While I usually find myself addressing the more fundamentalist/evangelical Christians on my blog and elsewhere online, I also often find myself discussing religion with liberal Christians. While in the conversations I often find myself confronted with the question of why I rejected ALL religion instead of rejecting my particular fundamentalist brand and embracing a more liberal religious outlook. To be honest I’m only occasionally asked this question directly by liberal Christians, but it seems to undergird a lot more of conversations with out being asked directly, perhaps because the person in question can’t think of a way to ask the question that doesn’t seem impolite, even though I can’t imagine I would take offense at the question as long as it was asked with a genuine desire for an answer.
I actually wish more of them would ask this question because I think, given their own experiences, their confusion is reasonable, but I do have an answer for them. As for the reason for said confusion I would start out by pointing out that many liberal Christians and I have quite a bit in common. Many of them, just like me, were either raised in more conservative religious homes or have at least had quite a bit of experience dealing with fundamentalist view points. They understand why I rejected much of the ideas in those groups because many of them went through a very similar experience of disillusionment with fundamentalist/evangelical religious teachings.
Indeed, if you look back on the experience I had leaving Christianity my first points of disagreement were over things like biblical inerrancy, and the treatment of women and LGTB people within the church, which are all points that many liberal Christians would agree with me on. For instance, most of my liberal theology professors in school recounted similar stories of disillusionment when they were younger. So when it comes to these experiences we have a commonality that allows us to understand one another to some extent.
So I think that often the confusion they have with me removing myself from the conversation entirely is largely due to the fact that they were able to make both their belief in Christianity and their new found support of things like Feminism and gay rights fit together. We discuss those issues and find ourselves largely in agreement so they wonder why I could not make that same compromise work as well. Occasionally some will be obnoxious about this disagreement, and simply assume that the people who made the transition to atheism instead of liberal Christianity just didn’t understand liberal theological ideas, but most of the time it’s simply a matter of not understanding what caused the transition in the first place. They might well understand a person who was raised without religion not finding anything particularly valuable there, but have trouble understanding how someone who previously valued religion could become one of its loudest critics.
The answer to this confusion is complicated and requires us to look at several things. First off, while my rejection of fundamentalism started in a fairly similar place to that of many liberal Christians, they stopped at issues, that while important, are to some extent surface issues, and landed in a set of ideals that I personally find logically contradictory. Take as an example the notion of biblical inerrancy, most liberal Christians would join me in rejecting this concept, yet they still believe in things like salvation. I spent some time as a liberal believer on my way out and one of the issues that repeatedly bothered me was that without inerrancy I could find no way to sensibly justify a belief in Jesus as savior any more than I could justify an anti-gay marriage stance. Yes the first idea is more emotionally palatable, but that was not a justifiable reason to believe something. I had rejected theological claims like inerrancy because they were not supportable by facts and reason, rejecting those ideas but then continuing to hold other beliefs for reasons just as flimsy seemed hypocritical to me.
Further, it should be noted that I’ve studied a good deal of liberal theology, and can’t shake the feeling that a lot of it seems based upon word games and semantic tricks, and many of the more liberal biblical scholars I’ve read, like Elaine Pagles, have often engaged in the exact same sort of “just so” justifications for various interpretations of biblical passages and theological ideas that fundamentalist engage it, except that they serve a different goal. The fact that I find the goal more agreeable doesn’t make the argument they use to reach it any better. Which brings me to my last point.
It’s not enough that I just don’t believe, I’m an activist for the notion of dismantling religious ideas at their root, which I think further confuses liberal believers. They understand why I would oppose fundamentalism, they often do as well after all, but why would religion as a whole be a problem since many religious people, like themselves, often hold very similar views on a variety of social issues as I do. To understand my problem here lets imagine we put a liberal Christian and a fundamentalist one in a room to discuss a controversial topic like gay marriage. The fundamentalist would likely start by quoting Leviticus 18 or 20 or perhaps Romans 1, the liberal Christian would counter that the fundamentalist has improperly interpreted those passages and bring up passages about love and acceptance, maybe the passage where Paul says we are all the same in Christ.
If you notice that this conversation does not seem to ever reference any gay people and how they feel about this they you start to understand my issue here. Both groups are defining “the good” in terms of what god wants for us. They don’t agree on what that is, but both think it is of paramount importance. The liberal Christian has taken a position that I’m more likely to agree with, but it’s based upon a rational which I totally reject. A rational which, by the way, differs very little from that of the fundamentalist. Both are still appealing to an extrinsic source to understand things like meaning and ethics. I not only think this is wrong, I think it is incredibly harmful to a real and productive discussion of these things. A few years ago, after I had already become an atheist I started thinking about these questions and came to the conclusion that religion, by trying to find meaning in extrinsic sources, was selling us short and hampering real progress on these issues. I couldn’t leave this alone because while it’s important that we believe the right things it is even more important that we believe them for the right reasons. Which is ultimately why I became an atheist rather than a liberal Christian. I didn’t just reject the fundamentalist position on gay marriage, I rejected the entire system of ethics and ontology that they used to reach those conclusions in the first place.
You can read more about my de-conversion in the following links.