Randal Rauser is Wrong Again

Christian theology professor Randal Rauser messed up his characterization of atheists last week.

He tried again this week. Once again, he failed.

So here are my top three pet peeves when it comes to atheist assumptions about Christian beliefs.

First, atheists often assume that Christians are committed to one specific concept of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, namely the kind that can be summarized as follows: “the Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it”.

We know better than that.

The fundamentalists who treat the Bible as inerrant are the biggest problem. They’re usually the ones who ruin science education and end up getting elected to public office.

Some of those Christians may not believe in a 6,000-year-old Earth or a literal Adam and Eve, but they’re just as guilty when it comes to pushing pro-Christian government policies.

But our anger is also directed at liberal Christians who may not subscribe to conservatives policies either. They promote prayer and the idea of Heaven and the notion that Jesus died for others’ sins.

It’s all superstition and it’s all nonsense, regardless of what form it comes in. We’ll go after irrationality however Christians want to offer it.

Second, atheists commonly assume that Christians are committed to the most restricted conception of salvation, namely that only those who verbally assent to the proposition “Jesus is Lord” will be saved.

But the reality is that some Christians are inclusivists, accepting that many who never hear let alone assent to the proposition “Jesus is Lord” will be saved. And one Christian trajectory (which has existed since at least the third century) is universalistic, affirming that all will be saved.

That’s a pet peeve? What the heck does it matter? No one’s getting saved, anyway.

That’s like me saying you lump all of us as “atheists” when we’re really atheists, humanists, Brights, and skeptics.

It might be a big deal within our own ranks, but no one who believes in God gives two shits what we call ourselves.

Finally, atheists assume that Christians are committed to one particular conception of God’s action in the world, namely one in which God occasionally overrides (and thereby violates) natural law to actualize a miracle. Again, that is but one view. There are literally dozens of conceptions of God’s divine action that range from the view that God causes everything to the view that God causes nothing.

By my count, we’ve accused theists of believing in a god who performs miracles, created the world, hates gay sex, subjugates women, and despises contraceptives, and whose followers now appear in bird crap.

And most of those are just from the past week.

God does all sorts of stuff… that he doesn’t actually do.

All this is common knowledge among academic theologians, but is rare knowledge indeed among atheists. How should we explain this? In some cases that I know personally this is explained by the fact that certain atheists had a bad experience at church when a youngster or teenager, and never progressed beyond the level of Sunday school theology.

I’d love to hear something a theologian has to say about a god that is different from “Sunday school theology” that would actually change how atheists think about god.

They know no more about god that any random churchgoer. They just know how to phrase their thoughts using bigger words.

And finally, we get the most ironic comment of them all:

Be that as it may, my earnest appeal to atheists would be this: if you care enough about Christianity to refute it as thoroughly as you purport to do, then don’t be content with a mere caricature based on a faded memory of bad Sunday school experiences. Read the full range of academic and popular theology first so as to understand what Christians really believe. And leave the straw man to the Wizard of Oz.

Right back at you, buddy.

I’ll add one additional thought: The reason atheists attack Rauser’s “primitive” form of Christianity is because that is indeed what most Christians believe.

Most Christians aren’t as “sophisticated” as Rauser seems to think he is.

Most, if not all, Christians believe in a god who listens to prayers, watches over us, created the world and the creatures inside of it, loves us all, and who we will meet in Heaven.

I’m certain they’re wrong about every one of those beliefs.

Do the theologians discredit all of those ideas? Then, I might be interested in what they have to say.

  • zoo

    All this is common knowledge among academic theologians, but is rare knowledge indeed among atheists.

    I don’t suppose you asked any. I will admit that sometimes it slips my mind because I was raised with those beliefs and was not exposed much, if at all, to others (being told from birth that that’s the only way to properly believe tends to do that to a person). Besides that, when it’s people who subscribe to that particular set of beliefs that are messing things up for everyone, why shouldn’t we focus on them?

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    Let me get this right. Atheists pour scorn on the ridiculous religious beliefs of very vocal and harmful Christians. In doing so we are not accounting for the subtle inclusive ideas of quiet, liberal theologians. Well whoop de do for us. If those quiet, liberal theologians would speak up and put down the real harm that fundies do then perhaps we atheists could go back to ignoring religion as a silly waste of time.

    Why they don’t speak up in support of atheists who attack these harmful beliefs I don’t know. They seem to be saying that they do not support the wrong headed fundamentalism that leads to creationism, violence and oppression but what are they doing about it? Criticising the atheists who speak up. Is it because the fundy beliefs are closer to the liberal religious beliefs so that they see themselves on the same side?

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    Well, yes there are any number of theologians who would reject the idea of God as a person, the supernatural, a literal heaven or hell, etc. That isn’t hard to find. And to be honest your description of liberal Christianity is a bit off in that sense. Admittedly that may not form most of Christianity but I’m sure you caught the news of the Episcopal Church’s inclusion of gay and lesbians in the church at their general convention or the head of the church calling for a deep religious pluralism. So while not the majority, there are actually religious congregations and movements that mirror the concerns that are evident on this site.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Randal Rauser is Wrong Again

    Dog bites man.

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    What are we doing about it? Churches have taken great personal risk, loss in support of these liberal principles (which is likely to lead to the Episcopal church’s ouster from the Anglican Communion, the United Church of Christ has lost whole regional associations because of their stance for inclusion, my own denomination Disciples of Christ has split three times because liberal conservative battles, etc). I dare say that churches, not secular organizations have not just been in the front line but actually sacrificed quite a bit on behalf of equality, etc. And that’s a good thing. I don’t expect atheists to become theists for that, or even to get a medal (doing the right thing should be done regardless of cost). Just a recognition that we need each other, we are allies in much of the same issues and concerns (and that working together for these ends matters more cathartic exercise of denouncing folks who are not in 100% agreement.)

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I hear that there are intelligent, tolerant Christians who believe in and are willing to stand up for separation of church and state. I even believe it, and have met a very few. But everyone coin in my pocket tells me they are a small minority.

  • rubberduck

    No, professor Rauser you get it all wrong.We sceptics regard ALL religions as delusions, not just christianity and it matters nothing whether the believer is an academic og Joe six-pack.You are trying to complicate a very simple subject.
    Some believers are peaceful and caring
    Some believers are ignorant
    Some believers are violent and fanatic
    But they all have one thing in common: The belief in a myth
    As humanists we can not sit idle by and watch deluded people influencing society and other peoples lives based on mythology, be it nordic, greek, arabic or christian

  • SarahH

    I think it makes many theists a lot more comfortable to believe that atheists simply had bad experiences at Sunday school and don’t know very much about Christianity. That way, they don’t have to face the fact that the world is teeming with atheists who know their theology, are well-versed in Biblical content and analysis, and are generally more religiously literate than most Christians.

    I think it’s much more comfortable for some theists to think that we simply don’t understand what religion is about or that we haven’t heard the whole story. That way, they can assume that we’d *totally* be Christians if we weren’t so ignorant of the “facts” involved.

  • Cafeeine

    Dwight, one of the best things for moderate and liberal believers to do, IMO is to embrace secularity in society, instead of leaving the idea solely to atheists. I’m willing to work and support anyone, no matter their beliefs, who wishes to keep the public square and science secular. My problem with even the more liberal believers I meet is that each considers their own interpretation of religion inoffensive, and advocates treating it as a neutral position in society. The exceptions I meet simply verify the rule.

  • Ron in Houston

    I don’t know – which approach is better?

    a. The Christian group that condemns all Muslims as evil and worthy of hell; or

    b. The Christian group that meets Muslims talks to them as equals and seeks to understand one another

    a(1) The atheist groups that calls all religious folks delusional idiots; or

    b(1) The atheist group that meets religious folks talks to them as equals and seeks to understand one another

    I know this one choice involves a lot more work and the other is quite easy.

  • SarahH

    @Cafeeine

    Great point! I’m going to start a thread about this on the forums, as I think it nails the problem that often stops liberal theists and atheists from collaborating.

  • Sascha

    Where I grew up, Rauser’s description is very apt. Someone saying, “my church doesn’t believe that” isn’t trying to convert you, they’re stating a fact about themselves.

    Want to find those people? Try not telling them, “Nuh-uh, you DO believe X because you’re a Christian and that’s what “the majority of” those crazies DO. Come back when you’re not a Christian and then maybe I’ll listen when you say we have something in common.”

    Try separating your (and many Christians’) goal of enforcing true separation of church and state from your desire to show Christians how destructive/ridiculous ALL belief is. Christians don’t need to renounce their church to support removing religious references from secular life or to decry harmful, bigoted religious practices, just as atheists don’t need to join a church to support charities and responsible living.

  • penn

    His only real complaint seems to be that we sometimes use the term “Christians” when we mean “fundamentalist Christians”. As Hemant says, he’s clearly doing the same thing with atheists, but his error is only egregious because it’s so hypocritical.

    It’s pretty obvious that we don’t sit around complaining about liberal deistic Christians because we don’t have major problems with them. If you believe in a god that doesn’t or can’t interfere in the universe, then whatever. I’d argue that you might as well be an atheist, since your god is no different than a non-existent one, but I don’t really care.

    I do care if you call yourself a Christian, and you don’t help us when other Christians try to destroy science education, threaten doctors, or move us towards a theocracy. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim to be reasonable modern people, and turn a blind eye to the extremists in your midst.

  • Aj

    Randal Rauser: Second, atheists commonly assume that Christians are committed to the most restricted conception of salvation, namely that only those who verbally assent to the proposition “Jesus is Lord” will be saved.

    Not the atheists that I read.

    Randal Rauser: Finally, atheists assume that Christians are committed to one particular conception of God’s action in the world, namely one in which God occasionally overrides (and thereby violates) natural law to actualize a miracle. Again, that is but one view. There are literally dozens of conceptions of God’s divine action that range from the view that God causes everything to the view that God causes nothing.

    No, that’s not dozens that’s three: Monotheism, pantheism, and deism. Christians are not deists, that leaves two. Whether a god causes everything or only some things doesn’t make much difference to the suspension of natural laws, it only changes the dependency of those laws.

    Randal Rauser: Read the full range of academic and popular theology first so as to understand what Christians really believe.

    Because that will be a representative sample of what Christians actually believe, that it will be a more favourable representation of what some Christians believe, or that atheists won’t have time to criticize religion drowned in a lake of bullshit? Much of the theology we are directed to is impenetrable nonsense. I seriously doubt most Christians could explain it, or have read the Christian theology that Randal Rauser wants us to.

    No theology has to be studied if it does not add any new arguments or evidence supporting a belief in God. We don’t have to read fairy-ology to reject fairies. Quite unbelievably atheists focus on theology that is harmful or popular

  • Brent

    I find it interesting that he automatically made the connection between criticizing one subset of Christians and attacking Christianity as a whole. Maybe there’s not as much space between the fundamentalists and the fuzzy liberal theologians as Mr Rauser believes.

    I will say that I did move through the liberal beliefs that Mr Rauser describes on my way out the door of the church. It was easy enough to discard the miracles, and the condemnation of others, and the self-loathing. But at a certain point the whole exercise seemed to become pointless. You can discard everything in the package, but why hold on to the wrapper? So I just kind of blew through Mr Rauser’s Neighborhood at warp speed.

    I’m sure Mr Rauser would understand. Or not. Doesn’t really matter that much.

  • Claudia

    This is a classic case of what Dawkins has always warned us about. The “sophisticated theologian” (bear with me on the terminology) insisting that our arguments have no merit because we only fight against the most patently absurd version of the deity; the one that literally created the Universe 6000 years ago and thought 2 of every animal on a boat was possible.

    The argument is that of course we sophisticated theologians understand that this is but an oversimplified and ignorant version of God. My God is much more distant and subtle, and by not engaging my god you are fighting straw-men!

    There are two glaring problems with this argument:
    One problem is that at it’s core, the sophisticated liberal quasi-deist Christian’s god has as much evidence for it as the Bible-thumping holy-roller god, which is to say none at all. The deity is much less offensive in that there is less evidence that directly contradicts it’s existence and that it is a lot less likely to want to smite you.

    The other is a more insidious problem. The “sophisticated theologians” use this softer more philosophical god in their arguments with rationalists because they understand that allows them to argue in purely abstract ways with people who are intellectually equipped to challenge them. But their hypocrisy is betrayed because they know full well that the VAST majority of the actual faithful believe in a much more literal, bearded and judgmental god.

    They want us to argue against their philosophical smoke while they happily allow the masses of the faithful to believe in the sky-daddy. Hence the only provable manifestations of the gods, which are the actions of their worshippers, are those corresponding to the smite-happy sky-daddy, and therefore it is entirely appropriate that we spend the bulk of our time criticizing that.

  • Siamang

    I think Mr. Rauser needs to clean up his own house before condemning ours.

    As Hemant said, we’ve got believers right now, a whole planetload of them, apparently relying on their ‘unsophisticated sunday-school’ version of Christianity to attack gays, subjugate women, promote war, promote the spread of disease, etc…

    ATHEISTS are the problem in THEIR unsophisticated view of Christianity?!?!?

  • Rieux

    I’ll add one additional thought: The reason atheists attack Rauser’s “primitive” form of Christianity is because that is indeed what most Christians believe.

    Most Christians aren’t as “sophisticated” as Rauser seems to think he is.

    Most, if not all, Christians believe in a god who listens to prayers, watches over us, created the world and the creatures inside of it, loves us all, and who we will meet in Heaven.

    I’m certain they’re wrong about every one of those beliefs.

    Do the theologians discredit all of those ideas? Then, I might be interested in what they have to say.

    Y’know, I’ve seen some ’Net atheists (though not, as far as I can remember, big well-known ones) sneer at Hemant and this blog for being too accommodationist and lukewarm and “Friendly” toward religion.

    Then I read stuff like the above, and I think–what the hell are those people talking about?

  • Siamang

    Dwight, thanks for commenting here.

    I dare say that churches, not secular organizations have not just been in the front line but actually sacrificed quite a bit on behalf of equality, etc.

    True, we’ve witnessed these splits recently. But I’d say that churches often aren’t at the front-lines of this, but rather the back end of the wave.

    Welcome to Gay Rights, liberal churches of the 21st century. Where the hell were they when we were marching 20, 30, 40 years ago?

    Just like Hemant said with Jimmy Carter… the ultimate symbol of a liberal in a conservative religious tradition. I react with similar incredulity that this man, this GIANT among the liberal faithful, just NOW (well, in 2000) realizes that Gee, Darn, the Southern Baptist Convention is a wee bit against gender equality?!?!

    I’m shocked, SHOCKED, after being a member for the past 60 years, to find that the SBC subjugates women.

    Dwight, I don’t want to jump on you here. Because I want your voice here. You and I agree broadly on the issues that we face as Americans who advocate for pluralism, diversity and a higher moral standard of inclusiveness. I do value your voice in this discussion. But by the same token, please see my frustration that by and large, organized religion in this country seems to lag the broad consensus when it comes to these issues.

    Even to the point where LIBERAL churches are now awakening to gay rights, as if the movement began with Ellen DeGeneres.

  • http://www.scoutingforall.org Brian Westley

    Ellen DeGeneres is teh gay??!!!1!!

  • Miko

    Our arguments may apply to liberal Christians as well, but hopefully not our anger.

  • Siamang

    I agree with Miko.

    Also, I did want to bring up one further point. When I said this:

    I’m shocked, SHOCKED, after being a member for the past 60 years, to find that the SBC subjugates women.

    I want to highlight the fact that if this wasn’t a church…. if this was the policy for a country club or a fraternal order, Carter would have left decades ago. It would have been absolutely unacceptable that he would remain a member of this organization.

    If it were the policy of a private company that they wouldn’t allow a senior vice president to be gay…. and it threatened to break apart the corporation over this… It would be completely ludicrous.

    Churches don’t act like they’re run by adults.

    I think this is a function of the fact that they claim to be a source of moral direction. But they fail to have a consistent method for telling a true claim from a false claim using the tools of theology.
    This is further inflamed because they fail to recognize that they have no such tool.

    They continue to act as if they have tools which work. Which leads to arguments which cannot be resolved conclusively, as both sides of the moral argument have equally verifiable justification within theology. Both sides can invariably quote scripture backing their view. Which leads to impasse and schism.

    This impasse is subject to the question of whether this is a bug or a feature of religion. I say “bug”. If religion is supposed to be a source of truth, then it must supply a methodology for telling spiritual truth (or in this case moral truth) from spiritual falsehood. Without this method, all religion is is institutionalized (canonized, ossified) opinion.

    My problem with (even liberal religion), is not just that it lacks the tools to tell a true spiritual hypothesis from a false one… but that it acts like religion itself IS a working tool to do just that. It promotes itself as having answers (or at least a path and method) for getting closer to that. It’s not just noticing that there’s an illness, it promotes itself as the cure.

    Listen, some moral arguments have no cut and dried solutions. I’m going to grant that. These are things that are hard to figure out, and no answer will be perfect for all people at all times in all situations.

    But to claim to have an answer actually confuses the problem rather than clarifying it. Which is why the suicide rate is so high among gay teenagers of religious conservative families. It’s not the conservatism that is the problem, per se. It’s the concept that they have all the answers already and they have a working toolkit to provide answers that runs them into trouble.

  • Loren Petrich

    Metacrock makes similar arguments all the time in his blog. But neither him, Randal Rauser, or other self-congratulating “liberals” have much taste for confronting the fundies about how wrong they are, or confronting Sunday-school teachers for depicting God in dangerously misleading ways, or anything of that sort. They much prefer enabling the fundies to nailing their theses on fundie churches’ doors.

    I sometimes have a conspiracy theory that they are happy about promotion of such falsehoods because that’s what keeps the rear ends in the pews and the money flowing into their pockets.

    In any case, their arguments often seem like PZ Myers’s Courtier’s Reply. And their beliefs? They may not be very public about that because they may not want to expose their wooziness and heresies. John Haught in Salon claimed that Jesus Christ’s resurrection was such an exalted event that it could not have been recorded by something so crassly materialistic as a camera.

    As to churches being behind the curve, that’s correct in many cases. In the civil-rights movement, the only churches that were consistently supportive were the black churches, and black-church elders sometimes complained about how disrespectful and irreligious the more secular civil-rights activists often were. Yes, many of them were essentially secular or “spiritual but not religious”. Though Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was surprised that one of them was an atheist, he considered Jesus Christ’s virgin birth less-than-convincing.

    Feminism? That’s been mostly secular, with the only religious components being various alternative religions and ultra-liberal variants of the common Abrahamic ones like the Unitarian Universalists.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    For an excellent read on the role of the godless in changing societal views on slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, etc. check out Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    In some cases that I know personally this is explained by the fact that certain atheists had a bad experience at church when a youngster or teenager, and never progressed beyond the level of Sunday school theology.

    I am SO. SICK. OF. THIS. BULLSHIT.

    I’m not an atheist because I had a bad experience with my religious upbringing. I’m an atheist because it WASN’T TRUE. Because I did more research into Christian theology than basic Sunday School crap, I now no longer believe it.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Rauser just won’t shut up about this

    Over the years I have found it frustrating that so many atheists reject a very narrow and often distorted conception of Christianity without realizing how much more complex this religious tradition is…

    Oh no, sir. I reject all versions of Christianity, and all other forms of theism as well. I guess Rauser is into The Big Lie: repeat it often enough, and people will believe it.

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    Problem is that their “sophisticated theology” is just as much bunk as the simple minded stuff, but you’ve got to wade through more pages of prose filled with meaningless words before you reach the conclusion. Philosophy is interesting, but theology is not.

    I think it’s important to continue to attack the commonly held versions of belief, while directing the more nuanced versions to a courtier’s reply. It’s not worth even debating with the nuanced stuff as they’re so nuanced that not even themselves know what ineffable transcendent stuff they believe in any more. If they can’t define it, we can’t debate it. To debate it is atheists loosing from the get-go (unless they’re very careful indeed) as they acknowledge their BS theological nonsense words.

  • David D.G.

    What a buffoon. This guy’s whole rant is nothing but a version of the Courtier’s Reply, condescendingly telling us that we are unfit to declare the emperor naked until we have become properly credentialled experts on the myriad fashion details of invisible attire.

    ~David D.G.

  • http://gaytheistagenda.lavenderliberal.com/ Buffy

    Rauser, from what I can see, is just another Xian who hates atheists and wants to make his living off that. He’s not as whacky as Ray Comfort but he’s as ignorant and contemptuous.

  • Neon Genesis

    Isn’t it hypocritical to complain about atheists stereotyping Christians by stereotyping all atheists? Methinks Rauser should pluck the shard out of his own eye first.

  • CatBallou

    Siamang, your explanation of religion’s lack of a tool for assessing truth claims really made something click for me. Thanks!

  • Ubi Dubium

    David D.G., you gave almost exactly the response I was going to post. He’s given us a classic example of the Courtier’s Reply. I wish he’d spend his energy fussing at the xians who preach kind of shallow biblical inerrancy that we see every day, instead of fussing at us for not being theologians. (As if he knows. Some of us undoubtedly are.) Nothing he has said is relevant to the question of whether there is a god.

    He’s talking to his flock, not to us. Even if his flock is a rather small group of liberal theology professors.

  • http://saganist.blogspot.com/ Saganist

    It sounds like his entire argument boils down to a No True Scotsman fallacy. Sure, not every Christian believes in every “Christian” belief that is criticized by atheists. But enough Christians seem to live on the ground, as opposed to the theological ivory tower Randal Rauser apparently lives in, that the criticism is worth making. Saying “not every Christian is like those Christians” is not a good defense of Christianity as a whole. It’s an irrelevant attempt to dodge the core question: where is the evidence to support any Christian belief?

  • Siamang

    Thanks CatBallou.

    I’m expanding on a sentiment I’ve posted many times before:

    I often ask the question, by which method can I tell a true theological idea from a false one, such that anyone, from any background or tradition can follow this method and come to the same conclusion? You will have noticed I have asked this question multiple times in this post. It’s because from years and years of asking this question of theists, *I have yet to get an answer*.

    For example:
    If I read a map wrong, I wind up in Des Moines instead of Chicago: falsehood discovered!
    If I do my taxes wrong, the IRS knocks on my door. Falsehood discovered.
    If I take the wrong medicine, I wind up sick or dead. Falsehood discovered.
    If I cook meat improperly, I get sick. Falsehood discovered.
    If I drive my car improperly, I crash or get arrested. Falsehood discovered.

    What happens if I pick the wrong religion? Really… how can anyone know? Big deal, you live your entire life as a Sikh or a Zoroastrian or a Jain or any of hundreds and hundreds of competing “one true worldviews”.

    Is it that I die and God tells me “sorry, it’s the Scientologists who were right. Sorry, bad guess dude, it’s ScientologyHell for you.”

    If religion is a source for truth, what is the method for determining truth so that anyone from any religious background can tell a true theological belief from a false one, just as surely as a bad map lands you in Des Moines rather than Chicago?

    At this point I’m getting past merely asking the question over and over, and moving to the notion that they have no method, and what discord that causes. I have begun to believe that the lack of a tool isn’t the main problem. It’s the belief that they HAVE such a tool that causes people’s lives to be so disrupted by religion.

    I know I was under constant psychic turmoil when I was a believer… trying desperately to discover God’s will for me…. and constantly bouncing from one thing to another looking for it.

  • Weemaryanne

    I don’t know why we’re expected to “read the full range of academic and popular theology first….” when it’s patently obvious that most believers haven’t read ANY of it, nor even their holy book for that matter.

  • Epistaxis

    He’s just using a strawman of “atheist assumptions” as a literary trick to get you to read his thoughts about the issues he wants to talk about. Don’t play into his hand.

  • http://62wendy.blogspot.com/ Wendy

    I was married to a pastor. I saw him through seminary, a very liberal seminary, and on into the United Methodist Church, where he served for 10 years.

    Yes, there are liberal Christians. They question the Trinity, and miracles, and the reality of the Book of Revelation. And after they get out into the ministry, they spend the rest of their lives screaming to the fundies, that they’re Christians too, while their congregations quietly ignore them and keep on reading the Left Behind books.

    Feh, liberal Christians. If they’d stop butt-kissing to the radicals, I might have enough respect to pay attention to them.

  • Todd

    if you care enough about Christianity to refute it as thoroughly as you purport to do, then don’t be content with a mere caricature based on a faded memory of bad Sunday school experiences.

    This is, quite possibly, the stupidest part of the entire rant. Put up or shut, Rauser, and define God. This is the problem with the smoke and mirrors Christians of Rauser ilk. They bitch and moan that we don’t take their mealy mouth, wishy washy version of Christianity as seriously as the mouthbreeding fundamentalists. At least with a fundamentalist, you get an actual declarative sentence that has some semantic underpinning. Personally, I am much more comfortable talking with a fundamentalist because they at least have some clue about the words coming out of their mouths.

    And what’s with the bad Sunday school experiences? All I remember from Sunday school was making fishing poles to catch paper fish, with bible verses on them. Was that supposed to be traumatic?

  • http://mylongapostasy.blogspot.com ATL-Apostate

    Sunday school was awesome. It was like story time at the public library … with refreshments!

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    “Welcome to Gay Rights, liberal churches of the 21st century. Where the hell were they when we were marching 20, 30, 40 years ago?”

    It should be noted that the Quakers came out with anti-discrimination language in the 60s, the first openly gay pastor in the United Church of Christ was 1972, most mainline Protestant bodies voiced by the late 70s that discrimination was wrong. The UCC and UUA developed denominational programs in the 1980s such as Open and Affirming that moved congregations to active celebration and in the more liberal churches by the 1990s, same sex unions were a fact in such places. Is that the majority? Not by a long shot. But in those liberal contexts they were with if not ahead much of the society.

    And that’s the problem with the no true scotsman fallacy…we’re not talking about a.the majority of Christians (I know that too well as a gay man) but b.we’re not talking about some isolated academic theologian here or there. We’re talking about something in the middle. That is, there is a substantive minority of Christians who do stand for progressive values. Any major city in the US would have such a church. By the time that Darwin can make it into the United Church of Canada’s creed, we’re talking about something more than many atheists grant and less than Randal Rauser pleadings.

  • Eliza

    Siamang,
    I’d missed (or forgotten? yikes!) your probing of theism from this angle. Excellent work. You have a knack for explaining your thinking so clearly, & using effective analogies. Do carry on!

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    The liberal theists in the larger pluralistic denominations don’t attack the fundies within their flock because the denomination NEEDs the fundies’ tithing. They put the material aspects of their church before religious principles.

    Of course, some liberal theological denominations have been more true to their beliefs, but they are small in number. Quakers, Unitarians…

    I recently had a long talk with a Baptist pastor and he basically told me that he preaches well to the right of his beliefs and only gently nudges the VERY conservative beliefs of his congregation in his sermons. Of course he does this to keep his job as well as to keep the majority of fundies tithing to keep the church going.

  • Aj

    Dwight,

    …most mainline Protestant bodies voiced by the late 70s that discrimination was wrong…

    OK rough calculations from Wikipedia here, so this shouldn’t be taken as accurate. Wow that must be 5-10% of people in the United States? Oh, wait the most populous denomination that accounts for about 30% of mainline members still disciminates? That would mean that’s less than 5% of the population. Quackers, United Church of Christ? What’s that, less than 2 million members in the United States?

    …we’re not talking about some isolated academic theologian here or there…

    I think that’s a conflation of two points. No one as far as I can tell was refering to gay rights when making the point about theologians. I don’t think you need “sophisticated” theology for the rejection of biblical passages, people ignore plenty of Leviticus, such as where it says shellfish is an abomination. They were talking about concepts of God.

  • Siamang

    Yes…

    I’m with AJ, Dwight.

    With the benefit of hindsight, one can find a couple of small groups who were ahead of the curve.

    But gay rights became a bloody-knuckled fight, really for nothing. We lost a generation of gay men who never got the chance to see rights they should have been guaranteed under the law…. and it was at the hands of the Jerry Fallwells and the Anita Bryants who inflamed the rhetoric and turned a struggle into a brawl.

    Even today, according to Pew, religiousity STRONGLY corrolates with anti-gay positions. Even your blessed “mainline (non evangelical) protestants (not a large group) are no further ahead of the curve than the American public as a whole. They support gay marriage at almost exactly the same rate as your average American.

    Google search “pew gay marriage religious”. Mainline “liberal” Protestants are not actually liberal. And everyone else (almost all the rest of the believers in the country) is far, far to the right of them. Who’s on the left? “Unaffiliated!” Who’s your buddy, Dwight? Who’s your pal? It ain’t the Christians, Dwight, it’s the “atheists/agnostics/none of the aboves”.

    So where is this groundswell of liberalism, pluralism and openness? Churches haven’t been “the front line”, at least as broadly as you phrased it initially. “Churches”, speaking plurally as a whole as you did, have been way, way, way behind the curve. With the benefit of hindsight, you can indeed find a couple. But then again, if we were talking about the legalization of marijuana or some other issue, I’m sure you could find a couple of churches which were for that 20 years ago. It doesn’t mean that by and large churches were leading the way toward decriminalization of pot.

    How many gay men and women died without the right to marry? Justice delayed is justice denied, and the church in this country has a lot to answer for in the promotion of sorrow and pain among folks who deserved solace and brotherhood.

  • Siamang

    Thanks, Eliza!

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    AJ, Siamang

    I don’t disagree with what you’re saying. In that I am not talking about the majority of Christians. I’m highlighting a minority, smaller than I’d like to be but we exist. And as I have noted, there isn’t a major town in this country that doesn’t have such churches. I don’t think I’d have posted except that in this case, we’re not dealing with generalizations about Christians on the whole, but liberal Christians were brought up in the specific. And unfortunately Hemnant (and many atheists) I don’t think have an accurate sense of who they are, what their up to, what their commitments, history is. In the case of who is my buddy? Liberally minded atheists, humanists, and liberal religious folks from any number of traditions that share the same values. What I oppose is this attempt at placing a crow bar of separation that places liberal religionists in cahoots with the religious right and declares us doctrinally out of bounds from the wider progressive movement in this country.

  • Siamang

    And unfortunately Hemnant (and many atheists) I don’t think have an accurate sense of who they are, what their up to, what their commitments, history is.

    I think you might be unclear on Hemant then, and his history visiting churches. He might have been to more churches in the last three years than you have in your life. Have you read his book? He’s very conversant with a number of liberal churches.

    What I oppose is this attempt at placing a crow bar of separation that places liberal religionists in cahoots with the religious right and declares us doctrinally out of bounds from the wider progressive movement in this country.

    There’s a lot of former liberal religionists posting here from personal experience.

    What do you think of my notion expressed above about the inability for religion to tell a spiritual or moral truth definitively from a spiritual or moral falsehood, while at the same time insisting that religion itself is such a valid and correctly operating tool for doing just that?

    As I said above:

    But to claim to have (a working toolkit for determining right from wrong) actually confuses the problem rather than clarifying it. Which is why the suicide rate is so high among gay teenagers of religious conservative families. It’s not the conservatism that is the problem, per se. It’s the concept that they have all the answers already and they have a working toolkit to provide answers that runs them into trouble.

    I am tiptoing into the notion that liberal religion is serving 3-2 beer, the radicals are serving grain alcohol. And what the world really needs is some good strong coffee.

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    Siamang

    I admit, I haven’t read the book. Just keep up with the blog. But what is portrayed as liberals are just evangelicals with better politics as opposed to folks who are governed by a different set of theological commitments. Folks with a better set of politics are all good (Jimmy Carter for example) but as you noted the methodology is the same and epistemic and other concerns remain unaddressed.

    Liberal protestantism as a movement developed in the early 19th/late 18th century as a way of relating faith to the emerging picture of ourselves that was developing through the natural sciences, ie relating themselves to modernity really. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Retired Episcopal bishop John Spong (who I have various disagreements with) more represents that general move than Jimmy Carter does.

    When you have over a thousand congregations around the country who participated in Evolution Sunday (celebrating the role of science in relating to our world), when you have historical critical studies devoured by congregations around the country (Marcus Borg is quite a hit in the churches), we’re dealing with something different than what Hemnant seems to be portraying. Maybe we’re offering a different beverage all together?

    I think the value (outside of hopefully making religions better neighbors)is the engagement of what we know currently with the best of what humans have come up with in the past. The ability to engage (especially in communities) both the resources from our respective traditions with what is being learned now, is a methodology of a sort. Not one that guarantees “the answers” but hopefully a fruitful way to engage the questions. I get nervous when the present is fought against or the past easily dispensed with.

  • Siamang

    When you have over a thousand congregations around the country who participated in Evolution Sunday (celebrating the role of science in relating to our world), when you have historical critical studies devoured by congregations around the country (Marcus Borg is quite a hit in the churches), we’re dealing with something different than what Hemnant seems to be portraying. Maybe we’re offering a different beverage all together?

    I would hope so.

    Now, in a realistic world more than 1000 churches would be celebrating evolution more than once a year. Seriously, you use the number 1000 like it was large! That’s like saying “over a hundred people voted for me instead of Barack Obama!”

    I bet I have 1000 churches within a ten minute drive. That’s like finding a needle in a galaxy. It’s like “YAY! YOU GO, both you progressive fishes! Keep swimming upstream, I think niagra falls is losing pressure because of you!”

    I’m glad 1000 churches can get a boner for paleontology. Good for them… but really not nearly enough. I like this quote by Carl Sagan: “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. ”

    Have you read PZ Myers’ take on “Evolution Sunday”? It’s a serious condemnation of the entire concept.

    Here’s what he’s said:

    Try reading some of their collection of Evolution Sunday sermons, and what you’ll find is usually attempts to piggyback the validity of truth by religious revelation on the credibility of evidence-based reasoning.

    Read the sermons. They’ve very depressingly stark, full-on religion dabbed with a few inoffensive fragments of poorly understood science.

    I have read a few, and I tend to agree. They’re VEEEERRRYYY light on the science. They’re cool enough with the results of science, but they don’t mention the process of science, or why it’s fruitful to… you know…TEST hypotheses and attempt to disprove them in settings that are repeatable. (That would conflict with their business model!) They don’t accept science as a method of discovering the nature of the universe…. they merely say nice things about some of the things science has found already using this method.

    I think they’re doing something very Templeton-esque. Which is to attempt to pour a chocolate coating of religion over some science to give a false impression of validity to the notion that religion is a scientifically demonstrable concept.

    I think you’re coming from an interesting place in your journey. And I’m trying to meet you from the path I’m on and see if we can’t learn from each other’s perspective.

    I admit, I haven’t read the book. Just keep up with the blog. But what is portrayed as liberals are just evangelicals with better politics as opposed to folks who are governed by a different set of theological commitments.

    Yes, those are the posts that tend to get posted here. But I will note that Hemant used to have a blog contributor here who was an Emergent Christian pastor and student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. We’ve had Mormon contributors and various others. We need more of them. Mike Clawson was great, but he was unfortunately treated by some of the posters here as batting practice… I think he got tired of the folks here constantly attempting to challenge him.

    As for them having a different set of theological commitments, I think that’s mostly inside baseball to atheists (well, at least me.) I have not much patience for that stuff, and I’ll let the adherents duke it out over how many angels dance on each version of the metaphorical pin. Those are “Kirk vs Picard” arguments to me, only applicable if you are already a Trekkie. Neither set of theological commitments interest me, as both versions of the theology fail to show me evidence sufficient to compel me to believe that their path is the One True Path™, nor that they have an answer for my “Siamang’s Question” above.

    You wrote:

    The ability to engage (especially in communities) both the resources from our respective traditions with what is being learned now, is a methodology of a sort.

    Well, I think it’s a dialog, and that’s good. But it’s not where religion tends to end, is it?

    I was having a conversation with my wife once, and she said “maybe there is something benefitial about prayer… calming, centering… checking in with the universe…”

    And I said, ‘hey, if that was all religion is, then, I’d be all for it.” But it really isn’t that, or it calls itself that when it wants to be all safe and fuzzy and roll on its back, hide its teeth and claws and bare its fluffy white belly fur. But religion is about that, plus a bunch of unverified, unverifiable and some disproven claims about the nature of the universe, lumped in with a lot of “God wants you to cut the end of your son’s penis off, God says do this, God says do that… God says always trust your pastor….etc” And it’s all wrapped up in a philosophy which says basically that we do not control our own destinies. That we are not responsible for our fellow men and women. That we are accountable to the invisible imaginary before we are accountable to our fellow man. Its wrapped up in the worst and most rigorous batch of psychological conditioning that was ever invented, and that every single tyrant since the beginning of civilization has used to the hilt.

    It’s religion’s seductive little mantras that are the danger to our democracy….

    “trust authority”
    “don’t question”
    “don’t ask for proof”
    “follow without proof, for faith is a virtue”
    “push out the one with outsider ideas, and don’t listen or consider them, for they are evil and they will bend your mind toward evil”

    I’m glad you don’t subscribe to the last one, and maybe some of the others as well. But for me, I think people can make it just fine through this life (at the least!) without wading through the psychological mystery-maze that each religion constructs.

    Whew! Sorry I wrote so much! Anyway, WELCOME Dwight! I think we do have a lot in common, and I do find you a deep thinker and a sincere conversant. I hope you stick around.

  • Aj

    Dwight,

    Spong and other theologians are not representative of even liberal Christians. The vast majority of liberal Christians would be a lot closer to evangelicals with liberal political values than liberal theologians. Spong doesn’t believe in miracles, believes Jesus was completely human, and rejects a hell of a lot of scripture and Christian tradition as fraud. That’s not even Christian as far as I’m concerned, when I call someone a Christian my definition doesn’t include people like Spong.

    We wouldn’t be atheists if we thought liberal theologians addressed epistemic concerns. Liberal theologians don’t even address epistemology incorrectly, they seem to be truth relativists. Theologians rant on like stroke victims with little concern for clarity, coherency, or communication with non-theologians. I’m not aware of any Christian community where liberal theologians would be representative.

    Hemant didn’t say liberal Christians reject evolution or are bibical literalists so your points about “Evolution Sunday” and “historical critical studies” doesn’t address the liberal Christians Hemant was portraying. Your portrayal of liberal Christianity is farfetched, they’re not like Spong or even much less fringe liberal theologians.

    Hemant’s point is valid, liberal Christians might not have conservative politics but they still believe in irrational nonsense and superstition. They still believe in miracles, prayer, heaven, and a personal god, even if some theologians don’t.

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    A few quick thoughts

    I don’t doubt that the science is not always good from the pulpits. But I don’t fault the churches for trying. And I bet, depending on where you live, I could easily find a number of congregations of similar sentiment (though we certainly need far more of them). But I do think seminaries should (like undergrad schools) introduce folks to a history and methodology course when it comes to the sciences. That is, we should ways to encourage this interaction, not discourage it because as up to now it’s not been done as well as it should be.

    I think the only way to have an adequate religious or any other kind of understanding is to lift up and live out the values of dialogue, free inquiry, questioning, and the reasoning process. Those are questions that are tied into my point about theological commitments. The shift to those values in some portions of the church I think has an opportunity to relate whatever resources may exist in the Christian tradition to engage other traditions, disciplines, and the like on the problems of life.

    I do appreciate this site and the discussion. I remember and appreciated Clawson’s posts and likewise I’m a seminary student and a former director of an interfaith student center. Right now, I’m at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, which is a Disciples of Christ school, studying for ordained ministry. I think the possibility of positively interrelating theists and atheists is an important one (not least of all for those of us informed by a progressive political vision). And definitely keen on sticking around :)

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    Aj

    If you take a subset of the church, define them as not Christian, and then complain that the church doesn’t have such a subset, what can one say?

    If you go with evolution Sunday, historical criticism of the Bible, by definition you’re going to be running into questions about miracles, the nature of religious claims, etc. They go together. I’ve never been in a liberal church where this is not the case.

    As a side note, Spong became a bishop because his diocese put his name forward, was elected and supported by the diocese and confirmed at a general convention of the church. Again not an isolated theologian but a leader in a denomination.

    But if you define those folks as not Christian, then the next step would be political liberals who are evangelicals and who fit the definition of “true Christian” as defined by you in this case. But then upon what basis can one complain about the no true scotsman fallacy?

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    “Liberal theologians don’t even address epistemology incorrectly, they seem to be truth relativists. Theologians rant on like stroke victims…”

    Any examples, book titles, or names of liberal theologians who you believe don’t address epistemlogy, or fit the description you’ve given?

  • Aj

    Dwight,

    If you take a subset of the church, define them as not Christian, and then complain that the church doesn’t have such a subset, what can one say?

    As a side note, Spong became a bishop because his diocese put his name forward, was elected and supported by the diocese and confirmed at a general convention of the church. Again not an isolated theologian but a leader in a denomination.

    But if you define those folks as not Christian, then the next step would be political liberals who are evangelicals and who fit the definition of “true Christian” as defined by you in this case. But then upon what basis can one complain about the no true scotsman fallacy?

    That’s certainly not what I have written, but I see pattern here, it doesn’t seem to matter. I believe that I have written that people like Spong are not representative of liberal Christians not that they do not exist within the church.

    I don’t think Spong being a bishop necessarily means that the congregations support his views on miracles, Jesus, or anything else. I don’t know whether Spong had the same views when he was confirmed as Bishop. The Episcopal Church has small membership, about 2 million. In the same denomination I do not believe Rowan Williams who is the leader of the church is representative of the church he leads. If I asked a regular church goer in an Anglican church I would not expect the responses he gives.

    Is it a lack of imagination on your part or are you erecting a strawman each time you describe liberal Christians who believe in miracles as “evangelicals”? A no true scotsman fallacy involves ad hoc definitions to suit an argument. I’m sorry to disappoint you but I’ve held this definition of Christian for a while, and I think it has served me well. As soon as someone says Jesus isn’t magic, then they’re not Christian as I use the term, and I hope that’s common.

    Any examples, book titles, or names of liberal theologians who you believe don’t address epistemlogy, or fit the description you’ve given?

    Paul Tillich’s “Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analysis and Ethical Applications”. Influencing “postmodern” theologians, as with anything connected with postmodernism it comes with truth relativism, incoherency, and obscurantism.

    Rowan Williams that is generously described as “wooly” starts out a radio interview in 2006 “I don’t know whether there is a God…”. Williams emphasizes a relationship with God over beliefs, just like Marcus Borg you have mentioned.

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    AJ

    I still think you’re disqualifying more liberal Christians than you realize. That certainly reflects my own experience of the church which is hard to quantify to be sure. But I’d encourage you to check out the progressive christian section at beliefnet or the folks at the Center for Progressive Christianity as examples.

  • Aj

    Dwight,

    I’m no disqualifying “liberal Christians” because I don’t see these people as such. Thomas Jefferson, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris have applauded Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount for some of its moral messages. There are plenty of “atheists for Jesus”. I do not consider them Christians. Some atheists go to church, don’t believe anything spoken there, but still feel a part of the community. In Europe a lot of people associate themselves with Christian culture, but not Christian doctrine, they are culturally “Christian” but not in a religious sense, so while it’s the same word, it’s not the same meaning. Language evolves, words have multiple meanings.

    From reading the progressive Christianity forum at beliefnet and I see that plenty there consider self-identification to be sufficient to be a Christian. If people want to label themselves that’s fine but no one else has to accept that label. You couldn’t say anything meaningful about “Christians” if it’s just a label one uses on themselves, and that’s probably on purpose because saying something meaningful is not something these people seem to appreciate. If anyone says anything about Christians such people can say they’re wrong when they don’t like what’s being said. That’s a nice defence mechanism, and it seems to be used a lot by “progressive Christians”, but it’s entirely dishonest.

  • Kohnk

    In regard to something Randal Rauser wrote, I have the following question:
    He wrote that, if we found an alien spaceship on Mars, we’d have to admit it was product of intelligent design. OK. Now  suppose that life was seeded on earth by extraterrestrial intelligent beings. Those intelligent beings may themselves have evolved by way of a replication-variation-selection process. Is that an acceptable example of ID?


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