misreading of history. Religion comes from a time in pre-history when “religion”, “culture”, “music”, “art”, “ethnic identity”, and “medicine” were not distinct concepts.

      The insistence on facts and factual claims is actually something of a latecomer to religion. It’s not something that was ever absent exactly, but then neither was what you call “draining [...] of factual content”. (I dispute that. To paraphrase James, different factual content is not the same thing as no factual content.) The hyper-insistence on facts and factual claims really only became a mainstream thing during the Reformation and Enlightenment, and caused a lot of eisegesis in the intervening few centuries.

      If it helps, consider that it’s a simple fact of history that Christian fundamentalism was a reaction to the Christian liberalism of the 18th and 19th century.

      • Nick Gotts

        I think you’re just wrong in your criticism of my last paragraph. Our knowledge of prehistoric religion is, necessarily, very limited, and you’re right that the degree of emphasis on factual claims has varied, but can you name a single religious tradition or group before the 20th century – apart, possibly, from certain forms of Buddhism – that has not made them? In Christianity and Islam, certainly, factual claims have been promulgated, disputed, and frequently fought over, throughout their history.

        As you say, fundamentalism is relatively recent – it’s an alternative defensive response to the growth of science and scepticism as well as a reaction to Christian liberalism. The latter was itself such a defensive response, ceding ground which the liberals judged to be indefensible; 20th century non-realist approaches are the extreme version of this response.

        If you can identify for me a single factual claim that is part of James McGrath’s religion, I’ll be very surprised: I haven’t managed to pin him down to a single one!

        • Pseudonym

          Our knowledge of prehistoric religion is limited, but we’re pretty sure that indigenous animist religions (e.g. Australian aboriginal religion), which existed until the modern era (and in some sense still exist in limited forms) are close.

          I can’t think of any religion which makes no factual claims at all, even certain forms of Buddhism. At a minimum, every system of practice carries the implicit claim that “it works for me”. However, I don’t think that’s relevant.

          I think you’re spinning the history of Christian liberalism, but a full discussion of that topic necessarily requires quite a lot of detail, and this medium is not conducive to that. I will briefly state my position, though.

          An apologist against liberal Christianity might make the claim that Christian liberalism was a response to forces in wider thinking and society. An apologist for might make the claim that liberal Christianity somehow caused said forces in wider society. My opinion, and I think this is the academic consensus form historians who study the period, is that the actual relationship between the two was much more complex than either apologetic position would suggest. They grew up together and were, in a very deep sense, symbiotic.

          By the way, the same is true of many (though not all!) liberal movements throughout European history, from anti-feudalism movements, women’s suffrage, anti-Nazi and anti-Communist movements, the US civil rights movement, and so on.

          As for James, he can speak for himself. However, James is an academic of ancient history, language and texts, and this blog contains a lot of factual claims about that. How are these not facts that are part of his religion?

          • Nick Gotts

            It’s a mistake to think we can be pretty sure modern indigenous religions (which vary widely among themselves) are close to prehistoric ones; we just don’t know. We do know the cultures of small societies change quite fast through contact with industrial societies – clothes, tools, foods, language – and there’s no particular reason to think religions are different. (For specific cases where we know religious change occurred, consider the “cargo cults” of New Guinea and nearby areas, and the “ghost dance” and peyote rituals of some of the indigenous cultures of North America.)

            I agree that “it works for me” is not relevant; it wasn’t what I had in mind with regard to factual claims.

            I’m not deliberately spinning the history of Christian liberalism, and I’d agree there was a lot of interaction between its development and those of science and scepticism, but I think the key cultural and technical developments that inaugurated modern science preceded anything you could reasonably call Christian liberalism. On this, see Alfred W. Crosby The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society 1250-1600 – a fascinating read.

            James’ factual claims about ancient history, language and texts could all be held by the most ardent atheist (indeed, he seems admirably careful not to let his religion influence them, as far as I can judge), so I don’t consider them part of his religion.

            • Pseudonym

              We don’t “know” in an absolute sense, but to say that we therefore can’t be pretty sure based on the considerable evidence that we have is kind of obtuse. It’s a bit like Ken Ham’s “were you there?” argument. Actually, it’s a lot like that argument now that I think about it.

              FWIW, I’m not accusing you of deliberately spinning the history of Christian liberalism. I’m not a mind-reader and I don’t want to play armchair psychologist. I do think you’re oversimplifying it.

              I do find it interesting that you seem to think that if an “ardent atheist” could agree with it, then by definition it can’t be part (let alone a crucial part) of a religion. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

              • Nick Gotts

                Really, your first claim here is just silly. To assume that modern small-scale societies resemble prehistoric societies, when we know that such modern small-scale societies change rapidly and radically once in contact with our own, and when their beliefs vary widely among themselves, is simply unjustified. One of the main prejudices anthropology has had to overcome is the belief that such societies are unchanging. Moreover, we have physical evidence to the contrary. How many modern or recent small-scale societies construct massive megalithic monuments, as the societies of neolithic Europe did? How many produce “Venus figurines”? How many go in for human sacrifice? How many throw valuable items into bogs?

                In what sense do you regard James’s beliefs about ancient history, languages and texts as religious? Be specific, please.

        • Sabio Lantz

          Hey boys,

          I thought I give you both a fine blog in which to learn more about prehistoric religion — and religion in general.

          It’s author, Cris, is an anthropologist (among many other things) and fantastic writer.

          • Sabio Lantz

            maybe you could post your claims to him and see which side he takes. It would be instructive, if nothing else.

          • Nick Gotts

            Thanks – looks interesting.
            (The rest of this comment added later.)
            Here is a highly relevant post, with Campbell agreeing with a criticism of Richard Dawkins’ view of the Yanomami as ahistorical, noting that their current culture is the result of centuries of interaction with states and empires. As is that of every modern small-scale society (with the possible, exception, I suppose of the Sentinelese people, whose habit of greeting all outsiders with a hail of arrows makes detailed assessment of their religious beliefs and practices rather tricky).

  • Nick Gotts

    But the video ignores that “God” can denote more than one idea

    Your favourite refrain: that critics of religion ignore the minuscule minority of religious people who don’t include any factual claims in their religion.

    focuses most of its attention not on the existence of God, but on
    dowsing rods and other such things which skeptics who do and do not
    believe in God would be allied in debunking.

    Just like atheists who believe in Bigfoot, dowsing and alien abductions could be allied with atheists who don’t in debunking religion – but we don’t count them as good sceptics. The whole point of the video is that religion shouldn’t be treated as a special case.

    • James F. McGrath

      Religion should not be treated as a special case. But the video doesn’t address the actual views of people who self-identify as freethinkers and find the term God useful and applicable. It simply does not follow that because dowsing does not work, therefore Deism is false.

      • Nick Gotts

        But you are treating religion as a special case. Deism* is in exactly the same position as leprechaunism – there is no evidence to support it. Or would you say that believers in leprechauns can be good sceptics, provided they “identify as freethinkers”?

        *Assuming you mean by this something that actually has some factual content, i.e. is true or false. If you mean something that doesn’t have any factual content, why should every criticism of religion address this position of a tiny minority of those who consider themselves religious? Just tell yourself “Well, he clearly doesn’t mean me, because I don’t actually believe in anything supernatural” and let it ride.

        • James F. McGrath

          If you think that the Deist concept of God and leprechauns are the same sort of thing, then you must be very poorly informed about one or the other.

          • Nick Gotts

            They are the same sort of thing in the relevant respect: that there is no evidence that either of them exists. If you dispute this, kindly provide the evidence.

            • James F. McGrath

              One can clearly reason from the fact that our universe has a beginning in a manner that I find no equivalent for in leprechaunism.

              • Nick Gotts

                That is not evidence of the existence of a god of any kind. If you claim it is, kindly supply the relevant reasoning.

                • James F. McGrath

                  I am not interested in repeating arguments which you have in the past indicated that you are familiar with. What I expect from you is an explanation of why a philosophical argument to a necessarily-existent first cause is on the same level as superstition.

                  • Nick Gotts

                    All the so-called philosophical arguments for the existence of a god are rather obviously faulty, the faults have been pointed out repeatedly, and all of them were, historically, produced “backwards”, i.e. their inventors started from the conclusion that they wanted, not from evidence (they were, as far as I know, all produced before there was any evidence the universe had a beginning).

                    Hence god-belief is superstition.

                    • James F. McGrath

                      It is very easy to say that they are “obviously” faulty. It is also easy to accuse those one disagrees with of starting from their conclusions and working backwards. But the truth remains that plenty of philosophers who are thoroughly opposed to superstition have found them persuasive. To simply equate such views to superstition, regardless of whether you personally find them persuasive, is mere polemical rhetoric, nothing more.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Even if philosophers “thoroughly opposed to superstition” have found them persuasive (which I dispute – only within theology and philosophy of religion, which most other philosophers despise as intellectually vacuous, are any of them still taken seriously), this would not be evidence that they are not obviously faulty. First, some of them rely on premises, such as “Every event has a cause” or the so-called “principle of sufficient reason”, now regarded as false or undetermined. Second, it is simple historical fact that they were produced (and propagated) by people already convinced of and emotionally invested in the truth of their conclusions; and under such conditions, people do frequently find obviously faulty arguments convincing. You made the claim that there are non-superstitious grounds for god-belief, but have completely failed to produce any. If anyone were to make a claim for the existence of leprechauns but similarly fail, their claim that their belief was not superstition would rightly be dismissed. Why should yours be treated any differently?

                    • James F. McGrath

                      It is a simple historical fact that most of the arguments against the existence of God were produced by people emotionally invested in the outcome, but I do not think that has any bearing on their soundness one way or the other.

                      Being incorrect is not the same thing as being superstitious, and disagreeing with Nick Gotts does not automatically make one guilty of superstition either.

                      I refuse to believe that you cannot see that there are fundamental differences between what is involved in arguing to a first cause and what is involved in arguing for leprechauns as things which exist within our universe on our own planet.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      It is a simple historical fact that most of the arguments against the existence of God were produced by people emotionally invested in the outcome, but I do not think that has any bearing on their soundness one
                      way or the other.

                      It was you who claimed that the fact that some philosophers have found the arguments for god-belief convincing implied that they were not obviously faulty; that this is not the case was my only point there. My view is indeed that arguments should be assessed on their merits, but you refuse to put forward any arguments for god-belief that you believe to be sound, so I can’t do that in this case. Moreover, I’m not arguing against the existence of a god, simply saying there is no more reason to believe in one than in leprechauns.

                      Among the main requirements of scepticism are a conscientious effort to be clear about exactly what one believes, and on what grounds. When it comes to god-belief, you are systematically evasive on both points.

                      Being incorrect is not the same thing as being superstitious, and disagreeing with Nick Gotts does not automatically make one guilty of superstition either.

                      I agree; that’s why I neither said nor implied anything of the kind.

                      I refuse to believe that you cannot see that there are fundamental differences between what is involved in arguing to a first cause and what is involved in arguing for leprechauns as things which exist within
                      our universe on our own planet.

                      Of course there are differences, but none relevant to whether god-belief is epistemologically compatible with scepticism.