Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Progressive Religion vs. Fundamentalism: Part 1

In my recent post on the importance of progressive religion, I intimated that not all religion is the same; but I made no effort to explicitly distinguish one kind of religion from another. Since I want to address a significant challenge to progressive religion in an upcoming post or two, I think it may help first to devote a post to explaining what I mean by “progressive religion,” and how it differs from fundamentalism.

Here goes.

Some religion inspires us with hopeful visions, while some drives us with fearful warnings.

Some religion is inclusive (in the sense of encouraging its members not to make distinctions among people, even on the basis of religion), while some is exclusive (especially based on religion).

Some religion takes scientific discoveries and empirical knowledge seriously, understanding faith as offering a way of seeing this empirical whole in the light of evolving postulates about what lies beyond. And then there’s the religion that makes unyielding claims about the empirical world and fights tooth and nail against any discovery that challenges them.

Some religion is fallibilistic, while some is dogmatic. That is, some religion, even if it offers teachings and creeds, regards these as finite human efforts to grasp a truth that transcends us, such that even as we live out these creeds we must remain open to correction, to being moved by the insights of others unlike ourselves and by the practical failures of our creeds in the face of lived experience. Other religion, by contrast, regards its teachings as the standard by which truth is measured.

Some religions think we learn the most about how to treat each other when we pay empathetic attention to those around us, when we try to collectively tease wisdom out of the experiences that come from the messy business of real human relationships. Others insist that how we should treat each other is clearly and inerrantly spelled out in a book, and that the book’s teachings are infallible even in the face of the agonized cries of those who find themselves crushed by those teachings.

Some religions think God (or the transcendent more vaguely construed) self-discloses to all of us through an array of channels—inherited stories, great teachers and prophets, insightful writings, personal intuitions, moments of mystical wonder, the experience of loving and being loved—and that the task of discerning the nature of what is thus revealed should be a collective human one and should never be regarded as finished. Others insist that one centralized authority contains the definitive revelation of God, and that all of us defy God’s word if we do not put this authority’s pronouncements above all other sources of insight that may come to us.

A religion that embodies the former in each of these pairs is what I call “progressive religion.” One that embodies each of the latter I call “fundamentalism.” As described these are ideal types. Real religions may mix and match features or fall between the extremes in a range of ways.

I make no pretense of having described these types in wholly neutral and dispassionate terms. I find progressive religion appealing and fundamentalism off-putting, and my descriptions reflect this. I am not writing here as a disinterested academic, but I am writing in a way that I hope is helpful. There is, I think, a descriptive content here that I hope helps to characterize a distinction that matters to me. Progressive religion is characterized, we might say, by a spirit of seeking and openness; fundamentalism by a spirit of certainty and bifurcation.

Both can be and typically are expressed within the context of an inherited tradition that is treated with deep respect—but progressive religion regards the tradition as a resource for engaging with the world, both collectively and personally, in ways that can generate deepening wisdom—in something like the Hegelian fashion, although I don’t mean to imply by this that all religious progressives have read Hegel (or that all of Hegel’s philosophy would be endorsed by them).

The Hegelian idea, in roughest terms, is that while the deepest truths about reality cannot be directly seen with our senses or grasped with our intellects, they can nevertheless be approached through living out a worldview respectfully but critically, so that the places where the worldview “grates” against the truth become apparent, and the worldview can be refined accordingly. More profoundly, the idea is that we have no choice but to live out a worldview of one sort or another. Even when we aren’t aware that we are taking things for granted, we are. The trick is to become aware of our assumptions and, instead of simply using them as the standard whereby we criticize and condemn everyone who disagrees with us, we test their adequacy by living them out in a spirit of openness—openness to noticing where the worldview doesn’t work, and modifying it accordingly.

Progressive religion accepts this idea, explicitly or implicitly. Fundamentalism rejects it, holding instead that the central dogmas of its tradition are certain and hence not to be questioned. To question them is to question truth and so to court error. To reject them is to reject truth and to live in error. The world becomes divided between those who live in truth (the Children of Light) and those who live in error (the Children of Darkness). The mission—to spread truth and light—becomes quite readily construed as a zero-sum struggle.

At root, progressive religion is most alive wherever great weight is placed on the distinction between what one believes to be true and what is true. While progressive religion affirms the legitimacy of having beliefs, it does so while insisting on the ever-present possibility of a disparity between what one believes and what is the case. And so the deepest devotion to truth, for the progressive, is found in the acknowledgment that one could be wrong about matters of faith.

Fundamentalism doesn’t merely minimize the importance of this distinction. It denies it. Its creeds are the truth. Hence, to disagree with its creeds is to deny the truth. To fail to revere its creeds is to fail to care about the truth. Devotion to the truth, for the fundamentalist, can never be paired with skepticism about the fundamentalist’s creed.

A recurring challenge to progressive religion is that there is something about the nature of religion, even in its progressive forms, that provides succor to fundamentalism. To legitimize progressive religion is to legitimize patterns of thinking that can and sometimes do lead to extremism.

In a way, my first book, Is God a Delusion?, can be usefully seen as an effort to respond to just this sort of challenge. But in an upcoming post or two I want to consider the challenge anew, and attempt to articulate my responses to it in ways that address themes that have emerged on this blog, and in a form amenable (I hope) to fruitful discussion.


  1. Do you think there is a split amongst Christians down a fundamentalist/progressive line? Would you consider this a new thing? Could religious leaders of his day considered Jesus a progressive? Is this the direction you were taking?

    1. The split isn't especially neat and clean. I think many Christians are progressive in some respects and fundamentalist in others. And some of the contrasts I draw are not exhaustive. But I think this divide is real and I think that the more we lean in the direction of progressive religion, the better off we are. As far as Jesus goes, what do you thin? Given the definitions above, would Jesus qualify as progressive?

    2. I think, given the defintions above, he would have been considered a progressive in his day. I asked because I thought, were you to use this argument, comparing the actions modern Christians to Jesus' actions would have been a good point. Or at the least an idea that deserves some contemplation and inner-reflection.

  2. Yes, Yes, Yes! I just discovered you and you articulated everything I have been thinking SO well! I've been thinking through all of this so much recently because since college I have become more and more progressive and my best friend from college has become more and more fundamentalist. I now feel I don't even know her and can't talk to her. This is sad and I've been trying to understand it and trying to explain to her that I am not rejecting truth. Truth is my highest aim. But she has believed all the fundamentalist lies about me. It's weird.
    This post is beautiful. Thank you. You have a new reader.

    1. Thanks for this. Always nice to have encouraging feedback.

  3. I notice you make no distinction between "fundamentalist" and "conservative" religion. Obviously you are not going into fine details, as you admit, but aren't you oversimplifying a bit? Not that I disagree with your descriptions, but I wonder about the labeling.

    1. I wonder if "liberal" and "conservative" might be a different way of parsing up religion than the one I am addressing here. Not sure about this but will think about it some more.

  4. Hi Eric

    Thanks for tackling this theme, and in so doing feeding the obsession. Very generous of you.

    I agree there are many important differences between progressive and fundamentalist religion, and depending upon how you choose to define each, the outline above seems fair. Furthermore, I think the progressive religion you support adds a tremendous amount that is positive to the world, and I'm not about to argue we'd be better off without it.

    My personal reluctance to embrace religious belief (and a number of non-religious beliefs too) is based upon what seems to me to be an intellectual instinct both progressive and fundamentalist religions share. This is to do with how we answer the question 'what to do when shared reason and evidence can take us no further, and we have only our personal experience/intuition to rely upon?'

    If we answer that beliefs that are not communally supported may still be warranted, then regardless of whether we treat the resulting beliefs as infallible or not, problems emerge for me.

    The first is, I appear to lose my right to criticise those who have reached what appear to me to be very odd conclusions based upon their own intuitions (if I get to believe I a soul, they get to believe in alien abductions) and I have an educator's instinct to resist this, and demand a little more of my students. Perhaps this is intolerance on my part, I'm not sure.

    Next, I much less worried about fundamentalists' certitude than I am by the actions they ground in their intuitive belief systems. The person whose intuition tells them God disapproves of homosexuality worries me even if they're not certain about their belief. That they have the belief, and are prepared to act upon it, is the thing that worries me.

    Finally, intuitionism apears to allow a relationship with evidence that I'm wary of. While the stubborn creationist insists fossil evidence is simply fraudulent, the intelligent designer accepts the evidence but then seeks to sneak in an unsupported speculation. I'm not sure the second approach is any less insidious.

    I'd argue the progressive believer in an afterlife has got to make a similar move with relation to brain science. The best models we have, although incomplete, describe thought and experience in physical terms. The ID instinct to construct a counter model in the gaps (in this case a soul model) strikes me as being less respectful of the evidence than progressive's might claim.

    Looking forward to your posts.


    1. Bernard,

      Thanks for articulating this line of concern so clearly and forcefully. I hope to address it in a way that does justice to your clarity in my follow-up post to this one (when I get to it, hopefully soon).

  5. Two comments, from a non-believing perspective.

    "..the idea is that we have no choice but to live out a worldview of one sort or another. Even when we aren’t aware that we are taking things for granted, we are."

    There are other alternatives, as one digs out the assumptions one holds from culture, family, background, and early learning. First, if the assumption is positive, about how things are, is simply to stop making that assumption. Second, if the assumption is normative or prescriptive, is to recognize it as an assumption. Hold it forth -- if you still wish to do so -- as conviction or pragma, but don't pretend to it as truth.

    "The Hegelian idea, in roughest terms, is that while the deepest truths about reality cannot be directly seen with our senses or grasped with our intellects, they can nevertheless be approached through living out a worldview respectfully but critically, so that the places where the worldview “grates” against the truth become apparent, and the worldview can be refined accordingly."

    Is that a program for finding truth, or for finding some kind of personal path? What grates for one person might not grate for another. How, then, is it a measure of truth, except in some very relativized fashion?