Liberal Religion?

Another fine comment:

Rich, I’m surprised to see you characterize the “proof from experience” position as “a standard liberal approach to faith.”  It seems to me anything but.  It’s closer to the evangelical approach (though I hasten to add that it has nothing at all to do with commonly perceived political stances of American evangelicals). It’s the approach that says, “I have known God in a personal way,” which renders the questions of existential proof academic. Where you might justifiably point to a parallel with liberal theology is in the belief that science and faith can coexist just fine….

The question of how to know if one is hearing God right is certainly a thorny one. The smart person applies many checks and balances, including the use of one’s own brainpower.  After all, as someone said — Jesus came to take away our sins, not our minds.

I suppose I’m not experienced enough to be able to justify the word “standard.”  But it’s Karen Armstrong’s approach (and conservatives consider her scarcely different from an atheist).  And it’s the approach of the wonderful minister of the little Unitarian church I attend. And it seems to me to be the  only approach that can survive the advances of science.

Of course, it’s an approach that atheists treat with dismissive scorn.  As Hitchens put it, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”  At least fundamentalists will engage on facts and evidence and philosophical argumentation.  You say that Krauss’s argument is barking up the wrong tree.  But what other tree should he be barking up?  Is there any such tree?

There was a thread a while back on some blogs I follow about whether there was any conceivable evidence that could come to light that would convince an atheist that God exists.  They were hard put to come up with anything, because a naturalistic explanation would always be available, and it would always be preferable (using Occam’s Razor) than a theistic explanation.  But conversely, it seems clear that no evidence or explanation or argumentation would convince someone with a personal experience of God that God doesn’t exist — that the experience was just a pattern of neuronal firings, different in outcome but not in kind from any other pattern.  So neither side has anything to say to the other….

But further, atheists would say that this approach empowers all religions, no matter how fanatical, because once you assert that religion exists in a realm outside reason and evidence, what is the standard for truth and falsity?  Armstrong seems to believe that there is one truth, and all religions are different ways of perceiving that truth.  So she gives religions a pass on the various atrocities committed in their names — these don’t represent the essential truth of religions.  But how does she know what that truth is?  How does she know which moral beliefs should be condemned and which should be supported?  You use your brain power.  But I have met many very smart Jesuits whose brain power leads them to different conclusions from yours.  Who should I believe?

Anyway, go Patriots!


8 thoughts on “Liberal Religion?

  1. Ah, but you’re suggesting there’s only one kind of evidence, and I disagree. There’s replicable scientific evidence, of course; but there’s also personal evidence that is nonetheless powerfully persuasive to the one experiencing it. (This “thing” happened to me — an encounter, or a healing, or whatever. I know and believe it to be real. I don’t expect it, by itself, to necessarily convince anyone else. But to my core I know it to be true.) Now, of course, UFOlogists seem to believe in experiences that happened to them, too–and I don’t believe most of what they say. So I guess I’m arguing for a better-rounded way of reasoning: Take my own experiences, compare them to experiences of other people whose veracity and intelligence I trust, study the Bible and other texts with both an open heart and an open mind, apply some rational standards of what is intellectually defensible, pray and listen, blend in healthy skepticism, and ultimately draw my own conclusions about what best explains this reality I find myself in. I don’t propose to “prove” to anyone that I am right. As you say, others do the same and come to different conclusions. But I do try to be open to new information and new understanding as I go. I’ll just note that there are plenty of scientists who are also people of faith — Kenneth Miller, the noted evolutionary biologist, being one prominent example. The man who headed the Human Genome Project (who names escapes me) for another.

    I actually wondered how long it would take for Occam’s Razor to surface. That’s really more a guideline, isn’t it? 🙂 Hardly a law. And certainly not proof in its own right. Or the suggestion that the religious experience is nothing but the firing (misfiring?) of certain parts of the brain — which is something New Scientist for example is always citing as “evidence” that there’s nothing more to spiritual experience than neuronal hallucination. Which is codswallop, scientifically. For all we know, those parts of the brain are essential mediators of experience of the supernatural. The truth is, we don’t know. There’s so much we don’t know, scientifically — from the number of actual physical dimensions to perhaps the most basic question of all: Is this universe the only one there is? If it’s not, are there points of intersection between our universe and others? (A theme I’m fond of in fiction, but also a legitimate question where one is trying to find ultimate truths — beyond 42, I mean.)

    Nor do I think it’s true that theists and atheists have nothing to say to each other. What’s wrong with open discussion? It doesn’t all have to be about “proving” I’m right and you’re wrong. My own pastor, a reformed atheist, loves having conversations with atheist groups; one such discussion actually led to his excellent little book, Not the Religious Type (by Dave Smeltzer), which talks a lot about bounded sets (us versus them) versus open sets (all of us, each trying to find our way toward truths at the center). How we think about our relationship to each other may be more important than waving our flags about claims to ultimate truths.


  2. Yes, that’s Dave. That’s not the Vineyard church’s blog, but an offshoot organization from activities that some of the Vineyard people were involved in, along with people from other churches. Dave’s sermons can be found at


  3. Pingback: God of the Gaps | richard bowker

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