Liberal converts

It’s generally the more conservative, even fundamentalist, versions of religions that strenuously evangelize and seek converts.

So, other than bringing up children in the faith, how do more liberal religions reproduce themselves? I imagine there’s a good deal of stealing from more conservative movements. For example, a college student can come to think scriptural literalism is unworkable, and drift toward a less rigorous version of her childhood faith. There has to be some amount of conversions from nonbelieving circles as well; there has to be something to the stereotype of nonbelievers coming to look for some more spirituality in their lives.

Thing is, such speculation doesn’t take me beyond the image of liberal religion as a watered-down compromise between a full-throated faith and nonbelief. I suspect that isn’t good enough: liberal religion has its own integrity, its own attractions besides the image of moderation and truth being in the middle.

But still, the question is interesting. Since liberal religions have the reputation, supported by the sociologists, of not holding onto their own members that well (partly because they aren’t demanding enough), to reproduce, they need a stream of converts. Where do they come from? Disaffected conservatives? The previously only culturally religious or religiously indifferent, who come to think they need more church or mosque in their lives? And is this enough to keep them going?

I should really talk to a sociologist of religion about this.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00565212411446092552 smijer

    I'm not a sociologist of religion, nor am I a "liberal religionist" except in the broadest sense. I guess you would say I got there from some combination of the two factors you discuss.

    I grew up in a conservative family, and found conservative religion (and all supernaturalism) unworkable.

    I spent many years unchurched as an atheist.

    I realized that there was a whole lot more than just "spirituality" missing in my life – mainly community and purpose.

    I therefore joined up with the UUs in hopes they would help me create (not find) both.

    I find a lot of other UUs followed similar paths. We have a term for the tiny minority who grew up in a UU family and remain in the church – "Cradle UUs". They are rare.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02644321178403228958 Bruce the Agnostic

    I think liberal Churches tend to grow through family connection. Often the members they lose are those who develop Fundamentalist tendencies. They leave the liberal Church looking for a group that "really" believes the Bible.

    In the past Presidential election a record number of young, liberal Evangelicals voted for Barack Obama. This is a good sign. I suspect these younger voters will ultimately leave the Evangelical Church and head for the liberal Church. If the liberal Church is smart they will be welcoming and provide a place for these people to develop a liberal, progressive faith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14479224236264150172 WAR_ON_ERROR

    Good questions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    I used to be a self-described "liberal religionist," so maybe I can help you: I think intellectual freedom and a social climate that's open to new ideas definitely helps someone become a "liberal religionist." This is exactly what religious conservatives don't want to hear, because even the "moderate" conservatives tend to restrict what they read/watch to things that they already believe in.

    I used to be a somewhat conservative Catholic originaly (naively, only because I was brought up that way). After going to a Christian school unpleasantly dominated by evangelicals on the far right, I was inspired to read up on lots of different flavors of religion as an intellectual counterattack, if you will (this was an explicitly evangelical Christian school, mind).

    In the end, I read up on (and briefly became) a "liberal religionist" from an ethical perspective: I noticed a sharp divide between theists who spend 99% of their time bickering about social issues, and theists who actually gave a crap about real-world ethical issues, not to mention the fact that the latter lacked the former's paranoia about "enemies." Then I noticed that most of the latter were religious liberals. I didn't want to be a bickering close-minded paranoiac, ergo I became one of the former.

    And then, ahem, I started reading sites like this and realized atheism and naturalism are the only worldviews that actually makes sense.

    Does this help?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    *By "making sense" I meant, I only started thinking about philosophical naturalism once I'd already arrived at liberal religion from a purely ethical/intellectual standpoint.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis said: “Thing is, such speculation doesn't take me beyond the image of liberal religion as a watered-down compromise between a full-throated faith and nonbelief.

    If by “full-throated faith” you mean fundamentalism then I disagree, for it seems to me that the fundamentalism lies closer to non-belief than liberal religion. Actually fundamentalism is characterized by a *lack* of faith (aka trust) in God, because it considers that God speaks to us only through a particular book, and not that God’s presence is alive and immediately knowable. Indeed I think that fundamentalism is a remnant of idolatry, for it requires the identification of a visible thing – in this case a book – as the stand-in for God.

    In my mind the taxonomy is: non-religion, fundamentalism, conservatism, liberal religion, mysticism. The non-religious consider their experience of life and see no deeper order beyond the physical order, or, to put it in theistic terms, they don’t see God anywhere in the physical universe. The fundamentalist sees God in the Bible. The conservative sees God in the Bible but also and perhaps mainly in the Church, as well as in the Eucharist, in miracles, in some specific dogmas. The liberal sees God in a much broader sense and in a way that tends to transcend tribal and dogmatic distinctions: in all beauty in love that is in life, in how it is like to be a human being including in our moral and rational sense. Finally the mystic sees God in all and experiences God in all – including in all limitations and ugliness of our state.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14479224236264150172 WAR_ON_ERROR

    DG,

    That's an interesting perspective. I've observed on occasion that fundamentalism tends to represent a certain insecurity about God that would apparently totally evaporate (with all the thousands of implications) if just one verse of the Bible was found to be factually inaccurate in some way. And that the liberals may actually have a greater confidence in the core message and mystical presence of God rather than necessarily being just half a step removed from total apostasy. They don't need to pretend that defending a whole laundry list of dubious claims despite the grain of the evidence actually "adds" to their confidence level. It just has nothing to do with it. It would be nice if the fundamentalists could recognize their spiritual confidence doesn't have a lot to do with their bad arguments and the defense of indefensible doctrines.

    From my perspective, as a non-believer, I can hardly hope to understand and appreciate all of the complicated levels of "normal" human experience that the world presents, much less all the politics of some unseen spirit realm. So my plate is already full and learning to live in that world is already a challenge.

    Ben

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16718427136116646031 Keith

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16718427136116646031 Keith

    "liberals may actually have a greater confidence in the core message and mystical presence of God rather than necessarily being just half a step removed from total apostasy."

    That sounds like an interesting sociological hypothesis. I wonder if more atheists and agnostics are bred in fundamentalist churches than in liberal religious ones. It would be an interesting study to conduct to find out, even if its about 50/50.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14479224236264150172 WAR_ON_ERROR

    Keith,

    I would be interested to know. Does all the dogmatic baggage have an adverse effect or not? Or does it even matter? I've always joked that giving government money to Catholic schools furthers our secular agenda since they seem to churn out very outspoken critics of religion on a regular basis. :D

    Ben

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    DG wrote: It would be nice if the fundamentalists could recognize their spiritual confidence doesn't have a lot to do with their bad arguments and the defense of indefensible doctrines.

    As a secularist surrounded by theists and a former Christian mself, I think that's an astute observation. In fact, I naively tried to point that out to a bunch of fundamentalists back when I was a Christian, which only fueled their enmity towards my (to them) "radical" non-fundamentalism.

    From my perspective, as a non-believer, I can hardly hope to understand and appreciate all of the complicated levels of "normal" human experience that the world presents, much less all the politics of some unseen spirit realm.

    I think that kind of observation is one of the things that believers fear the most — the fact that, deep down, nobody really knows what's the proper worldview/ethical system and how to live their lives. I think that's the main reason (apart from some hypothetical "God gene") that believers get so touchy about religion, even the moderates.


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