Sunday, December 08, 2013

Protestant Universalists as activism allies

By Mathew Goldstein

I recently listened to Deacon Perry King of Universalist National Memorial Church in D.C. explain and defend his religious beliefs during a mostly cordial public talk featuring him and Don Wharton of WASH.  My understanding of his perspective is as follows:  He described his denomination as representing a liberal Protestant Christianity that embraces the pluralistic Universalist notion that people from all religions qualify to go to heaven.  He cites Paul Tillich's definition of god as the grounds of being, and he equates god with concepts like goodness and love.  He considers it possible to be both an atheist and a Christian, and points out that some other people call him an atheist, although clearly he does not self-identify as an atheist.  He appears to embrace faith as a valid alternative way of knowing, but then he claims his religious identity is not rooted in concrete beliefs, emphasizing instead that his religious identity is rooted in symbols, abstractions, and meanings.  He asserts that the bible is an important source of wisdom and that Jesus has a special role, but he rejects trinitarianism  He says he has read Sam Harris.  He says he embraces a post-modernist outlook and rejects logical positivism.  Social activism also has a central role, and he identifies the social activism as being motivated by Christianity and as being Christian in character.

For us secular humanists, deciding to join a public policy, or social activism,  or humanitarian intervention, alliance with any other group centers around answering two questions:  What public policy is needed and who else is advocating for that needed public policy?  The evidence regarding global warming related public policy is different from the evidence regarding civic equality for LGTB citizens is different from the evidence regarding atheism versus theism.  The religious belief identities of the other groups in the coalition is irrelevant, and it is counter-productive to exclude anyone from a public public advocacy coalition because of disagreements over unrelated questions, including religious beliefs.  We would never tell Unitarian Universalists that as a pre-condition for working together on a particular issue of common concern it will be necessary for Unitarian Universalists to "show respect for us" by refraining from publicly advocating for Unitarian Universalist belief, or refraining from arguing against atheism, or refraining from advocating against any other conflicting and competing belief, or attending WASH meetings.  We are entitled to insist on the same from them.  Mutual respect is based on equality, and equality entails that everyone publicly advocates for their beliefs and associates only with who they choose without restrictions.

I am confident that I will never call myself a Christian or a post-modernist, never put faith front and center as a preferred method for justifying conclusions about how the universe works, and never put so much credence in an ancient text with so little substance to it.  The UU Deacon's apparent denial that his religious identity is based on factual assertions (he was somewhat ambiguous here, he only denied he held "beliefs" and then gave examples of beliefs he did not hold that were all factual assertions) is inconsistent with his reliance on faith, since faith is only applicable in a context of reaching true/false conclusions about factual claims. Faith has no applicability to personal preferences or ethical commitments.  Also, a denial that his religious identity is rooted in factual assertions is inconsistent with various factual assertions he made about the nature, or character, of god and the bible. 

Apparently, from a post-modernist perspective, this distinction between factual true/false beliefs, ontological existence assertions as a distinct subcategory of factual assertions (to which logical positivism applies), personal preferences, and ethical commitments, is all blurred.  Blurring these distinctions is convenient for those who want to avoid the constraints imposed by following the evidence. The distinctions between factual true/false beliefs, personal preferences, and ethical commitments are valid and important.  Post-modernism is mistaken.  Furthermore, insofar as his religious beliefs really do refrain from making any factual assertions it loses it's Christian character, contrary to his assertion that his church and it's beliefs are Christian.

Advocacy for atheism is easily accessible to everyone who uses the internet.  The Huffington Post, as do other publications, has a religion section that features writers ably representing many different perspectives, including atheism. There are books promoting atheism published every month, and every year a few of these books sell well.  No church can stop this from happening.   We should never even consider agreeing to unilaterally curtailing public advocacy for atheism as a condition for joining public policy coalitions with anyone else.  We are not pushovers, it would be wrong to capitulate to such double standards and intolerance.  Yes to public policy, social activism, or humanitarian intervention coalitions with any group that shares any such goal with us.  No to curtailing public advocacy for atheism or against religious beliefs.  There is no contradiction here and we should never accept attempts by our competitors to impose one on us.


Gary Berg-Cross said...

Matthew, I attended this "debate" also and hope to provide a few notes in a post but I agree with your deconstructing the deconstruction.

Woody Lipinski said...

It is a very nice written text and intelligent comments. Any discussion between theists and atheists leads nowhere. Both assumptions and methods of verification are so different that to find a common ground is impossible. We should only talk to theists about working together for good of humanity and science. No discussion about gods, spirits, faith, believe, etc. and such tabu means we are respecting each other.