Politically liberal religion

I just caught up with a recent issue of The Nation that includes a couple of articles by political liberals who are also religious. They argue that the Democratic party shouldn’t be so cool toward religious language and devout people. That the religious right can only properly be countered by a religious left that uses God-talk in the service of kinder and gentler ends. Michael Lerner says his usual thing, that the secular left lacks a spiritual vision, that secularists suffer from “scientism,” etc.

Now, OK, maybe — maybe — this is good political strategy in a country where 90% believe in a traditional God and where atheists are pariahs. Nevertheless it also pisses me off. Political observers point out that religious participation or non-participation is among the more reliable indicators of whether someone votes Democratic or Republican, that “seculars” are among the most solid Democratic constituencies. So, once again, the political conventional wisdom seems to be that Democrats need to distance themselves from their most reliable supporters if they want electoral success. (And we know how good that advice has been.) I can’t help but noting that Republicans don’t get lectured as often about being too cozy with theocrats, gun-nuts, or oil companies.

Beh. Yes, maybe we would be better off if a “religious left” became more powerful — we would certainly have less gay-bashing, creationist pressure on education etc. But when it comes to it, though more politically benign, I think Lerner’s beliefs are comparable to Jerry Falwell’s in their level of superstition. I’m damned if I can be enthusiastic about the idea of a religious left.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05917263957356181206 PK

    In explaining, in “Bringing God Into It,” why those on the political left are nervous about using religious language in their political battles, Rabbi Lerner employs the boogeyman of scientism as a scapegoat. First, contrary to Lerner, there is no religious faith in science; instead, there’s a naturalistic worldview backed up by metaphysical (not theological) arguments. Lerner calls scientism a religion just because scientism is a belief system which isn’t supported by science itself. He forgets that metaphysics–and philosophy generally–stand between science and theology.

    But what’s more important is that scientism isn’t the issue. The reason leftists are wary of introducing religious themes into their political platform is that left-wing theists are just those theists who are dimly aware that science has rendered theology irrelevant; thus, leftist religion is emasculated and practically indistinguishable from secularism. The problem isn’t faith in science; rather, the problem is science’s impact on archaic belief systems. Science, backed up with a philosophical, naturalistic worldview is the culprit, not any pseudo-religion of scientism.

    For example, instead of viewing the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, leftist Jews and Christians read the Bible from a scientific perspective, putting the ancient library into its historical context and interpreting the supernatural passages as so many metaphors. Instead of relying on the immanence of divine law which is sometimes thought to govern the free market, the left-wing theist cries out for a welfare state to correct the economic chaos that results ultimately from God’s apparent absence from this world. Instead of taking to heart the biblical lesson about the eternal separation of heaven from hell, the left-wing theist maintains that everyone is essentially equal, and thus champions a common good.

    The emptiness of leftist religion comes out in Lerner’s plea for something called a “spiritual”–not a religious–vision, which recognizes a “transcendent purpose for our lives.” Leftist religion descends into mysticism, according to which God is beyond human comprehension, and “God” is an empty placeholder for the Transcendent, which we supplement with futile metaphors and with psychological projections. Instead of committing to a religion, the leftist cherry-picks what to believe from all religions, since they’re all empty compared to the unknowable truth about the Transcendent.

    As soon as the theist with leftist political inclinations supports the leftist political message with merely mystical, spiritual appeals, the religious right-winger will rightly call this lukewarm religion which has fallen to secularism. The fear that much of that 90% of Americans who allegedly are religious are instead practically nontheists, who call themselves religious for reasons of political correctness, will drive right-wing religionists further to reactionary fundamentalism.

    Instead, leftist “spiritualists” should soul-search and wake up to the fact that they’ve abandoned meaningful religion in favour of the naturalistic worldview. Their lip service to religion and to fashionable New Age spirituality notwithstanding, they live as naturalists who ignore the prospect of any afterlife. Unlike the Islamic terrorist who dies for his religious beliefs, the leftist Jew or Christian would die only to protect his family, his nation, and his material possessions. Since God is merely transcendent rather than also immanent, according to the left-wing theist, there is nothing holy in this life to protect; the Transcendent is just too otherworldly and abstract to inspire the leftist to action. And by explaining more and more of everything in natural terms, it’s science, not scientism that has pushed God out of this universe and onto his irrelevant, transcendent throne.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01228785631287432443 CFeagans

    Excellent comment, pk. I’ve been pondering the idea of moderate/leftist religious believers versus fundamentalist believers for some time.

    While I think that the fundamentalist is certainly more dangerous than the leftist or moderate, I don’t consider the moderates as being as intellectually honest. If you’re going to consider a doctrine, be it the Koran, Bible, etc. to be the inerrant word of God, then you have to believe the dogmatic things that fundamentalists believe: homosexuals are abominations; special creation; Noachian flood; etc.

    We don’t see moderates slamming planes into buildings -it’s definately the fundamentalists that are doing this and killing abortion doctors or blowing themselves up on buses. But the moderates are trying to play both sides of the fence, and sacrificing their intellectual honesty in the process.

    With regard to the “scientism” topic, I explored this in a blog entry, Does Scientism Exist? where I reviewed the David Menton critique of Carl Sagan. This notion of “scientism” seems to crop up whereever science questions someone’s faith -that blind trust people have in the supernatural, whether it be belief in their god or their belief in ESP.

    Nice stumbling onto this blog, I’ll have to bookmark it!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05917263957356181206 PK

    The main question here is whether leftists should flaunt their religion to score political points against the Republicans. I’m tempted by Leo Strauss’ reported view of liberalism: liberalism itself, roughly the individualist defense of personal freedoms, leads to the moral corruption and breakdown of society, and needs to be countered or propped up with myths (grand metanarratives) that unite otherwise Cartesian, atomic individuals. (Thus the current American myths about the war against terrorists.)

    My point is that the Democratic party now–and since Clinton’s self-defeating triangulations–represents a decadent, morally and intellectually corrupt stage of liberalism. The Democrats have been thoroughly outmaneuvered by the way Republicans have framed the now primary issue of the war against terrorists. Without the least trace of shame, Republicans have oversimplified the issue in a way only genuine theists–people who literally talk to invisible friends even after they’ve grown past the age of four–could manage.

    The national fear Republicans have aroused and manipulated depends on theistic trust in the absolute moral superiority of Christian America; Christian Americans fear not just another terrorist attack, but the Satanic properties of terrorists, the way their lust for homicidal suicide seems to confirm the existence of absolute evil and the divine imperative for Good Americans to combat Satan’s forces. Americans fear they may not still be able to fight alongside God against the forces of Satan (Islamic fundamentalism, and perhaps one day atheistic China and polytheistic India). After all, Christian Americans have suffered greatly under transnational, sometimes traitorous corporations; many Americans are fatter and poorer than God’s soldiers should be.

    Democrats have precisely no hope of replacing this grand metanarrative, nor any hope of better managing it or of being better moral-military crusaders than the Republicans. The Democrats’ attempt to pretend to be more religious than they are will be not just pathetic–a sign that there is only one viable political party for genuine American theists in the so-called leading country of the free world–but alarming to these theists who would have thought atheists were more outnumbered in the US.

    Because of these sorts of points, I’m sympathetic with Morris Berman’s argument about the inevitable collapse of the US.



    Sam Harris criticizes religious moderates in his explosive book, The End of Faith. He argues, in effect, that they’re complicit in fundamentalist violence, since their lukewarm, politically correct version of religion acts like a shield that protects fundamentalists from the sort of atheistic onslaught their bizarre belief system merits.

    I say more about scientism in a response in this blog to Taner Edis’ Feb 19 post on the negative NYT review of Dennett’s recent book on religion. Here’s a link (it will have to be pieced together):


  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03356868704970210318 bmk md

    I think non–fundamentalists, religious and atheist need to unite, not under God, but under Liberal morality. Morality that sees the onset of humanity as more complicated that when an egg and a sperm unite, that the rights of women to decide obout pregnancy is another legitamte moral stance, not the lack of morality…that respecting the sexual behvior of people in their own homes is a legitimate morality, not a second rate morality. ?A non-fundamentalist morality, but nto a bad morality
    The separation of church and state is a good political and a good MORAL stance, and the merging of church and state is not the only and not a good legal/political/moral stance.
    Whether one is a theist or an atheist is not the issue. Respectful morality of individual choices and autonomy along with responsibility for one’s behavior is a strong moral stance, independent of believing in God.

    Can we get liberal theists to emphasize the morality of such attitudes independent of religion? It’s a better goal, than trying to prove the value of a liberal morality because it is believed by theists.