Perhaps the most significant disagreement among atheists these days concerns our range of attitudes toward liberal branches of religion. Although my thoughts about that apply to the liberal wings of all religions, I’ll focus here only on Christianity.
In most ways, atheists and Christians of a religiously liberal persuasion get along fine. Both we and they are against the volatile mixing of religion and civic affairs. Both persuasions are disgusted by the more outlandish positions and behaviors of true believers. Atheists who are also secular humanists (not all are) are in agreement with the liberal faithful with respect to women’s, gays’, and other minorities’ access to equal rights. However wide the remaining gap between atheists and liberal theists, we understand the strength available in making common cause on selected issues. One organization that exemplifies this commonality is Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Its membership includes Christians, Buddhists, Freethinkers, and undoubtedly many others.
There’s nothing startling about that; coalitions are routinely formed among philosophically disparate groups, even political and nationalist ones. Joining hands need not compromise either party, for each will continue undeterred in battle on topics beyond those giving rise to coalition. Joining hands with persons of liberal religion, then, neither weakens my atheism nor asks the faithful to retreat from their faith.
Let me explain what I mean by “liberal.” First, most of today’s Christendom is liberal compared to its harshness and often cruelty of bygone eras. Though Christianity had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward and through the Enlightenment, the result is that even the most ravenous of today’s fundamentalists don’t treat dissenters as horribly as mainstream Christianity did just a few centuries back. Against that background, all Christianity now is liberal. God is nicer, the faithful are less severe in their treatment of dissenters, and ecumenism is regularly accepted as a mark of civilized behavior rather than a sell-out. Against the background of centuries, even members of today’s religious right should be celebrated for their outstanding liberalism! You heard it here first.
So the modern spectrum of Christian belief overlaps atheists’ positions on quite a few social and ethical questions, just as there are Democrat atheists and Republican atheists, Democrat gays and Republican gays. We are far too multidimensional for forced categorization to be precise.
So what’s the problem? Many atheists think that making gains in public policy for a more humane society is worth working in common with liberal religion. Other atheists think that even religion not steeped in fundamentalism is still based on the same flawed thinking that underlies all religion, to wit, that faith establishes fact. Even among liberal Christians, supernatural entities with personal links to humans are regularly treated as if real and as authoritative guides to principles and behavior. Once this religious way of thinking is accepted, disciplined reasoning is mortally weakened. Diminished rationality has little ability to discipline dogma so that what emerges can go in almost any direction—possibly toward a gentle faith, but just as possibly toward malevolence. In other words, if faith is all it takes, then logical consideration has less impact on the result. Consequently, on the matter of religious faith in this viewpoint, atheists and liberal theists have nothing in common, so must remain respectful adversaries.
As to the choice facing atheists between (a) embracing our commonalities with liberal religions and (b) seizing upon our differences, my personality is given to the former, but my intellect to the latter. The first, for me, is more fitting if engaged in pursuit of real-world goals (such as gay marriage or no religious tests for political office), and the second if concerned with epistemology and ethics.
If that sounds like a conflict, it is, though I rarely have difficulty assigning each attitude to its proper sphere. However, occasionally it is not nearly so clear cut. The saving grace—to use a possibly suspect term—is that neither of atheists’ alternatives requires a sacrifice of personal relatedness, respect, or even affection across the very real philosophical boundary.
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