Religious liberals are in one sense even farther in spirit from scientists than are fundamentalists and other religious conservatives. At least the conservatives, like the scientists, tell you that they believe what they believe because it is true, rather than because it makes them good or happy. Many religious liberals today seem to think that different people can believe in different mutually exclusive things without any of them being wrong, as long as their beliefs “work for them.” This one believes in reincarnation, that one in heaven and hell; a third believes in the extinction of the soul at death, but no one can be said to be wrong as long as everyone gets a satisfying spiritual rush from what they believe. To borrow a phrase from Susan Sontag, we are surrounded by “piety without content.” It all reminds me of the story that is told about an experience of Bertrand Russell, when in 1918 he was committed to prison for his opposition to the war. Following prison routine, a jailer asked Russell his religion, and Russell said he was an agnostic. The jailer looked puzzled for a moment, and then brightened, with the observation that “I guess it’s all right. We all worship the same God, don’t we?”
Wolfgang Pauli was once asked whether he thought that a particularly ill-conceived physics paper was wrong. He replied that such a distinction would be too kind – the paper was not even wrong. I happen to think that the religious conservatives are wrong in what they believe, but at least they have not forgotten what it means to really believe something. The religious liberals seem to me to be not even wrong.
One often hears that theology is not the important thing about religion — the important thing is how it helps us to live. Very strange, that the existence and nature of God and grace and sin and heaven and hell are not important! I would guess that people do not find the theology of their own supposed religion important because they cannot bring themselves to admit that they do not believe any of it. But throughout history and in many parts of the world today, people have believed in one theology or another, and for them it has been very important. One may be put off by the intellectual muzziness of religious liberalism, but it is conservative dogmatic religion that does the harm. Of course it has also made great moral and artistic contributions. This is not the place to argue how we should strike a balance between these contributions of religion on one hand and the long cruel story of crusade and jihad and inquisition and pogrom on the other. But I do want to make the point that in striking this balance, it is not safe to assume that religious persecution and holy wars are perversions of true religion. To assume that they are seems to me a symptom of a widespread attitude towards religion, consisting of deep respect combined with a profound lack of interest. Many of the great world religions teach that God demands a particular faith and form of worship. It should not be surprising that some of the people who take these teachings seriously should regard these divine commands as incomparably more important than any merely secular virtues like tolerance or compassion or reason.
This reminded me of the distaste many liberals have for the so-called New Atheists for supposedly being intolerant and unnecessarily divisive. Personally, I think Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, etc. pay advocates of old-school religion the respect of treating them like honest opponents who know what they believe and are willing to fight for it, not confused little kids who just haven’t grown up enough yet to realize that you’re not supposed to take all that stuff about heaven and souls and judgment literally, you big sillies! (That doesn’t even touch on another favorite parlor game of secular liberals, that of insisting that no one with any kind of education or position of power could possibly believe this crap; it has to all be a cynical put-on.)
The popular bumper sticker image above encapsulates that for me — people who think that “we all worship the same god” and that all faiths are just different paths to the same goal don’t seem to realize that that in itself is a secular ideal. Asking people to subordinate what they believe about the ultimate nature of existence and the meaning and purpose of life to a general commandment to get along and play nice is fine; in fact, I’m all for it! I just don’t pretend that it’s an inherent aspect of religious belief itself. It reduces important issues to the level of lifestyle accessories, and I can fully understand why some people see that as intolerable. Certain belief systems make some very clear truth-claims upon the world, and I think it’s actually more disrespectful to condescendingly tell those people that “Oh, you don’t really mean that,” than to tell them they’re flat-out wrong.