Are atheists basically just like liberal believers?

August 24, 2011

The title of this post is intentionally provocative. It reverses the similarity that some conservative religious believers (and some atheists) will at times use polemically, claiming that liberal believers are, for all practical purposes, no different from atheists.

I don’t want to deny that there is a distinction, or that there are similarities. What I want to say is that, to the extent that there are similarities, the resemblance and direction of influence is in most cases the other way around.

When atheists point out errors, historical issues and stories that defy belief or moral acceptance in the Bible, for the most part that information (when it is accurate) derives from the scholarship pioneered and for the most part carried out by liberal religious believers. Liberal Christians have been denouncing much of popular piety as superstition long before atheists, advocating pioneering, expanding and embracing scientific understanding even when this infringed on what was traditionally considered God’s turf.

A blog called “Atheist Revolution” describes itself as “breaking free from irrational belief and opposing religious extremism” – both emphases that characterize historic Liberal Protestantism in particular, and were associated with it for as long as, and independently of, atheism.

Recognizing that “the criticism of the myth does not end with the rejection of the polytheistic mythology” is an articulation by Paul Tillich, one of the great Liberal Protestant theologians of the 20th century (Dynamics of Faith, p.57). Theologians have long recognized that myth is not something that others have but the Judeo-Christian tradition does not. Tillich, through his writings, continues to speak against the kind of “faith” that atheists are also concerned to combat (albeit for reasons that only partly overlap).

Below is a video with some atheists, agnostics and skeptics (including P. Z. Myers!) speaking in their own words (HT Hemant Mehta). How many of their points and emphases are ones that liberal religious believers also affirm? And of those, how many were articulated from such a religious perspective before they were articulated by atheists?

While I have no objection to atheists emphasizing these things, I do find myself disappointed by the fact that arguments and knowledge which are a product of  liberal religion are being viewed as atheist arguments and viewpoints, to such an extent that when liberal religious believers say the same things, they are viewed as borrowing from atheists, rather than vice versa. On one level, it really doesn’t matter who borrowed from whom. On another level, it can be frustrating to have someone say many of the same things that you do, and marginalize you because of a relatively minor disagreement without acknowledging that those points on which you agree were largely the work of people with an outlook like your own.

How do you feel about this, if you are a liberal religious believer, an atheist, or a person with some other sort of stance? And what, if anything, do you think really separates liberal religious believers and atheists? Is it the willingness to use or (not always successful) attempt to avoid using religious language to express our ultimate concern? Or is it merely the fact that liberal religious believers still have social gatherings, with donuts? And to the extent that there are similarities and differences, what are the most useful ways that we can collaborate and work together on things that we agree on, and have fruitful discussions or at least mutual respect and acceptance regarding things that we disagree on?

Originally posted at Exploring Our Matrix.