Liberal Pastor and James McGrath have been making a valiant attempt at trying to engage a militant atheist blogger in a conversation about religion. The discussion is, I think, very instructive in showing just how difficult an endeavor like this really is.
The blogger, a Toronto professor named Larry Moran, demands from people of faith a "sophisticated argument" for the existence of "supernatural beings". Of course, as for who gets to be the arbiter on what makes an argument "sophisticated", you can guess who that might be--the blogger himself.
Like a lot of militant atheists, he wears his ignorance of theology on his sleeve. He stereotypes religious faith, and then admits that he knows nothing about theologians like Borg, Hick, Crossan, Griffin, and others who don't conform to his stereotype, but insists that it doesn't matter because he knows already everything he needs to know about religion, and one of the things he knows a priori is that his stereotypes are true. He seems to be unaware of what panentheism is or how it might differ from pantheism. He insists that religion is defined as a belief in "supernatural beings", and when James McGrath points out multiple reasons why that isn't necessarily true--such as that Tillich characterizes God as being of a different order than mere "beings" and instead considers God to be "Being itself"--Moran responds by calling that mere obfuscation--thus showing a complete lack of interest in really understanding the subject matter that claims to be such an expert on. (A more honest response would have been something like, "I don't get it. How is Being itself different from supernatural beings? Can you clarify or explain this?" But why engage people in a dialogue when you can just attack them instead?)
When James McGrath points out that "religious believers differ even within traditions such as Christianity over issues like whether there are 'miracles', and if so whether they are things that occur in harmony with or as a rupture in the natural flow of the material world," Moran seems beside himself with annoyance over this challenge to his preconceived notion of what religion is all about, saying,
Interesting. Tell me more about those people who call themselves Christians but don't believe in miracles. Do they believe that Jesus died on the cross on Friday and did not rise from the dead on the following Sunday? Do they believe that Mathew, Mark, Luke and John were not telling the truth about Jesus and the stories of miracles?Those exact words could have been written by a Christian fundamentalist--and yet they were written by an militant atheist. What does that tell you? Like all fundamentalists, Moran the atheist fundamentalist can't conceive of the existence of Christians who are not biblical literalists, let alone those who don't believe in the miraculous. Another blogger chimed in with a similar accusation, saying "At least find a brand new name for your religion?" It is really rather ironic how militant atheists allow fundamentalist Christians to do their thinking for them in determining who does and doesn't get to be called a Christian.
There are other participants in this discussion as well, but you get the point.
Liberal Pastor chimed into the discussion with a great comment about what progressive Christianity means to him. Among other things, he wrote:
For me, it is the way of Jesus that matters: peace, simplicity, inclusive community that ignores cultural barriers, taking a stand against injustice to the point of being willing to pay the price (there are some things that are worth living and dying for), etc.Naturally, one of the responses he got to this was to question his right to call himself a Christian.
Was Jesus also wrong about some things? Almost certainly. He was a man. It is quite possible that he shared the end-times views of many people in his day and believed that God was about to intervene. He may have even believed that his actions were going to help usher in that moment. If so, he was wrong, just as countless humans have been through the ages.
It is not a deal-breaker for me, because I don't believe in supernatural deities or humans who can do supernatural miracles or be dead and then come to life again. It is what he got right that matters to me. And I am not alone among Christians. I am where (or in the neighborhood of where) most liberal Christians are, which is why the God argument for us is a bogeyman. It sells books for some scientists and I guess makes them rich, and it fires up the fundies and gives them another excuse to keep the fires of fear raging, but it misses the point. We live in a real world with real problems, and addressing those problems and making the world a better place is what liberal Christians care about.
As for the ostensible origin of the discussion, I think that Moran's demand for a "sophisticated argument" for the existence of God misses the point. In my opinion, there is no convincing proof for or against the existence of God, "sophisticated" or otherwise. I don't know who is claiming that there are sophisticated and convincing proofs for the existence of God, but I would not be one of them. I've said this before, and I'll say it again--God is for me a metaphysical framework for giving meaning and depth to my understanding of the world. God is a metareality, an organizing principle for my personal life that describes a deeper level of reality than that which science can measure or describe. By its very nature, the concept of God cannot be "proven" by sophisticated arguments, unsophisticated arguments, or anything in between. I, for one, could not care less if Moran or anyone else chooses not to believe in God. If one finds no arguments that are convincing for the existence of God, that is one's right.
Of course, some people don't buy that. Some think that God is something that has to be "proved" in the same way that phenomena in the natural world can be proved. It's one's right to believe that as well. I take nothing away from people who find the metahphysical framework of "God" to be meaningless in their lives. I say, when it comes to religion, live and let live; theology is interesting, but how we live our lives is more important.
But live and let live does not seem to be the operating principle of fundamentalists, be they atheists or Christians. Pretty much all of the problems with militant atheism came to the forefront in that online discussion--the straw men, the stereotypes, the lack of theological knowledge and the arrogant insistence that theological knowledge is unnecessary, and the additional insistence that anything that doesn't conform to the straw men doesn't really count anyway.
But the fact is that neither militant atheists nor their fundamentalist cousins in the religious world get to decide for me what my religious beliefs are about.