Caught in the Pulpit, pg 126

Apr 26, 2016

As a former liberal Christian, I was particularly eager to understand liberal clergy. I was bothered by the negative response from some of them after our pilot study was published. They complained that we didn’t get it – that we saw things as black and white, just as fundamentalist Christians do, that we were missing the nuances of the liberal’s sophisticated, evolved faith, which thrives on myth and mystery, tradition and reason.

Liberal clergy don’t accept the Bible’s miracles. They don’t believe in the supernatural, and they are open to science. They realize that atheists would therefore not consider them believers, but they do believe, and several wrote to tell us so. As one correspondent put it, “According to your definitions of God [as a supernatural being], I am more of an atheist than you are, and yet I adore God!” they say there are many clergy like them. But we found them inexplicit about their beliefs.

In our efforts to get a better understanding of the liberals, we interviewed two “believing” Episcopal priests (classified as “others” in appendix A). Their beliefs, or lack of beliefs, were not unlike those of the sixteen liberal clergy who characterized themselves as agnostic or atheist, but they still think of themselves as believers.

–Caught in the Pulpit by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola, pg 126


12 comments on “Caught in the Pulpit, pg 126

  • In liberal churches – my Mother’s church, the Anglican Communion, included – the de-emphasis of the Bible as the literal Word of God is replaced by two other things:

    The Spiritual.
    This element of more modern faiths is about favoring emotional thought over other forms of thought. Does it feel right? Then it probably is. Does it feel true? Then it probably is. Our emotions are our most explicit link to other-worldliness, and bring us closer to Jesus (and therefore God). It is from this root, as much as biblical allegory and supposed reportage (Jesus’ sayings) that modern churches develop the intuitions of the followers to embrace faith as a ‘way of knowing’.

    We cannot know God (a.k.a. God moves in mysterious ways).
    By definition, they claim, we cannot know how, or what, God is. Which always makes me think: How do you know that god even exists then? I’ve lost count of the number of Anglican ministers I’ve met who respond: “Well, I’m not sure I believe in God either”.

    In essence the theology that is developed from these stances appears to encourage a belief in a set of mystical problems for which there are no simple answers, perhaps even to answers we can never understand. “Look”, they say (in a roundabout way, they’re rarely this explicit) “the clergy have been wrestling with these questions for centuries, and even we don’t pretend to know all the answers”.

    Church as Interpreter.
    This leads to a reverence for the Church as the guardian of ancient wisdom. Opinions are constantly divided about who was right and who was wrong in the Church’s long internal dialogue. The extremes are those who think that Adam and Eve had the nearest to perfect knowledge of God and we’ve been losing it drop-by-drop ever since (and thus defend tradition, for obvious reasons) – and the super-modernists who see the extents of science and the increasing difficulty scientists have of describing what they find (one day, perhaps soon, they’re going to realise that God is the best description for what lies just beyond their reach).

    This is a very different approach to the ‘Reverends’ we mostly read about at When a Progressive Christian throws up her hands and says: “You just don’t get it” she’s coming from a very different angle.

    Anyone interested in what these people think, and how they believe, I encourage to hang out at where you will find lots of people who are like this – defining, without much difficulty it seems, their faith in surprisingly agnostic ways.

    Mostly, though even on these points there are exceptions, they appear to entirely misunderstand logic, the rules of evidence and the importance of questioning learned knowledge.

    One of the most frequent errors of thinking is awe and wonder as confirmation – because: Positive emotional response.


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  • Hi Vicki [#1].

    Try this on for size.

    Dan and Linda:

    We got negative responses from liberal clergy after our study (into atheists in the pulpit). What’s up with that?

    Liberal clergy don’t believe in the supernatural – etc. – atheists would therefore not consider them believers – but they say they are. What’s up with that?


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  • @OP – They complained that we didn’t get it – that we saw things as black and white, just as fundamentalist Christians do, that we were missing the nuances of the liberal’s sophisticated, evolved faith,

    ‘fisticated theology, is essentially fudge, which pretends that while fundamentalist claims are ridiculous, they still contain “rhetorical meaning” which can be “interpreted” (to essentially mean whatever the believer likes).

    It is common in such ploys to assume airs intellectual superiority, and pretend that listeners who recognise fallacies, just don’t understand the profound meanings! – A bit like postmodernism really!

    which thrives on myth and mystery, tradition and reason.

    We see many examples of theistic “reason” presented on these threads. – They have absolutely nothing to do with evidence based logic, and a great deal to do with fallacies and circular wish thinking!

    Liberal clergy don’t accept the Bible’s miracles. They don’t believe in the supernatural, and they are open to science.

    Or so they claim – a bit like the RCC and C of E claim that theistic evolution (evolution by way of god-did-it according to his plan to create worshippers), is compatible with science!
    It is the usual superficial fudged semantic shuffling!

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  • @Stephen


    That was an interesting site you linked. “Progressive Christians.” What a weird attempt to reconcile a belief system with living in the modern world. I think you are right, and I am one of those who “just don’t get it.” And frankly, I do not feel any loss.

    BTW, your third post left me as much in the dark as the original paragraph, but that was my fault. Instead of asking for that word salad to be paraphrased, I probably should have asked for some interpretations. But after reading your second post, and going to that site, I’m beginning to think there is no cogent process that would help a Progressive Christian’s circular reasoning.

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  • Hi Vicki [#5],

    As I understand Dan Dennett’s position what Progressive Christians mostly believe in is belief.

    They’re effectively kidding themselves that belief in something supernatural is so important that they can’t let go of their own supernatural beliefs – despite the fact that their own language, as evidenced in what they say, denies the truth of that belief.

    Okay, ready for the pun?

    It beggars belief!

    Personally, I like Progressives (I think this is a group that includes Quakers) they have, at least most of the time, a realistic and un-dogmatic view and they tackle most social and political dialog with open minds and humanism. But then I would say that, because that’s my Mum to a T.


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  • I retired in 2013 after 23 years as a liberal Christian (United Church of Christ) minister. In the UCC, or at least in the churches I served, one’s personal religious beliefs – including the personal religious beliefs of the pastor – are just that: personal. I always felt and preached that our faith is more about commitment to a core set of ethical principles which liberal Christianity shares with Humanism than to a set of religious beliefs defined by a creed. Moreover, members of the congregations I served tended to define their faith more by social service and social action than by belief. I took as my charge, always in consultation with the congregation, to find and bring out Humanist teachings in the Bible, particularly in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, what little we know with even modest certainty about that. In many communities in the USA liberal Christian congregations offer a welcoming home to those who are skeptical about religion as supernaturalism but desire a sense of belonging and contribution to a more inclusive community than they can achieve on their own.

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  • Now we have to contend with low-calorie, diet versions of religion. The Joel Osteen Effect!
    If you don’t buy in to the dogma of your religion, how can you still profess to be of that religion? Religion is all about the dogma. The “Liberal Christians” sound like they have a serious case of separation anxiety! It may be that landing anywhere along the continuum of belief in any religion, is tantamount to self-deception in order to maintain social bonds, protect a sense of personal identity and assuage guilt. It does not seem intellectually honest. To say I am a “Liberal Christian” believer in God, but without the stigma of my religion’s cannons, is having your cake and eating it too.
    I can go along with the axiom that Deism does not mandate theism. What I cannot accept is pseudo-theism masquerading as a viable intellectual position to justify an unrequited need to surrender to or be comforted by a higher power. The whole paragraph shouts “COME OUT OF THE CLOSET or own up to your beliefs and defend them. Fortunately this book reveals empirical evidence that blind faith is giving way to reason and logic, even if incrementally.

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  • Once you decide your strongest beliefs don’t have to make sense, don’t have to be consistent with each other, or have evidence to back them, you have embraced insanity. You are beyond help. Any attempt at making sense of the world, no matter how flawed, has more promise.

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  • Hi Roedy [#10],

    Once you decide your strongest beliefs don’t have to make sense, don’t have to be consistent with each other or have evidence to back them …

    Saying that signals to me that I have failed to communicate to some readers.

    Progressive Christians think their beliefs make perfect sense, and are perfectly consistent – not to say coincident – with the evidence of their senses. Their emotional lives are more evidence of the same. Scientists are very good at describing the fuzzy two-dimensional shadows on the back of Plato’s cave, but they fail to see the full picture.

    … you have embraced insanity.

    That may be true of Progressive Christians, but I don’t claim to be a trick cyclist.

    You are beyond help. Any attempt at making sense of the world, no matter how flawed, has more promise.

    The line: “You can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into” is a great sound-bite, but it’s not valid, I claim, for two reasons.

    First, Progressive Christians – and we could add most modern pagans and some people who label themselves ‘just spiritual’ – often have either reasoned themselves into faith based beliefs, or have used faith based reasoning to defend, in their own minds, the beliefs they started with.

    Second, the evidence of street epistemology is clear: You can reason anyone out of faith based beliefs because faith based belief is faulty thinking. Human psychology means that challenging the faithful makes them ‘dig in’ and defend their beliefs. But friendly intervention and support can reason someone out of their faith – even if they were born into a religious community that preaches to its members every day. We know this because members of the Westboro Baptists have left of their own accord.

    Megan Phelps-Roper’s story is a particularly heart-warming and instructive example. Although the people who helped Megan set aside her faith didn’t set out to apply street epistemology that is, in effect, what they did. Her interview with Sam Harris is online. It lasts over an hour and is well worth your time if you’re unconvinced that simply talking to the faithful can’t help them. It’s also fascinating because it unravels the slow process by which people’s thinking can make big changes.

    But do not be deceived, a Progressive Christian’s faith is not so different, despite the mild manners and liberal attitudes. They are just as difficult to bring to the mouth of the cave as a Westboro Baptist.

    The keys are friendly, real concern for a fellow human and (as my Mother, the priest, taught me) patience.


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  • The term “belief” has been used a number of times here. Does anybody really know what the term “belief” means? (or to believe?) It sounds like jargon or simply a cliché.

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