Unbelievers and Liberal Religious Persons of the World: UNITE!

In the world of contemporary unbelief the differences between “liberal,” “moderate,” and “conservative” forms of religion are often overlooked.  The subtle nuances that distinguish liberal religion from conservative religion are painted over by employing the nebulous term “religion.”  The New Atheism, for instance, views liberal or “moderate” religion as guilty of providing the atmosphere under which conservative religious beliefs can be accepted and flourish.  In short, modern unbelievers—be they atheist, skeptic, agnostic, or secular humanist—view liberal religion in a primarily negative light.  They often forget the robust connections that can be made between liberal religion and contemporary unbelief.  From being politically and socially liberal, to speaking out against cruelties and injustices committed in the name of religion, liberal religious persons can agree with unbelievers on a whole host of issues.  Modern forms of unbelief have forgotten to make clear the differences between liberal and conservative religion, and if they only saw the rich connections between unbelief and liberal religion, they may change the way they think of “religion.”

Since I am employing the terms “liberal” and “religion” throughout this post it is important for me to explain what I mean when I use such words.  “Liberal Religion,” at least in the West, has most of its sources located within some brand (or offshoot) of Christianity.  Unitarian Universalism is a prime example of this kind of western liberal religion.  James Luther Adams, a well-known Unitarian minister, preached a famous sermon that turned the story of David and Goliath into a message of liberal religion.  In his sermon Adams identifies what he calls the “Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism,” with each stone representing a different tenet of liberal religion.[i] The general message of this kind of liberalism, with a few qualifications, is the one I will be utilizing.

The New Atheists, it has been argued, hold an “essentialist” view of religion.  For them, religion and religious belief are something easily juxtaposed with reason, science, and the values of the Enlightenment.  They can point and say “that is religion.”  This is why someone like Christopher Hitchens can have such a sweeping subtitle as “How Religion Poisons Everything.”  As Stephen Prothero points out, the New Atheists are guilty of “loading all religions into one boat.”[ii] The New Atheists are not the only ones guilty of this kind of essentialism.  Since the origin of Western religious studies in Enlightenment Europe many scholars have tried to explain the sine qua non of religion. Inclusive definitions have included: “absolute dependence,”[iii] “belief in an unseen order,”[iv] and “ultimate concern.”[v] These definitions, prima facie, can include varieties of unbelief, even forms of strict atheism, as “religion.”

Other, more exclusive definitions of religion—such as “belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power,”[vi] “service to others in the name of God,”[vii] or “the recognition of all our duties as divine commands”[viii]—restrict many belief systems from meeting the criteria of “religion.”  Even modern liberal scholars of religion consider the essence of religion to be “compassion,”[ix] or “trust.”[x] Countless attempts at defining religion, and their respective failures, place the onus probandi upon the definer.  I am hesitant, as William James was, to propose my own definition of religion, since I am of the opinion that it does not have a singular or essential core.[xi] Yet, with much caution and awareness that no one theory of religion is complete, I will still employ the term throughout this post (albeit in a tentative manner).

My tentative definition of religion is one that is located between the narrow definitions made by conservative religious persons and the broad, sometimes universal, definitions given by liberal religious persons.  Rather than attempting to trace a singular definition of religion, I prefer to utilize what are referred to as “cluster definitions” or “family resemblances.”  William P. Alston’s cluster definition of religion is sufficient for my purposes, not only because it is simple and clear, but because of its strong explanatory power.

In order for my position to be feasible it must do more than simply show the empirical correlations between unbelief and liberal religion; it must also provide a philosophical case showing why unbelievers and liberal religious persons ought to work together.  Similarly, there must be a conceptual vision for a shared partnership between unbelieving and liberal religious persons.  The conceptual vision I have involves certain ideological commitments about the nature of morality and the structure of an ideal society.  These commitments, and the vision they hope to accomplish, are robust enough to unify many unbelievers and liberal religious persons.

This vision for shared partnership between unbelievers and liberal religious persons is an ideal worth striving for.  It is worth striving for because of the consequences such a partnership could have on real world politics, public discourse, and the modern zeitgeist.  It encourages a new understanding of the politics and motivations behind unbelief and liberal religion.  The greatest possible influence such a partnership could have is to encourage, and possibly help establish, a more radical American left.

So what are the differences between liberal, moderate, and conservative religion in the West?  Most of the statistics comparing and contrasting liberal, moderate, and conservative religious beliefs are focused on Christianity, likely due to the fact that 71.6% of people in the United Kingdom and 78.4% of people in the United States identify themselves as “Christian.”[xii] That being said, I do not think my thesis applies only to Christianity.  It can be applied across numerous faith traditions as long as what I mean by “conservative” and “liberal” remains uniform.

What I mean by “liberal” is not the classical liberalism of political theorists like Freidrich A. Hayak,[xiii] John Rawls,[xiv] and Robert Nozick,[xv] although it certainly relates to them.  What I mean by “liberal” is “socially liberal” in the sense of promoting liberal social policies including, but not limited to: the legalization of same-sex marriage, abortion, and euthanasia; a generous take on immigration, a postcolonial approach to education, and a direct focus on environmental care. The liberalism I am referring to holds anti-war sentiments, desires a more equal distribution of wealth and opportunity, and has a critical view of American history,[xvi] tradition, and the status quo it has lead to.

One way to move past the impasse between unbelievers and liberal religious persons is to examine the similarities in their voting patters and political affiliation.  Both Christian[xvii] and secular polls show that unbelievers and liberal religious persons vote in similar manners. For instance, 32% of those who identify as “secular” are registered Democrats, and 43% of them are registered Independents,[xviii] while those with lower levels of “religious intensity” generally vote Democrat or Independent.[xix] Both “seculars” and “somewhat religious” persons combined make up the largest portion of the Democratic and Independent Parties.[xx] As Kosmin and Keysar point out, “only one in nine Republicans has a secularist outlook compared with one in five Democrats and one in four Independents.”[xxi] Democrats, whether they consider themselves religious or not, are also more likely to have a critical and negative view of “religious groups.”[xxii]

Modern forms of liberal religion share much in common with modern forms of unbelief, even if they ultimately diverge on whether or not faith in God is a positive or negative orientation.  To show these commonalities I am going to use three examples of contemporary liberal religion—namely, Emergence, Religious Naturalism, and Unitarian Universalism—and compare and contrast them with what modern unbelievers have said.  Philip Clayton, as my example of an Emergentist, agrees with unbelievers in numerous ways: he understands the importance of a scientific understanding of the world;[xxiii] he rejects a God who is totally separate from the world and intervenes by breaking natural laws;[xxiv] he disagrees with plenary inspiration and dictation theories of the Bible;[xxv] and he criticizes extreme forms of religious fundamentalism.[xxvi] He also, lacking the certitude of many conservative believers, says that “atheism must be taken as a full and live possibility…it is thus methodologically unacceptable to immediately assume the impossibility of atheism.”[xxvii]

Gordon D. Kaufman, my example of Religious Naturalism, also agrees with many of Clayton’s ideas.  Even though “religious” in a particular sense, Kaufman can also be thought of as an agnostic.  In Kantian fashion Kaufman thinks that the “real referent for “God” is never accessible to us or in any way open to our observation or experience.  It must always remain an unknown X.”[xxviii] From his ideas that theology is about “imaginative construction,”[xxix] to his distinction between the “real God” and the “available God,”[xxx] Kaufman’s theology is much more palatable to unbelievers in the modern world.  Similarly, Kaufman’s pacifism[xxxi] and his fear of worldwide nuclear disaster[xxxii] will resound with many in the unbelieving community.

Similarly, Unitarian Universalism has its robust connections with unbelief.  From its inception as a heretical Christian sect, to its metamorphosis into a thoroughly “humanist”[xxxiii] movement, Unitarian Universalism is an exemplar of bridge-building between believers and unbelievers.  The fact that a large portion of those who endorsed the Humanist Manifesto’s (I, II,[xxxiv] and III[xxxv]) were Unitarian Universalists, along with their promotion of liberal social policies and their elevation of reason over dogma, allows for unbelievers to find them more attractive than any other “organized religion.”  As Fred Small, Reverend of First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts, once said, “At First Parish in Cambridge, you’ll sit next to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, atheists, agnostics, and seekers of every variety. (No wonder we adapt our hymns!)”[xxxvi] This Parish is only one of numerous Unitarian Universalist congregations who promote dialogue and friendship between believers and unbelievers of all varieties.

There are numerous other forms of liberalism I could include amongst these three types.  For sake of time I cannot address them, but if I were to include any they would be: post-Christian feminists, agnostic and apophatic theologians, and eastern philosophers.  These thinkers would fit very well within the blurry parameters of unbelief and liberal religion.  They would most likely support a partnership between unbelief and liberal religion and agree with many of the moral implications of such a partnership.

[i] James Luther Adams, from the Sermon “What is Liberal Religion and Why Should I Care?” by Rev. Patrick Price and presented at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia SC, September 21, 1997.

[ii] Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 9

[iii] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 36

[iv] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 53

[v] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 1:12

[vi] Oxford English Dictionary Online: Located at: http://oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_us1284107#m_en_us1284107

[vii] This is the definition of religion given by Tony Blair when he debated Christopher Hitchens on November 27, 2010.  Blair describes this as “true” (as opposed to “false”) religion.

[viii] Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998), 153

[ix] Karen Armstrong promotes this kind of definition in her Charter of Compassion: located at: http://charterforcompassion.org/site/

[x] Martin Marty, located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/martin-marty/trust-is-at-the-heart-of-_b_798407.html

[xi] William James put it best when he said: “Most books on the philosophy of religion try to begin with a precise definition of what its essence consists of…Meanwhile the very fact that they are so many and so different from one another is enough to prove that the word ‘religion’ cannot stand for any single principle of essence, but is rather a collective name.  The theorizing mind tends always to the over-simplification of its materials.  This is the root of all that absolutism and one-sided dogmatism by which both philosophy and religion have been infested.”  William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 26.

[xii] The statistics on the United Kingdom come from the 2001 Census, located at: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=954. The statistics on the United States come from the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Study of 2008, located at: http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf.  Statistics also bear out just how different Christianity is between these two Western countries.

[xiii] Friedrich A. Hayak, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960)

[xiv] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971)

[xv] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1968)

[xvi] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperCollins, 2003)

[xvii] The Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm, published a 2009 survey showing how “Liberals and Conservatives Differ on Matters of Faith.” It showed how liberal and conservative Christians voted on a few statements: earning their way into Heaven by doing good deeds or being a good person (23% vs. 37%); their faith is becoming an increasingly important moral guide in their life (38% vs. 70%); the church they currently attend is very important in helping them find direction and fulfillment in life (37% vs. 62%); their primary purpose in life is to love God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul (43% vs. 76%); Jesus Christ did not commit sins during His time on earth (33% vs. 55%); “God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today”: Only about half of liberals (55%) adopt that view of God compared to more than four out of five conservatives (82%).  Liberals are also far less likely to “believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches” (27% versus 63%, respectively); to strongly believe that Satan is real (17% versus 36%); and to firmly contend that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others (23% versus 48%).”  Liberal are also far less likely to strongly believe “their religious faith is very important in their life” (54% of liberals vs. 82% of conservatives).  Located at, http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/13-culture/258-survey-shows-how-liberals-and-conservatives-differ-on-matters-of-faith

[xviii] Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, Religion in a Free Market (New York: Paramount Market, 2006), 212

[xix] This information is taken from a 2009 Gallup Poll showing the strong connection between religious intensity and voting patterns.  Located at, http://www.gallup.com/poll/124649/Religious-Intensity-Remains-Powerful-Predictor-Politics.aspx

[xx] Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, Religion in a Free Market (New York: Paramount Market, 2006), 213

[xxi] Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, Religion in a Free Market (New York: Paramount Market, 2006), 213

[xxii] This is shown in a 2006 Gallup Poll that focused on how Democrats and Republicans differed on how they viewed religious groups.  Located at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/24385/Democrats-View-Religious-Groups-Less-Positively-Than-Republicans.aspx

[xxiii] Philip Clayton, God and Contemporary Science (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997)

[xxiv] Philip Clayton, The Case for Christian Panentheism, Dialog 37 (Summer 1998): 201-208

[xxv] Philip Clayton, Can Liberals Still Believe that God (Literally) Does Anything? pg. 11, located at: http://philipclayton.net/files/papers/CanLiberalsStillBelieve.pdf

[xxvi] Philip Clayton, Science and the Search for Meaning (Philadelphia: Templeton Press, 2006), xiv

[xxvii] Philip Clayton, The Problem of God in Modern Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), 4

[xxviii] Gordon D. Kaufman, God the Problem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 85

[xxix] Gordon D. Kaufman, Theological Imagination (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 263

[xxx] Gordon D. Kaufman, God the Problem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 86

[xxxi] Gordon D. Kaufman, Nonresistance and Responsibility, and other Mennonite Essays (Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1979)

[xxxii] Gordon D. Kaufman, Theology for a Nuclear Age (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985)

[xxxiii] James Casebolt and Tiffany Niekro, “Some UUs Are More UU than U: Theological Self-Descriptors Chosen by Unitarian Universalists,” Review of Religious Research 46.3 (2005): 235-242

[xxxiv] Paul Kurtz, Humanist Manifestos I & II (Amherst: Prometheus Press, 1984)

[xxxv] Humanism and its Aspirations (Washington DC: American Humanist Association, 2003)

[xxxvi] Fred Small, Merry Christmas, Garrison Keillor! UUWorld, 12-23-2009

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6 thoughts on “Unbelievers and Liberal Religious Persons of the World: UNITE!

  1. Kile,

    Nicely put — I’m glad you’ve published these arguments here. I am interested in knowing whether you affirm universal political values, say in the way that John Rawls would. But I do agree that believers and unbelievers can be important and powerful political allies.

    Is that *all* that we can do together?

    — Philip

  2. Kile – I agree with much if the argument here. I particularly appreciate the concept that liberal religious believers and Humanists might form a powerful political force advocating for progressive policies (although I don’t necessarily think those policies would necessarily be considered “left wing”).

    I’m not on board with the general framing of the discussion, though, because I think it perpetuates a misunderstanding of modern atheist authors. For instance, you say:

    “The subtle nuances that distinguish liberal religion from conservative religion are painted over by employing the nebulous term “religion.”  The New Atheism, for instance, views liberal or “moderate” religion as guilty of providing the atmosphere under which conservative religious beliefs can be accepted and flourish.”

    This is not the case. If one reads Harris, Hitchens et al carefully, and listen to what they say on the subject, they are quite aware of many subtle differences between religious groupings of all types. However, they make the argument that for their purposes (pointing out the potential dangers of faith-based perspectives), the similarities between liberal and illiberal religion outweigh the differences.

    For example, the argument you mention regarding the culpability of liberal religious folks in creating an environment for illiberal religious views to flourish, is actually an interesting and sophisticated argument about social psychology, public discourse and political environment. But very often this argument is not given its due, because it is seen as part of a trend of simply lumping liberal believers in with illiberal ones.

    I think these authors deserve better: they’ve presented interesting and principled arguments as to why Humanists like myself might, in some cases, NOT want to make common cause even with religious people who agree with them on a particular issue. Those arguments are worth seriously engaging, I think.

  3. Dr. Clayton:

    Thanks for the response. I do affirm something like “universal political values” although I find it hard to expect people to vote “as if” they were in the state of nature. Unbelievers and liberal religious persons can do much more than lobby together; they can build communities together and learn to love each other as well.


    I am aware of what the New Atheists think (to the best of my ability), having read and re-read their works over and over. I do not think my statement is a misunderstanding — in fact, it comes directly from a quote by Sam Harris. I disagree that the similarities outweigh the differences. My point is that many of them gloss over these very real, very nuanced, differences. I agree with much of what they say, but they must be careful of oversimplification. The “trend” of saying they lump these people together is not simply a fad, it is usually the case. We can choose to disagree over these minutae, but my general point is much broader. Thanks for your comment.

    1. Kile, I think perhaps you mistook me. I was making a more limited case than I think you saw me make. I agree that NAs make the argument regarding liberal religion and its relationship to more conservative forms, but I don’t agree that it’s really because of the sort of simplistic “lumping” or “essentialist” view you ascribe to them repeatedly in the article. If you listen to Harris, Hitchens etc. speak (and even especially Dennett) I’m often struck by how knowledgeable about different religions they really are, and how sympathetic they are to various positive benefits religious communities offer. I know this doesn’t fit the caricature, but it has been my understanding of their writings and public appearances.

      Regardless, as you remind me, there is a good idea here – I just like to poke and prod 😉

  4. James:

    It’s all good, I don’t mind the critique. I have tough skin. I think we simply have different interpretations of the New Atheists. I do agree with you that they have a general understanding of the differences amongst and within faith traditions, I just think they should be cautious when using generalizations about “religion.” Since religion is so difficult to define, we have to be careful when employing it. Besides that, I love what the New Atheists have to offer.


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