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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