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Has Professor Barash Flipped? On Atheists and Liberal Theology

David Barash

Upon reading Professor David Barash’s recent post “Where is the Theological Left?” I found myself blurting out Benedetto Croce’s famed, stunned observation about Antonio Gramsci: “But Gramsci [Barash] is one of us!”

When we last locked horns on Brainstorm, Professor Barash was waving a New Atheist banner, and throwin’ haymakers in the direction of those writers “in the theological establishment” whose only apparent motivation for criticizing Hitchens et. al. was “envy”(!)

To my bewilderment and dismay the great Barash—who in the interim was kind enough to send me a few of his exceedingly interesting books—was then expressing solidarity with the New Atheists.

He also expressed incredulity that our very own Professor Ruse (and subsequently the present author) equated New Atheists with the Tea Party.

I, for my part, demurred that the good Professor B was simply too intelligent and too sophisticated to throw his support behind the clueless New Atheists. Now I may adduce even more evidence in support of my theory.

In his most recent post Professor Barash earnestly bemoans the plight of the theological Left. Describing himself as a “Left-Wing atheist Jew,” he seems sincerely despondent at the current near political irrelevance of progressive theology—especially when contrasted to the Sound and Fury and Megachurches of the Christian Right.

He appears to see those religious lefties as the type of folks who might just share many things in common with a nonbelieving Jewish intellectual such as himself.

One gets the impression that Barash senses that atheists on the Left could even be able to work together with the religious liberals on political projects. A coalition, perhaps.

To which all I can say is, well put a schnitzel in my mouth! Non-New Atheists have been saying this—screaming this, actually—for years.

We have had to raise our voices because our Gnu co-irreligionists take it as creed that the religious moderates are every bit as blinkered, misguided, and pernicious, if not more so, than their traditionalist religious brethren. [N.B. I have sometimes found qualities to laud in those traditionalist religious brethren.]

When Professor Ruse a while back referred to New Atheism as a “disaster” he surely had in mind the strategic imbecility of that equation.

How does a tiny movement of American nonbelievers which desperately seeks crucial policy changes regarding science education, establishment-clause adjudication, gay rights, reproductive freedoms, and so forth get results?

The New Atheists respond: How about alienating tens of millions of politically like-minded religiously moderate Americans who possess the infrastructure, institutional organization, financial resources and numbers to help us achieve our goals?

But there’s more: Let’s go out of our way to make Reform Jews and Unitarians and progressive Catholics and so many others feel like idiots for believing in God. That oughta do it! Next thing you know Congress will be proclaiming a national holiday in honor of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

As in the Fundie enclaves that many of these Gnus are escaping, doctrinal purity must be maintained at all costs. Parenthetically, ever notice how few atheist Jews outside of the Horsemen—who occasionally reference their tribal DNA—associate with the New Atheist Movement. I wonder why?

For those moderate atheists out there (or “Faitheists” as the ever-clever Gnus call us) who are interested in liberal theology let me offer a few brief observations germane to Professor Barash’s column:

Bibliography: To get your bearings on what is known as liberal theology, try Gary Dorrien’s excellent three-volume The Making of American Liberal Theology. It is slow but essential reading, often making the surprising observation that Protestant liberal denominations have been (and could be) a lot less liberal than you would think.

The High Point: It is interesting, I think, that American secularism and American liberal theology both hit the wall, so to speak, at roughly the same time. The high point would have been the 1960s. On the religious side, think MLK; the stunning breakthrough that was Vatican II in Catholic social thought; “Death of God” theology and the role Jewish scholars played in that movement.

On the secular side think of the great SCOTUS victories pertaining to religious tests (Torcaso v. Watkins, 1962), school prayer (Engel v. Vitale, 1962), evolution curriculum (Epperson v. Arkansas, 1968). ‘Twas the best of times for American secularism and liberalism.

The Downfall: Must be traced to the 1970s starting with Catholic opposition to Roe v. Wade. As many scholars have noted, Protestants were initially not that concerned by that decision (see John Fea’s wonderful, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, p. 54-55).  With the election of Evangelical Jimmy Carter, the sleeping giant of the Christian Right was roused, switching its support to Ronald Reagan a few years later.

Why the Downfall?: There are many theories, ideological micro-fracturing being among the best that I have heard. Other theories: The dearth of Graham/Falwell/Robertson/Dobson-quality leadership on the religious Left in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination. The collapse of the African-American/Jewish-American coalition and other coalitions. The inability of most Mainline Churches to immediately and unequivocally affirm Gays in Christ. And on and on it goes.

It’s a sad story and the future does not look especially bright. But perhaps today moderate atheists and religious liberals should rejoice. Welcome Professor Barash: We are better, stronger and smarter with you on board.

:  “More Than Meets the Eye:  Morandi’s Art and Analytic Listening.”
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