Reasonable Religion

Reasonable Religion January 13, 2012

Am I anti-religious?

Many atheists are proudly so.  They see all religion as dangerous and harmful and they seek its eradication.  That’s not my emphasis.  In fact, I generally view liberal religion as my ally.  (I’m what the other atheists call an accomodationist.)

In my profile (over there on the right) I state this:

I believe in the centrality of ceremony and ritual in human life, but I also believe that it must be de-coupled from the supernatural. I believe that the scientific method is the only way to understand ourselves and reality. I believe that dogmatic religion is one of the most destructive forces in the world and that we humans need to create non-theistic alternatives to it.

What I tried to make clear there – within Blogger’s word limit – is that my opposition is not to religion, per se, but to its highly dogmatic variety.  Inflexible authoritarian doctrines of many kinds (Communism comes to mind) are the enemy of freedom.  They bind human possibility and creativity in chains.  The religious version values a specific – and highly questionable – supernatural authority, which they alone authentically interpret, over reason.

But not all modern religion is dogmatic.

Liberal religions, the product of reformative processes, are generally non-dogmatic (or “dogma-lite”).  I do not oppose these kinds of religions.  To do so would be a waste of time and an insult to people who find in them comfort, solace and inspiration to do good deeds.  I appreciate their efforts to reconcile what we have discovered about the world with their various traditions.

However, appreciation does not indicate agreement.  For instance, I appreciate that liberal religious thinkers have made great efforts to reconcile the theory of evolution with their faith narratives.  I do not, however, agree with the reasoning that gets them there.

The Clergy Letter Project, for example, is a laudable effort by Michael Zimmerman to round up support by liberal clergy for the teaching of evolution in public schools.  He’s collected well over 12,000 signatures.  This is a significant example of a non-dogmatic, much-appreciated liberal religious position.

But do I agree with the reasoning of Zimmerman and the 12,000 who signed on?

Here is what Zimmerman recently wrote on HuffPost:

…evolutionary theory has absolutely nothing to do with religion and it certainly makes no statements about the viability of atheism. As I’ve said so many times before, the very existence of The Clergy Letter Project demonstrates that thousands of religious leaders have absolutely no trouble embracing evolution while remaining true to their faith. Yes, one narrow view of religion…has a problem with modern science, but we should recognize it for the narrow perspective that it is.

Even with my appreciation for their goal of battling creationism, I can’t get on board with this assertion.  Evolutionary theory may not have anything specifically to say about atheism, but fundamentalists are not entirely wrong about the challenge it presents to the faithful.  The more one truly grasps evolution, the less one needs to posit a supernatural source of creation.  Correcting my own understanding of evolution certainly put the last nail in the coffin of my faith.

I work in the Jewish community and it is filled with liberally religious people.  I also participate in all kinds of “inter-faith” activities (though I’d prefer another term for them) with churches and other groups.  I admire all of the many good deeds done by liberally religious people.  They perform acts of righteousness for others regardless of creed.  I do not aim to eradicate their religious faith.  It’s simply not part of my agenda.

Nevertheless, I’m also interested in what is true and I think that they believe some things that are not.  So when they make assertions about God, I feel free to challenge them.  And I will continue to debate and critique their reasoning and their supernatural pronouncements.

In sharp contrast to their dogmatic, fundamentalist counterparts, they rarely take offense and usually enjoy the debate.  And at the end of the day, they not only do not seek to impose their world view on me, they usually thank me for clarifying mine.  More than once I have even been invited to speak in their congregations.

It was a series of religious reformations that ultimately gave birth to Humanistic Judaism.  We promote a lifestyle of gathering and celebrating, on Shabbat, holidays or for life cycle events, that evolved in a theistic context among faithful Jews.  We may break faith with those Jews of the past, but we do not pretend that our needs for identity or community have been eradicated by our liberation from their supernatural concerns.

I do hope for the day when liberal religious leaders will transform their traditions even more than they have already done.  The key to this is patience and engagement.  Appreciating them as I do empowers me to challenge them as well.  In sharp contrast to how that debate plays out with dogmatic believers, ours is a healthy dialogue among allies.

So no, I am not anti-religious.

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