Who Owns the Bible?

After writing yesterday’s post I read an exchange between Chris Hallquist and James McGrath regarding Fred Clark’s quote. This exchange got me thinking about how evangelicals/fundamentalists and liberal Christians approach the Bible, and about how atheists approach evangelicals/fundamentalists and liberal Christians.

First, Chris’s post:

A pet peeve of mine is liberal Christians who make ridiculous accusations against fundamentalists. For example, this quote from Fred Clarke, posted a few days ago by James McGrath:

Anyone passingly familiar with fundamentalists knows that this is obviously false, as shown by the fact that fundamentalists, yes even fundamentalists, sometimes do admit they were wrong about something. That includes changing their mind about points of Biblical interpretation.

As someone who cares about the truth, I find the idea of people passing around such obvious falsehoods disturbing. Yes, fundamentalists are awful, but that fact doesn’t justify nonsense like this. In fact, it makes it unnecessary: by a wide margin, there’s enough wrong with fundamentalists that we don’t need to go around making stuff up about them.

Falsehoods about fundamentalists on this scale seem to be a specialty of liberal Christians. I suspect this is because accurate criticisms of fundamentalism–like “the book which fundamentalists claim is inerrant is actually deeply flawed”–are closed off to liberal Christians, because such criticisms would involve admitting things which are embarrassing to Christians of every stripe.

As I said yesterday, Fred’s quote rings very true to me, and it outlines something I myself have run up against. I don’t see how, as Chris claims, saying that evangelicals and fundamentalists are making “their  interpretation of the Bible the final arbiter of all things” is “making stuff up about them” or “passing around” “obvious falsehoods” for the simple reason that I don’t think it’s a falsehood. I’d love to hear more from Chris on what exactly he means here, since his post is more of an assertion that an explanation.

But Chris’s post does raise some thoughts. The Bible is a mixed up jumble of books that has to be understood through some sort of interpretive framework. The fact that the doctrine of the Trinity is never stated explicitly and that early Christians argued for hundreds of years about the divinity or humanity of Christ makes this clear. This shouldn’t be surprising given that the Bible is an amalgam of material from different periods and by different authors and written for different purposes. Every Christian ever has formed some sort of grand interpretation of what is written in the Bible. The fact that evangelicals and fundamentalists sometimes change their minds, slightly shifting their interpretation, does not mean that they don’t nevertheless move forward holding to their slightly altered interpretations as Infallible Truth.

I think that one thing that is going on here is that evangelicals and fundamentalists claim over and over and over again that all they are doing is taking the Bible “at face value.” According to evangelicals and fundamentalists, they are the ones who are actually following the Bible and liberal Christians are not. Liberal Christians, they say, have rejected the Bible and simply do and believe whatever they think best. Because evangelicals and fundamentalists trumpet this message so loudly, it can be easy to end up taking them at their word.

Growing up as an evangelical, I accepted and internalized the message that we were the ones actually following the Bible and that all other Christians ignored or rejected it. When I went off to college and stepped out of my evangelical bubble, I was surprised to find that this was incorrect. For a time I stepped into liberal Christianity, glorying in the fascinating interpretations and understandings of the Bible I found there. Not every Christian approaches or understands the Bible identically.

I said yesterday that while I don’t see any reason to think the Bible is divinely inspired I do think some interpretations of the Bible are more “correct” than others. As an evangelical, there was very little examination of the cultural context of the Bible, and there certainly wasn’t any higher criticism. We thought that all we needed to understand what the Bible said was … the Bible. What I found in liberal Christianity was very different. There was an attempt to understand cultural context, a desire to truly dig into who wrote the different books and for what purposes, and a willingness to admit that some sections were added later and some passages doctored to prove a point. There was an openness to seeing the Bible as fallible and containing errors. I found that liberal Christians had a completely different approach to the Bible.

While I very much enjoyed exploring liberal Christian understandings and interpretations of the Bible, in the end I ended up realizing that I saw no reason at all to view the Bible as divinely inspired, or, indeed, as anything more than a man-made book. I also became a bit disillusioned at all that liberal Christians sometimes had to do to explain away certain passages or ideas. I began to feel that while liberal Christians did not stick their heads in the sand the way evangelicals and fundamentalists so often do, they, too, were concocting an interpretation of the Bible that, while more “correct” in a technical sense, also involved a selective reading. Of course, liberal Christians don’t claim to be bound by the Bible in the same way evangelicals and fundamentalists do, so seeing the Bible as more and more man-made was not the only thing that led me away from Christianity entirely (there was also the fact that basic Christian doctrine simply stopped making sense, and the fact that I realized that my “relationship with Jesus” was almost certainly just a figment of my imagination).

Anyway, after Chris posted the above James McGrath responded as follows:

There is a rather bizarre post by Chris Hallq on his blog “The Uncredible Hallq” in which he takes aim at liberal Christians, and in particular myself and Fred Clark.

Hallq … suggests that liberal Christians don’t point out that the problem with fundamentalists is not their own flawed perspective but the flawed text of the Bible itself, saying that this would involve admitting something that is “embarrassing to Christians of every stripe.”

To which I can do little but shake my head in disappointment that someone would criticize a phenomenon they understand so little and about the history of which they are so poorly informed.

Liberal Christianity pioneered Biblical criticism, the tools and methods that exposed the Bible’s fallibility. The methods and the results of that approach are widely embraced by atheists like Hallq. For them to then turn around and suggest that the results of them are an embarrassment to liberal Christians, rather than something liberal Christians were among the first to draw attention to, is rather insulting – as I’ve said before.

Like I said above, I think evangelicals and fundamentalists have been so good at getting their message out – the idea that they are following the Bible while other Christians ignore it – that they have a sort of cultural monopoly on the Bible. This is extremely unfortunate because liberal Christians’ interpretation of the Bible generally includes things like gender equality and social justice while evangelicals and fundamentalists’ interpretation of the Bible is incredibly harmful.

I’ve seen a good number of liberal Christian bloggers in recent months suggest that atheists read the Bible like fundamentalists. I have found this discussion fascinating. The conversation will go like this:

Atheist: “How could a loving God torture people in hell for eternity?”

Liberal Christian: “I don’t believe in hell.”

Atheist: “Wait, what? But the Bible is very clear that hell exists!”

And then the atheist will start pulling out proof texts like a fundamentalist. This same conversation takes place regarding creationism – “but the Bible says the world was created in six days!” – and the Old Testament genocides – “how can you say those didn’t happen? It says right here in plain English that they did!”

I think we atheists need to remember something: Not everyone interprets the Bible like a fundamentalist or evangelical. Liberal Christians are generally more than ready to admit that the Bible is flawed or contains errors. I think we can become so used to combating evangelicalism and fundamentalism that we forget that those strains of Christianity are both not the only ones out there and not the oldest ones out there either. In some sense, this is not surprising. Evangelical and fundamentalist positions are, after all, extremely easy to pick on. Further, evangelicals and fundamentalists are doing a lot of damage in our society today and it’s thus only natural that they should so often be the focus.

There is something else too, though. I think it can be easy to become so used to hearing the rhetoric of evangelicals and fundamentalists that we end up thinking that, as far as Christianity is concerned, the evangelicals and fundamentalists have it right and all others who call themselves “Christians” are doing it wrong. This is where we start trying to convince liberal Christians that yes, the Bible does say hell exists and means eternal torture, and yes, the Bible does say that God commands genocide, etc, forgetting that liberal Christians don’t approach the way evangelicals and fundamentalists do. Of course, some atheists may honestly be convinced that the evangelical/fundamentalist approach is the only intellectually honest Christian position out there, and that liberal Christians are just hedging. They may thus see convincing liberal Christians of this as a valid strategy in an attempt to get a liberal Christian to leave Christianity, and that’s fine. This is not, however, a strategy I use or necessarily think wise. I personally see it as overly simplistic and intellectually lazy. It also involves ignoring thousands of years of Christian history.

Now I’m not saying that we atheists can’t or shouldn’t discuss the problems we see with liberal Christian beliefs or faith in general. I’m not saying that we atheists should necessarily give liberal Christians a “pass.” What I am saying is that we need to be aware that just because fundamentalists and evangelicals claim to have a monopoly on the Bible does not mean that they do. We need to be aware that the set of tools and arguments we use against fundamentalists or evangelicals won’t always work on liberal Christians. We need to get over the idea that just because we understand evangelicalism and fundamentalism (or at least think we do) that does not mean that we automatically understand liberal Christianity. We need to stop siding with the evangelicals and fundamentalists when they say that they are interpreting the Bible “right” and those other Christians out there are doing it “wrong.”

Of course, some atheists are more concerned with helping improve the associations people have with the term “atheist” than with actually attacking religious beliefs. Some atheists are more concerned with protecting the separation of church and state than anything else. Some atheists focus on taking down evangelical and fundamentalist proofs for the existence of God while others are more interested in attacking the idea of “faith” in general. Some atheists focus on things like equality and social justice and are willing to make alliances with liberal Christians who share their goals and ideals in these areas. Some atheists don’t care about any of this and just focus on living their lives. Everyone has different interests and motivations, and that’s as it should be. But at the very least, we should avoid the assumption that evangelicals can or should speak for all Christians. At the very least we should be willing to admit the diversity of Christianity and careful to avoid thinking like fundamentalists.

For another really good discussion on this same issue over on Camels with Hammers, click over to Why Let the Fundamentalists Define Their Religions? It’s an excellent read.

A Letter from Hell, and Self-Reinforcing Beliefs
On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
A Matter of Patriarchy
My Kindergartener Knows What It Means to Be Transgender (and the Sky Hasn't Fallen)
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • E

    Much as it may shock christians who’ve been taught that “Catholics don’t read the bible”, in fact, they do, and the official teaching is that that context determines whether a passage is to be read literally, metaphorically, or historically. In that framework, an awful lot of flexibility allows a person to explain away an awful lot of inconsistencies–but not all. I don’t really mind atheists using the fundie interpretations to engage more liberal christians. It forces them to work with their own sect’s interpretive arguments, and may prompt deeper thinking about what inconsistencies lie there.

    • Anat

      Compare with a common Jewish view that *every* part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures, Torah, Prophets and Writings) can be interpreted by its simple meaning, its comparative (midrashic) meaning, allegoric meaning and mystical meaning. And the simple meaning is intended for children. There is no requirement to believe any of the biblical story actually happened.

  • machintelligence

    This is definitely something worth mulling over. There seems to be a spectrum here from fundamentalist Christian to liberal Christian to deist to atheist. I wonder how many of the liberal Christians really believe all the things that their creeds state. Perhaps they believe in belief. To use the example of the Boy Scouts, it can be argued that the organization does not believe in God, but rather in belief in God. They insist that you believe in God or Gods, but they don’t care which one(s). Another possibility is that they are not very reflective, and simply go along with what they were told in Sunday school because, for them, religion is mostly a social function. In either event, I suspect that what is written in the Bible is of little concern to them. The fundamentalist’s main claim to the Bible is that they actually read it.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Another possibility is that they are not very reflective, and simply go along with what they were told in Sunday school because, for them, religion is mostly a social function. In either event, I suspect that what is written in the Bible is of little concern to them. The fundamentalist’s main claim to the Bible is that they actually read it.

      Actually, my experience with liberal/progressive Christians is that they are extremely reflexive, and do read the Bible, and with a lot more understanding than fundamentalists because unlike fundamentalists they actually learn about things like the cultural context and higher criticism of the Bible. But then, my experience with liberal/progressive Christians has largely been in the blogosphere, so I can’t speak for the man or woman in the pew. But I do think that saying that they’re not reflexive and don’t really care about the beliefs per se also buys into the fundamentalist narrative about liberal/progressive Christians rather than actually getting to know and listening to any liberal/progressive Christians. And remember that liberal/progressive Christians don’t elevate the Bible to the be-all end-all the way fundamentalists do, and that that doesn’t make them wrong or illegitimate – after all, the Bible wasn’t even formed for something like four hundred years after Jesus, so what did Christians do then? To see the Bible as the be-all end-all and anything else as illegitimate also buys into the fundamentalist narrative rather than actually listening to liberal/progressive Christians. I think part of what happens is that a lot of atheists come out of evangelicalism/fundamentalism, and they end up holding onto some of what they were taught about liberal/progressive Christians even though those things aren’t true. I spent several years as a liberal/progressive Christian, so I saw that too, and it’s very different from the fundamentalists’ stereotype of them.

      • machintelligence

        I guess that I must plead guilty to generalizing from a sample of one (me). Where I grew up, in Chicago, none of my friends seemed to take religion too seriously, whether they were Lutheran (like me), Baptist, or Catholic. If any of the adults I had contact with were into reading and discussing the Bible, I was not aware of it. I remember wondering if anyone took religion seriously, except for the pastors and priests, of course. My great aunt was a Christian Scientist, but she was regularly treated by a doctor, and took drugs for her heart condition.

      • Juniper

        I’ve met hardcore religious people, who think religion is the most important thing in their life, and people who approach religion more casually. They value their religion, but don’t spend much time thinking about it on any given day.

        The people in the former group may be more conservative/fundamentalist/legalistic or more liberal/metaphorically interpretive/intuitive.

        The latter group are liberal by default, since a casual approach to religion doesn’t really mesh with a conservative, fundamentalist, legalistic approach.

        The majority of religious people that I know (outside of my own family) are casually religious, so they make up the grand majority of liberal religious people that I know.

        I think it’s difficult to talk meaningfully about liberal Christians without distinguishing between casual Christians (who probably haven’t read the Bible, and aren’t terrifically concerned about the contradictions therein) and hardcore liberal Christians (who have looked in depth at the Bible, used sophisticated criticism to try to find the true meaning, and then tied themselves into knots getting the Bible to mean what it clearly doesn’t , or trying to explain why some parts of the Bible are important and others are not, where the Bible is immoral and awful). And it’s understandable when hardcore liberal Christians sometimes get annoyed at being lumped in with the casual Christians.

  • John Small Berries

    Of course, some atheists may honestly be convinced that the evangelical/fundamentalist approach is the only intellectually honest Christian position out there, and that liberal Christians are just hedging.

    Yes, that certainly happens. Hemant Mehta (“The Friendly Atheist”), for example, has asserted at least a couple of times on his blog that if a Catholic doesn’t believe that the wine and wafer literally turn into the blood and flesh of Jesus, or rejects the Pope’s position on birth control, or supports marriage equality, he or she isn’t really a Catholic and should leave the church.

    That kind of insistence upon doctrinal purity is definitely a Fundamentalist mindset. And to construct a checklist of what other people are supposed to believe, and use that to define them (and insist that if they don’t fit your checklist, they’re not really what they claim to be), is just as arrogant and misguided as the Christians who ascribe all sorts of motivations and thought processes to atheists.

    Now, I have pointed out some of the despicable or unsupportable things that the Bible says, for a couple of different reasons: first, if a Christian wants to know why I’m an atheist, to explain why reading the entire Bible demolished first the “just, loving God” image I’d been taught as a child, and, ultimately, my belief in God’s existence.

    Second, when a liberal Christian is trying to “bring me back to the fold” (Hebrews 6:4-6 notwithstanding): if he or she acknowledges that these certain things in the Bible probably aren’t true, then what reason do I have to believe the rest of it? (If you know a person who’s demonstrated repeatedly that he lies at least some of the time, are you going to simply take the rest of what he says at face value, or will you require some sort of evidence that he’s telling the truth? Especially when the things he says are fantastic and grandiose, and seem to violate the observable principles of the universe?)

    Oh, I guess there’s a third reason I bring up Bible passages: to ask why a Christian holds a certain position – for example, supporting public Christian prayer even though Jesus said to only pray privately. Because while I don’t believe Christians need to follow every rule in the Bible (it would be a sad world if there were more jobless, blind amputees wandering around), sometimes I am curious to know why they ignore particular rules.

    So holding up the question of the truth of Biblical passages with liberal Christians can have a point – I just don’t think “Gotcha! You don’t believe X, therefore you’re not really a Christian!” is a valid one. (Unless, I suppose, X is something like “God exists”.)

    • Ibis3

      And to construct a checklist of what other people are supposed to believe, and use that to define them (and insist that if they don’t fit your checklist, they’re not really what they claim to be), is just as arrogant and misguided as the Christians who ascribe all sorts of motivations and thought processes to atheists.

      I don’t think this is true. Words really do mean things. There comes a point when someone calling themselves Whatever really isn’t good enough to merit an objective identification of them as Whatever. A person claiming to be an atheist who says they believe in a god (and a personal one at that) *isn’t* an atheist. Sometimes people identifying as Scotsmen really are not Scotsmen.

      • http://kagerato.net kagerato

        See, the problem with this is that there is no inherent meaning (to words or anything else). The meaning(s) of a word really is determined by how people use it. It’s also not the case that there is some kind of “minimum votes required” in order to give a word a new meaning or create a new word. There are countless examples, if we trace the history, of words that were created or altered by just a single person.

        So, you can criticize a person for using words in a way you don’t like. However, we ought to first be sure the usage was somehow deceptive, confusing, unnecessary, or counterproductive. Otherwise, attacking the way a word is used is just another way of distracting from the discussion.

      • Chelsea

        I think part of social justice is trusting the labels that people apply to themselves. I would consider it deeply offensive to tell someone that, according to my definitions, they do not belong to the race/gender/sexual orientation with which they identify. There are plenty of words–feminist, queer, American, liberal–whose meaning is contested by those who identify with it and those that don’t. I don’t think religious identification is any different.

      • Lydisa

        I support letting people themselves choose how they want to self-identify. At the same time, I like it when people who are using different labels explain the definition of those labels. During my deconversion period, I spent a long time self-identifying as a Christian, until a comment on Free Thought Blogs defined several different labels. Suddenly, I realized that I was Theist and not Christian. During the remaining time that I was Theist, that was how I labeled myself when I wanted to talk in depth to someone about exactly what I believed. (When I didn’t want to go into details, I still used the Christian label.)

        Why was it not obvious to me that I was no longer a Christian? My church taught that a Christian was someone who believed the Nicene Creed, but they also taught that women should never lead men. I knew there were many more Liberal Christians who did not believe the second idea, and I assumed that one could still be a Liberal Christian and not believe that Jesus was the son of God.

      • Pseudonym

        There comes a point when someone calling themselves Whatever really isn’t good enough to merit an objective identification of them as Whatever.
        I have a few problems with this. This is going to partly duplicate the thoughts of other people on this thread, but there’s nothing I can do about that, sorry.

        First off, we’re talking about someone’s identity. I have a friend who calls herself as “Chinese”. She was born in Malaysia. Her family has lived in Malaysia for probably 5 generations at least. She now lives in Australia. But she is “Chinese”.

        This is a matter of ethnic identity. She is descended from people from China. The community in which she grew up ate Chinese food and participated in Chinese cultural practices. But her passport is Australian and her birth certificate was issued in Malaysia.

        Yes, I’ll buy that sometimes people identifying as Scotsmen really are not Scotsmen. But where do you draw the line? What test would the Kennedy family have to pass before they can call themselves “Irish”?

        One of the frustrations that I have about this line of reasoning is that most people in the atheist blogosphere “get it” when it comes to other aspects of someone’s identity.

        We all know the difference between a strong and weak atheist, and a strong and a weak agnostic. If you read Greta Christina’s blog regularly, you probably “get” (even if you can’t remember the details) the difference between sex and gender, and even know that gender identity doesn’t necessarily fall into a binary category. To call someone “female” if they identify as “genderqueer” is offensive, isn’t it?

        I don’t know what it is about religious identity that we see as different.

        Secondly, and more importantly, if anyone is qualified to draw a line, that person is probably not you. And that’s a good thing.

        Richard Dawkins is, by his own admission, proudly ignorant of the finer points of theology, and rightly so. It is all completely irrelevant to him. However, this makes him, by his own admission, one of the least-qualified people on the planet to decide who is a Christian and who is not. Again, this is as it should be. Why would he even want to get involved in that? He’d probably think it was beneath him, and he’d be right about that.

        So who gets to decide who is a Christian? If it was up to Fred Phelps, the only Christians in existence are the few dozen people who meet in his basement on a Sunday. If it was up to the Pope, then whether or not Martin Luther is a Christian depends on which Pope you ask.

        OK, so maybe the Pope is the authority on who is or isn’t Catholic? Well, that’s kind of like saying the Chinese government is the authority on who is or isn’t allowed to call themselves “Chinese”. He may be able to dictate membership of the organisation, much like how the Chinese government may be able to dictate Chinese citizenship, but that’s doesn’t necessarily help answer the question.

        Finally, as John Small Berries rightly points out, this is a fundamentalist question which liberal Christians do not recognise as being meaningful.

        Unlike fundamentalists, liberal Christians spend exactly no time on the question of who’s “in” and who’s “out”. We refuse to play that game when fundamentalists play it, and we find it puzzling when atheists try to play that game too.

        We know our history, and we know what happens when people get preoccupied with the question of who is “in” and who is “out”: people get hurt. The last thing we want is atheists to get involved in such a meaningless, dangerous and stupid pursuit.

      • Adele

        This reply is to Lydisa.

        I think your assumption that delayed your changing your self-identification from Christian to Theist was not necessarily invalid. There are religious groups who label themselves as Christians who do not believe Jesus was the son of God. Whether or not these groups “ought to” call themselves Christians or are “correct” in calling themselves Christians is debatable perhaps, but I am a member of the “let people call themselves what they want to” group, with the caveat that I reserve the right to think some people are silly for what they choose to call themselves (people who have one Lakota ancestor five generations back calling themselves Native American comes to mind). I have heard the argument that if you are attempting to follow the teachings of Jesus, that is a sufficient reason for calling yourself Christian regardless of what you believe about Jesus’ divinity or lact thereof.

    • E

      Hemant Mehta (“The Friendly Atheist”), for example, has asserted at least a couple of times on his blog that if a Catholic doesn’t believe that the wine and wafer literally turn into the blood and flesh of Jesus, or rejects the Pope’s position on birth control, or supports marriage equality, he or she isn’t really a Catholic and should leave the church.

      That kind of insistence upon doctrinal purity is definitely a Fundamentalist mindset. And to construct a checklist of what other people are supposed to believe, and use that to define them (and insist that if they don’t fit your checklist, they’re not really what they claim to be), is just as arrogant and misguided as the Christians who ascribe all sorts of motivations and thought processes to atheists.

      Catholic doctrine ITSELF says this. Hemant is only repeating what Catholics themselves should already be aware of.

  • Rosie

    I sometimes think I’m an atheist now BECAUSE I was taught a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. All or nothing. So when I could no longer swallow it all, I chose the “nothing”. After all, I was taught that even liberal Christians were “probably” doomed to Hell (for not believing in it), so it seems silly for me to do the mental gymnastics required to remain a believer in a more liberal tradition. I’d be doomed anyhow if what I was taught growing up was correct. That said, my liberal Christian friends have all been through seminary, so their view of the Bible is certainly not unconsidered or unthoughtful. I often concur with their real-world conclusions. I just can’t find any reason to do the work of making the Bible agree with our values. They do, and that’s fine.

    • kagekiri

      Same here. My belief was a binary: believe it all, or nothing. If we can’t square it all away, you can hardly claim it’s still divinely inspired, and have no reason to trust even the “good” parts (which I didn’t think were particularly good, either) if you can just “intuitively” discard the bad parts.

      As such, I still don’t get the liberal positions that try to just remember the nice things about Jesus; if the bad parts (thought crimes, self-mutilation, discrimination against non-Jews/women, hell, etc) are worth being skeptical of or blaming on human error in the intervening centuries, I’m pretty sure the good/miraculous parts can be attributed to the same.

      Well, I guess that technically, there was a short time where I still thought God existed, but was a horrible deceitful tyrant who used the Bible to lull believers into worshiping him for his own pleasure as he toyed with their lives like a capricious monster (a la Job), but that’s definitely not a “liberal Christian” perspective.

  • Ibis3

    . Of course, some atheists may honestly be convinced that the evangelical/fundamentalist approach is the only intellectually honest Christian position out there, and that liberal Christians are just hedging.

    This is it. It’s very difficult for someone who has examined the claims of religion and found them wanting to wrap their minds around someone who admits to, nay, embraces cherry-picking. Fundamentalists cherry-pick and fancifully interpret too, but they claim they don’t. So, one can attack them from four angles: 1) yes, you’re cherry-picking 2) you’re not just taking this at face value, you’re interpreting 3) the stuff in the bible is immoral, so the god you believe in would be immoral too 4) the stuff in the bible is scientifically proven to be inaccurate, so it isn’t as “inerrant” as you claim.
    Liberal Christians are much more difficult to figure out. Each one has their own interpretation, their own theology, even if they belong to a denomination. They identify as Christians, but many of them don’t even believe in the Nicene Creed. They admit the human origins of the bible, but somehow still believe that it’s in some way a reliable source of truth about humanity or the universe or anything. To me, it seems like they’re stuck in a cocoon of their own making, either because they haven’t investigated enough or because they are content to play make believe. Whichever the two it is, it’s both intellectually dishonest and harmful to society, because while they’re in their gardens playing God Loves Me, real people are being damaged.

    • Steve

      Exactly. Fundamentalists are immoral and infuriating, but at least their position is more consistent. So-called “liberal” Christians have no reason whatsoever to believe what they do, other than maybe “It feels good”. Their claims make no sense either and aren’t any more logical. If anything, they’re even more flimsy and self-contradictory. If they honestly examined their positions, they’d be compelled to throw it all out. Not just the stuff they don’t like.

      • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

        Given that the Bible contradicts itself, the heavy application of gloss necessary to give it a unified theme (what’s often called “The Plan of Salvation”) from Genesis to Revelation, and the bipolar moral character of their God, I dispute the claim that the fundamentalists are more consistent than liberals, in any sense that matters. And if they are, well, consistency in a monstrous ideology is no great virtue.

        The liberals are making it up as they go along; the fundies made up a big lie at the start and are sticking to it like grim death. On the whole, the former do less real-world damage.

      • Rosie

        I’m not at all sure that liberal Christians “believe”, at least in the way I did as an evangelical. They seem to use many Biblical stories as guiding myths, the way I like to read Women Who Run With The Wolves (Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes). The way Pagans tend to use old Celtic, Norse, or Greek goddess myths. Some Pagans do believe in some kind of deity or deities, sure, but it’s not exactly required for the stories to be psychologically meaningful. And if this is the kind of meaning one is finding in the Bible, well, it’s probably as good a text as any. Except for those who, like me, find the Bible unpleasantly triggering due to all kinds of nasty associations we’ve experienced from more literalist interpretations.

      • Chelsea

        To Rosie: Yes! I do think of Bible stories as sort of guiding myths, especially the Old Testament ones. Whether they are historically “true” or not is unimportant; what’s important is the psychological significance. If that particular myth doesn’t speak to me, I don’t really pay attention to it. Maybe it will mean something to me at some other time, or maybe it means something to others.

  • Chelsea

    I agree with Libby Anne. I’ve been a member of two progressive Christian congregations now, and I really liked one of my ministers’ definitions of the Bible: “A book written by people about their experience of God.” To me, that’s a great way of encapsulating all the contradictions in the Bible–each person has a different experience of God, so of course different authors in different times would see God a different way. Even today, each person has a different experience of God–including those who do not experience God, or those who call God things like “the universe” or “science” or “human endeavor” or “love” or “peace” or “community”. And I must say that for just about every Christian-defining doctrine you can come up with, I’ve met a Christian who doesn’t believe in it (including the “God exists” one).
    Everyone interprets the Bible. And since you can interpret it just about any way, the fact that some fundamentalists and evangelicals choose to interpret it in a way that encourages hatred and exclusion actually says more about the people who hold that interpretation than it does about the Bible itself. Like seeing monsters in every Rorschach test.

    • Steve

      Now, if only you’d draw the only reasonable conclusion from that: that none of it is true and that there is no reason to believe in any of it

      • Chelsea

        My belief in God is not susceptible to either disproof or proof–in my view, God is an emotion–one that I experience–and questions of proof or disproof of God are as irrelevant to me as proof of anger or sadness. No historical or scientific discovery, or argument for that matter, threatens my faith in God–in fact, they strengthen it. As for Jesus, in my view he is an idea–one that has particular meaning to me. There is no reason he should have the same meaning to other people, so I have no interest in converting anyone else, and for people who have been harmed by that idea, you have my deepest sympathies. But I do not think it harms others for me to experience the emotions I experience, or to find inspiration in the ideas that inspire me.
        Peace be unto you, brother.

    • eric

      “A book written by people about their experience of God.”

      See, this is a good example of why I might disagree with Libby Anne. I would say that THIS interpretation – your liberal one – is ignoring higher criticism just as much as fundamentalists do. If you ask mainstream biblical scholars about how the NT authors intended their books to be taken, mere human writing about their experiences of God would probably not be it. If you ask church historians about how the early mainstream christian churches that assembled the bible from a wider range of existing material viewed the bible, this would not be it. So when your liberal pastor interprets the bible in this way, he or she is being just as radically off-normal as the most extreme fundamentalist. Just in a much nicer way.

      My belief in God is not susceptible to either disproof or proof

      You understand that most skeptics and nonbelievers view this as a bug, not a feature, right?

      But I do not think it harms others for me to experience the emotions I experience, or to find inspiration in the ideas that inspire me.

      Depends on how you act on those emotions and inspirations. I think the general atheist argument about religion as a source of motivation is that (1) incorrect premises can (but don’t always) lead to incorrect conclusions, so watch out, and (2) you can arrive at good acts and conclusions without it, so what does it really add?

      • Chelsea

        I would say that THIS interpretation – your liberal one – is ignoring higher criticism just as much as fundamentalists do.

        Oh, I see where the confusion is. It’s not that I discount historical/critical views of the Bible–on the contrary, they very much inform my interpretations. But they’re almost more like a director’s commentary on a DVD–they may tell you what the author intended, but there’s no requirement for the viewer to share the interpretation of the author. In that sense, stories from the Bible are very much like myths, or fairy tales, or other fictional stories I find inspiring and meaningful–the fun is in coming up with a variety of interpretations, and seeing where they lead you, and going with the one(s) that you find most compelling. Which could change over your lifetime, or based on new discoveries.

        you can arrive at good acts and conclusions without it, so what does it really add?

        You can have a good life without reading Shakespeare–plenty of people do–so why shouldn’t we just destroy all his works? You can have a good life without listening to music on the radio–I do–so why shouldn’t we just abolish the radio? Because many people DO draw inspiration from them. It’s totally fine that you personally don’t, but I’m sure you draw inspiration from something-or-other, and believe it adds something to your life.

      • eric

        This is a reply to Chealsea’s @25:
        Nobody tries to enforce their morality on others using Shakespeare and music. Shakespeare and music are largely considered art, i.e., aesthetic, and thus of subjective value. Frankly, if religious people treated their religious beliefs like they did their opinions about Shakespeare and music, I’d be ecstatic. But for the most part they don’t, do they?
        You must admit, Chelsea, that your nonevangelistic, inward-looking type of Christianity is more the exception than the rule. But don’t worry, I do and will treat religious belief just as fairly as I’d treat Shakespeare. Rest assured that when a Senator tries to pass a law saying that biting your thumb at someone is grounds for a duel, I’ll oppose that just as strongly as I’d oppose a Senator trying to pass some religiously-based restriction to our freedoms.

  • smrnda

    My gripe with liberal Christians is that, when it comes down to what they choose to explain away through context, ‘it’s metaphorical’ or any other way of getting around a more literal interpretation, they’re choosing what to explain away because of moral values they likely developed without any input from the Bible. I feel like talking with them is like a game. If I find a Bible passage that is barbaric, sexist or which goes against current knowledge, they will find some way to explain it away. I feel like they’re really trying to force the Bible to fit their ethics.

    The dilemma of the liberal Christian is like someone who had a good friend who is an incredible jerk in a variety of social situations. You’re forever apologizing for them, pointing out their good qualities and telling stories of such nice things they did, all while the friend is causing a scene and being obnoxious, or when you’re confronted about some bad behavior you didn’t happen to witness.

    To me, you can explain things away if you say the Bible is fallible, but eventually that makes it just another book.

  • eric

    I’m not aware of any atheists that actively reject higher criticism the way fundamentalists often do. Superficially you might get comments like ‘but it says 6 days,’ however I think in most of these cases the atheist is using a reductio form of argument, which you are mistaking for agreement. I.e., the atheist is taking a literalist position in order to either point out its absurdity or the sheer impossibliity of being a consistent literalist.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      This is a good point. You can definitely use literalism against a fundamentalist, and should. The trouble is that I’ve seen people try to use literalism against liberal Christians too, even to the point of using creationist arguments such as the argument that “yom” means “24 hour day” so Genesis 1 cannot be interpreted in any way except literally. I think creationism is such an easy target that sometimes atheists think that if they can just make a liberal Christian realize that the only consistent way to interpret Genesis is as a literal six day creation, they can get that person to realize the absurdity of his or her beliefs. I’m not saying this happens all the time, of course – it doesn’t.

    • eric

      Another thought springs to mind, though I doubt many atheists do this consciously. Both liberal and fundamentalist christians tend to want to claim that the message of the bible is clear. Clarity is an important trait in and of itself, if you think the message is divine. Lack of clarity can be taken as a sign of error and human origin. Yet even though both liberals and fundamentalists want to claim the bible message is clear, they often draw different messages from it.
      Some atheists, when they take the fundamentalist position, may be trying to point out this problem to their liberal compatriots. I.e., you say that the liberal message is clear, but let me remind you that there is a sizeable population that reads the text in a different way.
      I doubt many atheists make this point conciously, but bringing up conflicting interpretations is itself a refutation of the supposed divine origin of the message. If “who owns the bible” is even a question, that says something important about the bible. It says the message is from humans, or God couldn’t send a clearer message, or God could send a clearer message but chose not to.

      If and when a truly omnipotent being chooses to send us a perfectly clear message, then by its nature nobody is going to disagree on what that message means.

      • smrnda

        I actually have brought this up on numerous occasions, but it’s mostly since I’m a mathematician and computer scientist and so I deal with statements that are as clear and unambiguous as possible. It just seems that too much of the Bible is unclear for there to exist any consensus about it, and so if I say “I disbelieve in the Bible because it says X” I know there will be someone out there who will say “no, it really doesn’t say X at all.” Since nobody can agree on what the Bible even says, whether or not it’s true, good or accurate can’t even be determined.

        I never do this to force liberal Christians to accept that a fundamentalist read must be true, but just to show them that if the Bible can be used in any way to support the fundamentalist mindset I would reject it since a ‘good book’ should be incapable of being used to justify slavery or the oppression of women.

  • Elizabeth

    I’m one of those liberal christians. I do believe there is a God, but I also believe that we are the ones who do stuff. We are to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked etc… Pie in the sky by and by is all very well, but it is better to buy lunch for the lady on social security who doesn’t have enough money to make it to the end of the month. Incidentally, my best friend is an atheist, and I love that we can discuss stuff. The only thing we don’t agree on is the existence of a god, and the main reason I still believe is because I am self centered enough to hope that the me that is doesn’t ever end. I have enough things I like to do that I would like to continue doing, and it will take a long time to finish everything, by which time I will have come up with more things to do.

    That is all I have to say. Namaste and Aloha


  • Noelle

    These are the points that kept me from considering atheism for so long. My life as a young Christian was almost exclusively liberal. When I challenged Biblical passages or stories as a child, I was often instructed to not jump to the literal interpretation. It was also suggested that those who did were wrong, and often dangerously so. However, that one last step of there is no God took years to present itself. Asking my atheist friends about their reasons for unbelief often led to the evils perpetrated by religion or the scientific incorrectness of creation and floods. We were speaking on such different planes that we had no real hope of understanding the other. And since we agreed on real-world actions and policy, it didn’t matter enough for me to care. It was not until I came across atheists who used to be liberal Christians themselves, or at least atheists who were used to the liberal views, that I could finally understand what they were talking about. Any theist or atheist who wishes to have real discussions with those who hold other viewpoints would do well to learn the differences.

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    I spent a little bit of time as a liberal Christian before becoming Catholic. I became Catholic because I needed an authoritative base for my Christian beliefs. The Bible no longer worked, after learning Biblical criticism, and liberal Christianity really had very little authoritative basis from which to draw their claims.

    When doing counter-apologetics, I like to argue with the Christian based on their particular church’s catechism/creed/faith statement. Fundamentalist/Evangelicals Christians will claim “No creed, but the Bible,” so in this case Biblical arguments on the existance of Hell would work, but I also like to ask “Why the Bible?” It’s easy to be aware of the Catholic position using the Catholic catachism. Traditionally-minded Presbyterians use the Westminster Confession of faith., and many Baptists will use the Baptist Faith and Message. Those wishing to engage Christians on their beliefs should be aware of these documents.

    As for liberal Christians, I fall into the “giving them a pass” group. They’re generally not using their religion to oppress other people, but because it gives them comfort, hope, drive to help others, etc. They also generally just appreciate the aesthetics of liturgical Christianity and the poetry found in ancient prayers. I understand this. I’ll pour a glass of wine, turn on Beethoven’s requiem, read Richard Crashaw poems, and find common appreciation in the art inspired by these Christians. I may have thrown out the “baby” of Christianity, but I like to smell the soapy “bathwater” every now and then.

    • Steve

      Unfortunately, they also prop up the fundamentalists. Yeah, in of themselves they are harmless. But they are unwittingly giving cover and a foundation to the really dangerous people.

      • Noelle

        Here’s where I disagree. Liberal and progressive Christians do work against the fundamentalists when their beliefs and actions are immoral or dangerous. They are an important buffer and an effective agent for change themselves. There are liberal and moderate Christians at the forefront of just about any social change movement. Many are pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-health care, pro-gender equality, anti-bullying, and any other movement you can think of. Many are very vocal in response against their more fundamentalist brethren. Now then, the fundies may be of the mind to call those liberals heretics and remind them of hellfire to come. But the liberal Christian still has a better chance at reaching them than an atheist. At least liberal Christians still believe in God, and they share various hymns, rituals, and basic cultural experiences. There’s a common ground, and though they may argue, they still have God in common. It is more likely for a view to change slowly, when questioned by a friend who has something in common with you.

        When I was a liberal Christian, I did have occasion to mingle with the very conservative and fundamentalist types. I attended a Christian college. I went to its chapel services. There were spring break mission trips, retreats, Bible studies, summer beach meet-ups, etc. I did not feel uncomfortable discussing our differences in theology then, and most were happy to argue with me in return. Real conversation and true understanding leads to changing a pre-set worldview. What I believed then is different than what I believe now, and was different than what I believed before.

        What you will notice different with a liberal Christian discussion is how they’re flexible and changing in how they perceive God, the Bible, their religion, their lives, and the lives of those around them. Yes, they are more difficult to figure out because they’re all a little different. And of course they are, when they’re free to use the full extent of their minds to create their own understanding. If you can understand this about the non-fundamentalist Christian, then you can understand how to discuss anything with them. They like to make up their own minds. They don’t want to repeat verbatim what the pastor said last week without giving it their own thought. They want to change and grow and do what’s right. You can’t just tell them there is no God and expect them to take it. They need to figure it out on their own, in the same manner they determined everything else. You are allowed to ask, why do you still believe. As an open-ended question, it will give you the most information. You are encouraged to challenge them, and then give them time to mull it over and get back with you. Be prepared to answer difficult questions yourself. The style is different, but can be rewarding if you’re up for it. You may be surprised. Not all are holding on for the warm fuzzies alone.

      • Rosie

        My experience with liberal Christians is that they challenge the fundies on their own turf. They may not believe in literally interpreting the Bible, but most of them have studied it extensively enough to know when the “literal” interpretation is flat-out NOT what the Bible is saying. Or where to find passages that, taken literally, directly contradict what the fundies are claiming to be a strictly Biblical position. As an atheist who really doesn’t have a lot of interest in further Bible study, I rather appreciate the contribution of the liberal Christians.

  • Lauren F

    *sigh* I was interested to see what people had to say in these comments, but it seems that barring a few exceptions everybody’s just eager to believe exactly what Libby Anne pointed out isn’t true, that liberal Christians are lazy and don’t think about their beliefs and should all immediately become atheists because what fundamentalists believe is horrible. Sometimes I really hate people and wonder why the hell anybody thinks atheism is a cause worth working for.

    • Noelle

      Oh, my dear, you are quite mistaken. Perhaps you did not understand my comment. I do err on the side of brevity. It is the soul of wit, you know. I disagree sharply with Steve up there. So don’t get all huffy. I’ll come back if I find the time with something more deeply introspective or scientifically brilliant if you like.

    • ScottInOH

      Another approach would be to highlight what you think were the positive contributions to the discussion (the “few exceptions” you mention) and try to build on them. Dumping a load of undifferentiated exasperation on a comment board seems unlikely to further a constructive conversation.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      I’m sorry about that, Lauren. I would encourage you to return when you can and leaving a comment explaining your perspective. I know I would appreciate it, at least.

      • Lauren F

        Sorry, Noelle, I wasn’t intending to respond to your comment. Part of what was frustrating me is that I was reading on my phone, which does not interact well with Patheos’ comment threading. I can see now that even just looking at the posts that I remember from when I posted, there are more interested in discussion than in just dismissing liberal Christians as willfully deluded and dangerous, but since my phone shows comments in magical random order, just as I got into one or two that were talky, I’d run into something like

        “To me, it seems like they’re stuck in a cocoon of their own making, either because they haven’t investigated enough or because they are content to play make believe. Whichever the two it is, it’s both intellectually dishonest and harmful to society, because while they’re in their gardens playing God Loves Me, real people are being damaged.”

        and then a little more real discussion and then this

        “Exactly. Fundamentalists are immoral and infuriating, but at least their position is more consistent. So-called “liberal” Christians have no reason whatsoever to believe what they do, other than maybe “It feels good”. Their claims make no sense either and aren’t any more logical. If anything, they’re even more flimsy and self-contradictory. If they honestly examined their positions, they’d be compelled to throw it all out. Not just the stuff they don’t like.”

        And though I am not a liberal Christian myself, I do go to church and serve on council with quite a few liberal Christians, and they cannot in any way be described the way Steve and Ibis3 do above. And I don’t know how many times I’ve seen on places like Friendly Atheist where atheists do just that, blame moderate and liberal Christians for the offenses of the fundamentalists. They often DO claim that there is only one way to look at the Bible, and it’s their way, and obviously it is wrong and of no value because there are some bad things in it, oh, and also it’s old and no way old books could have any value and I’m getting worked up again. Basically, the red mist descends pretty quickly for me when I hear people slamming liberal Christians as “childish” and “dangerous” saying they have no basis for their views. I suspect that those people have never actually built relationships with any Christian who isn’t of the Pat Robertson stripe.

  • http://eastofmidnight.wordpress.com Kim Hampton

    As a liberal Christian who was raised an evangelical fundamentalist, the one thing I’ve seen is that it is much easier (and a lot less work) to see the problems with the other side than it is to see the problems with one’s own side.

    The other thing I’ve seen though, is a difference between evangelicals/fundamentalists/liberals/traditionalists/etc. who have been to seminary (or some other type of advanced religious/theological training) and those who haven’t. It’s fascinating to have a bunch of seminary-trained people of whatever stripe get together; there’s a lot more agreement than most people would think.

    I don’t know what that says about who the Bible belongs to, but it does say something. But even more, I think it shows that there really is more power in the pew than most pew-sitters want to believe.

  • ZenDruid

    Jefferson claimed ownership of a small part of the bible. He can arguably be described as an original “liberal Christian” in the American context. I think most modern liberal Christians could follow his lead.


  • jose

    The problem with this is that the catholic church does believe in hell. And plenty of other things. You wouldn’t believe how many self-identified catholics I’ve met that thought the transubstantiation was only symbolic, that nothing real happened to the bread. Depending on the person, it can be hard to find something at all to criticize even if you know the stuff they are supposed to believe as members of the religion they say they belong to.

    Further, if the liberal christian is going to pull a bait&switch on me and talk about some nebulous Mystery of some sort that doesn’t matter because nobody else actually believes it (and then turn back to traditional religion when atheists stop looking, as often happens), then there’s no point arguing.

    • Rosie

      It’s reasonable, I think, when speaking of Catholics, to consider official church doctrine something one must believe to be a “true” Catholic, because the Catholic church is arranged from the top down and has the power to excommunicate those who don’t agree with the official doctrine (Matthew Fox is a famous example). However, most Protestant denominations, whether conservative or liberal, are arranged different and specifically DON’T have the power to excommunicate those who disagree with the “official” doctrine, so it makes much less sense to speak of what a “true” Christian must believe. In fact, my conservative Christian friends disagree with my liberal Christian friends on pretty much EVERY point of doctrine…and they’ve all been through seminary (just in different denominations). I don’t think it’s really my place to question the self-identification of any of them, though.

      • Rosie

        *arranged differently, not “different”

  • http://thechurchproject.me Tracey

    Fascinating discussion. I also self identify as Christian, which is probably not accurate since I say I don’t really know the answers and think they may be unfindable. Someone at a college religious function asked me recently if I believed in the bible. I said, “Yes. I think the bible is a book and it’s real.” I believe in the bible like I believe in ziplock bags and rain. The bible is useful for some stuff and not for other stuff. And I also believe in the bible like I believe in the Beatles. Some of the bible is good and happy; some is confusing or sad. I like reading it but I don’t do mental gymnastics trying to make it agree with itself. And I treat much of it as either mythical or historical. So I guess I usually fit better with the ‘liberal Christians’ who are being mentioned in this discussion.