How to deal with liberal Christians?

The comments on my posting of draft chapter 9 of the book make me think I need to say more in response to liberal readings of the Bible’s moral teachings. The trouble is, as I briefly mentioned in the draft:

Obviously, there are lots of folks who think that the nice, liberal, peaceful interpretations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the true interpretations of those religions. Unfortunately, they tend to just assert this without any argument.

Maybe I need to expand on this. One problem I keep running into is that liberal Christians, like all believers, are firmly convinced that their version of religion is the true one, so for many of them it seems to just obviously follow that that’s what atheists should be critiquing. It’s just obvious to them that their interpretations of the Bible are the right ones, and so anyone who disagrees (whether fundamentalist or irreligious) must just be obviously unsophisticated. They seem to have trouble with the concept that atheists might need some fairly convincing arguments that their interpretation of the Bible is the true one before accepting it as such.

I’ve mentioned Peter van Inwagen as an example of someone who’s at least a moderate and who does have an explanation of how he knows his interpretation of the Bible is the right one, and I was planning on talking about van Inwagen’s views in chapter 9. But his defense of the Bible’s morality is really tied up with his goofy ideas about “The Enlightenment” (scare quotes because he insists on using the word differently than everybody else), which I deal with in chapter 7 of the book and decided I was better off not revisiting.

A replacement van Inwagen–someone who defends liberal interpretations of the Bible at length, but in a different way–might be helpful here, but I don’t know where I’d go for that. Unfortunately, for liberals and conservatives alike, most religious apologetics seems to be written by people who spend all their time talking to people who already agree with them, so they end up with no idea of how their arguments sound to people with different views. That makes finding worthy arguments to rebut hard. It also means that much of the challenge of rebutting religious apologetics is in getting believers to understand how unconvincing their arguments sound to nonbelievers.

Maybe I should talk about my background being raised as a liberal Christian, and how I understand the mindset a bit. I always feel awkward doing that, I guess because a lot of atheists have really dramatic deconversion stories, and I don’t want people to think I’m claiming the same. But maybe I should get over that awkwardness.

I could also incorporate more of the points from my reply to Christians who support gay rights, as well as dealing with the objection that atheists read the Bible like fundamentalists. What do you think?


(From a comment I posted on James McGrath’s blog.)

By “interpretations of the Bible,” I don’t just mean things like like liberal (relatively liberal? moderate?) evangelicals trying to cling to inerrancy while advocating nicer interpretations of as much of the Bible as possible. I’m also referring, for example, to claims of the form, “yes, parts of the Bible are flawed, but we know which parts really matter and those flawed parts aren’t the parts that really matter.” And the same question arises there as for more conservative positions: how do you know that? Why should non-believers accept your version of your religion as the right one?

(And the example of a more liberal position is just an example, one I seem to encounter a fair amount, but yes there are others out there and the questions remain the same.)




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