Defining religious liberals

Recently, I was trying to explain to another person (this is someone who belongs to a liberal denomination) that some evangelical Christians are impossible to distinguish from religious liberals. This other person found my assertion difficult to believe. I realized that most of us tend to define religious liberalism by denominational boundaries: if you are in a United Church of Christ congregation, or a Reform Jewish congregation, you are a religious liberal; if you’re part of an evangelical congregation, you can’t possibly be a religious liberal. But denominational boundaries began eroding a long time ago, and that old definition no longer works particularly well.

Here’s another possible definition for religious liberal: A religious liberal is someone who is flexible about theological or ideological matters, who instead is more concerned with living out his or her values in the wider world, and who is willing to make adjustments to his or her theology in order to make the world a better place. By contrast, a religious conservative is someone who is most concerned with theological purity or purity of religious ideology, and not social justice.

By this definition, evangelical Christian Richard Ciszik, former staffer for the National Association of Evangelicals, is a religious liberal because he is more committed to “creation care” or environmentalism than he is to religious ideology. Richard Dawkins, by contrast, comes across as a religious conservative, a humanist who demands ideological purity even if he alienates other religious groups to the extent that he greatly reduces his chances of working with them to solve real-world problems.

Or to put it another way: I’d much rather work with Richard Cisik on social justice issues than with Richard Dawkins; actually, I suspect Richard Dawkins would never condescend to work with someone like me on anything because I wouldn’t pass his test of ideological purity.

7 thoughts on “Defining religious liberals”

  1. I think the defining issue is authority and power.

    A Religous Liberal is a person sensitive to a human being’s potential to get things wrong; hence a liberal puts individual freedom of conscience above all. In fact granting power to a religous authority a path towards corruption because power does indeed corrupt. We’d rather risk being wrong theologically than risk the loss of freedome of conscience. We can believe this as a matter of principle, and also pragmatically by just looking back at past (and modern) religous wars. Better than respect individual consience and just tolerate (tolerate in the condescending sense too) those we believe have their religion terrible jumbled.

    A Religous Conservative places a lot more importance on getting belief right and will empower a Church, a State, a Tradition, Creed, whatever, to at least say so; if not more.

    The difference is on the attitude to power and authority.

    (Where some religous Liberals fall apart is understanding Yes there is right and wrong, it can be rationally discerned, and we should not hesitate to explain it. We just can’t demand submission to a belief.)

    The Social Justice angle I don’t buy. Conservative Evangelicals a Religous Movement than long beat Liberals too Social Justice issues. The perfect example being Slavery of course.

    Today a Conservative Evangelical and Non-Evangelical would tell us abortion the paramount Social Justice issue, and if one accepts the argument that human being from the moment of conception has the same status as a human being at any point of our growth, then I’d say they have a point.

    Anyways, the older defining characteristics of Liberalsims in the sense that revelation was ongoing, that one could approach God Rationally and deconstruct the biblical miracles no longer the defining definitinos of Religous Liberalism. Post 1968 theology has demolished that and opened up the gates to all sorts of belief.

    What’s left though is a concern about power, authority, and individual soveriegnty, and the feer of abusive power.

    My take….

  2. I meant: Better THAT we respect individual consience, and just tolerate (tolerate in the condescending sense too) those we believe have their religion terrible jumbled.

  3. Bill, you have a point, and I like your definition. Yours is a classic definition.

    However, I’m basically trying to redefine what it means to be a religious liberal. On the one hand, I want to look at the results of a theological standpoint in the real world. If your theological position leads you to quietism or determinism — either “it is God’s will” or some non-theistic form of determinism, like “selfish genes” — then I want to classify you as a religious conservative. In this, I’m following William R. Jones’s thinking in his 1975 essay “Theism and Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” when he defines a humano-centric theism as characteristic of liberal theists; I believe some evangelicals fit into the humano-centric camp (at least in terms of their actions in the real world) more than some so-called religious liberals.

    On the other hand, I’m looking at doctrinal rigidity as a mark of conservatism or liberalism. This is actually fairly close to your notions of authority. If you are absolutely certain of the truth of your religious position, I classify you as a religious conservative. Thus, some atheists would (in my view) best be classed as religious conservatives because of their theological rigidity. Their authority is a kind of abstract positivism or scientism, but it functions in exactly the same way as the appeals to God or the Bible by Christian conservatives.

  4. How does Catholicism fit into this Liberal redefinition? I know plenty of very politically liberal Catholics but I wouldn’t consider them Religious Liberals.

    I know some of those rigid atheists too and they’re rigid about a lot of other things too. They have to be Liberals if there going to belong to a Church because only a Liberal Church would have them and tolerate them.

    You might find the late Farooq Khan’s manifesto of a Liberal or Humanist Islam worthwhile. I think it has man of the elements I think a Liberal Religion needs to be Liberal.

    Anyways, thanks for the post. A much needed discussion that sadly no one else seems interested in… that’s not good.

  5. Why are you attacking Richard Dawkins in a discussion about religious ideology? He rejects religious ideas because he sees them as flawed theories that fail to explain known facts, not because they don’t meet some standard of humanist ideological purity. Dawkins believes that the scientific worldview is the most accurate description of reality that humans have ever created and that it is much more accurate than any religious worldview.

  6. Bryan D — Here’s why Dawkins seems like an ideologue to me: He doesn’t seem to have much knowledge about the wild diversity of religion in the world beyond his own cultural milieu (e.g., he doesn’t seem to know much about Confucianism); nor does he seem aware that there are religious options within his own cultural milieu that are fully compatible with the scientific world view (e.g., he appears to be unaware of religious naturalism). It just looks like he’s got his firm ideas of what religion is, and what it is not, and he’s going to stick to his beliefs no matter what. That kind of attitude feels like ideology to me.

    And he strikes me more specifically as a religious ideologue. He attacks “religion” so vigorously, saying that it should be wiped out of existence and replaced with his version of scientism. This is exactly a pattern of behavior we have seen (and continue to see) in Christianity: “my worldview is the most accurate description of the way the world really is; anyone who doesn’t believe what I believe should be put out of business.” Because of this strong behavioral resemblance to a certain kind of Christian, I would call him a religious ideologue (i.e., he behaves like religious persons in his culture). Obviously, he (and perhaps you) would disagree with this, since for him the defining characteristic of religion is ontological belief; whereas for me the functional characteristics of religion are more important.

    Functionally, Dawkins looks very much like any number of Reformation religious leaders who have condemned the inadequacies of all previous religion. The main difference is that he claims to want to put an end to all religion, although this seems disingenuous given that he is pretty clear that the scientific worldview replaces religion, which makes him look like yet another Protestant reformer trying to “purify” what came before him. Thus, when approached from a functional, rather than an ontological, viewpoint, Dawkins fits very comfortably into the role of a religious reformer. That’s why I bring him up in a discussion of religious ideology.

    Your mileage may vary!

  7. Very nice definition! Being rigid in one’s beliefs, whatever they are, is definitely a conservative and dogmatic stance.

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