No, that title doesn’t mean what people usually mean by the phrase. This isn’t about equating any outspoken opposition to religion with the sort of extremism that leads people to commit mass murder in the name of a God of love. Rather, it’s about how atheists often act as if literalist fundamentalism is the only game in town, and liberal belief is either irrelevant or non-existent.
A typical example of this might be countering Christian arguments by asking pointed questions about how Noah got all those animals on his ark, or dismissing a comment about the implausibility of a particular scientific theory (let’s say evolution) by observing that the questioner, being a Christian, believes in the much less plausible story of a magic tree and talking snake instead. Maybe “Atheist Straw-Manning” might be a more accurate title, but that rather prejudges the issue.
Of course, it depends on how you do it. I often joke about the implications and practicalities of these stories as if they were literally true, and will use them as arguments against true fundamentalists and creationists who clearly believe the stories to be literal truth. For a long time, I tended to assume that most people were the same as me, but since then I’ve concluded that the situation’s likely to be rather more complicated than that.
A while back, I read an article in which an atheist argued that the creation story in the first few chapters of Genesis (6 day creation, Adam and Eve, talking serpent, original sin and so on) can’t be regarded as an allegory because it’s quoted to support arguments in the New Testament. If Jesus and Paul treat it as literal truth, goes the argument, you can’t explain it away as anything less. Interestingly, I’ve heard an identical argument from the pulpit of a very fundamentalist church, just drawing the opposite conclusion.
I don’t agree with that argument – it applies anachronistic standards to both modern and 1st Century interpretations of the texts. If these stories were indeed believed to be true by the two men with the greatest claim to have founded Christianity, it would be a strong argument that adherents of that religion should be expected to regard them as true. But it’s a big leap from illustrating points by referring to well-known stories as if they were true to actually believing them to be not just true but necessarily true in every respect.
Whether it’s a fair conclusion or not, though, there seem to be a good number of atheists who think that liberal theology is some sort of cherry-picking moral cowardice, wanting to have the nice bits of religion while discarding all the unpleasant or ridiculous stuff. Again, this sounds much like a typical fundamentalist critique, even though it comes from a diametrically opposed viewpoint. So is it true to say that atheists are more literal in their interpretation than Christians?
Maybe not. Christians tend to have a lot invested in justifying their faith, which means they’ll want to make it sound as reasonable as possible, while atheists will generally be arguing that it’s unreasonable, and taking their understandings from the conservative end of the spectrum in order to help with that. And it’s possible that there’s an element of selection bias – the noisier atheists may be noisy because their conservative interpretation of the Bible makes the text so outrageous – or maybe at least some are atheists because they don’t accept the “watering down” which is offered by liberal theology as valid. I remember one person who lost his faith almost overnight because he found he couldn’t reconcile Genesis with the theory of evolution and science in general.
Then there’s the question of strategy. I don’t very often see too much criticism aimed at cautious liberal beliefs, so it may be that atheists tend to train their fire on the fundamentalists, being both more dangerous and an easier target than liberals, and are usually happy to leave more nuanced believers alone as long as there are bigger priorities, which would be broadly consistent with assuming (and criticising) a literalist interpretation. Liberals are criticised for implicitly supporting fundamentalists by remaining part of the same church, but rarely for their own beliefs.
Finally, there’s the possibility that liberal belief may be too vague and slippery to easily address. It’s simple enough to argue against a fixed historical position, but if you accept that it’s possible for any given person to reinterpret those beliefs in their own way and still identify as Christian, it effectively becomes necessary to build a completely new argument for each person who professes a belief.
This turns into a question of how much we can generalise about belief, and how far it’s reasonable to deviate from the core beliefs of a church while still identifying with it. Is it possible to speak meaningfully about the nature of a particular group, and how can we do that? That’s a tricky question, and I’ll try to address it later in the week.