Do Some Progressive Christians and Atheists Share These Three Beliefs?

Do Some Progressive Christians and Atheists Share These Three Beliefs? November 19, 2018

Such is the assertion posed in a recent essay published on The Gospel Coalition (TGC) website.  Before we address the claim, it is important to note the trajectory of the writer’s essay.  She clearly believes there is a slippery slope between progressive Christianity and atheism.  She does qualify much of what she writes, noting she is speaking of “some” progressive Christians and that correlation is not causation.

However, it’s not hard to miss where she is heading; it’s clear what we are to take away: Progressive Christianity is something we should be suspicious of, if not hostile toward.  At the end, she even compares progressive Christianity to the serpent’s voice in Genesis.  Nice.  What a reasonable and charitable reading of progressive Christianity…

So, let’s unpack this a bit:

She writes:

“[Bart Campolo] explained that his journey to secular humanism was a 30-year process of passing through every stage of heresy. In other words, his theology “progressed” from conservative to liberal to entirely secular..”

That is a very misleading use of the word “progressed” in the context of progressive Christianity.  Progressive Christianity is not about moving from one stage of belief to further and further unbelief.  We would argue that more than a progression, it is a recovery of orthodox Christianity.

Next, she writes:

“…progressive Christians tend to reject the historic biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality, and generally deny or redefine doctrines such as the atonement and biblical authority.”

Here she misrepresents what progressives deny or redefine and all by way of begging the question.  Whether progressive understandings are “biblical” or “historic” and whether or not they are being denied or redefined are the very questions in dispute.  Progressives would argue that many historical understandings of the Bible were derived more from culture than the Bible and that rather than denying or redefining doctrines, they are correcting bad or false theological understandings.

She then notes the many stories, not of progressives becoming atheists, but of fundamentalists/evangelicals becoming atheists, but then realizing there is way to be a Christian that operates outside the fundamentalism/evangelical paradigm.  In fact, they learn what the great majority of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican, and many progressive forms of Protestantism already knew.  They learn they were practicing a very small, Western, Americanized, and modern form of Christianity when compared with the rest of the world and the church through history.  Maybe this is what should concern the writer (and TGC) more than where progressive Christianity might lead people.

Let us now consider her suggestion that there are, “…three atheistic ideas that some progressive Christians espouse…[that] may lead them into full-blown atheism.”

The first: “They May Adopt a Belief That the Bible Is Unreliable”

First of all, reliability is hardly what concerns most atheists when it comes to the Bible.  If we were to ask an atheist if they thought the Bible reliable, their first question would be: Reliable in what way?  As history?  As science? As a blue print for living?  As the final word in ethics, philosophy, and metaphysics?  What?  More importantly, if asked if they thought it had been inspired by God, they would of course say, no.  Asserting this to be an atheistic idea is nonsensical, or moot at best.

Second, none of the progressive Christians the writer quotes tell us the Bible is unreliable.  What bothers the writer is that they disagree with her as to how the Bible should be interpreted, used, and understood.

Thus, there is no connection here between the fact that progressive Christians interpret and understand the Bible differently than she does, and the fact that atheists do not believe the Bible to be reliable.  That is something they would obviously not believe given they don’t believe in God.  These are two entirely different issues.

The second: “They May Have an Unresolved Answer to the Problem of Evil”

Wait, does the writer presume to tell us she has resolved the problem of evil?  Wow.  Well, please do tell.  I mean, only the best and brightest theologians, philosophers and scholars have been wrestling with this question and problem for centuries.  If our writer and the other Gospel Coalition people have resolved this problem, then please enlighten the rest of us.

In the meantime (while we wait for that essay), has the problem of evil caused some to become atheists?  Probably.  Does that have anything to do with progressive Christianity?  Nope.  In fact, it is entirely possible more atheists are created by the easy and shallow answers given by fundamentalists/evangelicals regarding the problem of evil, than anything proposed by progressives.

The third: “They May Affirm a Culture-Adapting Morality”

Here, like with number one, the writer again begs the question.  The very question in dispute for progressives is does the Bible teach what fundamentalist/evangelicals think it does when it comes to morality and ethics?  In the years leading up to the Civil War, Christians in the South believed the Bible supported slavery.  Now, looking back, even the writer would agree they were simply affirming a culture-adapted morality, which they then used the Bible to support.  How does the writer know whether or not her views of marriage, sexuality, and morality in general are not replicating the same phenomenon?

Again, her true concern here, is that progressives interpret and understand the Bible differently than she does when it comes to morality and ethics.  Instead of addressing the true issue, the issue of hermeneutics and epistemology, she just begs the question as to what the Bible teaches (meaning, what we understand it to be teaching) regarding morality/ethics in general.

The writer ends with many other misunderstandings, but a true gem is: “The teachings of the Bible aren’t progressive—they’re eternal.”

I’m confused.  Does she mean progressives interpret and understand the Bible incorrectly?  Thus, the Bible doesn’t teach what they think it does?  Or, does she mean the teachings of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, have never changed or been understood differently over time?  Does she mean Moses and Paul believed the same things about heaven, hell, grace, circumcision, and how Gentiles are saved, etc.?  Does she mean that when Jesus said, “you have heard it said…but I tell you…” there was nothing, “progressive” about that for the hearers?

Is she confusing progressive revelation with progressive Christianity, two entirely different things?  Who knows?  If she is using the word “progressive” to designate what are considered the understandings and interpretations held by the community of progressive Christians, then she simply begs the question again.  Whether or not the teachings of the Bible are progressive (in the sense of progressive Christianity), is the very thing disputed.

If she is speaking of progressive revelation, even though off topic, we might respond:  The truths of the Bible, especially those that pertain to God’s person and being, are indeed eternal, but that doesn’t mean we don’t, from our finite and limited perspective, understand them progressively over time.  Again, consider the issue of slavery, or women viewed as property.  Here, history itself refutes the writer.  Either way, however she is using the word “progressive,” her point fails.

So, to conclude, rather than stoop to the level of equating what the writer is telling us with the voice of Satan, let’s just go with the truth: The writer’s essay is a series of misunderstandings in general, confusion over the use and meaning of the word “progressive,” and question-begging assertions.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • The GC article, to use an academic term, blew. Its entire purpose is to create fear and serve as further discouragement to “the faithful” to ask questions, struggle meaningfully with issues, or challenge pat answers. It’s exactly the kind of mindset that helps people go from Fundamentalist to Atheist without passing Go.

    But I will say that, like you, I did a double-take when I read that second one. The Problem of Evil has plagued not just Christianity but many other religions and philosophical inquiry / metaphysics in general. The Gospel Coalition is seriously holding out on us! I’m looking forward to that essay, maybe after they finish “God’s Sovereignty and Free Will – It’s Totally Easy When You Think About It” and “Light: It’s a Particle and a Wave, What’s So Hard About This?”

  • NeoBlaise

    After reading the writer’s comment that “Progressive Christianity…is a recovery of orthodox Christianity,” I immediately came to the conclusion that he had no idea what he was writing about. There was no need to “progress” onward into more of his foolishness.

  • Vance Morgan

    Perhaps you might care to enlighten us as to what was so offensive to you about the comment you partially quote. Lacking that explanation, you appear simply to be judgmental and ill-informed.

  • chemical

    Same here, and I’m an atheist. The Problem of Evil isn’t unresolved for atheists. The answer is simple: God doesn’t exist. We don’t live in a perfect society, and even if we did there are still natural disasters, disease, mental illness, etc. to contend with, so bad things will still continue to happen to good people.

    At least that’s what I believe. Whether or not I’m correct with this is another matter, but I find it totally ridiculous that the Problem of Evil was trotted out as something atheists and progressive Christians share an answer to.

  • chemical

    “Light: It’s a Particle and a Wave, What’s So Hard About This?”

    As a chemist: To answer this question properly, I’ll need about half a library’s worth of books. But for the extremely abbreviated answer: Waves (like photons) will have some particle-like properties if you design an experiment to measure for particles, and particles will have some wave-like properties if you design an experiment to test for waves. The photoelectric effect, which Einstein discovered and got a Nobel for, proved conclusively that photons have particle properties. The double-slit experiment proved conclusively that photons have wave properties.

    For an analogy: If you mix corn starch with water in the right proportion, you will create what chem engineers call shear-thickening fluid. The more stress you put on a shear-thickening fluid, the higher viscosity it will become. There are also shear-thinning fluids, which have the opposite effect, and Newtonian fluids, where the stress has no effect on the viscosity at all. Point is, with the corn starch and water mix, put enough stress on it and it will act like a solid — fill a tub with the stuff and you will be able to run across the surface without getting wet. Stop running and you’ll sink like a stone. When you run, your feet put a ton of pressure on the surface, so it makes the surface of the liquid act solid. Photons are somewhat similar: They will act one way or another depending on the situation they are in.

  • Thanks, yes, absolutely. I’d say the -theistic- dimension of the problem of evil is resolved for atheists, for sure. There’s no conflict between a good, ominpotent God and the presence of suffering because only the suffering part of that exists.

    At the same time, even atheistic philosophers have struggled with how to understand suffering and its purpose. We can all imagine a world without suffering, so why do we have it? Does it mean anything? Is there even such a thing as suffering? Does the presence of suffering imply any moral obligations or have impact on moral theory and, if so, why? Is it ever good to suffer or inflict suffering? Suffering doesn’t have to be reconciled with God’s characteristics from an atheist standpoint, but it does have to be reconciled with existence in some form or fashion, even if that reconciliation is simple nihilism.

    In either case, you’re absolutely right. Progressive Christians and atheists do not share common assumptions about the problem of evil, or at least none that all humanity doesn’t share.

  • chemical

    We can all imagine a world without suffering, so why do we have it?

    I can imagine having a spaceship capable of faster-than-light travel, but I don’t have that, either. It’s because we don’t know how to build that world or that spaceship.

    To borrow a bit from Buddhist philosophy, suffering stems from an unfulfilled desire. Some of this is pure survival instinct, like desiring a house so you don’t freeze to death during the winter, but other suffering deals with human ambitions clashing with each other.

    Does the presence of suffering imply any moral obligations or have impact on moral theory and, if so, why?

    Yes. Regardless of your station, it’s in your best interest to reduce suffering whenever possible. Why? Because we don’t know how to build that perfect world. Earth’s resources are limited, so the more people we have working on our problems, the better off we’ll be. People can’t work on problems if they’re freezing to death or starving. Ultimately, being selfless is actually more beneficial to you than being selfish is, and I’d further argue that it’s impossible to actually do a truly altruistic deed.

    Suffering doesn’t have to be reconciled with God’s characteristics from an atheist standpoint, but it does have to be reconciled with existence in some form or fashion, even if that reconciliation is simple nihilism.

    I’d agree with a nihilistic answer: The universe simply doesn’t care about your issues. Jump off a cliff, and the cliff will not mourn you when you die. As far as this goes, I see this line of thought as a category error: giving a non-human universe human characteristics like empathy. But then again, I’m a nihilist myself so I’m biased towards nihilistic viewpoints.

  • It certainly is more pleasant to stop reading information as soon as you hit something you disagree with.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Religion is so tedious!!

  • Overall, spot on, although I did a bit of a double-take over the statement, “We would argue that more than a progression, it is a recovery of orthodox Christianity.” I don’t think “orthodoxy” has as much to do with progressive Christianity as does “orthopraxy,” …orthodoxy: checking off all the boxes, is more of a fundamentalist idea. I know I tend to be anti-Nicene, the development of Christian doctrine being heavily influenced by the state and often containing questionable hermeneutics.

  • The irony is that evangelical Christianity very much is a “Culture-Adapting Morality”, but it’s of America in the 1940s and 1950s with its particular prejudices, bugaboos, and the like. Hence why the religious viewpoint is critical of environmental preservation, waffles on issues of racial equality, and so on. It’s certainly not a morality that’s just based on reading what the Bible says (without reading into it a lot of additional stuff).