I want your opinion about something. I’m a liberal religious person who doesn’t believe in doctrines, dogma or a supernatural God. 19% of members in my tradition identify as atheist, 30% as agnostic and the rest Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Pagan or otherwise. Many of us have been wounded by the bigotry, homophobia and dogma in the religions we grew up in and find refuge, support and community in my tradition. We come together on Sunday mornings to enjoy music and hear sermons about social justice, the power of community and how to live inspiring and meaningful lives. Some ministers may use the word God in an all-inclusive way but most choose to avoid the term because of its troubled history. Here’s my question for you: Should I abandon my tradition because liberal and moderate religion serves to justify the extremes? Is my participation in this religious institution providing legitimacy and credibility for fundamentalism, violence, oppression and bigotry done in the name of religion? I’m studying to be a minister in this tradition. It’s called Unitarian Universalism. Am I guilty by association? Should I jump ship? What do you think?
I know what Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins would tell me. They are two of the new atheists most responsible for spreading this idea about liberal and moderate religion justifying the extremes. Liberals are “aiding and abetting” the most dangerous religions because they give them credibility by participating in the institution of religion itself. Sam Harris states that moderates are “in large part responsible for the religious conflict in our world” and “Religious tolerance-born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God-is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” And Richard Dawkins states, “The teachings of “moderate” religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.” And when asked about why he lumps liberal religions like Unitarianism in with fundamentalism Hitchens responded with a reference to Camus stating that he believes all religion is comparable to rats and vermin.
Believe it or not I’m open to their ideas. As someone who is committed to ending oppression against marginalized groups including atheists (see my post “We’re All Born Atheists”) I listen very carefully to what they have to say. While I don’t have any plans to drop out of my graduate school and abandon my career path anytime soon I want to consider this question they raise very carefully. Maybe you can convince me otherwise.
The first question I have for Harris and Dawkins is this, do other liberal and moderate things justify their extreme forms? For example if Harris drinks liberally or moderately shall we conclude that he lends credibility or legitimacy to alcoholism? Does his liberal behavior justify the tens of thousands of deaths each year which are attributable to alcohol abuse? Why? Why not? Does the pot smoker give credence to the heroin addict? How about politics? Does the liberal congressman Dennis Kucinich lend credibility to the Bush administration era policies that led to torture, war and occupation? Is Kucinich guilty for associating with the political system despite his fierce criticism of U.S. Imperialism? Was it enough for congressmen to speak out against the Vietnam War? Or should they have rid themselves of all government? Following Harris’ logic one could also say that the child building a baking soda volcano for her science fair legitimizes the most dangerous nuclear weapons that we have ever known because they both employ science. Can you think of any other real world examples that the logic of Dawkins or Harris would actually apply to? Or is this only true when it comes to religion? If so, what is unique about religion that makes this principle valid?
The second question I want to ask Dawkins and Harris is, would you rather have an atheist who remains silent about the abusive forms of religion or a liberal religious leader such as Dr. King who rejected the Christian doctrines and condemned the Church for supporting slavery, monopoly capitalism and bigotry? Does an atheist who says nothing about religious extremism bear any of the responsibility for the reign of religious fundamentalism? I ask this because some of the most prominent critics of the abuses of religion and its associated dogmas are religious themselves. Just like some of the biggest critics of the Bush era torture policies are elected government officials. Dr. King said,
…We must admit that the church is far from Christ. What has happened is this: the church, while flowing through the stream of history, has picked up the evils of little tributaries, and these tributaries have been so powerful that they have been able to overwhelm the mainstream. This is the tragedy of the church, for it has confused the vices of the church with the virtues of Christ. The church has been nothing but the slave of society; whenever the mores call for evil practices, society runs to the church to get its sanction.
As early as 1805 there were Universalist Christians like Hosea Ballou who critiqued the atonement and taught that all people are saved by the love of God no matter what. He wrote in “Treatise on the Atonement”:
The belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creatures to that degree, that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers, for many centuries. The error has been fatal to the life and spirit of the religion of Christ in our world; all those principles which are to be dreaded by men have been believed to exist in God; and professors have been moulded [sic] into the image of their Deity, and become more cruel.
And William Ellery Channing wrote about Calvinism in “Unitarian Christianity” (1819):
The worst errors, after all, [have] sprung up in that church, which proscribes reason, and demands from its members implicit faith. The most pernicious doctrines have been the growth of the darkest times, when the general credulity encouraged bad men and enthusiasts to broach their dreams and inventions, and to stifle the faint remonstrances of reasons, by the menaces of everlasting perdition. Say what we may, God has given us a rational nature, and will call us to account for it. We may let it sleep, but we do so at our peril…. This system also teaches, that God selects from this corrupt mass a number to be saved, and plucks them, by a special influence, from the common ruin; that the rest of mankind, though left without that special grace which their conversion requires, are commanded to repent, under penalty of aggravated woe; and that forgiveness is promised them, on terms which their very constitution infallibly disposes them to reject, and in rejecting which they awfully enhance the punishments of hell. These proffers of forgiveness and exhortations of amendment, to beings born under a blighting curse, fill our minds with a horror which we want words to express.
These were believing Christians who used their faith to argue for an inclusive, tolerant and empowering religion. Gone were hell, judgment, the blood atonement and pre-destination. The emphasis became centered on reason, education, love and justice. Everyone was saved. Ballou’s Treatise on the Atonement (1805) is filled with very creative and thoughtful reasons as to why the traditional Christian doctrines should be rejected. The new atheists would benefit greatly from using his critiques during his debates with conservative Christians.
The president of Starr King School for the Ministry, Rebecca Parker, along with Rita Nakashima Brock have been at the forefront of showing how these doctrines such as the atonement lead to the sanctification of violence and oppression. Two of their books Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Save Us and Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire are highly detailed accounts that use the Bible, Christian history and the best of modern theology to challenge the dominant theological narrative in Christianity. And they are among many other Christians who have advanced incredibly thorough and articulate critiques of Christianity and the doctrines. While Hitchens claims that “liberation theology is sinister nonsense” I doubt that he has seriously engaged with the theological and historical tradition. And we don’t see any evidence of Hitchens or the new atheists as having engaged with the work of contemporary theologians and writers such as Bishop John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Carter Heyward, Serene Jones, John F. Haught, William Jones, James Cone, Margaret Miles, Ivone Gebara, John Cobb, Catherine Keller, Gustavo Gutierrez, Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether … etc. And again there is a long tradition of liberal reformers, some of who I mentioned already but a few more: Clarence Skinner, Charles Hartshorne, Theodore Parker, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Paul Tillich, etc. All of these voices have been crucial in the development of more tolerant, loving and inclusive forms of religious expression. They have been on the forefront of resisting sexism, racism and bigotry within religious dogmas and institutions. Many people including myself believe it is important to distinguish between the various strains and traditions within religions.
If the new atheists engaged in modern theological study they would read things like this from Pacific School of the Religion (PSR) Biblical studies professor and Methodist lay minister Jeffrey Kuan, “All talk of God is a construct.” It was in my Bible studies class at PSR that I first learned that the Exodus was not a real historical event and it was in my Christian history class that my professor said, “You can’t prove the existence of Jesus.” It is also where I read “Is God a White Racist?” by the black theologian William Jones. Any mainstream or progressive seminary such as Harvard, Yale, Duke, Union, Emory, Pacific School of the Religion (PSR) or my school Starr King School teaches a critical, historical and scientific understanding of the Bible, Christianity and religion. If the goal is to get people reflecting on why they believe what they believe, to understand the history of Christianity and Empire, to see how patriarchy and racism are within traditional theology and to employ reason, science and archaeology in religion then the new atheists have a friend in many seminaries and religious institutions.
And anyone involved in causes like civil rights or the queer liberation movement knows that religious people are on the forefront of them. Yes, of course much of the bigotry advanced is done so by religious people and institutions. However, there are many queer religious leaders and lay people who are passionately engaged in issues of social justice and human rights. The “you’re either with us or against us” approach of the new atheists isn’t helpful because it negates the contributions of religious people in the reforming of religion and the resisting of injustice. The reality is that liberal religious people have done way more to effectively transform religion than any atheist ever has or will.
Now, you might claim as Hitchens does that someone like Dr. King didn’t need liberal religion to know that segregation and racism are wrong. Of course he didn’t need religion to know this but it misses the point. Let me explain.
The liberal religious theological heritage of Hosea Ballou and William Ellory Channing gave birth to the reasoned approach to faith that Dr. King inherited. In my article about Dr. King’s interpretation of Christianity I show how he rejected the God-given divinity of Jesus, denied the existence of a literal heaven or hell, thought the Bible was a myth, rejected the creation narrative and didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection or virgin birth of Jesus. In fact Dr. King despised his father’s emotional and irrational preaching and wanted to be a doctor or lawyer. It was only when he took his first Bible course that used science, archaeology and critical historical examination that he realized he could have a role in religion. But for Dr. King’s non-literal understanding of Christianity Hitchens claims that he was “in no meaningful as opposed to a nominal sense a Christian.” And he appeals again to the straw man argument that says religion is irrelevant and unnecessary because it wasn’t required to know that segregation was wrong. Thus, Hitchens wants you to believe that if Dr. King had become a lawyer he could have been just as effective in the civil rights movement. His religion was an unnecessary element because no faith or religion is needed to know that segregation is wrong says Hitchens. Just look at all of those secular civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin who played a central role in the movement. However, neither Dr. King nor myself ever claimed that his specific theology or religious expression was the reason he knew that segregation was wrong and that without it he wouldn’t have known better. But Dr. King did choose to be a southern baptist mainly for strategic reasons related to the civil rights movement. As Coretta Scott King stated, “Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin. And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston. We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”
One of the most established institutions in the south was the Church. Dr. King’s strategy was to use the Church to advance his goals as a civil rights leader. Dr. King also meditated for an hour a day, found God in nature and was deeply inspired by prayer. The gospel music, sermons, community and tradition of faith were central to his and many others efforts to end segregation. And his use of Bible stories set the narrative as he awakened the conscience of America. So, yes, liberal and moderate religion was of crucial importance in the civil rights movement.
So what do you think? Should I leave my religion? Do you believe that the religion of someone like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. provides legitimacy for suicide bombers or religious extremists who employ violence? Is all religion equivalent to rats and vermin as Hitchens suggests? Does moderate religion justify the extremes? Can this issue be reduced to “you’re either with us or against us.?” Or do you think there is a more reasoned and complex approach? Perhaps one that is based on resisting those forces that actually perpetuate violence, domination and oppression? Can religious people and atheists work together to end discrimination, sexism, violence, poverty and other social ills?
Religion is not going anywhere anytime soon. Rather it is spreading quickly across the globe. As the theologian John F. Haught says, the attempt to get rid of religion to end religious abuse is like trying to get rid of sex to end sex abuse. Thus, I believe the best antidote is to promote better religion and to work for its reform. It would be helpful if the new atheists can recognize that liberal religious people are on the forefront of this reform and if religious people can recognize that atheists are a marginalized group in this culture of Christian hegemony.
The irony of in all of this is that the new atheists employ the same line of black/white thinking that conservative Christians do when it comes to defending their religion. There can’t be any compromise on the doctrines. The middle ground is a slippery slope that can lead to a loss of faith. Moderation, questions or thinking that diverges from the doctrines must be avoided. I remember watching a news interview with the progressive Christian Jim Wallis and a conservative Christian. After Wallis said that he was trying to find a centered more balanced approach to religion the conservative Christian said, “we all know those in the center of the road end up dead.” How interesting that these fundamentalists share a common approach, albeit on different ends of the spectrum.