What arguments are popular among liberal Christians?

Commenter mnb0 makes a point that I think is worth devoting a post to:

Countering fundie- and creacrap is easy. It has been done many times before. If you want to distinguish yourself you should find yourself some liberal christians to bash. Don’t tell me there aren’t in the States and I’m pretty sure it will be useful for Europeans like me if you include them in your book.

Richard Swinburne is a liberal, or at least moderate, Christian, and I’ve had a bit to say about his arguments before and I plan on saying a bit more about them in the near future. Other than that, though, it seems like there are fewer liberal Christians pushing arguments for the truth of their religion. I think that’s because there’s less reason for them to care about arguing other people into the faith, because they don’t think it’s “believe or else.”

I think it’s worth asking, though, what arguments are popular among liberal Christians. It seems to me that a lot of liberal Christians like versions of the design argument, as long as it’s done in a way that doesn’t attack evolution, for example fine tuning. But a lot of cdesign proponentists also like the fine tuning. And it’s not clear to me that presentations of the fine tuning argument by liberal believers are any better than the presentations by conservative believers.

So I’m not sure the liberals are especially worth addressing here, but I might be wrong about that. Also, liberal believers have some unique arguments on the defensive end. In particular, instead of defending everything in the Bible, they try to come up with arguments for why we should reinterpret or ignore some parts while embracing others. What other arguments made by liberal believers are especially noteworthy?

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  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    In my experience, the idea there has to be an overriding purpose and variations on the cosmological argument are popular. It’s a subset of the conservative arguments, mostly, but without all the bigotry or insistence on literalism.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Noteworthy, but stoopid: apophatic theology. Make your God so nebulous that He can’t be pinned down.

  • anteprepro

    Perhaps you could cover the tactic that occasionally pops of suggesting, or outright stating, that religion isn’t about facts or truth as much as it is about personal experience and feelings and expression of spirituality etc. etc. I believe Atheist Tower guy defended religion on the basis of it being just about ritual, celebration, meaning, and so forth.

  • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

    “In particular, instead of defending everything in the Bible, they try to come up with arguments for why we should reinterpret or ignore some parts while embracing others.”

    This seems like the most reasonable general position to take with respect to the Bible, versus the extremes of complete acceptance as true and complete rejection as false–after all, it is a collection of history, laws, aphorisms, poetry, myth, and so on.

    I gave a talk in the American Humanist Association pre-conference workshops in 2009, and one woman in the audience told me afterward that there is not a single factually accurate or valuable thing in the Bible. I asked if she really meant that, given what the Bible is, and pointing out that there is some actual history in it, but she was insistent that no, it is completely false. That’s the flip-side of fundamentalism, an irrational rejection not based on evidence.

    An aspect of liberal religion that I think many atheists give short shrift are its social functions, e.g., as argued for in Pascal Boyer’s _Religion Explained_ and Scott Atran’s _In Gods We Trust_. This can be used to produce a pragmatic argument for religion as practice, and indirectly as doctrine to believe in. It provides no *epistemic* justification, of course.

    • Bruce Gorton

      I think it would be better stated that there is so much just plain factually wrong in the Bible, that it is difficult to see what isn’t.

  • Patrick

    Apophatic Theology + Internal Witness. And really, a lot of them are just atheists who go to church every week and lie to their children.

    There’s not much to refute, because there’s just not that much there.

    • mikespeir

      I’ll second this one. To me, apophatic theology (Reginald also mentioned it, above) is basically a variation of God of the Gaps reasoning. Christians of this sort have a kind of a die-cut template mentality, with God’s defining attributes being the nothingness of the holes themselves.

      And I think the internal witness thing needs to be hit hard, too. It can’t be stressed too strongly that what Christians would like to think of as the witness of the Spirit is much more parsimoniously accounted for by psychological impulses and emotional needs that they glue together with a bit of wishful thinking.

  • joseph8th

    Ever lurk in the Religion forum of http://DemocraticUnderground.com? (From which I’ve been banned, and from which banning I’ve taken as a name.)

    The agenda by most liberal Xtians there is to ‘take Jesus back’ from the fundies. They prop up the liberal Jesus by cherry-picking through red letter quotes, conveniently forgetting admonitions such as beating one’s slave or, y’know, the End of the World.

    They really don’t like it when nonbelievers point out that Jesus was not a liberal (never mind that Jesus was a myth). No, I mean the REALLY don’t like it.

    On this subject, I highly recommend getting an account and breathing some life back into the Atheists/Agnostics group, which was purged of most of the most eloquent atheists. I have a lifetime ban, so you won’t be seeing me there. You too can earn your Banned from DU badge. Then check out this site after: banned.bentzine.net

    • Sarah

      People tend *not* to like it when idiots say stupid things and parade their ignorance like we’re meant to take it seriously.

  • eandh

    My own experience? There’s not a lot of argument. Lots of minimization: only a “tiny proportion” of Christians are creationists or homophobes, there’s lots of “no true Christian” fallacy, there’s lots of accomodationism: “they’re not bigots, they’re just mistaken and you have to be kind to them”.

  • mnb0

    The typical argument I encounter from liberal christians in Europe goes more or less like this.
    “You can’t prove God does not exist. I can’t prove God exists. I am not going to try. But we can consider the possibility that He exists. And I think God is Love. He has expressed this love by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to save us. Jesus was the perfect embodiment of that Love, in Greek agapè. That’s why He was willing to die at the cross for us, an incredibly painful death. Just read the Gospels. It’s all in there. We should pursue his ideals, we should follow his example. Of course the miracles never really happened. These stories try to tell us something, they have a meaning. To read them literally is a mistake. That message though is as powerful today as it was back then. The fact that the messengers are imperfect doesn’t say anything about the value of the message.”
    You could call this the “Jesus as the ultimate role model” argument. I would be amazed if no American christian ever used it.
    There are at least three ways to deal with it.
    1. I didn’t ask Jesus to die for me at the cross. I think the very idea disgusting.
    2. If so many messengers (ie christians) fail to live up to the message we seriously should consider the possibility that there is something wrong with the message. At least we could argue that the message is a failure.
    3. Jesus wasn’t perfect.

    So our task is to find out the meaning of the Gospels and argue that that meaning is morally rotten. That has done before of course: by Bertrand Russell in Why I’m not a christian and here


    But I’d like CH to systematize the arguments.
    Because in my experience nothing pisses the liberals off more than point 3. They will shrug off though if you take the Bible literally.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      The issue of “proof” is something I kind of meant to address in chapter 4, though I can make that more explicit. Basically, the issue is that if you don’t think “you can’t disprove Zeus!” makes it reasonable to believe in Zeus, then you shouldn’t be using “you can’t disprove my god” as a defense of the reasonableness of belief in your god.

      And I’ll be addressing the issue of whether Jesus was a great guy or not in the future.

      • mnb0

        Great! Maybe you’d like to compare Jesus with Franciscus of Assisi. The two have several things in common: started new religious movements, have a lot of myths attached to them which tell us about the thoughts of people back then. The movements they started quickly transformed into something completely different from their initial intentions, so they can be called failures.
        I admire Franciscus of Assisi a lot more than Jesus.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave


      I don’t know if you saw my reply to your original post on the earlier thread.

      One of the comments I made there was that, just a few days ago, I was chatting online with a well-known liberal Biblical scholar online, and I mentioned that he would (obviously!) be viewed as a “liberal” by most evangelicals. He responded rather testily that I did not really understand his view of Jesus’ importance and that some scholars might even view him as an “evangelical.”

      Perhaps so. However, he did not deign to fill me in, at all, as to his actual view of Jesus’ importance. He wants it known that he has some such view, but he does not want anyone to know the details, lest they actually challenge him. (I already had gathered this from his books before our personal exchange.)

      He does want it known that he is fascinated by the New Testament, and he is indeed, as far as I can tell, a dedicated and serious scholar.

      So, we left it at that. What more could be said?

      It seems to me your three proposed ways of dealing with liberal Christians are sensible enough. At least here in the States, I think most liberal Christians will decline to discuss such issues at all.

      Which is fine with me. I suspect that most of them are really deists, agnostics, or atheists without the courage to admit their real views.

      Incidentally, even a number of friends and relatives who are “officially” Roman Catholics or evangelicals have confided to me privately that they do not really believe all of it. I have refrained from publicly “outing” them on the basis of these confidential admissions. I’m not sure if my restraint in this respect was right or not, but, I suppose, it may explain why they were comfortable talking to me.

      Dave Miller in Sacramento

      • mnb0

        Yes, I am familiar with that point of view as well, though I am a bit surprised that it is that popular in the States. In the core it goes back to Kierkegaard’s jump of faith. The atheist answer is simple: we don’t have faith. This means that there is no debate left but

        Theist: Credo.
        Atheist: Non credo.

        and then it’s time to get a beer.
        In my opinion this is the only sensible debate between believers and atheists. It makes my relationship with a muslima possible.

  • vegantrav

    One of the best liberal Christian philosophers is Eric Reitan, who teaches philosophy of religion at Oklahoma State University.

    He blogs here: http://thepietythatliesbetween.blogspot.com/.

    He has an excellent book responding to the New Atheists: Is God a Delusion? (http://www.amazon.com/God-Delusion-Religions-Cultured-Despisers/dp/1405183624).

    He’s also co-written, with John Kronen (another philosopher), a defense of universalism: God’s Final Victory (http://www.amazon.com/Gods-Final-Victory-Philosophical-Universalism/dp/1441130659/ref=pd_sim_sbs_b_2).

    And he’s not an apologist hack like William Lane Craig; he’s an actual philosopher who is intellectually honest and not timid in rejecting many traditional religious doctrines and admitting weaknesses with his own positions.

  • http://iacb.blogspot.com/ Iamcuriousblue

    One that comes to mind, and not in a good way, is Chris Hedges. More far-left than liberal, at least in terms of his political views, I’m not sure what his exact theology is. He blames atheism, at least in part, for Western anti-Islamic attitudes and sees religion as a strong underpinning for a kind of progressive morality. (Or moralism, if you view it less charitably.) Probably no coincidence that he’s a strong social conservative when it comes to issues such as pornography.

  • josh

    Yeah, I don’t know of many arguments that are unique to liberal believers. I think they are less likely to have explicit arguments and more likely to go with nebulous justifications like “I just feel like there has
    to be something more…”, “It’s what I choose to believe…”, etc. Since they aren’t as evangelical and have more doctrinal flexibility, they don’t construct arguments to convince others that some particular view is right, they just try to avoid criticism of their own, often fuzzy, beliefs.

    Towards that end, I commonly see arguments from (vague) religious experience, arguments from minor personal miracles, post-modernist arguments that ‘everybody has to take something on faith’. I also see versions of cosmological arguments or arguments from morality or the supposed order of the universe, but they tend to be god-of-the-gappish: ‘Something’ must account for this or that, and they, personally, will fill in that blank with their religion.

  • Switchhttr

    A succinct if snarky answer: all religious sects cherry-pick, each one just picks different cherries. Then the liberal types use them in a recipe (cherry pie, cherry cheesecake, duck breasts with a port cherry reduction), altering them so that they become almost incidental to their lives.

    Liberal Christians are quite attached to that religious cherry tree, and they don’t like the godless folks warning them the fruit is poisonous.

  • http://thisbitchwontshutup.blogspot.com EEB

    I agree with what a lot of people have already said. In my experience, talking with liberal Christians (I’m going to include my mom–a pastor–in with them, here), the argument seems to always come down to, “Well, it doesn’t matter what you say, because I know God exists. Even if you could show me proof against God, I would know that you were wrong, because Jesus is my friend and I know he’s with me and takes care of me. If someone tried to tell me you didn’t exist, it wouldn’t matter what they had to say, because I know you. It’s the same with God.”

    And, really, how do you argue with that?

    (Well, okay, I know what I say: I’ve been very ill and I’ve had very, very vivid hallucinations. I believed absoulutely insane shit–that I had been kidnapped, the nurses in ICU were trying to kill me, that I saw them kill three cops and drag their bodies away, and more–and even when I had total proof to the opposite, it took a long time before I could reconcile it and really understand that it was all a drug/pain/infection induced trip. So I put absolutely no trust in personal experience, and I will always trust empirical evidence over my own internal feelings–or even what I think I’ve seen or heard. But that’s an entirely subjective, personal argument, and it doesn’t translate well at all, in my experience.)

  • johnhodges

    On the “Jesus as ultimate role model” argument, I once did a study of the ethical teachings of Jesus, going through the four gospels to collect everything he’s reported to have said about what his followers should DO. I found that his teachings were apocalyptic. He taught that the world was soon to end, Judgment Day was coming, possibly the following week, certainly within the lifetime of the people standing there hearing him speak. He told his followers to take drastic action to rack up as much credit as possible in the limited time remaining, in hopes of being among the very few who would be saved when the Earth was destroyed. His ethical teachings make perfect sense in that context, and no sense at all without it. I wrote up my findings here:

  • tonylloyd

    There’s the Karen Armstrong/John Gray “religion is a method not a body of doctrine” line of thought.

    John Gray – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14944470
    Karen Armstrong – see Stephen Law http://stephenlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/religious-experience-and-karen.html

    I would have some sympathy for the view were it true. But, of course, it isn’t. It’s a “cover story”.

    If it were just about ritual, community and story telling then religion would look very different. The ritual would be catholic, obviously (Mega-church with Christian “Rock” band v Sistine Chapel with Mozart?) but non-exclusive, you could follow whichever “brand” you liked and chop and change. And if it were really about community, then the Christians would invite the Muslims around for a barbecue every so often.