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.