Progressive Religion Needs Progressive Secularism

Progressive Religion Needs Progressive Secularism August 27, 2015

Editor’s Note: When I noticed that frequent contributor Chris Highland had written several salient comments on the Patheos Progressive Christianity Channel, I asked him to post some of his ideas here. This is the result.


By Chris Highland

“The better part of [us] is soon ploughed into the soil for compost.”  ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Henry David Thoreau

The noun progress means “forward or onward movement toward a destination.”

I think so-called “progressives,” religious or not, should ask:

“Is our worldview moving us forward and if so, what is the destination?”

We should also answer it clearly. Otherwise, I fear that we—with all our pet perspectives—will simply dissolve into irrelevance, defending our fences and fields while waiting to be ploughed into the ground for compost. Instead, we should learn when to let go and honestly move on.

Many of my family and friends are believers. My wife is a Christian minister. When we’re together, we don’t waste time arguing about the super-somewhere or super- Something. However we identify ourselves religiously, we are most interested in moving forward to something good in the here and now. Individual beliefs may make for interesting conversation, but common concerns are more important.

Last month I left a comment on a post by progressive Christian Brian McLaren on Patheos “A Desirable Future for Progressive Faith: Three Conversions Required.” McLaren says some helpful things, directed toward the faithful. I especially appreciate his third conversion of the faithful: collaboration for “the common good and service.” He mentions various religions working together with “other neighbors” (a nod in the secular direction, I assume). I responded:

“Good. And I would hope that list of collaborators would include Seculars who–contrary to what some in both old and new theo-camps think–may be just as committed to justice, joy and peace. After all, good pragmatic ethics arise from boots and beliefs on the ground and do not drop down from a supernatural somewhere.”

In his post, McLaren says the very first “conversion” for Christians should be centering faith “in a way of life rather than a system of beliefs.” This was underwhelming for me, since we were saying this way back in my Evangelical days in high school. “Not a Religion; a Relationship.” This was fairly obvious to us in liberal seminary days as well. “Not a Theology; a Service” (The question through all those years was the same: Wasn’t this the main message of Jesus—so why is it ignored?)

So, even Evangelicals and Liberals can identify the pro part of Progress. The destination may be “heaven” (or, for McLaren, the Kingdom), but we get there by being most present here. Doing right is better than believing right. And, I hasten to add; this applies to seculars as well.

Here’s the twist: Doing right (theGood) is better than not-believing right. Who cares if I’m a “good atheist?” What am I doing in my life and is it about progress, for me and for others? I’d rather be remembered as a good Human Being—wouldn’t you?

I enjoy discussing issues of faith with people, especially progressives. Overall I think they feel stuck. Some admire me for jumping ship from organized religion; others just don’t see a way out. Their sense of resignation is sad to see. They may even admit, as I did way back, that the Church is not what Jesus was about; that the point is justice, compassion and cooperative good work. Yet, They don’t know what the alternative is to Churchism, that is, adherence to the principles of an established church. “Community” is a word that creeps into the discussion; but they can be as skeptical as I am about that. Also, for many, it’s just too hard to let go of “worship” as the their primary goal. How progressive can worship be, though, based as it is on ancient words, writings and worldviews?

When it comes to the Church, I just don’t see a future. Some people will always have faith in other worlds and beings – it seems endemic (epidemic too). But Churchism, like Christianism (the religious system, tenets, or practices of Christians – often in reference to fundamentalist Christians) is at best an endangered species. One we should allow to die out.

What should not be allowed to die out is a commitment to doing what is right and good and necessary. Progressive thinkers will naturally think and make progress. As secular Patheos blogger Adam Lee put it:

“[What] I hope for and foresee is a secular community that’s more engaged in doing good deeds and not just attacking religion. Criticizing the harms of faith is both good and necessary, but it can’t be all we do.”

As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote:

“Here’s my bet about the future of Sunni, Shiite, Arab, Turkish, Kurdish and Israeli relations: If they don’t end their long-running conflicts, Mother Nature is going to destroy them all long before they destroy one another.”

He’s talking about climate change and the environment. Later, Friedman nails the point:

“All the people in this region are playing with fire. While they’re fighting [over Religion] and to whom God really gave the holy land, Mother Nature is not sitting idle. She doesn’t do politics—only physics, biology and chemistry…. There is no [Religious] air or [Religious] water, there is just ‘the commons.’

That’s what I call true progressive thinking! Millions may not want to hear this, but spirituals and seculars alike can get behind this call from the minarets of mindfulness. The right answers—hell, the right questions—for our future will not be coming from theology and people playing the God-talk game. We have to find the smartest ways to manage our Big House, faith or no faith.

The poet Walt Whitman was horrified after looking more deeply at the world around him to realize it is one big compost bin.


Then he wondered and reasoned and came to understand that the earth “grows such sweet things out of such corruptions” (“This Compost”).

Could this happen with faith? Can there be real progress? Here’s the startling possibility: “progressive unbelievers” may be the only hope for “progressive believers.” More pointedly: Wise atheism might just be the salvation for wise faith. Incredible? Maybe. But I think that Thoreau, Friedman, Whitman and even believers like McLaren are right: It’s all compost, but it’s common compost, and it’s OUR compost and there is certainly a gentle whiff of sweetness from time to time. What might grow remains to be seen.

**Editor’s Question to Readers** What do you think? Can good things grow out of “corruptions?”


Chris Highland 2008Chris Highland is a former Protestant minister who served as an interfaith chaplain for 25 years. He is the author of My Address is a River; Nature is Enough; Meditations of John Muir and other books. Chris is experimenting with a non-supernatural model of congregation currently called “Secular Sanctuary.” He is a housing manager and teaches naturalist literature courses at the College of Marin near San Francisco. His wife Carol is the director of a large interfaith council.

>>>>>>Photo Credits:

“Benjamin D. Maxham – Henry David Thoreau – Restored” by Benjamin D. Maxham active 1848 – 1858 – National Portrait Gallery, WashingtonNative nameNational Portrait Gallery, WashingtonParent institutionSmithsonian InstitutionLocationWashington,

“Walt Whitman – George Collins Cox” by George C. Cox (1851–1903, photo) Adam Cuerden (1979-, restoration) – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.07549. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

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  • mhelbert

    Excellent piece! Being a progressive Christian, I can’t agree more with your assessment of things. It’s past time to start “doing” compassion, justice, and working for the common good. Thank you!

    • Appreciate the comment. People may not share a common god but we can all share in the common good!

      • “People may not share a common god but we can all share in the common good!”

        Getting to the understanding that gods are not God, would go a long way.

        Theists and atheists alike, seem to worship from different sides of the same alter.

        Ranting, raving or railing from Abrahamic collections.

        Poets and Naturalists, not so much.

  • lawrence090469

    What have you done with the real Tom Friedman?

  • Elizabeth.

    There’s a great whiff crossing Dixie as we type… ‘America’s Journey for Justice,’ NAACP-sponsored 860-mile march from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to D.C., about voting rights, racial profiling, education, wages. When Rabbi Abraham Heschel marched 50 yrs ago he said about Selma, “I felt my legs were praying.” I’m hoping to “progress” with black, brown, white, olive, religious, and secular when it gets near us, and help pressure lawmakers. “Summer growth” from “sour strata”? : ) Join in! virtually or earthbound

    • Hey, that’s great, Elizabeth. Very hopeful. . .the way forward. . .true progressive! Thanks for sharing this.

      • Elizabeth.

        super slogan too from the related Moral Monday Movement —
        “Forward Together!
        Not One Step Back!”
        : )

      • Elizabeth.

        150+ Reform rabbis on the march this #TzedekSummer, passing the Torah scroll on completion of each section Very neat to see

  • Elizabeth.

    Love “the minarets of mindfulness”! ….I see some value in ‘people playing the God-talk game’… a way to break up and compost fetid theological ideas to let the “grass of spring” rise [what a great poem!!! thank you!! I just worry that we may be reaching the point of overburdening Earth’s ‘patience’]. McLaren’s 2nd conversion calls for “a [theological] conversion from a violent, exclusive, Supreme Being to a Loving, Inclusive Spirit of Justice, Joy, and Peace.” That ‘spirit’ would not have to be an entity, personal or otherwise — it could be describing merely people’s attitudes, like “they met in a spirit of conciliation.” I think that theological conversion is underway, at least nascently, in movements like “nexchurch,” composting soil for the growth of creative, progressive ideas — as you write –from both spirituals and seculars about the smartest ways to manage our Big House, Dr. King’s World House. Hugely interesting and thank you!!

  • Eoireitum

    I can’t help thinking that this is wishful thinking by a select group of liberals (not used pejoratively!) that assumes progress is inevitable – when arguably (a) it’s not a ‘given’ (the advances of the enlightenment are under threat) and (b) it’s not progress if it is not shared by the majority (being still wedded it seems for worship, leadership and religiosity ). Progress isn’t about dinner table conversational niceties or the warm fuzziness of, say, a shared environmentalism – it’s about female emancipation, wealth creation/distribution, the destruction of those who inculcate ignorance and the active promotion of a secular education that confronts regressive religiously inspired ideologies and drags the caste-stricken Hindu up from the gutter to fulfil something like the potential demanded by their humanity. Progressive believers and non-believing progressives are an irrelevance when around them, as they fiddle, Rome literally burns….(hyperbolic, perhaps?).
    Real progress, imho, will come when anti- religionists offer concise, unambiguous and uncompromising leadership – perhaps through a Universalist Church of Reason (ugh, but maybe there’s no other way) or some new as-yet-to-be-invented moral philosophy – replacing the sky gods with a “religion” that retains the transcendent but frames it in a more muscular and evangelical way free from irrationality. Oops….communism didn’t get that right……..
    I speak as a devout high church atheist who can get all transcendental when kneeling at my pew, or listening to a choir, but who wishes that we could just remove the ridiculous deity. I’m beginning to lose faith in “street epistemology”, “ecumenical atheism” or the kind of woolly acceptance of beliefs behind which the enemies of reason shelter. Progress demands more, insists – perhaps – that we take on all faiths through the establishment of another.
    God how depressing for us “sheeple” – but there you go…..

    • Linda_LaScola

      Any way you can see your depression turning into activism? Any way to articulate your ideas directly to religious progressives who might take on this worthy cause the way they have taken on so many others?

      • Eoireitum

        Yes. That would be the medicine! I have a feeling that my views are in fact shared by some in the clergy -even though they see social utility in maintaining the risk/reward paradigm (apologies for that word…). I think the way forward is education in which critical thinking and social integration (faith schools -pleas no!) is cultivated….
        In idle moments I sometimes pray that God would reveal himself if only to broadcast the message “that’s it guys – you don’t need me anymore” (a great UK TV drama took a similar line)…
        Thanks tho’ – Eo.

        • Linda_LaScola

          You say you”have a feeling” that some of your views are shared in the clergy.” Any chance you could ask some of them to find out for sure?

          I have that feeling too. And also know that some don’t speak out more because they are afraid for their jobs.

          I don’t blame them for that, but as long as it’s the status quo, progress will be very slow and some well-meaning clergy will be partially responsible because they are tacitly or openly encouraging beliefs that they themselves do not hold.

    • Personally I only see any of this working by building relationships and that happens by working together. I’ve seen it, done it, continue to do it, and imagine more of it. “It” means working on daily housing issues, health, food, community safety, education, etc, etc. Not all depressing, though greatly challenging!

      If churches (or atheists) want to help lead the way through cooperation, great. If not, they can and must move aside so we can get to work.

  • alwayspuzzled

    I have a cousin. He belongs to an apostolic church. (I do not go to church.) He is probably a creationist. (I don’t doubt evolution.) He is very good at building things. When he was younger and physically able, every summer he went for a few weeks on a mission with other people who were good at building things. They went to out of the way places in Africa and sometimes had to have armed guards along. They didn’t build churches, they didn’t hold camp meetings, they didn’t teach people about the bible. They built small health clinics, school houses, water systems, that sort of thing. Whatever his religious beliefs, he was doing the doing.
    One has to wonder if the real difference between people is how and where they make their primary identity investments. There is no doubt that my cousin strongly believes in the tenets of his church, but his real identity investment is in doing something for others.
    On the other hand, for many people, the primary identity investment is not in helping others but in having certain knowledge about Very Important Things. Many of the blogs and comments on Patheos are written to confirm and reinforce those who have made a primary identity investment in the certainty of their conclusions about Very Important Things. And many of the Christian and Atheist blogs and comments clearly believe that the more combative they are and the more demeaning they are to the other side, the more certain their conclusions are. This no doubt is very gratifying, but it is not quite the same as building a school house in Africa.
    I applaud the idea that religious and secular progressives should work together to achieve common goals. But the message should be “Let’s work together”, not “Let’s work together even though your motives are less authentic than mine”. Slipping in phrases like “people playing the God-talk game” is no doubt clever, but it is not the same as “Let’s work together to get this done”.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Good for your cousin. Both religious people and non religious people can do good deeds without bringing their beliefs into it.

      Welcome to the Rational Doubt blog. Patheos is a place for talking — as you just did.

    • Good story, thanks!

  • Dave Armstrong

    Makes perfect sense to me. I’ve been arguing that theologically liberal (so-called “progressive”) Christianity and outright secularism are two peas in a pod, for over 30 years, so I’m grateful to see that rather spectacularly confirmed here.

    The biblical teaching is “Do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:1, RSV), The Phillips version paraphrases that delightfully as “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”

    Seems to me like y’all believe in the very opposite of what that verse and others like it teach. For example:

    1 John 2:15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.

    Nothing is more of the “world” (Greek, kosmos, or literally, “world-system”) than the relentless secularism that has wreaked havoc on western civilization and traditional morality.

    • Well Dave, I guess I have to agree with thee, at least on one thing: I love the kosmos-world, my secular home, and remember, almost fondly, those days when I too loved the bible and another world more, while evangelizing everyone with those cherished words: For God so loved the world.

      I wish you well, here in the only world we have.

      • Dave Armstrong

        Hi Chris,

        That is two different senses of kosmos used in Scripture. In John 3:16 it means simply “humanity.” God loves the world and the people in it, but it’s also a fallen world; hence, the Bible also refers to Jesus as the “Savior of the world.”

        The most prominent or common sense of the word, however, is the world-system, led by Satan, which opposes God and Christians. “The world, the flesh, and the devil” etc.

        This sense is seen, e.g., in the following verses:

        John 17:14-16 (RSV) I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. [15] I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. [16] They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

        1 Corinthians 1:20-21 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? [21] For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

        1 Corinthians 3:19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. . . .

        Love of the world itself (the earth) is perfectly fine, but that’s not my beef (which is with secularism and the world-system). Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si was about taking care of the earth, and I praised it to the skies; so no problem there.

        But that was not my issue in the first place. My point was that the urge to laud and extol secularism (i.e., part and parcel of the world-system) seems to be utterly contrary to biblical teaching.

        But of course you have already moved beyond that anyway. I would highly recommend, then, not trying to cite the Bible, as if it teaches things that it clearly does not.

        • Dave, you DO realize that you are preaching to former preachers who know the scriptures at least as much as you? (In fact, sorry to tell you this, but I’ve also taught the Tao, the Qur’an, the Vedas and more. Some of them teach essentially the same things you are quoting from Christian scriptures).

          Like you, I used to fear “the world” and all the terrors of secularism. There is so much beauty to enjoy in Nature. I recommend a good fresh-air walk into what John Muir called Nature’s Bible.

          Beyond that, Dave, I think it would be pointless to continue this roundabout, don’t you? Good be with you.

          • Dave Armstrong

            Sure. If you know the Scriptures as well or better than I do, by all means refute what I stated about it. I’m all ears.

            The Tao, the Qur’an, the Vedas are all perfectly irrelevant to a question of what the Bible teaches on a given topic. Of course, much in those works is consistent with Scripture. C. S. Lewis makes the same argument, and documents it in the last 27 pages of his book, “The Abolition of Man” (“Appendix: Illustrations of the Tao”).

            “I recommend a good fresh-air walk into what John Muir called Nature’s Bible.”

            You’ll be happy to know that I just took an 18-day vacation to five National Parks in the west (camping every night but two). I’ve hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and at 9,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park, and on the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies. Does that fulfill your recommendation?

            My argument with you is not to bash nature (nice try, though). I’ve been a nature-worshiper and lover since before the Beatles came out.

            I don’t think any discussion is pointless (I think it is great to talk to anyone of any stripe), but it quickly becomes so if only one party is willing to interact.

            God bless you!

  • JohnStefanyszyn

    Christians blame secularism but not its mother.

    Christians blame “secularism” but they do not really describe its source, its foundation, its mother. Why not?

    What is Secularism?…. (as per Merriam Webster dictionary) it is the indifference to, or rejection, or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.

    What belief rules this secularism?

    Is it not the belief in and desire for FREEDOM?..freedom of rights, equality of rights, freedom of religions, equality of religions.

    FREEDOM does not show preference for nor does it discriminate against any self-justified right. …It is religiously neutral.

    …the only ‘god’ that it shows preference for is FREEDOM itself.

    …it does not impose any “one” Truth or God….it declares that all ‘gods’ are equal as per one’s self justified desires…it is as a ‘god of fortresses’.

    FREEDOM confesses and dictates that it is RIGHT (a right) to be free to worship ANY ‘god’.

    BUT as you very well know…the One and Only Creator commanded man to love, worship, and obey Only Him…for there is no other Creator .

    ….also warning man that his disobedience to this command would result in death.

    ….in other words…The Creator never said to man that he is free to worship any ‘god’…for if this “freedom” were given then there would not be any judgement and punishment, as no command would have been trespassed.

    Strange, that “christians” speak of secularism as an ill in society but refrain from identifying its source, that of man’s first love for his freedom to do one’s own will, to serve and magnify oneself (XES).

    …the SAME FREEDOM that the gays worship so as to justify their self-claimed right to ‘marry’.

    Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, Son of the One Creator God, did not die for freedom….He died for and was resurrected for the servitude to the One Creator and for those that repent and serve the One Creator Father.

    Very soon, The Lord Jesus Christ will return, as a thief in man’s eyes, to rule the earth in obedience and power as the One King according to the Will of the One Who Gives Existence to All That Exists and NOT according to man’s first love for “his freedom – for his secularism”…in which each is embracing and demanding the freedom to do what is right in his own eyes.

    John Stefanyszyn

    …a bondman of the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the One and Only Creator

  • Yale Landsberg

    I hope that you do not mind me linking to this splendid post of yours from the “fictional reverses” link on my site, which is about Families being sacred again as bulwarks against religious intolerance AND political over-reach? Any suggestions?

    11:42am – 7 Feb 16