Humpty Dumpty Religious Liberals

This post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the Secular Coalition for America. He also blogs at Rant & Reason

My organization, the Secular Coalition for America, is sending me to Netroots Nation this weekend in Pittsburgh.  I have to miss the first day – it starts on a Thursday – but it should be an exciting trip.  I just had to change to an earlier flight for tomorrow because otherwise I would miss an interesting panel:

A New Progressive Vision for Church and State

Friday, August 14th 1:30 PM – 2:45 PM
Panel, 318

The old liberal vision of a total separation of religion from politics has been discredited. Despite growing secularization, a secular progressive majority is still impossible, and a new two-part approach is needed—one that first admits that there is no political wall of separation. Voters must be allowed, without criticism, to propose policies based on religious belief. But, when government speaks and acts, messages must be universal. The burden is on religious believers, therefore, to explain public references like “under God” in universal terms. For example, the word “God” can refer to the ceaseless creativity of the universe and the objective validity of human rights. Promoting and accepting religious images as universal will help heal culture-war divisions and promote the formation of a broad-based progressive coalition.  (emphasis added)

Been discredited?  That’s quite an assertion to make, but then again, I don’t know what they mean.  I don’t think even they know what they mean by it, but hopefully I’ll find out tomorrow.

And indeed, they seem to be willing to play fast and loose with words.  If they’re willing to say “‘God’ can refer to the ceaseless creativity of the universe and the objective validity of human rights” they must have no idea what they’re talking about.  It’s pathetic.  But they shouldn’t be offended!  They can just tell themselves that “pathetic” can refer to “brilliant”! (How many of you didn’t see that one coming?)

These “culture-war divisions” aren’t trivial matters of semantics to be smoothed over with definitions.  We honestly disagree on many points and in our overall worldview.  I doubt that Senator DeMint, for example, wants “In the Ceaseless Creativity of the Universe We Trust” carved into the Capital Visitor’s Center.  It’s a genuine disagreement about what IDEAS – not just words – are acceptable for the government to endorse.

Welcome to the current state of politics, which bears uncanny resemblance to Through the Looking Glass:


`And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’ [said Humpty Dumpty]`

I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

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

    Promoting and accepting religious images as universal will help heal culture-war divisions and promote the formation of a broad-based progressive coalition.

    I can say with absolute certainty that this is out-and-out wrong.

    You don’t solve a problem by painting over it. And you’re certainly not going to “heal culture-war divisions” by convincing nonbelievers that religion is okay in politics because you can redefine God to mean other things – especially when these redefinitions are given post-hoc to rationalize the religious references. We know that when people talk about “One Nation Under God”, they’re not talking about some all-permeating creative force that exists throughout the universe. They’ll only come up with stuff like this when they’re challenged.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    For example, the word “God” can refer to the ceaseless creativity of the universe and the objective validity of human rights.

    Incidentally, I don’t believe in this so-called “God” either. The creativity of the universe may or may not be ceaseless (what does that even mean?). And human rights are valid, but not objectively valid. Human rights aren’t something that just drop out of the sky.

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

    This is just accommodation and appeasement all over again… It’s like saying that is God means a deistic god, then all’s ok. Well that’s not ok with me.

  • Siamang

    Give em hell, Jesse.

  • Bobby

    They must have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s pathetic. But they shouldn’t be offended! They can just tell themselves that “pathetic” can refer to “brilliant”!

    I liked this site better when it was the friendly atheist. I appreciate the SSA and I’m sure Jesse has and will write some amazing things, but this isn’t worthy of the repost. The New Progressive Future post had nothing to do with the Republican Senator from South Carolina or waging a “culture war.” If anything, it had to do with religious people needing to make religion a more inclusive concept.

    I don’t agree with the original article, but as often as this blog points out how misunderstood atheists beliefs, motives, and worldviews are, I can’t help but think the same thing about Jesse’s knee-jerk piece.

  • http://twitter.com/RtPt RtPt

    Even some of the religious liberals are trying to sneak religion in through the back door with idiotic concepts.

    A religious liberal used to be someone who believed in a secular government for all people and kept religion out of the argument.

  • Nick Wallin

    Jesse, I hope you are able to make this comment in the Q&A session:

    I doubt that Senator DeMint, for example, wants “In the Ceaseless Creativity of the Universe We Trust” carved into the Capital Visitor’s Center.

    You could even put it in the form of a question:
    “Would you be okay, then, with putting ‘In the Ceaseless Creativity of the Universe We Trust’ on our money and on public buildings?”

    Good luck!!!!

    This raises an interesting question that I may take to the forum: At which point do we atheists give up and go move to Western Europe?

  • http://anti-mattr.blogspot.com/ mathyoo

    Promoting and accepting religious images as universal will help heal culture-war divisions and promote the formation of a broad-based progressive coalition.

    Seth Godin would call that “bear shaving” http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/08/bear-shaving.html

  • Richard Wade

    Jesse,
    Buy one of those toy plastic drawing pads that you lift up and whatever was written or drawn disappears, and you can write or draw something else, anything else. Give it to the panel chairperson and say it’s a dictionary.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Promoting and accepting religious images as universal will help heal culture-war divisions and promote the formation of a broad-based progressive coalition.

    A coalition that leaves out the godless, apparently.

    There is no way to promote and accept religious images as “universal” and still see atheists as part of that universe. This is the thing that progressive believers don’t seem to get: There is no way to frame religion as “universal” in a way that doesn’t treat atheists as second class. And there is no way you can define “God” or “religion,” however vaguely, in a way that atheists are going to accept.

    I’m at Netroots Nation my own self, in fact. And I’ll definitely be at this panel. Hoo, boy. You better believe I’ll be there.

  • Tony

    For example, the word “God” can refer to the ceaseless creativity of the universe and the objective validity of human rights.

    Or the word “God” could refer to “a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”. Or the word “God” could refer to a giant deity who fights frost giants. Or the word “God” could refer to a big hole in the ground. Or the word “God” could refer to a small species of shrimp which eats only the secretions of sea-snail. Because frankly if you’re going to redefine “God” to mean whatever is convenient to your argument then God has no meaning.

  • Richard Wade

    Because frankly if you’re going to redefine “God” to mean whatever is convenient to your argument then God has no meaning.

    Maybe we’ve stumbled across a good idea! Use the word “god” in every way possible until it disappears:

    Store clerks say “Have a nice god.” when bagging your groceries.

    Traffic signs say “No left god.”

    Waitresses say, “Would you like soup or god with your meal?”

    Judges ask, “God or not god, what is your plea?”

    Kids say, “Mom, can I god with Tommy to the movies?”

    Eventually, several uses of “god” will appear in a single sentence:

    “And god you, Caren, god Michael god be god godly godded husband?”

    So “god” becomes as ubiquitous and meaningless as “y’know,” that annoying speech impediment that we all ignore, and finally it vanishes into the ether from whence it came.

  • Dan W

    Don’t know about the guys giving that presentation thingy, but I’m pretty sure the idea of total separation of church and state hasn’t been discredited, otherwise we wouldn’t see anybody advocating it. I’d like to add that the idea they put forth sounds just f#$*ing stupid!

  • Loren Petrich

    That seems like a lame misuse of the word “God” — “the ceaseless creativity of the universe” as “the objective validity of human rights” have as much consciousness and personality and will and ability to design as a rock or the force of gravity.

    Spinoza used the word “God” to refer to all of reality or something similar, and Einstein professed belief in Spinoza’s God, not a god who concerns itself with the actions and fates of people.

  • http://friendlyhumanist.blogspot.com Tim Mills

    In this context, I completely agree with Jesse – the problem is in the substance behind the word, and won’t be solved by simply redefining the terms.

    However, I think it’s simplistic to just dismiss the alternative definition as universally stupid. There are people who, in their liberal religion, actually do use such a definition of “god”. When we’re dealing with such people, we atheists would do well to keep that in mind. For them, the substance behind the language is not far at all from the substance of our own beliefs. And that is very important.

    Granted, they are a minority among religious people. But they are a religious population that I think is very open to most (or all) of the ideals of the atheist and secular humanist communities.

    We shouldn’t let our disgust with the idiots (however numerous they are) lead us to abandon or attack our allies.

  • peter

    Am I understanding this correctally? Is this proposal stating that there really is no separation of church and state? And since there is no separation, then they should be able to institute god where ever we choose?? BUT, the definition of god will be in some VAGUE form??? Cut me a break!!! It will be in vague form until someone questions theists, or says f&*k jesus. Then we’ll see just what god there talking about.
    I believe we should be reestablishing the separation instead of eroding it further. This has such an Orellian feel to it, NO???
    Also, does the FFRF know about this???

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org/node/125 Jonathan P. Figdor

    For what’s it’s worth, Jesse, this is the consensus at most liberal divinity schools. The argument goes like this: if you really believe in free expression, then your concern for free expression will trump your concern about the role of religion in politics. Secondly, even if you’re not convinced of this, religious apologists will then claim that at the end of the day, we all have arbitrary reasons underlying our moral attitudes. After all, what Richard Rorty calls our “final vocabularies” are equally incommensurable. Rorty then admitted, there is “hypocrisy involved in saying that believers somehow have no right to base their political views on their religious faith, whereas we atheists have every right to base our on Enlightenment philosophy. The claim that in doing so, we are appealing to reason, whereas the religious are being irrational, is hokum.”

    If you’re interested, I wrote two essays developing both the high wall of separation side (which I find more ultimately compelling) and a strong version of the liberal view being forwarded by the religious left (as espoused by J. Stout). Email me if you’re interested:

    harvard@secularstudents.org

  • Siamang

    But, Jonathan, here’s my main reaction. The quoted passage is this:

    Voters must be allowed, without criticism, to propose policies based on religious belief.

    Sorry, I agree with the phrase up until “without criticism” is included.

    I call straw on the idea that we atheists say others “have no right to base their political views on their religious faith”. If that’s true, please quote the person who said it. Specifically someone who actually did say that American citizens “have no right” to do this. If it’s meant to be a factual statement, well it’s manifestly untrue. If it’s meant to be an “ought statement”, it flies right in the face of freethought and freedom of conscience principles. However, if it is a statement that religious people would make better decisions were they not basing them on religion, then that’s a recommendation based on evaluating the results of the different decision-making processes. If the above quoted passage is enough to go on and honestly judge Rorty, he fails to recognize that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and not in two equally-valid different approaches to making dessert. He seems to think that reason and superstition are equally valid ways to make decisions, because they’re both based on an internal arbitrary ‘final vocabularies’. Sorry, that only works when the rubber doesn’t ever hit the road. But we CAN measure whether one decision making toolset works better than the other when one looks at outcomes in the real world. Pudding made with shit is only equally valid as pudding made with milk, until the eating.

    I say they DO have such a right to use superstition, religion, reason, empricism, magic 8 balls or whatever. But that these folks are emphatically not allowed to do this free of the possibility of criticism.

    So I think the folks at this netroots panel are dialing the rhetoric two clicks in the direction of theocracy.

    One click is if they claim I don’t think they have a right to base their views on religion. That’s false.

    The other click is they want to base their views on religion *and* be spared from criticism no matter what their reasoning, their basis or their conclusions.

    Sorry, that’s a non-starter. Unless the religious are about to grant us equal favor.

    By what method must I come up with my views such that it will pass the test and make the religious promise never to criticize any of my ideas for? Astrology? Dice-rolling? Magic 8 Ball?

    This is a call for a one-way truce so that these people are free to promulgate their ideas without criticism.

    I’m absolutely appalled they think they can get away with this, merely because they think that God talks to them.

  • Pseudonym

    As one of the local religious liberals, let me say… I agree.

    There is silliness in liberal religion, but it tends to be the same kind of silliness that you find in liberal politics, and this is it.

    Though I disagree strongly with PrimeNumbers, above. The charge that religious liberals are trying to “accommodate” or “appease” anyone is just silly.


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