The Folly of “Liberal” Religion

September 26, 2016

At a conference of the Society for Christian Philosophers last week, Richard Swinburne gave a keynote address that raised a ruckus online shortly after. In his address on “Christian Morality” he claimed that homosexuality was a “disability” and incurable condition while advocating care and compassion for homosexuals. A friend of mine, who happens to be a Christian and a liberal minded person, objected to Swinburne’s medicalization of homosexuality and said so at the meeting and later in a blog post. In response, he has been met with a fair amount of pushback from traditional-minded Christians who were in attendance or generally sympathetic to Swinburne’s lecture. Color me completely unsurprised by any of this.

              What has ensued in the aftermath is a rather timely debate about Swinburne’s right to express despicable and unscientific views freely at a conference, the rights of those who oppose such things to freely express their disagreement and outrage, and continued disagreement among liberal and traditional Christians about the nature of homosexuality and its relation to Christian beliefs. What I wish to call attention to is the utter folly, in light of such inevitable doctrinal disagreements and the clash of old-time religion with modernity, of hoping for or encouraging to any great degree the “liberalization” of religions.

              Christian texts are clear as to the sinful nature of homosexuality. Levitican prohibitions of homosexuality were upheld through two thousand years of the Christian faith’s history. The Judaic verses of the bible, echoed throughout history by biblical scholars, and throughout a number of verses of the Bible, make homosexual acts punishable by death. Despite modern interpretations to soften the Christian view of homosexuality as sinful, the word of God as given through the bible and churches has instructed condemnation of homosexuality as a crime comparable to murder. Swinburne’s attempt to convey a Christian message of charity while recognizing homosexuality as some sort of disease is a clumsy attempt to recast its sinful nature in pseudoscience and without using the Christian vocabulary of "sinfulness."

              Liberalization of people, by which we grow to recognize the dignity of the individual, the freedoms of conscience and speech necessary for the pursuit of enlightenment goals and modernism in general, should be encouraged. Liberalizing religions, based as they are on outdated and erroneous views of both humanity and the universe, is ultimately folly. Religious belief is based upon faith, and each faith has at its foundations various essential texts, generally conceived to be either inspired by a deity or even written by the deity, albeit through human vehicles through divine revelation. Such a text should be inerrant and most religions require adherence to that concept as well. If a religious text, divinely inspired or written, is false, then this undermines the infallibility of one’s God. If the text turns out to be a human fabrication, this undermines the religion’s truthfulness itself. If parts of an inerrant text can be omitted in an effort to modernize a religion, then that implies that humans have the power, not God, to define the tenets of their religion, modify the word of God, and pick and choose how much of God’s word should be taken seriously. Of course, this poses a real challenge to the foundations of any religion.  Eventually, a religion that can be altered over time through human decisions rather than divine authority begins to suggest the lack of divine authority.

              Of course, modern liberal traditions in Christianity have in some cases more or less read God out of the equation, adopting the most liberal, human elements of scriptures and tossing aside the malarkey and offensive stuff. In so doing, they may tend toward humanism. Because humanism lacks a claim to inerrancy and recognizes the centrality of humans in deciphering our lived experiences, because it is a process unfolding over time in connection with evidence rather than a set of beliefs or proclamations, it adapts to our changing views. As long as religion depends as it in most cases does upon some divine authority given to man through texts, it cannot adapt, except where its claims are sufficiently vague. There is nothing vague in the Biblical claims about the sinfulness of homosexuality, and Swinburnes’ attempt to embrace some form of liberalism by urging compassion for “disabled” homosexuals is utterly unscientific as decades of study have shown homosexuality to be natural and not limited to humans, not maladaptive, etc. The biblical prohibition is both arbitrary and unethical, given that we have embraced the liberal values of freedom of expression and that love’s freedom is similarly largely embraced as outside the role of both religion and state to restrain.

              Besides the ten commandments, there are hundreds of biblical prohibitions carried over into modern Christianity that remain upheld and sacred. Attempts to classify and prioritize biblical law, the old and new covenants, and the various testaments, occupy scholars of Christianity and churches alike.  But the general notion that a religion based upon sacred, revealed word of a god or gods can survive attempts to liberalize that religion without undoing it in the long term is suspect. I feel for my friend who is running headlong against the grain of Christian tradition while still embracing some core of its values. This requires real effort of will and intelligence, as well as the flexibility of thought and liberalism of mind to know that somehow, underneath it all, his religion is for humans not gods, and should adapt and change as we do. The next step, of course, is recognizing that a belief system that cannot adapt with him, that depends upon blind faith and adherence to outmoded and often disproven notions about humans and their world, should be abandoned altogether in favor of a human alternative, something like humanism.


#1 Mario (Guest) on Monday September 26, 2016 at 7:43pm

What “humanists” like yourself fail to understand about liberal Christians is that, unlike you, we REJECT the Bible literalism of Pat Robertson.  You embrace it—thus, your respect for “divine authority.”  Thus, your hilarious notion that any deviation from the Word spells doom for religion. Needless to say, I can get that from any fundie radio or TV preacher.

Either the Bible is perfect, or it’s utter nonsense—that’s the classic fundie position on faith, and it appears to be yours.  To the extent that humanists are fundies, are fundies humanists?  Hmm….

#2 David Koepsell (Guest) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 at 6:02am

Dear Mario,

I am all in favor of your picking and choosing verses from your texts to accept or deny, and hopeful that eventually you’ll see that given they are not the divine word of some god, they are all equally able to be cast aside at will as we modernize and replace with better ideas that, like the sacred texts, originate from humans.

#3 Mario (Guest) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 at 11:54am

This brings up another issue I have with “humanists”—your insulting need to inform others what they think.  In fact, I do not regard the verses from “my texts” to be the “divine word of some god”—they were conceived and written by humans.  Of course.  I recall having figured that out by the age of ten.  Perhaps, by that age, I had also figured out that the easiest way to “win” a debate is to script the entire exchange yourself.

I’m not so spectacularly literal-minded as to reject a document as invalid because ITS OWN claims to inerrancy are shown to be false.  Logic states that, once I’ve accepted the human origins of a human document, I have no reason to fault that document for being anything more or less than that—a human document.  This hardly involves rejecting select verses and “picking” others—it’s simply a matter of regarding the document in its entirety as spiritual testimony, the validity of which is not dependent on the extent to which any given verse aligns or conflicts with our knowledge of, say, Pluto’s status as a planet. Or on the ability of science to refute miracles, etc., etc.

Again, you seem convinced that, once we’ve figured out that sacred texts are (duh) the work of human authors, we have no choice but to regard religion as something debunked.  Fundies typically express this in terms of Christ’s resurrection—namely, if Christ didn’t return from the dead for real, then all of scripture is false.  But the truths contained in scripture are not “based on” a given miraculous event, nor are they “based on” the idea that a higher power authored them.  Only in the minds of fundamentalists is this so.

At any rate, I hope you can forgive me (and people like me) for daring to decide what to accept and what to reject in a document based on human experience.  And for accepting global warming as real while accepting Christ’s resurrection as symbolic.

#4 David Koepsell (Guest) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 at 1:40pm

Dear Mario,

On the contrary, I welcome you along the path of humanism upon which you have embarked.

all my best,

#5 Philip Rand (Guest) on Sunday October 02, 2016 at 3:06am

I liked this:

“The next step, of course, is recognizing that a belief system that cannot adapt with him, that depends upon blind faith and adherence to outmoded and often disproven notions about humans and their world, should be abandoned altogether in favor of a human alternative, something like humanism.”

In other words:

“The purpose of humanism is to force the individual to be free.” 

Sounds like a recipe for despotism…

#6 David Koepsell (Guest) on Sunday October 02, 2016 at 5:20am

Dear Philip,

Where’s the “force”? This is an individual choice.
You’re free to stick with your beliefs, of course.


#7 Mario (Guest) on Sunday October 02, 2016 at 12:08pm

Where’s the “force”?  Simple—in the either/or nature of the proposition.  Either we take the path of ignorance and stupidity, or we go the way of enlightenment—that’s the generous offer you’re giving us.  It’s an open question whether something so do-or-die in nature can be termed a choice, individual or otherwise. 

Religious fundies have their own version of individual choice: Accept Jesus or burn.  It’s up to us.  So you’re not the only folks peddling an ultimatum as a “do as you please” proposition.

CFI’s generous proposition: Be enlightened like us, or continue operating on the wrong side of human intellectual evolution while we make fun of you.  Since I don’t feel the least bit compelled to follow a path like yours, I guess I’m doomed to dwell in your version of darkness.

You’ll have to explain to us sometime how you became the arbitrator in these matters.  Did the Logic God anoint you?

So I see what Philip is saying.  Surprised you don’t.

As far as “blind faith and adherence to outmoded and often disproven notions about humans and their world,” religion is a human construct.  Human constructs change as people change.  That’s how and why Christianity is, for example, becoming more gay-friendly by the day.  Seeing faith do something you’re convinced it cannot do—namely, adapt—causes no end of discomfort to you guys.  It’s hilarious, frankly.

#8 David Koepsell (Guest) on Wednesday October 05, 2016 at 11:38am

Of course we have Renaissance Christianity to thank for the emergence of humanism. Its natural and eventual progress leads to secular humanism. Some day, when Chrisitans have embraced liberalism completely, they will be indistinguishable from secular humanists, even while they profess their belief in som sort of god, but having abandoned the prescriptions of its texts, that god will be something almost entirely different from the one written of in the Christian sacred texts, and quite small.

I again welcome you along that path, and am certainly glad you are taking it of your own apparent free will.

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