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How Religious Liberals Harm Their Own Cause: A Response to James Rohrer

August 3, 2012, 6:00 AM

Last month, AlterNet published a column by James Rohrer, a history professor and self-identified progressive religious believer who had some unkind words for the New Atheists. I'd like to take the opportunity to respond here and to show how his essay partakes of many of the same fallacies that have ensured the religious right's dominance in the American culture wars for the past several decades.

Rohrer begins:

Lately the progressive blogosphere has been filled with pieces by humanists who apparently take for granted that religious faith is unhealthy for individuals and society, and something that the progressive community needs to combat...

We don't "take this for granted," we've offered extensive and detailed arguments for it. But Rohrer makes no serious attempt to engage with any New Atheist critique - for example, what we say about how the acceptance of faith as a virtue empowers fundamentalists, or the inadvisability of teaching morality from books that contain so many immoral or evil verses, or whether religion has done more harm than good in the world on balance. He says nothing at all about whether any of our arguments are right. Instead, his entire long piece boils down to two claims: (1) progressive religious people exist, and (2) religion isn't going away so we should learn to work with it rather than attacking it. It's the essence of what Greta Christina calls the "shut up, that's why" argument.

He also encourages atheists to ally ourselves with progressive believers. This is something I happen to agree with, but I believe that we can do that without giving up our right to criticize them in areas where we disagree. Rohrer apparently doesn't, because in his view, this should be an entirely one-sided relationship:

Within the American context any possible future will almost certainly include a Christian majority for many years to come. Militant secularists who care about building a better world for everybody need to accept this truth and start to learn how to communicate and build relationships more effectively with people of faith, including the evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics they most frequently tilt against.

Notice: complaints like this are always about how we have to reach out to them, how we have to learn to communicate with them. Apparently, religious people don't need to learn how to communicate with us, nor do they have any responsibility to build relationships with us. And though we have to "accept" their existence, why is there nothing said here about how they likewise have to accept ours? Does he have any chiding words for those "evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics" who'd clearly like nothing better than to see movement atheism vanish from existence?

This supports the point I've often made about religious progressives who'll only cooperate with us if we're willing to be subordinate. It's always assumed to be atheists' job to engage with the religious in ways they'll accept, never vice versa. It's always assumed to be atheists' job to adapt ourselves to religious people's desires and preferences, never vice versa. This is just another example of the thoughtless attitude of privilege that pervades the worldview even of many progressive theists.

I earlier mentioned the New Atheist argument that treating faith as a virtue, as religious liberals do, inevitably strengthens the hand of religious fundamentalists. Rohrer inadvertently gives a brushstroke-perfect illustration of how this dynamic works:

But we should be careful not to divide religion into artificial and inevitably arbitrary categories like "progressive" Christianity versus "conservative" or "traditional" Christianity, as though one is acceptable and the other beyond redemption.

In other words, he defends conservative religion as inseparable from progressive religion, and presumably equally as deserving of our respect and our acceptance. This is the same mistake liberal believers have been making for decades, as explained in my review of Nonbeliever Nation: when push comes to shove, they inevitably pick the religious conservatives, who share the same nominal faith as them but despise everything they stand for and will seize on every chance to destroy them, over secular humanists whom they actually have more in common with.

Although some progressive bloggers apparently think that organized Christianity is on the way to extinction, there is every reason to believe that religion is going to remain an important component of culture for as long as humanity survives.

Why? What reasons are there for believing this? Rohrer doesn't say, just asserts that it's true and expects us to accept it without argument. Humanity has undergone many other revolutions of opinion; we've discarded many beliefs and practices that once enjoyed overwhelming majority support. We no longer believe, for example, that human slavery is morally acceptable; that some races are inherently superior to others; that absolute monarchy is the ideal form of government; or that men are better suited than women to hold power. Why should we believe that religion is the exception, that religion alone is unchangeable? As I wrote in the past:

"Although human beings can be fiercely irrational and dogmatic, we are also capable as a species of changing old opinions with amazing suddenness and thoroughness when the social forces impelling such a change grow sufficiently strong. In our time, ideas that were once near-universally held and seemed graven in stone have crumbled in the space of a single lifetime. Evidence such as this should give the brash apologists and the gloomy nonbelievers who proclaim theism's eternal superiority reason to pause before making their judgment. The verdict of history may yet surprise them."

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