In America today, young people like myself who grew up in a vaguely Protestant tradition tend to view religion as a choice between the two most vocal, culturally represented religious groupings: the fundamentalism of the Religious Right and the equally fatuous New Atheism of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
This is a good thing for the New Atheists, since all they have to do is sound more reasonable than the likes of Pat Robertson, which is a very easy thing to do as long as you are not an actively insane person claiming to be a leprechaun. It’s not such a good thing for the Religious Right, but it’s an even worse thing for liberal Christianity, as many of the young people joining the ranks of the New Atheists are people who in other times would consider themselves liberal Protestants.
Those young people who manage to see through the theological reductivism of fundamentalism and New Atheism too often turn to what unfortunately has become the cultural face of liberal Christianity, the theologically vacant Moral Therapeutic Deism, in which God is little more than an undemanding nebulous blob who wants us all to be happy. While I’m inclined to think that theological vacancy is marginally preferable to theological reductivism, it’s certainly not ideal, nor is it bound to be particularly sustainable; as long as Moral Therapeutic Deism is prominent, liberal Christianity will continue to bleed numbers to atheism and agnosticism.
As it happens, fundamentalists tend not to like being called fundamentalists. There are good reasons for this. It was, for the most part, a label picked for them, not by them, and it has taken on a negative connotation. The problem is the terms they do choose to label themselves tend to be hopelessly vague. They might call themselves Bible-believing Christian Evangelicals, for example. But I consider myself a Bible-believing Christian, despite the fact that I’m hip to Darwin. And while I don’t really consider myself an Evangelical, there are lots of liberal Christians who do.
It’s likely, however, that their self-given labels are hopelessly vague on purpose. By using such inclusive terms to describe the acceptance of a specific set of, ahem, fundamental beliefs (biblical inerrancy, Christ’s divinity, bodily resurrection, etc.) and political orientations, fundamentalists take those terms as their own and redefine them in the culture at large to be noninclusive. For many young, liberally inclined people, all Christians are presumed fundamentalists until proven otherwise.
This is what precipitated the rise of New Atheism, which is, more than anything else, a reaction against the perceived (if overstated) anti-rationalist attitudes found in religious fundamentalism of all stripes. New Atheism is problematic on many levels, but its biggest problems are the ways in which it conflates fundamentalism with extremism and blames virtually all of the world’s problems on religious belief. Less egregious, though more basic and delightfully ironic, problems are the movement’s roots in Protestant evangelical imperialism and it’s very literal, fundamentalist-like interpretation of holy books.
Indeed, New Atheists deal with moderate and liberal Christians in the same way fundamentalists do: by arguing that moderates warp religious texts to say whatever they want them to say instead of taking them at face value, and as such fail to take Scripture seriously. It’s a silly argument because it assumes that a text can be read without applying an interpretation, but it’s just indicative of how theologically reductive New Atheism is.
As Terry Eagleton wrote in his epic takedown of Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” And this is the point: as justifiably perturbed as Dawkins and his ilk are about fundamentalists attempting to refute evolution with feeble “gotchas,” the New Atheists are using precisely the same type of feeble “gotchas” in their attacks on religion.
Unfortunately, for the liberal-minded young person, there is no strong liberal Christian voice in the popular culture today. Jim Wallis has tried to fill that void, but considering most people don’t actually know who Jim Wallis is, I think it’s fair to say he hasn’t managed to do that. And so what has arisen from the abyss as the dominant form of culturally recognized liberal Christianity is the spectacularly rudderless Moral Therapeutic Deism, or MTD.
As described by University of North Carolina sociologist Christian Smith, MTD has five principles (insomuch they can be called that; we’re not talking about any sort of stated dogma here):
1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.”
2. “God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”
3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”
4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”
5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”
It’s the second, third and fourth principles that are especially problematic, though the fifth is also frustratingly vague. What, after all, constitutes a good person? The answer I suppose is that good people are those who are “nice and fair to each other.” But, of course, what is it to be nice and fair?
The third and fourth principles, meanwhile, betray a galling egocentricity. You don’t believe in God because you really believe in God, or help others for the sake of helping others; you do these things so you can feel better about yourself. And so it’s not really religion at all. It’s just self-help.
Of course, this just sounds like some fundamentalist’s caricature of liberal Christianity. And to a certain extent, it is. To examine popular culture is to paint in broad strokes. But there is truth in the generalizations. And while the culture’s broad characterization of fundamentalism (“just believe”) hardly presents the most demanding faith on the face of the earth, MTD (not even “just be nice to each other,” but instead “just feel good about yourself”) is even less so. It’s more directly parallel, in fact, to fundamentalism’s ugly stepcousin, the prosperity gospel, which holds as its basic principle that God exists to enrich your coffers.
This version of liberal Christianity is too vague, too wishy-washy to be satisfying enough to sustain itself. Whatever New Atheism’s faults, it takes stands and demands something of its adherents, just as fundamentalism does. And so what liberal Christianity needs is a new face in the popular culture, and a new voice to lead the way to a more demanding option. I have some ideas, but I am unfortunately not permitted to fill up the entire newspaper. So they’ll have to wait until next time. But if you want a pretty good hint, I suggest Googling that Terry Eagleton review of “The God Delusion.”
Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached via justin. firstname.lastname@example.org or on his blog burnstheair.blogspot.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.