Shared Belief: The Need for Nuance

Part of Shared Belief, a series responding to Alisa Childers’ article on progressive Christianity and atheism.

As we’ve seen throughout this series, Alisa Childers’ presentation of progressive Christianity falls short in numerous ways.

In each of these claims, Childers cherry-picks her evidence, bases her position on one narrow understanding of Calvinism, and ignores the wider Christian tradition. But her arguments are flawed at a deeper level. In each of her three theses, Childers hedges her language to paint all progressives with a broad brush and to find them guilty by association.

Hedging (or as snarky Wikipedia editors call it, using “weasel words”) is a way to soften a statement while also using it to mislead.

By way of example, suppose I were teaching a class on dogs and declared boldly, “Dogs are mammals. They give live birth. Some dogs may have three legs. They have fur and tails.”

The implication is clear from the context: I am attempting to describe dogs so that my students will recognize a dog when they see one. But of course, dogs are quadrupeds, meaning they have four legs. Any student with a pet poodle or labrador at home would correct me.

And at that point, I would quickly say, “Ah, yes. Some dogs do have four legs. But some also have three legs, if they have been injured or born with an abnormal physiology.”

In presenting the argument in such vague terms, by using words like “some” and “may” to present generalities, I leave myself room to quickly amend my argument when confronted with evidence to the contrary — to walk back my argument or to weasel my way out of the situation. The statement “Some dogs may have three legs,” is not untrue, but in presenting it that way, I am intentionally using vague language to mislead. Yes, some dogs have three legs, but most have four.

Just so, Childers makes the claim that some progressive Christians may believe A, B, and C — but she does so in such a way to suggest that most progressive Christians do believe A, B, and C. Then, when some blogger with too much time on his hands comes along to correct her, she has the opportunity to feign incredulity that she could possibly have been misunderstood. And, in fact, she does just this with  two sentences, writing, “This isn’t to say that every Christian who holds progressive views on certain issues is on a direct route to atheism. Progressive Christianity covers a spectrum,” before quickly warning that “letting go of historical doctrines can be addictive.”

Progressive Christianity spans denominations. Even within a single denomination, congregation, or seminary, Christians who identify as progressive hold a wide range of opinions. So yes, some progressive Christians may disregard biblical authority as the source and norm for sexual ethics, but it is fundamentally dishonest to present the beliefs of some as representative of the whole or even the majority.  Childers’ point, though, is that progressive theology is the gateway drug to atheism, and so to prove that that core claim is true, she needs more than what some may believe. She needs to show what the majority believe and how those beliefs destroy the faith.

But even that is not enough, because Childers also makes an association fallacy  known as “guilt by association”. To make an absurd example: “You’re a vegetarian? You know who else was a vegetarian? Hitler.” It’s an a common and appealing fallacy because it seems to make sense: two people or groups have something in common, and therefore are similar enough to condemn together. In actuality, though, it reduces a person’s identity to the handful of traits being compared. These points of comparison have to be evaluated for their accuracy and importance. Hitler may or may or may not have abstained from meat, but that is not what made him a monstrous human being.

Back to the topic at hand: Childers argues that progressive Christians and atheists hold certain beliefs in common, and therefore, progressive Christians are on their way to “de-converting,” or becoming atheists. She claims:

  • Progressive Christians and atheists both reject the absolute historical accuracy of Scripture.
  • Progressive Christians and atheists both question why a loving God would allow for pain.
  • Progressive Christians and atheists both accept LGBT inclusion in society.
  • Therefore, progressive Christians are lapsing into atheism.

But we have to stop and ask two important questions. First, how accurate are these commonalities? Second, how central are they?

We’ve already considered the first question. Progressive Christians may not view the Bible as a historical fact book or scientific authority, but unlike atheists, they still believe that it is true and authoritative. Progressive Christians may reject the argument of God’s absolute sovereignty, but they still hold that a loving God ultimately delivers us from the pain of this sinful world. Progressive Christians may champion LGBT inclusion, but they still hold to a biblical ethic of care for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

And the second question reveals Childers’ bias. She writes as a fundamentalist within the New Calvinist tradition; these topics are vital to her understanding of Christianity. From her perspective, these are all “Gospel issues,” areas that define who is in and out. Within that position, I begrudgingly admit that the comparison makes some sense; it is, at the very least, consistent with how Childers and other fundamentalist Calvinists understand the Church. These same matters, though, are not nearly as central to those outside that bubble. Other Christians, even those on opposing sides of these topics, would laugh at the idea that such disagreement puts one outside the Church.

Moreover, an atheist would find it laughable that one who professes faith in any god — let alone a faith in the Triune God who is said to have taken human form and worked miracles — was a warning sign of becoming an atheist. After all, progressive Christianity is still a decidedly theistic position.

At the same time, Childers and the New Calvinists hold many positions in common with Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists. These positions are worth exploring, which we’ll do in the coming posts. We’ll discuss these commonalities not because I worry Childers may some day burn her Bible and start quoting Christopher Hitchens but rather because these shared beliefs underscore the rise of our secular age and how reactionary fundamentalism has been atheism’s unwitting partner.

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