In Defense of Progressive Religion

On Wednesday, blogger Kaveh Mousavi of FreeThought Blogs wrote a post criticizing my recent posts on progressive Christianity and theistic evolution. Yesterday I responded with a post discussing ethical systems. Today I will respond again, this time looking at Kaveh’s claim that progressive values are not compatible with Christianity (or Islam).

Kaveh’s central argument appears to be this:

It’s funny how skeptics suddenly become poststructuralist when it comes to religions and believe in the infinity of valid interpretations, and then switch back to being skeptics after satisfying their conscience that they haven’t been mean to progressive theists.

I get antsy any time I see an atheist telling a Christian which interpretations or understandings of their own faith are valid and which are not. Of course, I myself believe that all strains of Christianity is “untrue” in a scientific or factual sense—after all, I do not think there is a God or a supernatural world. But I don’t believe some interpretations are more “valid” than others—and for good reason. Christianity is—and always has been—a very diverse and varied tradition. The Bible is a big book with lots of contradictions, and can therefore be interpreted in a variety of different ways. Further, different Christians approach the Bible in different ways, and thus not all Christians can—or should—be held to literal interpretations of the book.

This is what I was trying to point out in this bit Kaveh quotes from my post:

I’m not saying I think progressive or mainline Christianity is counterfeit but I’m going to avoid saying it for tactical reasons. I don’t. Oh sure, the Bible is complicated and messy, but plenty of progressive or mainline Christians admit that and don’t find that it creates a problem for their faith or their understanding of God. The Christian tradition is much more varied than we give it credit for.

Expounding on his statement about the problem of “the infinity of valid interpretations,” Kaveh follows his quote from my post with this commentary:

This is what I mean by spontaneous poststructuralism: just because there are certain people who claim a specific ideology is compatible with certain things, it doesn’t mean that they are right. We still get to compare their claims and see if there is any contradiction, and there are lots of contradictions in being both progressive and Christian, mainly that you can’t claim to follow a book and then not follow that book, or not follow a book and then claim that you belong to something which is defined by following that book. Changing definitions is a fallacy.

Actually, there are Christians who do not see the Bible as the basis of Christianity. In fact, the idea that Christianity is based on a book is only five hundred years old—and not every Christian today holds it. It sounds to me as though Kaveh is buying into the fundamentalist Christians’ understanding of—and interpretation of—the Bible. To me this says a lot about fundamentalist Christians’ marketing. They’ve been trying for some time to portray themselves as the bearers of “true” Christianity.

There was a time I read a good number of scholarly works on early Christianity, along with the writings of the early church fathers. One thing that struck me was the huge variation in early Christian belief. As I’ve learned more about the history of Christianity since, I’ve found that this has been the case at essentially every moment of Christian faith.

Some atheists appear to assume that Christianity is both a monolith and unchanging. (Some Christians appear to believe this too.) But it’s not. Christianity has not only always been incredibly diverse in belief and practice across time and location, it has also changed, and changed, and changed, and changed. In a sense, theological change is actually very Christian.

Did you know that the fundamentalist conception of “the rapture” is less than two hundred years old?  Or that young earth creationism is less than one hundred years old? Did you know that “penal substitutionary atonement,” the belief that Christ died to pay the punishment for our sins, is less than five hundred years old? Did you know that there was a time in the early church when there were female priests? Did you know that during the Middle Ages the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches sanctioned gay marriages? The differences between the beliefs and practices of Christians today and those of the early church are staggering. Early Christians looked nothing like today’s evangelicals either culturally or theologically.

These are not things you hear much today, because fundamentalists are arguing loudly that their interpretation and their understanding of the Bible is the only valid and true Christian interpretation and understanding. Are we really going to accept their arguments for ideological supremacy in lieu of understanding the incredibly diverse past and present of the Christian faith? I’m certainly not.

But now we should turn back to Kaveh:

If you want to remain rationally coherent, and if you want to remain intellectually honest, you have to choose either a progressive ideology or a more than thousand year old ideology. Of course, like many progressive and conservative believers you might choose to reconcile your faith and your progressive values, but that is contradictory, and therefore wrong.

And yes, that does mean I’m saying the same thing as the evangelicals. Because evangelicals are right. That’s hardly an argument.

This is not true. There is absolutely nothing standing in the way of reconciling the Christian faith with progressive values—unless you are defining Christianity as narrowly as fundamentalists and evangelicals, as Kaveh admits he is. But if we are defining Christianity as narrowly as fundamentalists and evangelicals, we understand very little about either the history or the present of Christianity. As I mentioned, key evangelical beliefs are incredibly new in terms of church history. It is not liberation theologists who are newcomers to the world of Christian theology, it is evangelicals.

Being an ex-Muslim, Kaveh also touches on Islam:

Libby Anne would never accept it if I defined myself as a feminist who also thinks that women serve no purpose but staying at home and giving birth to children, she would never accept if I said “I’m both MRA and feminist”, yet saying “I’m both Muslim and feminist” is acceptable although MRAism is million times less misogynistic than Islam.

This analogy doesn’t really work. Saying you can’t be a feminist and an MRA is more like saying you can’t be a communist and a capitalist. It assumes “Muslim” and “feminist” are direct opposites. They’re not.

One reason I don’t see “Muslim feminist” as a contradiction is that from the bit I know about the history of Islam I know that it, like the history of Christianity, is varied and changing rather than monolithic and unchanging. The Taliban is enforcing cultural customs that aren’t necessarily found in the Quran. In fact, it is only in the twentieth century that countries and regimes have arisen in which all women are required be veiled. That custom, like female genital mutilation, is not really Islamic. Even opposition to the education of girls isn’t intrinsically Islamic. Instead, it’s based on a variety of factors, including cultural customs that predate Islam and socioeconomic inequalities. 

It is also the case that during the early history of Islam women had more rights than did contemporary Christian women. There is room for other interpretations. Unfortunately, today, like in the case of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, Muslim fundamentalists have waged a rhetorical war to portray their understanding and interpretation of Islam as the understanding and interpretation of Islam, and in doing so they have either ignored or rewritten over a millennia of Muslim history.

Amina Wudad, a progressive Muslim activist, argues that Islam has long possessed a certain “dynamism” that was slowed for a time by colonialism, but which is seeing a resurgence today. That dynamism, she says, allows for change, and for progress. Amina is the author of Qur’an and Women: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. The publisher’s blurb describes the book as follows:

Fourteen centuries of Islamic thought have produced a legacy of interpretive readings of the Qu’ran written almost entirely by men. Now, with Qu’ran and Woman, Amina Wadud provides a first interpretive reading by a woman, a reading which validates the female voice in the Qu’ran and brings it out of the shadows. Muslim progressives have long argued that it is not the religion but patriarchal interpretation and implementation of the Qu’ran that have kept women oppressed. For many, the way to reform is the reexamination and reinterpretation of religious texts.

I am not arguing that Amina Wudad’s interpretation and understanding of Islam is the only valid one, I am simply arguing that it is a valid one. And it’s not a brand new one, either. There were Islamic feminists in the 1800s arguing that patriarchal interpretations of Islam were flawed and incorrect, and writing books of exegesis on the Koran outlining their own interpretations and understandings. And this is how religions work—they leave room for multiple different interpretations, and for reshaping and changing as cultural needs change. They tend to be dynamic rather than static, which makes sense, because if they weren’t how would they survive?

I prefer to let Muslims argue over different understandings and interpretations of Islam, and to let Christians argue over different understandings and interpretations of Christianity. If I am going to discuss these issues with progressive Christians or progressive Muslims, I listen to make sure I understand what they actually believe and I bear in mind the long, changing, and varied history of their faith traditions. I may still disagree with them—I don’t believe in a God, after all—but I don’t see the point in arguing that they’re interpreting or understanding their own religion incorrectly. Doing so is based on the premise that there is some monolithic and unchanging “correct” interpretation of their faith traditions, and there isn’t.

I’m not saying that atheists shouldn’t point out contradictions or problems with progressive, religious beliefs. I’m also not saying individuals who hold progressive religious beliefs should be treated with kid gloves. What I’m saying is two things: First, atheists need to make sure they understand what progressive religionists actually believe instead of talking past them. In this vein, I’ve seen way to many atheists assume progressive Christians are simply fundamentalist-lite and spend their time arguing against a strawman of their beliefs rather than their actual beliefs. Second, atheists need to stop arguing arguing that progressive religious traditions are not valid religious traditions. That argument is both false—see for example everything I just said about the history of Christianity—and harmful—because it reaffirms fundamentalists’ attempt to gain a rhetorical stranglehold on “true” religion.

I’ve seen atheists take a sort of two-punch approach: First, they attempt to convince progressive Christians that fundamentalism is the only valid form of Christianity. Next, they attempt to show progressive Christians that fundamentalist Christianity is cruel and immoral. It’s almost as though the goal is to first turn progressive Christians into fundamentalists so that then the standard arguments against fundamentalism can be employed. This strikes me as a bit lazy. Why not accept progressive Christianity as a valid strain of Christianity, and grapple directly with it? Why the need to instead argue that fundamentalism is the only valid strain of Christianity, and then employ the standard arguments?

Progressive Christians are not some sort of fundamentalist-lite. The way they view the Bible, completely outside of their interpretations of it, is different. They way they approach their faith is different. Even the way they view God is different. You may think pointing out contradictions in the Bible will give you headway, but they may already acknowledge those contradictions and not have a problem with them. You may think pointing out Bible verses against homosexuality will make them realize their religion is bunk, but they may either accept that those verses exist but not view the Bible as infallible or without error, or have different interpretations of those verses based on the Greek or Hebrew and things like cultural context and Biblical exegesis.

Would I point out contradictions I may see, after listening and making sure I’m understanding what they do and don’t believe? I might, especially in terms of trying to better understand their beliefs. That’s how I role. But I think it’s worth remembering that things we see as contradictions may in fact be misunderstandings based on viewing progressive religious beliefs as fitting within the same framework as fundamentalist beliefs when they have a different framework altogether. And that matters.

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