Could liberal theology be a form of religious methadone?
If you’re reading this, based on my typical readership, you probably agree that some conservative manifestations of religion are not just wrong, but dangerous, at least for certain values of “conservative” and “dangerous”. Extreme or hardline beliefs are easily criticised, but liberal positions cause a lot more disagreement.
Some people outside the church criticise liberal Christians for shoring up the bigots, or for denying the plain message of the religion they follow. Some are puzzled by their membership of a regressive organisation where they often seem to be unwelcome, but applaud them for being on the right side of the important issues. Some just react against the use of religious labels, whatever the underlying content.
What I’d like to suggest is a new, different way for atheists to relate to liberal religion of all stripes, which I believe would be both more realistic and more effective in reducing the harm that religion can cause. Why not support liberal churches, temples and synagogues?
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that religion is a bad thing, and that the ideal situation is the total eradication of all religious belief. Let’s further assume that religious belief can be clearly and objectively defined, which is far from certain. How would this eradication be achieved? The careful and painstaking application of reason over the last few centuries hasn’t had much effect, and the recent tendency towards mockery has fared even worse. If religion could ever be eliminated, it won’t happen in our lifetimes.
Religious thinking can be very hard to shake off. It would be a stretch to call it an addiction (although some aspects of religious experience activate areas of the brain closely associated with addictive behaviour), but it’s habit-forming at the very least. It’s possible to go cold turkey and drop it instantly (what I think of as the Mount Doom scenario), but not everyone can face that, and most edge their way out bit by bit. Even bishops can soften their views, where wholesale rejection of their beliefs would be completely unthinkable.
Given that it’s not a simple matter to completely abandon religion overnight, and attempts to persuade believers to do so have been only sketchily successful, I believe it makes sense to settle for the more realistic target of removing the most harmful elements of that belief. In other words, support and encourage liberal churches, temples and synagogues, and try to move people towards those less harmful forms of religion.
Obviously, this isn’t a perfect plan. A move from conservative to liberal theology still isn’t an easy sell, and although salami tactics can help in taking one step at a time, many believers will simply hit their internal reset button when it looks like they’ve strayed too far from home, and forget all the arguments that brought them to that point. Nevertheless, it’s a more effective strategy than another sneering polemic about sky-fairies.
I feel strongly about this, because I’ve been there and done it. I spent years steadily and quietly discarding the conservative ideas I used to have, in favour of harmless woolly liberal we-don’t-really-knowism. That was the easy bit. But the logical final step of putting myself outside the church was scary, intimidating and distinctly unappealing – it involved a change in my habits and identity unlike anything I’d done before. It was worthwhile, but given that my views are the same now as just before I took that step, is it worth picking a fight over?
We should all be able to agree that liberal theology is less damaging than the conservative variety, all things being equal. We should also be able to agree that people tend to cling to their beliefs, whatever they are, and however baffling or frustrating we may find them. So why not support liberal religious traditions, if only as a necessary evil? The principle is entirely uncontroversial in other contexts.
Methadone is an opioid, but it’s prescribed to minimise the harm to long-term drug users who are unable to break the habit. Nicotine patches are still addictive, but they help smokers to cut out the tar and other carcinogens found in tobacco. Pragmatic approaches recognise that people will experience different problems in kicking damaging habits, and work to identify a solution that causes the least possible harm to themselves and others.
If all religious believers could be persuaded to stop blindly obeying ancient texts in an excessively literalist way, I think that would be a huge result. Next to that, whether they believe in God is a pretty minor consideration.