Are Some Liberal Christians Just Atheists?

Over at Exploring Our Matrix, James McGrath and others, including others elsewhere on Larry Moran’s Sandwalk, are mulling over the question of whether various brands of Christian believers who reject the supernatural (including supernatural Gods) to varying extents are just atheists afraid of the name (or who define it differently), or atheists who happen to just like Christ a whole lot, or something else entirely: a sort of post-theism theist.

McGrath also quotes Liberal Pastor trying to explain the distinction: which as far as I can tell, comes down to a sense of understanding why concepts of God were (and perhaps still are) needed to capture something important about decidedly non-supernatural lives and teachings of great religious figures.

Plenty of atheist writers quite deliberately ignore these more “sophisticated” takes on religion and Christianity in particular, both because they seem to be a minority view with little political influence, and because they often seem either substantively impenetrable or lacking in the sort of objective claims one would have any reason to critique in the first place. I think, for the most part, this neglect is legitimate, at least in the context of the particular assaults on faith and positive arguments for belief that these atheists are mounting.

But that doesn’t mean that these perspectives have no place in the larger debate over the role of religion in society and philosophy. And I wonders whether churches full of such liberalized believers would leave people like Dawkins or Harris with anything left to object to.

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16 Responses to Are Some Liberal Christians Just Atheists?

  1. tysdaddy says:

    Ever read any Marcus Borg? I have been going through The Heart of Christianity and there seems to be much in there that is right up the alley you’re heading down.

    I found your site by searching the “philosophy” tag on WP. Interesting stuff here. I’ll be back . . .

    Brian

  2. bitchspot says:

    I’ve been saying for years that probably the majority of liberal Christians are Christian in name only. I refer to them as “social Christians”, they claim to believe because they think it makes them look good to the neighbors, but their claimed religious beliefs have no effect whatsoever on their day-to-day lives.

    That’s one of the problems with belief in general, you an just make the claim “I believe” whether it’s true or not and be counted with the believers. There are tons of Christians who have no idea what they’re supposed to believe, have never been to church, have never cracked the Bible, yet they are still counted as Christians because they said those two little words.

  3. I think a distinction needs to be made between the average ‘social Christian’, whether liberal or conservative, and the theologians and educated who have specific beliefs, practices, and lines of thought about these matters.

    I’m eager to know whether you think I’m one of the “some” in the title! :-)

  4. Bad says:

    bitchspot, I find it very hard to believe that a significant number of people who actually believe because of the neighbors. Atheists who put on a show not to rock the boat maybe, but in the case of someone that does actually believe, however little this affects their lives, you’re suggesting a level of thoughtful insincerity that, in my experience, I’ve never encountered or discerned. And generally, while beliefs may not affect some people’s day to day doings, I think it’s pretty rare for a such a believer to turn to religion in precisely the extraordinary and trying circumstances you might expect them to… and there’s nothing especially wrong or insincere about that, either.

    James McGrath: As for whether you fall into the “some,” I really have no idea! I wasn’t going to weigh in on the question posed in the title mostly because a) I’m not sure and b) I’m not sure it matters aside from simply letting people define themselves, as long as their definitions are consistent. In a lot of these cases, it really does seem to come down to ones choice of definitions, and while I’m a fan and defender of defining atheism as simply “without theism,” I’m also an advocate of the idea that anyone who thinks there’s something at stake in how we define things other than communicative clarity and consistency is making an error somewhere in their reasoning.

    But even if you accept my definition, then the riddle of what counts as “theism” still remains. You might be hard to classify, but I can think of an even harder case: Tolland-esque panatheists who do not believe in literally anything more than any given atheist, but regard all of existence as their God, using theism as a sort of term of relation rather than a set of creedal truth claims (i.e. I am my father’s son, and all of existence is the TEP’s God, and Caesar was the God to some Romans, etc.).

    Back when I frequented the About forums, it was great fun (though at first I was just as flummoxed as anyone) to watch a TEP named Eljay drop into discussions and blow everyone’s neat little categories and atheist/theist battlements to smithereens with his mere existence.

    I also don’t understand why Larry Moran thinks that being an atheist comes down to the supernatural, first because I’m not sure such a troubled term is a useful distinction, and secondly because plenty of atheists believe in all sorts of supernaturally thingies.

  5. So is the appropriate term TEP, or TEPist, or TEPid? I guess the latter would be reserved for Tolland-esque panatheist cdesign proponentsists… :-)

    On a more serious note, I’ve not come across “Tolland-esque panatheists” as a category before, and would welcome some recommendations for further reading reflecting that viewpoint.

  6. Bad says:

    There’s no appropriate abbreviation, I just hate writing it out. :)

    I would ask Eljay. And of course, there’s the work of John Toland and his legacy. I’m not really sure how common a view it is, but Eljay convinced me that it was a legitimate one, and enough to fall under the term “theist” and thus make the life of anyone trying to come up with a taxonomy of belief and non-belief even more interesting. :)

  7. Really interesting post and links. The implication here (one I entirely agree with) seems to be that if Christianity (and organized religion in general) is to continue to be relevant in our time, it needs to focus on helping people live their lives in harmony with their fellow humans, and spend less time fretting over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Buddhism is a good example of a religion that already does this.

    I’m not sure I agree that “liberal Christians” are a minority, but they’re certainly not a political force. Unlike the Creationists, the LC’s are not, almost by definition, going to try to force their beliefs down anyone’s throats by having it made part of the public school curriculum. It’s more like a “yeah, whatever” kind of Christianity.

    I wonders whether churches full of such liberalized believers would leave people like Dawkins or Harris with anything left to object to.

    Good question. I don’t want to rehash our Dawkins debate here, except to say it would probably depend on which side of bed Dawkins got up on that day.

    The Dawkins who included a chapter entitled “Why there is almost certainly no god” in a book entitled “The God Delusion”, and who expressed his hope that anyone who is a theist when beginning the book will have become an atheist upon completing it seems quite hostile to the very notion of God.

    On the other hand, the Dawkins who willingly admits to being a “cultural Christian” and wrote (in the same book) that one of his teachers “was ordained an Anglican priest and became a chaplain in my school, a teacher of whom I was fond. It is thanks to decent liberal clergymen like him that nobody could ever claim that I had religion forced down my throat” seems perfectly okay with the cultural aspects of Christianity.

    More pointedly, he writes, “The deist God of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment is an altogether grander being: worthy of his cosmic creation, loftily unconcerned with human affairs, … The deist God is a physicist to end all physics, …. a hyper-engineer”. Even if Dawkins himself does not believe in this God, he seems to have no problem with those who do.

    -smith

  8. bitchspot says:

    I don’t think nearly as many people “believe” as say they believe. I run into a lot of people who really haven’t got a clue what they’re supposed to believe, they just do it because they think they’re supposed to.

    Unfortunately, those people get counted in the polls as Christians whether they really have a clue what they’re doing or not. If we actually had a poll where people had to demonstrate they knew what they supposedly believed, there would be many, many more non-believers than believers, I’m sure.

  9. Bad says:

    The Dawkins who included a chapter entitled “Why there is almost certainly no god” in a book entitled “The God Delusion”, and who expressed his hope that anyone who is a theist when beginning the book will have become an atheist upon completing it seems quite hostile to the very notion of God.

    But this assumes that the question is one with a true/false answer in regards to existence. That’s what Dawkins is concerned about. If truth claims aren’t at issue then, and God is a poeticism or subject concept of contemplation, I’m not sure that falls under his defined scope.

  10. alexwhitaker says:

    I don’t understand Richard Dawkin’s drive to do what he does. Most churches are a place of acceptance and caring people and the days that some could make the claim that the church runs people’s lives and takes their money without their consent is largely over, especially in America and England. So,if I understand Dawkins’ stance correctly, that there is no God, and he has dedicated his life to proving this their are two possible outcomes:

    1) He is right. There is no God. People have made it up to help them cope with the fearful mystery of death and all the religions are complete fantasy. People all around the world will waste their lives worshiping a God that doesn’t exist, loving their neighbor, and attempting to live a morally excellent life. At the end, all the lights go out and we go back to the slug from which we came from. The sad part is, atheists lose the chance to boast about their life of godlessness, the 10% of their income they saved, and their blissful state of knowledge that they called it how it was. (Being “correct” seems to be the overriding motivation)

    2) He is wrong. God exits. He made the universe and everything in it. The people who worship, praise, and follow God’s teachings are going to have eternal life in paradise and everyone else is not. Most major religions don’t teach that the people who dedicated their lives to disproving their God’s exist fair very well when their end comes. The Christian Bible is very clear on this point. This seems like a VERY large dice to roll.

    I am fearful for people like Mr Dawkins because, instead of just sorting through his own thoughts of disbelief, he has purposefully lead others away from God. This means there are people out there who have accepted his gospel of “no hope, no heaven, no God” and that is an incredibly depressing and eternally threatening message. Honestly, there was a time in my life when I shared his views and I was severely troubled by the notion that all our lives are meaningless and stupid until I found out that this is not the case. Luckily for Mr. Dawkins, and those who share his beliefs, God will forgive him if he asks. That’s a message worth sharing.

  11. Mike says:

    That’s a pretty poor rehash of Pascal’s wager, alexwhitaker. Islam says you will be eternally punished for not worshiping Allah, so why are you a Christian and not a Muslim?

    And since when does “there is no god” mean “no hope”, an “incredibly depressing” existence, that “our lives are meaningless and stupid”, and that it’s a waste of your life to try to live a morally excellent life and love your neighbor? This is the most naive caricature of atheism I’ve seen in a long time.

  12. Bad says:

    he has dedicated his life to proving this their are two possible outcomes:

    Precisely not the point. Insisting that “two possible outcomes” in the way you do is like insisting that there are only two ice cream flavors: earwax and then every other flavor. The whole point is that there are a nigh infinite number of possible scenarios when it comes to “ultimate” explanations for anything, and virtually any can override any other, all to the point where there can be no certainty whatsoever from that vantage point.

    Meanwhile, here we are in this world, this common reality. Certain claims about it seem to hold true in practice, and others don’t. Isn’t it important that we try to understand what’s what, sensibly, particularly the stakes are people’s lives, feelings, and so forth?

    Honestly, there was a time in my life when I shared his views and I was severely troubled by the notion that all our lives are meaningless and stupid until I found out that this is not the case.

    You may think you did, but as I’ve argued, theism doesn’t do any better at answering those questions than the lack of it. That’s in part because most people’s concepts of what “meaningless” is don’t make any sense to begin with, and in part because the best theism can do is offer a really, really big and powerful and possibly wise dude. It can’t, however, turn meaninglessness in meaning, or wrong into right, any better than any other explanation of existence can that anyone has come across.

  13. buggsmoran says:

    alex,

    Atheism in itself has nothing to do with being correct and that is most certainly not my overriding motivation. My overriding motivation is humanity. I teach troubled teens on a daily basis to help them overcome their problems and lead their best life possible. Putting time and effort into teaching how to be a better person will trump any parable, saying or analogy. Time and effort fix problems, prayer doesn’t. No matter how much one believes in a deity, faith will not overcome the chemical and mental trouble that my students have lived with their whole lives.

    I am a secular humanist, one who believes that we can be good and further humanity while we are here and do not need any supernatural sugar daddy waiting to party for eternity with us (thank you Bill Maher)… Life is what you make of it, if gaining some special salvation at the end is what YOU need to motivate you to do good, then go for it, but don’t hang your need for a eternal severance package for doing a good job on my shoulders or anyone elses. Humans should do good for the sake of good and the sake of humanity, not for some “deal”.

    I hope humanity is moving towards a post-theological existence. Our need for the supernatural is inversely proportional to our universal knowledge. We’ve gone from many gods to one for the majority of humanity. As we learn to explain life and the universe’s processes better, we will become less reliant on our need to say “it’s God’s will”. The last vestiges of a primal need to use the supernatural to explain how things work can fall away, without ramification, if we let them.

    My faith is in humanity and it’s potential to overcome it’s own animal nature. We are a product of nature. Our animalistic tendencies are exhibited on a daily basis, the battle for power, resources and procreation are visible at every level of life on this planet, including ours. We should use our ability to rise above those tendencies, with NO hope of reward. That should be the true goal of humanity.

  14. alexwhitaker says:

    I would like to say that I did not originally intend to deal with “Atheism” and all that the word implies. It leaned that way though so I guess that’s my fault. I understand the conversation of God’s existence and role in our lives is an enormous topic and we could go back forth and forth for days debating the naivity of eachothers’ comments.

    What I did mean to say, however, is that I do not understand anyone’s motivation for “Atheist Evangelism” I guess I would call it. The message of Atheism is lacking of any real hope that what we do during our lives is going to have any real impact on anything. I understand that the previous sentence is loaded and some of you will say that it presumptuous that people wish or even should have a lasting impact of any kind on the world as we know it. I am think we’re born with that wish but I can’t say for certain whether or not we develop it out of selfish desire and/or insecurity. I guess I can’t really speak to that.

    As for the comment from Mike, I wish there were more people in this world with your heart for people. What you do is important and I am sure those kids love you for it. Maybe sometimes they don’t right away but you know what you are doing is helping them so that is enough. What you do is a wonderful thing.

    I wish humans would do good for the sake of doing good, and maybe some do, but I believe that what you call “animal nature” and what I call “human nature” will eventually win out in some area of our lives and we will do things that is not considered good. I fear for every 1 person dedicated to living “a good life” there are at least 2 or 3 who either don’t really think about the impact their life has on others too often or have chosen to do whatever they want as long it feels good, makes them happy, and doesn’t have immediate negative consequences. I believe the farther we get from a society that recognizes the existence a higher power the more trapped in the confusion of relativism we will become and the odds will only get worse. I have little no hope that humanity will ever save itself for its own sake. There will always be people who will take advantage of others for selfish gain. Their will always be “good” people scared or too comfortable to stop them. My hope lies in God and His love for those He has chosen.

    To clear up confusion, I am not a pessimist but an optimist. I am a pessimist in people’s ability to live truly good lives. To do so, or even come close, we must set the bar of “good” on our own. I am optimist that God offers us forgiveness of our inevitable short-comings if we simply believe in His name.

    I am sure most of you disagree but it is what it is. Also, me telling people this is not “hanging my needs” on anyone. If someone has done that you to in the past I am sorry that happened to you. People sometimes force Christian morale judegement on people who don’t share their convictions about God and that is wrong.

  15. But this assumes that the question is one with a true/false answer in regards to existence.

    But really, what else can it be? Something either exists or it doesn’t. Something cannot both exist and not exist at the same time in the same place. The various and sundry trappings of theism aside, the actual existence of God is a yes/no question. He/she/it either exists, or not.

    That’s what Dawkins is concerned about. If truth claims aren’t at issue then, and God is a poeticism or subject concept of contemplation, I’m not sure that falls under his defined scope.

    But if God is merely “a poeticism or subject concept of contemplation”, isn’t that tantamount to saying he/she/it does not exist?

    Sorry it took so long to get to this. The real world intruded.

    -smith

  16. Bad says:

    But really, what else can it be? Something either exists or it doesn’t. Something cannot both exist and not exist at the same time in the same place. The various and sundry trappings of theism aside, the actual existence of God is a yes/no question. He/she/it either exists, or not.

    You’re basically restating Dawkins’ own concern here. But other theists insist that God’ existence is really a minor issue, and other things are far more important. If you can’t accept this, then you are in the same boat as Dawkins in being one of those unsophisticates that doesn’t understand liberal theology. :)

    But if God is merely “a poeticism or subject concept of contemplation”, isn’t that tantamount to saying he/she/it does not exist?

    Honestly, I don’t know. I certainly think so in the strict sense, and the only sense in which I really care about the question. But other people think, if I read them correctly, that this poeticism is so grand and important that it dwarfs things that do physically exist. I dunno. I’m not trying to be hostile to that view, but I’m also pretty obviously not the right person to defend it.

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