On Creation, Evolution, and Criticizing Progressive Christianity

On Creation, Evolution, and Criticizing Progressive Christianity August 5, 2014

From time to time, I hear other atheists saying that cannot reconcile God and evolution, or Christianity and feminism, or the Bible and gay rights. Now first of all, I actually think you can do all of those things. 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. In fact, the fundamentalist approach to the Bible is actually fairly new to the scene! But more than that, 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.

Some atheists may feel that presenting this dichotomy is a positive thing because it means that those evangelicals or fundamentalists who end up accepting evolution or endorsing gay rights will have no other option but to give up their faith and become atheist. But converting Christians into atheists is not a priority for me. I care primarily about judgmental and prejudiced people becoming compassionate and accepting people. If arguing that you cannot believe the Bible and support gay rights means a few more atheist coverts, but fewer evangelicals or fundamentalists overall moving to acceptance of gay rights, I consider that a loss.

In fact, these arguments are identical to the arguments I was taught growing up—arguments meant to keep me safely in the evangelical fold. I was told that progressive or mainline Christians were not in fact Christian at all, that they believed a false gospel and rejected the Bible. I was taught that becoming a progressive or mainline Christian was simply the first step to atheism—shudder. 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 refuse to repeat that rhetoric. I have many friends who are progressive Christians of various stripes, who find value and meaning in the Christian tradition. They accept the theory of evolution, they embrace feminism, and they promote gay rights. I want those who grew up with me, in the same evangelical or fundamentalist homeschool circles, to view this path as an option. Many of them will never consider leaving Christianity, and I’m fine with that. Progressive and mainline strains of Christianity have the potential to allow them to move from judgmental to accepting without having to leave the Christian tradition.

Perhaps it does come down to priorities. If your goal is for everyone to be atheist, I can see why you might find it beneficial to attack progressive or mainline Christianity as counterfeit. If your goal is for everyone to accept the science behind evolution, embrace feminism, and support gay rights, attacking as counterfeit progressive or mainline Christianity—which is for many evangelicals and fundamentalists the only hope for making this transition—is counterproductive.

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.

I’m also not saying that atheists should never criticize progressive or mainline Christianity. There is plenty to criticize. But when I see atheists trying to criticize mainline or progressive Christianity by arguing that God and evolution are not compatible, using the same arguments for this that young earth creationists use to dissuade their own from deserting, I have to shake my head. Progressive and mainline Christians are not operating on the same platform as evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

If we say that it is not possible to reconcile God and evolution (or Christianity and feminism, and so on), we risk not only driving some deeper into science denialism and patriarchy but also alienating those who could be our allies on many issues. I believe progressive and mainline Christians have a big role to play in supporting victims of spiritual abuse and in helping individuals move from judgement to acceptance to prejudice to compassion.

I’m actually not entirely sure I would be standing where I am today if it hadn’t been for more progressive strands of Christianity. If my choice had been evangelicalism or atheism, I would have stayed put. Thankfully, by the point that I began feeling doubts those were no longer the only two options I saw available. My time as a progressive Christian, first as a liberal Catholic and then as a sort of pan-Christian universalist, allowed me to walk away from the pain and toxic patterns at a time when I would never considered atheism, because my faith was still so important to me.

If you do feel the need to tell a progressive or mainstream Christian that it’s not possible to reconcile God and evolution, or the Bible and gay rights, please be aware that you are telling them the exact same thing evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are telling them. It’s to the point where I sometimes cannot tell from the title whether an article was written by an atheist or a fundamentalist Christian. If progressive or mainstream Christians ever do believe this rhetoric, they will have two choices: atheism, or evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity. They will be forced to choose between evolution, or gay rights, or feminism on the one hand, and their faith on the other.

Are you sure you know which they’ll choose? 

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