The Intellectual Mandate to Criticize Progressive Theism: A Response to Libby Anne’s Article

I have repeatedly defended the position that atheists have a right to say that a particular version of a religion is “true”, and they have the right to call out progressive religious people as being incoherent and presenting odd defenses of their religions. Of course, since I’m an ex-Muslim I have focused on Islam, but I think that is true about every religion. Religions are much older than progressive or humanistic values, and no one expects us to interpret Homer or Virgil or Plato or Aristotle in the way that corresponds to our values today, but we somehow give that sanction to the religions, because as I have said any atheist who argues in favor of progressive religion either buys into religious hegemony and gives a special status to religion or does so for political reasons. 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.

Anyway, if you are interested in reading what I have said about this topic before, in this piece I have reasoned why (about Islam) this position is rationally true, in this one I have shown why it is politically useful, and here I post about the internal contradiction of giving a special status to religion when it comes to letting its progressive proponents define it.

But last night I read a very compelling article by the ever amazing Libby Anne, in which she argued for not doing this. I want to write a response, but also add a point to the points I made above. This is the link to her article: On Creation, Evolution, and Criticizing Progressive Christianity.

Let me first mention something in the middle:

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.

Although she says this, she never argues to show why progressive Christianity is true, or coherent, she simply states that they exist, and all the reasons she brings are tactical reasons. Progressive Christians might believe that this doesn’t create problems for their faiths, but if they did feel that, they wouldn’t be progressive Christians, would they?

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.

And again let me repeat: we do this only for religions. 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 attitude is very evident in her next article, In Defense of Theistic Evolution, which is a reply to Greta Christina’s Why You Can’t Reconcile God and Evolution. I really don’t wan’t to sound dismissive when it comes to someone whom I respect as much as Libby Anne, but I think ultimately all of her arguments in this piece boil down to “well there are people who don’t believe this”, and that’s of course no convincing argument. For example:

As Greta admits later, not all theistic evolutionists hold the exact same views. But when I was a theistic evolutionist, I found two views compelling: First, that God started off the Big Bang and then watched, fascinated, as everything unfolded. In this view, God was a silent observer, gazing in wonder as the world we know today developed, gradually, over time. I could see him taking time off for a bit to eat (I know, I know) and then coming back to find a new wonder that had developed while he was away.

Now to be fair, Anne never talks of being a Christian evolutionist, but a theistic one. Yes, you can reconcile certain deist-type gods with evolution. And the god which is described here is a deist-type god, and anyone can easily show that the god of the Bible and the Koran are not deist-type gods, the Bible even less so because of a little book called the Genesis. If a Christian says the story of the Genesis is symbolic and not literary, it would be an attempt to circumvent this contradiction, (which would fail because the book would still present god as an interfering entity and not a deist type), so while one might be able to reconcile Christianity and evolution to a degree, one would never be able to reconcile modern moral values and biblical and Koranic values, and since Anne’s main priority is social justice and not evolution teaching, this is strange.

As a political person, I’m willing to let better people than me fight the battle over science vs. religion. But I’m certain these holy books cannot be reconciled with progressive values unless we are being willfully ignorant of their meaning and the time they were written.

So let’s return to the main article in which she brings political reasons why we should defend progressive theists.

I worry that atheists sometimes read fundamentalists’ approach to the Bible onto all Christians when in practice there are a variety of ways of approaching, understanding, and interpreting the Bible.

Again, we don’t claim that progressive theists don’t exist, we claim that progressive theists are wrong. Now I want to present what I find to be the gist of her argument:

I worry that if we spend our time arguing that these things can’t be reconciled, we make it harder for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians to part ways with toxic ideologies.

When we argue that these things—whether God and evolution or the Bible and gay rights—cannot be reconciled, the message evangelicals and fundamentalists receive is that evolution or gay rights would require them to give up their faith. Most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are not going to give up their faith. It is an integral part of their lives, their communities, and their very understanding of themselves and the world around them. Setting up this dichotomy—that you can either be a pro-gay-rights evolutionist atheist or an anti-gay-rights creationist Christian—serves to drive them deeper into their science denialism and homophobia.

[...]

This rhetoric is designed to keep evangelical or fundamentalist youth from even considering progressive or mainline Christianity, with their greater acceptance of evolution, feminism, and gay rights, as an option.

I have two problems with this.

Firstly, this message is true. 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.

But it was the second problem which compelled me to write this.

Are we really the ones who set the rhetoric? When we argue with religious people, whether the more conservative ones or the more tolerant ones, should we have to think more of how they will react to our arguments rather than presenting them with what we think is the whole truth?

Libby Anne talks about the priorities. She says that her priority is not to deconvert people but to spread humanist values. I respect that, and like she says, my priority is different. My priority is neither.

My priority is to have open and honest debate. My priority is to provide my co-debater with the most honest and candid account of the truth as I believe it, and to be presented with the most honest and candid account of truth myself, and if we are not convinced by each other, I want to at least present the other with the most genuine arguments that I can.

There are many valid political reasons to ally ourselves with progressive theists and to respect them as individuals. However this alliance and this respect should not come at the cost of silencing and ignoring the disagreements. I believe progressive theists to be intellectually wrong, and morally right. Because of this I have an intellectual mandate to argue against what I think is an intellectual and not a moral failure. We cannot brush this debate under the rug for political reasons.

And it is not in spite of my respect for moderate theists but because of my respect that I will continue to say they are wrong. Moderate theists don’t need to be shielded from criticism and treated with kid gloves, they deserve the most genuine argument against their beliefs.

My priority, my intellectual mandate, is a world in which people value truth above all else. A world in which the concerns over the consequence of the rhetoric does not tramp over the intellectual honesty, a world which expects people to be intellectually brave and continue every logical step and do not shy away from taking it for political reasons, a world in which we do not condone opinions for their mere existence but hold them to scrutiny.

So what I’m telling a moderate Christian or Muslim is not mainly “you have to choose between your faith and your values”, that is the consequence and not the cause. What I’m mainly saying is “You have to be intellectually consistent and work based on rationality, not what feels good.”

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About Kaveh Mousavi

Kaveh Mousavi is the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies. He is a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher. He is passionate about politics, video games, heavy metal music, and cinema. He was born at the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. He has ditched the Islamic part, but has kept some of the revolutionary spirit.


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