Parting Ways with God: On ‘Liberal’ Religions
To many people who have freshly fallen out with God, the natural question which quite inevitably follows is: “Where do I go from here?”
As a child the experience of my deconversion was not a happy one. Heathens will agree I think, that freedom from Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, is no stand-alone business to be secured by a painless hit-and-miss transaction, but must often be bargained and bought at the hefty price of one’s physical and mental well-being: be it estrangement from loved ones, or excommunication plain-and-simple, or the anxiety of having to live a godless life in secrecy, or else in exile, and perhaps even in constant fear of prosecution and of punishment.
Yet to me these notions all seemed at first inconsequential. I would not feel the weight of their presence until some buffer-time had been allowed to pass. The urgent question, however, was of a far more philosophical nature. What now that God does not exist? What in the bloody hell have I to live for? What in the world is the purpose of… me?
For as a young boy I could better tolerate the notion that my time on earth will henceforth be a living hell, but far less so the idea that the doors to Heaven will shortly be denied me forever, due to the mere and simple fact that I had ‘ceased to believe’ in Jesus Christ our King and Saviour. I harboured within my conscience the signature eschatological aspect of Christendom, taught to every child who has ever suffered the misfortune of attending Sunday School, of the brevity and the stiltedness of this earthly life. According to this (highly formidable) theology, everything I do now is transitional and preparatory. All my acts, Christian as they should naturally be, were calculated for the effect that they shall later bear on a future-state that begins after physical death, or the influence they shall have on God’s final opinion of me — this tailor-made mortal soul of otherwise very little worldly significance, with no more redemptive value than that notorious cousin of mine the ugly orang-utan.
This was the extraordinary philosophical burden that bore upon me when I was a young de-convert, as it so often bears on any ordinary child who too-soon discovers the forbidden tree of doubt. But a child’s manner of reasoning by uneven logic often saves him from having to follow any argument the entire length of the way, and a teenager’s rebellious ways are even more so detrimental to old-fashioned dogma (alas, often by putting new senseless fashion in its stead, or by shouting mere abuse as the establishment — guilty as charged), that this early process of deconversion is admittedly and comparatively an easy and a careless one.
But adults cannot so easily abandon their life-long convictions without fear of its general implications. Indeed the experience of life teaches them not to act in so hasty a manner; moreover, the prospect of having pursued a false goal for years on end can be (and perhaps should be) a tremendously disappointing one, even to scientists, professionals and the like. So it is hardly surprising that your odds of finding deconverts are infinitely reduced as you climb up the religiosity scale. Twice the pride, double the fall. I’m quoting Christopher Lee, as Count Dooku, in that film which killed Star Wars.
This is all basic observation, of course, but I’m writing this to preface a wider context, as a reaction to something I recently read on the blogosphere, namely the following article by Jonny Scaramanga; so all props to him for inspiring this typically verbose exposition on our favourite subject matter of religion, here at the now-expired timcooley.net,your generous donations most kindly accepted.
The author of the article in question expresses his discontent with the so-called ‘New Atheists’ in their conviction that religion is all detrimental to reason, and must therefore be eradicated. He thinks it better to ‘reform’ religion, if I may be permitted to drive directly at the crux of his arguments. I admit it is a discontent which I have for a long time shared. However, I quite wonder if the problem rests upon how we actually define a ‘liberal religion’. I do wonder if there is even such a thing as a ‘liberal religion’! Sure, there are ‘liberal members’ of a religion. But I wonder if the same adjective applies as compatibly to that R-word whose definition, according to Wikipedia, is “an organised collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.”
So we may have a semantic issue at our hands, or at least so I think. With such considerations in mind I have thought it desirable to open this essay with a generic account of the religious man as he stands in the face of an intellectual and mental crisis, rather than on the religion itself, which is a different can of worms altogether.
The crisis an individual goes through in the process of losing his religion is undoubtedly a trying concept to the majority of us. As Jonny states, “asking people to reject religion wholesale is asking them to make a radical transformation in their worldview and identity.” I hope you’ll agree there’s nothing to dispute here whatsoever. But what is the conclusion to be drawn from this? That religions should transition into ‘liberal’ religions? Or that men should transition into ‘liberal’ men?
I imagine the emphasis changes everything, simply because the first is a simple contradiction of terms, whilst the latter gives possible hope for a better future.
I recall reading Martineau’s translations of Comte and cringing at every mention and proposition of a systematised ‘Religion of Humanity’. I am reminded of more liberal interpretations of positivism wherein religious barriers are displaced and substituted with practical philosophy. In the same way I recall the Buddhist religion de facto, and the Western ‘Buddhists’ who pursue Buddhism instead as a philosophical creed. In all these cases I wonder where the line should be drawn. Where does religion end, and where does irreligion begin?
Well, obviously where the each religious tenet has been removed, until there is none left to be entertained!
But ‘liberal’ religion is another matter altogether. I am quickly reminded of that “I hate religion but love Jesus” video, quite popular on Youtube, which made me feel rather sick to sit through, but perhaps not to the extent of Jesus Camp. Well, first of all it’s liberal religion in every sense of the word. But it’s also ridiculously incoherent, and quite frankly stupid. If ‘liberal’ religion is sort of like a mid-life-crisis phase where anything goes as long as you feel good about it, with every other fault with the doctrine plainly dismissed, then the rational man will be better off without ever having to pass through it. I am quite sure of it!
The greatest danger, I think, is that ‘liberal’ religion arrests the development of intellectual integrity. How a man reads the Bible and interprets it so liberally as to dissolve something so obviously abhorrent as Christianity into a practical philosophy/religion hybrid is beyond me. Yet religious moderatism provides the cosy ground for its fullest germination. To the wider public, it is seen as an equally rational answer to religious doubt, which would otherwise resolve in disbelief and, yes, eternal damnation. The transition state of which you mention is a stationary state. It provides ground for religious complacency but no arena for intellectual contest; often quite the opposite. No Christian I know ever believes in God liberally to the extent that he ceases to believe in God at all, unless his views continue to be challenged. The simple fact is that a liberal religion is not a religion of no sects or of no tenets.The sects are more encompassing, good. The tenets are more liberally interpreted, brilliant. The people are definitely less suicidal, check. But it is religion all the same, and liberally-interpreted Christianity is still quite the same ridiculous philosophy as illiberal Christianity ever was and forever will be.
Rest assured, however. The liberal man does not stop at liberal religion. He often goes beyond it and into active humanism. Does ‘liberal religion’ as a transitional step to irreligion soften the fall from grace? Sure. But it is only means to an end. And the end is to educate, and to foster a liberal and an empirical attitude of mind at the level of the individual.
To recognise this fact is not to say that liberal religion is therefore a desirable thing, only that it is largely inevitable. I will say, in fact, that it is not a desirable thing in any way whatsoever. What illiberal religion ‘poisons’ (Hitchens?) illiberally, liberal religion ‘poisons’ liberally. What irrational behaviour religion, in its truest manifestation, inspires, liberal religion hides under the carpet in order to preserve its ‘open-minded’ pretensions and undeserved credibility. Why, isn’t this dishonesty in every sense of the word?!
As an afterthought I think I ought to repeat what has been my most central argument against religious morality for a good number of years. A liberal Christian behaves in a liberally Christian way. A liberal Muslim behaves in a liberally Muslim way. But a liberal person will behave in a liberal way. No theological strings attached.
I clarify. To wilfully restrict your philosophy to one central (much contrived) source of wisdom, and to identify yourself within denominational groups theologically constructed, is the crime of which all religionists, liberal or illiberal, are guilty. Christianity, for one, is not even a religion or philosophy defined by its moral aspects (most of which pre-date it), but rather by its eschatological bearings. This holds true whether you believe in it liberally or not. Imagine Christianity without the concept of Christ’s sacrifice and the promise of eternal life — how absurd one should attempt to call it liberal Christianity at all!
In this way liberalism (in the politically-detached sense of the word) and religion shall always be incompatible. I speak sincerely when I say that the world will be a better place without religion. To think religion worthy of ‘reform’ is to confuse means with ends. Perhaps a more targeted solution would be to give it no credibility whatsoever. This isn’t so hard, since it never deserved it!
PS: This is apparently my 500th post. Thanks for reading.