A few days ago an article was posted on the Huffington Post by a liberal pastor who declared declared atheism to be the new fundamentalism. The article involves Pastor Roberts recounting a discussion she had with an atheist while out at lunch after the atheists family had done her a favor. The story starts with the atheist, named “Peter,” announcing to pastor that he is an atheist.
"Well, I'm not in the business of conversion," I said, "but for the record, I probably don't believe in the same God you don't believe in," I was hoping to avert hostility and maybe open a dialogue about our understanding of the divine, since he brought it up. He wasn't having it.
This is a common avoidance tactic by liberal theologians. She assumes that the person she is speaking to is only rejecting some “simplistic and fundamentalist” version of god. This seems rooted in two basic assumptions. First that liberal theology is extremely underappreciated and unknown, and second that their more liberal interpretation of god is so completely reasonable that no one would reject it.
It is clear she thinks this way from the following quote.
"You know," I sighed, "There have been so many developments in theology in the past fifty years, it's unfortunate they haven't reached the informed general public. It's like we're still talking about an outmoded version of God who requires checking your brain at the door, which few intelligent people are willing to do--a God who is like a puppet master pulling strings, controlling life, saying, 'A billion dollars for you, Mr. Romney, but nothing for this guy in Africa. That's nutty. That's not God, at least not the God I worship."
First off the notion that there have been “developments” in theology in the past fifty years is questionable. Yes, there have been new ideas, but the great majority of them have been the same sorts of ad hoc justifications that theologians have been coming up with for thousands of years. With one notable difference, traditional theology confined it’s rationalizations to certain parameters like conformity with some attempt at a reasonable biblical hermeneutic or at least church tradition. Liberal theologians found these limitations stifling and so have just taken to making up any explanation so long as it allows themselves to have their theological cake and eat it too.
To be fair, assuming that this story is told in an unbiased fashion, the atheist involved in this conversation didn’t seem to be very educated and seemed to repeat their claim to believe in science over and over. Though I’m not entirely convinced that pastor Roberts didn’t end up writing a skewed view of the conversation given the clear attempts at psychoanalyzing him. She often speaks about the “Peter’s” attitude and level of knowledge on various subjects though her justifications for these conclusions seemed slim. Take this quote:
"I already told you, I believe in science, not God," he interrupted. In his mind they were mutually exclusive. I stopped. I wanted to ask what he thought about science and spirituality, the new physics, Einstein and Bohm, who operated with a sense of order and wonder at the universe itself as a great mystery of divine proportions. I wanted to, but I didn't because I realized he didn't want to engage with the questions; he already knew the answers. He wasn't interested in a discussion. That's when I got it.
She makes huge sweeping generalizations about her audience and assumes he was not interested in discussion, and her statements about science sound like they belong in a Deepak Chopra book rather than in a legitimate conversation about actual science. She continues:
was talking to a fundamentalist. What I was saying threatened his very identity and construct of life. My lunch companion knew who God was, and he didn't believe in "him." It was a Santa sort of God, the kind that a small child believes in and then is disappointed by when he doesn't get a pony in his stocking. I remembered being told he was abused as a child. Clearly that God had failed him.
And she wonders why “Peter” sounded defensive and didn’t want to engage with questions? She belittles both his intellect and his personal experience, as well as demonstrating her rather bigoted views of unbelievers as unintelligent children angry because god didn’t get them a pony and she is surprised that he wasn’t interested in polite conversation? If I had an inkling that this was what someone thought of me I’d be tempted to be less than friendly too.
When did atheists become the new fundamentalists? I have known many atheists beginning with my wonderful dad, who insisted I not use the word "God" or pray at his funeral. But this new breed is different: closed-minded, entrenched, and bellicose, shouting and proselytizing their disbelief in the God of their fathers as determinedly and humorlessly as their forebears proselytized with such certainty for a definite, iron-clad system of punishments and rewards in a pie-in-the-sky afterlife. Why do these new atheists allow the Christian fundamentalists to define their reality? And why are they so angry?
I personally find many liberal theologians to be just as, if not more, obnoxious as the fundamentalist ones. I’ve had many less than stellar interactions with them. Sure, they tend not to hate homosexuals as much, but when it comes to discussions of things like meaning and ethics they have the same annoying tendency to believe that they are the only ones to have seriously examined these questions. It’s not just atheists who do not meet with their approval, because according to them the majority of religious believers aren’t doing it right either. Of course this all sounds suspiciously like the sort of narrow minded and rigid, fundamentalism Roberts was just criticizing, but that’s just silly right? So I say to pastor Roberts you might consider the possibility that not all atheists are allowing fundamentalists to define their reality. I, for one, know a good deal about your liberal version of god…”It” doesn’t exist either.