Who are you to speak for Thor?
I’m an intellectual conservative. I think it’s lying to make claims without good reasons. In every area of our lives except religion, good reasons are scientific, mathematical and logical ones. But in religion, people routinely say things like, “God says marriage is defined as one man and one woman”.
We religious liberals are right to object to this. It’s arrogant to claim to know the mind of God. And you can’t say the Bible tells us so, since the Bible tells us conflicting things. It the case of marriage, polygamy is clearly sanctioned by God. Along with slavery, infanticide and genocide. So don’t trot out your Bible as an authority. If you do, read it first. But even then, we can’t get coherent guidance from it, so neither side should utilize it.
In reaction to this sort of thing, I’ve been hearing something like this lately from religious liberals:
“The only authority on God, is God. The rest is merely speculation”.
When I was a kid, my dad put it this way:
“Whatever your conception of God, it’s too small.”
Karen Armstrong develops this apophatic approach in The Case for God. Apophaticism rejects all positive statements about God as ways of limiting God and making him understandable to us.
“We lose sight of the divine whenever we accept as final or complete any conceptual representation of it.”
So, this is a reminder that we should be humble and careful. These are the very hallmarks of intellectual conservatism. We need good reasons to believe stuff. But notice the framing:
“The only authority on God, is God. The rest is merely speculation.”
Still don’t see it? Consider this:
“The only authority on Thor, is Thor. The rest is merely speculation.”
In this statement, God is a given; then we are admonished that we can’t know anything about him. Except that he exists. If we can’t know anything about him, how can we know he exists? The answer is we don’t. Besides, it is meaningless to say he exists but we don’t know anything about his qualities. That’s asserting nothing.
Religious liberals’ hearts are in the right place, but it is inconsistent to assert that God exists and then tell the wackos they are wrong about God’s traits. If we can’t know God’s traits, then the wackos are just as likely to be right as we are!
This is a general problem with making religious arguments against religious people. Once you enter into the religious way of knowing things, you become one among equals. As odious as that is to our loving, liberal ears, it’s true. All faith claims are on a par. This is the great feature of science: we can adjudicate claims. Leave science behind, and you’re adrift in a sea of equals. Shudder.
Take the gay marriage issue, for instance. It’s clear there are many religious people on both sides of the issue. But where do they get their views? Both sides say they get them from the Bible. Liberals quote Jesus in his loving mood. Social conservatives quote Sovereign Yahweh or Jesus’ spokesman, Paul. But here’s the thing: the view that gay marriage is ok or not precedes their religion. Liberals just know in their bones that everyone is equal and deserves love. Likewise, conservatives just know in their bones that homosexuality is icky and God hates it, though he loves the sinner. Then, they cherry-pick the Bible for supporting passages. Hey, you don’t sell billions of copies by alienating people. The Bible is the Swiss Army knife of books. It can justify any position you already hold.
The point is we can’t have it both ways. We can’t say we’re right and they’re wrong when we are using religious arguments. This is because religious claims lack adjudicability. They aren’t scientific. This feature is, of course, what is so great about religion: you can believe whatever you want if it feels right to you. But it’s a deal with the devil: you give up a shared worldview in which you can decide between claims at all. You wall yourself off in your faith bubble. This is as true in liberal religion as it is in fundamentalist religion. We may find the politics of liberal religions more palatable, but insofar as they rest on scripture or religious tradition, they are no more defensible than Mormonism, Pentecostalism or the Norse pantheon.
We can’t win religious arguments with religious people. We have to stand somewhere else. Faith and scripture are weathervanes that follow the wind of our pre-existing values. In faith, liberals find support for social justice and humanism. Conservatives find support for ingroup/outgroup, tradition and Cosmic Authority. We need to put down that double-edged sword and base our claims on the universally acceptable data about nature that science gives us. Humanism and social justice don’t depend on the existence of God or what his traits are. Everything we need to live together is already present, given to us by evolution and cultivated by, well, culture. We are passionate about the choices we make, and we don’t need further justification for them. And when we seek cosmic imprimatur, we rub the lamp of religious factionalism. It’s unavoidable, no matter what our politics.
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