Is Progressive Christianity a Slow Path to Atheism?

Photo by Courtney Perry
Photo by Courtney Perry

Recently, the author Brian McLaren was a guest on Rachel Held Evans blog site for a question and answer session. Right off the bat he was hit with a very hard-hitting question, and I was really struck by the depth of the question, and the honesty of McLaren’s response. Below is only the first third(ish) of his answer. You can find the rest of it, along with more of the session, on Rachel’s site (here). I’d love to get some of your thoughts and comments.

Here’s just the first question:

I want to ask him about an idea I’ve seen recently via a friend [Ryan Bell of the “Year Without God” project] who used to be a progressive Adventist pastor, but is now exploring atheism. Recently he posted that he thinks progressive Christianity is just a slower way to admit that there isn’t a God. It got a huge amount of response from others who agreed and said that had been their path to atheism. I guess that’s my question, and I’m sure he’s thought of this. How would he respond to that idea that progressive Christianity is just a slower path to non-theism altogether?

Daneen, get ready for a super-long answer. I couldn’t be briefer because this question is so big, important, and timely.

I think it’s worthwhile to note that when the early Christians favored God as revealed in Christ over the Roman pantheon, they were called atheists. The only gods that counted were the Roman gods, so anyone who didn’t believe in those gods was an atheist. Similarly, at the time of the Reformation, I can imagine Roman Catholics saying that Protestantism was a first step toward atheism … and then when Protestant intellectuals like David Hume and others more or less embraced atheism, Catholic warnings must have seemed prescient.

Both of these examples suggest that atheism often means “disbelief in the God of the establishment,” since those in power typically define the God who is supposed to be believed in. Every new conception of God necessarily requires doubting or rejecting the prevailing conception of God. So you could say that theism only evolves through atheism. I think there’s a kind of yin-yang between the two.

To put it starkly, Jesus must disbelieve in the God who loves our friends and hates our enemies in order to envision a God who manifests a compassionate perfection toward “the just and the unjust” as he does in the Sermon on the Mount.

Rachel’s first book and this remarkable blogspace she has created are surfacing what my work is also surfacing: there are lots of people who are losing faith in the gods of the establishments (of which there are many). For many, the process is like peeling an onion. First they lose faith in the 6-day creationist god, then in the bible-dictation god, then in the male-supremacy god, then in the european-supremacy/western-civilization/colonialist god, then in the anti-gay god, then in the pro-war god, then in the American-exceptionalism/manifest-destiny god, then in the anti-palestinian god, then in the controller-of-everything-that-happens god, then in the design-engineer god, then in the penal-substitutionary-atonement god, and so on. Of course the detail and order of events may vary, but eventually, every layer of the onion is peeled away and one is left with nothing … but maybe some tears.

The fear of being left with nothing leaves many people desperately afraid to question anything, which might be a good definition of fundamentalism. You mentioned Ryan Bell, whom I know and like a lot. I haven’t followed Ryan Bell’s blog as closely as I wish I could, but I check in when I can and I was impressed by this remark he made in passing recently: “For Christians, generally speaking, faith is the virtue that makes them impervious to new evidence.” I think that’s an accurate – and tragic – statement, generally speaking. But I especially agreed with what Ryan said next: “But none of us have anything to fear from the truth. And even when fear is an appropriate response, I would rather confront a fearful truth than be comforted by a lie.”

The establishment understandings of God are indeed under assault, and open-minded believers are forced to grapple with “new evidence” of unprecedented magnitude, as the recent photograph from the Hubble telescope made amazingly clear.

To believe in God as creator of a cosmos of billions of galaxies that have developed over 13.82 (or whatever) billion years requires disbelieving the God who was creator of one world in the center of one crystalline sphere that was made 6-10,000 years ago.

And of course, it’s not just cosmology. Neurobiology … anthropology … psychology … sociology … history … semiotics … nearly every field challenges the conventional packages of concepts that are associated with the word God, whoever is speaking it.

(The Answer continues on…You can find the complete transcript here)

8 thoughts on “Is Progressive Christianity a Slow Path to Atheism?”

  1. This is the first I’ve heard of this discussion (I check in on Ryan Bell’s blog from time to time), but it’s very interesting. I appreciate that MacLaren tackled this question honestly — some people may not have been so open about it.

    This is an issue I’ve thought about a lot, and I suppose it’s one of the reasons that I’m an atheist. I don’t think that progressive Christianity necessarily leads one to atheism, of course, but I definitely see how it serves as a path for some. For me, as I began peeling back those layers that MacLaren mentioned, I simply saw no reason to continue believing in the Judeo-Christian god. How could I trust anything the Bible told me when the evidence kept piling up that the Bible was just a collection of commentaries by people who lived a long time ago?

    I spent some time as a deist because even though I still believed that creation and morality served as evidence for a god, I had no reason to think that god was Yahweh / Jehovah / Christ. I suspect that a number of progressive Christians haven’t realized this yet. I think they largely believe in God because of creation, morality, a sense of purpose, and “spiritual inklings” (for lack of a better term), but those reasons only justify a belief in a god, not a specific god.

    How do you see this issue?

    1. Here’s a question, Nate:

      You said, “How could I trust anything the Bible told me when the evidence kept piling up that the Bible was just a collection of commentaries by people who lived a long time ago?”, which is a great question. What if you were to assume for a moment the reality of a God, and yet held separate the various (human) commentaries, past or present, on Him or His works? Then, piece by piece, you began to put a faith back together (“Oh, this fits here. I see how this fits in. I don’t get this…yet. Etc, etc) Why I ask is, the more I read, and learn, of scripture, the more I’m coming to understand the allegorical and “larger picture” teachings that a lot of , primarily the old testament, was written to put forth. Obviously I don’t get it all, and quite possibly never will. But I’m coming to understand a greater depth of what all the Bible was MEANT to be, rather than what too many of us, as 21st century Westerners, are trying to make it into. This is in no way meant to say that anything in the bible is not relevant to us in today’s society, but that a lot of what we’ve tried to make of scripture, throughout recent history, simply doesn’t say what we’ve tried to form it into. Your experiences with the CoC is ample evidence of this, IMHO.

      1. I think I understand what you’re saying. I don’t see it that way, especially if there really is any kind of eternal stakes involved. But I do understand why some people hold the view you’re suggesting, and I think it’s a far preferable view to fundamentalism. At least we can agree there! 😉

        1. I have an answer for you Nate, but I think I’m going to turn it into a separate blog post for Monday. This (dialog) is some good stuff!

  2. Hi Kent, I think progressive christianity is indeed a slow path to atheism – for some. I think fundamentalism is also a slow path to atheism – for some. And I would guess a fast path for some others.

    But progressive christianity is also a slow path to belief for others. Over the past decade I have been in contact, personal and via the internet, with many people for whom progressive christianity has been their path to faith, and had they felt fundamentalism was the only ‘true’ form of christianity, they would not be a christian today.

    I think I am probably in this latter category. I have never been a fundamentalist in the sense we usually use the term, but I was much more evangelical in my early days as a christian. But as I continually ask questions about the difficult aspects of my faith I find two different trajectories.

    On some matters (e.g. the Bible, hell, social justice, church) I have found the ground give way and the old evangelical doctrines didn’t seem to hold truth. But on other matters (e.g. Jesus, following Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit) I found the ground I was standing on was strengthened. Since the latter were more important than the former, I have kept believing, but my belief has become more progressive, more neo-orthodox, more Anabaptist, more Holy Spirit oriented, more about Jesus, describe it however you like, and less dogmatic and theological.

    This form of progressive christianity isn’t a new thing. The Anabaptists have been there for centuries.

    PS Hi Nate! 🙂

  3. It is a question of principles: if one’s “progressiveness” is based on principles which are atheistic, he will likely end up an atheist; his mind will not long accept running on two systems of logic.
    This is especially problematic with political philosophy. All political philosophy since Machiavelli is atheistic. Marx or Ayn Rand may occasionally have something to teach us, but Christians who go whole hog for their conclusions are implicitly accepting their principles, which presume the non-existence of God.
    It is also problematic in mass culture, where political, social and even intellectual opinions are mostly about loyalty to a clique. Someone who labels himself progressive or conservative on an issue because that is what the cool kids are doing has “already received his reward”. When it is progressive to think abortion is morally neutral, and conservative to think war is good for the body politic, vast numbers of Christians are operating under a nihilistic logic that is utterly opposed to the Gospel.

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