Are liberal, queer-loving, feminist religious people our allies?

Mike Mei, a friend, board member and now graduate of the University of Chicago, has given me a list of ten topics to choose from. He claims to have donated, and though I haven’t seen proof, I am going to take his word for it, because that’s the right thing to do in this situation. You don’t agree? Doesn’t matter, your counterarguments are clearly incorrect.

First up: Are liberal, queer-loving, feminist religious people our allies?

Well, this obviously depends on our definition of allies. So let’s Taboo that word and think about all the questions that are hiding in the original, waiting to spring forth and be answered in their own right.

1. Are liberal, queer-loving, feminist religious people (now LQLFRP) practicing a better form of Christianity than their less tolerant counterparts?

I’m not a religious scholar, so I won’t delve into the question of whether they are practicing a form of Christianity that is more true to the original texts or more supported by scripture. I think their religious and supernatural claims are as unsubstantiated by evidence as those of the more fundamentalist crowd, and I have no qualms about saying so. However, I think they do far less harm (obviously), and a great deal of good,and I applaud them for it. I’d like to say that if I believed in god, I would believe in a loving god, but I’m actually pretty drawn to the epic sexiness of the justice over mercy type.

2. Aren’t LQLFRP just cowards who refuse to face the true meaning of their religion?

No. Stop. You are never going to understand them the way they understand themselves if you take that approach. The best way to convince people they’re wrong is to understand why they think they’re right. We hate being told that we really believe in god, we’re just angry at him, right? So give other people the benefit of the doubt. Assume that they are sincere in their faith. From personal experience, I can assure you that they are. Meet a few LQLFRPs and you’ll realize the full depth of their commitment to doing god’s work: the work of helping the poor, uplifting the meek, providing solace and sanctuary. Do research into civil rights and other social movements and see all of the amazing liberal religious people bringing the full force of their conviction and faith to bear on issues of justice (along with us secularists, of course). Look at this picture of a Baptist preacher marching with an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi in the name of racial equality. 

And let them interpret their religion their own way. If you think they are wrong, tell them, argue with them, but don’t tell them they don’t believe what they say they believe.

3. Should we work with LQLFRP on the issues on which we agree?

Yes, obviously. If they can help us get an anti-discrimination bill passed, or provide a safe space for people who have experienced sexual abuse, or elect a secular congressperson, we should absolutely work with them. That doesn’t mean we can’t be clear about our differences, but in the most basic sense of the concept of alliance, they are our allies on the issues where we agree.

4. Do we and LQLFRP fundamentally hold the same values?

This depends, of course, on the LQLFRP in question, but by and large, yes. A very important point that many miss is that while religious people’s sense of morality is influenced by the type of god they believe in, the type of god they believe in is equally or more influenced by their morality, their humanist, universal morality. I don’t think LQLFRP love queers because their god happens to think non-heterosexuality is ok; for the most part I think these are tolerant, loving individuals whose conception of god only makes sense of god is equally tolerant and loving. So it is in fact their religion which provides evidence of their fundamental values.

As for whether they share the value of rationality, this is a case-by-case question. Most LQLFRP I know are quite rational, as defined by their general propensity to think through issues reasonably, weigh evidence appropriately and address and consider arguments against their position. By and large, religion seems to be a pretty highly compartmentalizable brain module, so it’s not fair for me to think that because they believe in god, they’re irrational. Also, while I think these arguments are wrong, there are more than a few people (though it should be noted that I’m drawing from a university crowd) who believe in god for Rational (as in, 17th century style) reasons, like Aristotle’s and Maimonides’. Almost everyone has silly beliefs they haven’t yet gotten rid of.  The LQLF god might just be one of them, and to be honest, I don’t really mind.

5. Should we criticize LQLFRP?

Sure, why not? They’re wrong, aren’t they? I’m not sure it’s the best use of time, since they don’t cause harm, they can work with us and rationalism is better served not by having more people believe the right things but by making rational approaches and thought processes more common. But if that’s your calling, go right ahead, but please: Be nice.

This is pretty controversial in the atheist community, but I’m not claiming that this should be a universal rule. In this particular case, with people who agree with us on so many things, people who often see us as natural allies, I think the best approach is to emphasize how much we have in common, how much we are on the same side, and then go into why, from the vaunted position of friend, we think they should change their worldview on the question of god. I think we should emphasize how they can keep all of their political and moral beliefs intact without a god and show how comfortable atheism is as a place to land. Show humanism as a positive worldview that is equally powerful and complete as theirs. Tell them they’re wrong, but do it as an ally working with them to reach ever greater heights, not as an enemy tearing down everything they believe. Be equally open to hearing from them (including the possibility of attempted conversion) as they are from you and in personal settings, back off when asked.

And always, keep your ultimate goals in mind and make sure your actions are directed towards those goals.

Thanks for the great question!


Commenters, which should I answer next?

1) Is it teleportation or death?
2) The relationship between skepticism and economics
3) The correct definition of religion
4) The worst part about the secular/atheist movement
5) What humanism ultimately means
6) Is there an is/ought distinction?
7) Does the Cosmological Argument hold any water?
8) How should skeptics treat theistic evolution?
9) Should we promote cryonics?

This has been Post the Fifth of Blogathon

11 thoughts on “Are liberal, queer-loving, feminist religious people our allies?

  1. Kyle says:

    Teleportation and/or death, obviously.

  2. Peter Borah says:

    How do you respond to the Dawkins-style arguments that liberal religion is dangerous because it adds legitimacy to less liberal religious ideas?

    • Great question, Peter. I think there’s just really no evidence for those claims, and the approach I describe allows us to argue fiercely against the idea that faith is a virtue (the most fundamental notion that moderates and fundamentalists share, in my opinions) without needing to set ourselves against moderates entirely. Also, if we do our job correctly, the world will become more and more secular even as we ally ourselves on certain issues with the religious left. I hardly think that the actions I describe above with strengthen liberal religion at the cost of humanism. In fact, bringing them closer together in combination with lessening the stigma against atheism could in fact bring more people closer. And it’s simply obvious that on a utilitarian level, there is much more utility gained by fundamentalists becoming moderates (for which we need a strong moderate wing) than by liberals becoming atheists.

      • Peter Borah says:

        “And it’s simply obvious that on a utilitarian level, there is much more utility gained by fundamentalists becoming moderates (for which we need a strong moderate wing) than by liberals becoming atheists.”

        This strikes me as not only non-obvious, but almost certainly false. What is most dangerous is not any particular belief, but the societal structures that enforce a particular belief system. In that sense, radicals of any stripe have more in common with us than moderates, because moderates are precisely the people reinforcing and benefiting from mainstream society.

        • What I meant was on the level of treatment of gays and lesbians, of women, of reproductive rights, and all of the other tangible problems with religion’s effect on society, fundamental->liberal has far more of an effect than liberal->atheist. And that shift is a shift in what societal structures one accepts. The fundamentalist structure is patriarchal and oppressive. The liberal religious one, much less so. The atheist one, equivalently less so. Where do we disagree?

  3. Andrew Tripp says:

    Is/ought! All of the Hume!

  4. Jay Feldman says:

    About question 2, there are two ways you could have addressed that question. One is the way you chose, how should you talk about that with LQLFRP people. The second is actually answering the question, are they ignoring part of what their religion says.

    The answer is obviously yes, but what they’re doing isn’t any worse than their conservative counterparts in ignoring various passages in the Bible that don’t fit in today’s modern world.

  5. Number 4 and Number 8!

    In response to this one, I’m with you, but the lack of clarity in the labels causes near-daily confusion. Example: I say, “Here is a problem with xyz-Christian belief.” Flurry of responses = “I resent that. I’m a Christian, and I don’t believe in Jesus or the Bible or the resurrection or that you’re going to hell or that god created the earth…I just believe we should be nice to people.” Me: “Great. Then I’m not talking to you, but I think you might be a little confused about what ‘Christian’ means.” Is there a better way to handle this?

  6. Jay: To some extent I agree with you, but it’s important to note that there are people who think they are following their religion to a T based on an approach that is not only Bible-based, for example theological responsa which interpret passages in a different light than they are traditionally understood. Those arguments might be bad, or tendentious, but they are no more ignoring parts of their religion than we are ignoring relativism when we use Newtonian physics to make the math easier. That said, some religious people will gladly admit to ignoring parts of the book. It really depends on how they justify their practice.

    Rachel: Agreed. I totally understand your frustration, but I don’t think arguing over the definition of “Christian is super useful for anyone.” I think you should check out this post and work on making yourself as clear as possible, even if you think your point is obvious. Clarifying that ‘some Christians’ believe xyz and then citing sources, and being clear that you are only addressing those who believe xyz. Attack the belief, not Christianity as a whole, even though you can be clear that it is a common Christian belief, and you might have fewer tussles over things that are not really your point.

    • Jay Feldman says:

      “Those arguments might be bad, or tendentious, but they are no more ignoring parts of their religion than we are ignoring relativism when we use Newtonian physics to make the math easier.”

      I’m going to have to disagree with this analogy. With Newtonian physics, we know that this is incorrect, but it’s close enough that it doesn’t matter. Those type of religious people are saying that their interpretation is the right one.

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