19 September 2015

Can Religious People be Liberal?

A few weeks ago, I had a short conversation with my sister about this topic. She mentioned that she has a close acquaintance who is liberal, except for when it comes to religious topics. I told her that if she is religious, then she cannot be liberal. This made me think, is that really the case? If you are a religious person, and you believe in a supernatural being, and you follow an organized religion, can you still be liberal?

I would say no, for the most part.

For one thing, most religions rely on a limited set of principles where they base their beliefs. The Bible, the Qur'an, a bunch of golden plates, et cetera. And most of the time, these so-called "holy books" dictate what should and should not be done. After all, if the purpose of religion is social control and regulation, then these rules are hard and fast and cannot be violated. Hence, there are people who shun those who violate them.

Now, if you believe that following such a rule will get you to heaven, and that not following such a rule will make you worldly, an infidel, or an unbeliever, then you can never think that those who don't follow your religion will be okay.

See, that is the main qualm I have with religious people. I see these Christians, these Muslims, these religious folk, and they are all pious and all that, worshiping in their churches, their mosques, and their temples. I don't. Do they think I am still a sane human being? Do they approve of me? If they are religious, then logically they won't. Because based on their standards, I am an infidel, I am not going to heaven or paradise, and so I am not to be associated with. Hence I am shunned by the Witnesses.

The thing is, if one is liberal, then indeed, it is a situation of live and let live. If I pray to a different God than you, then that is okay. If I eat pork and work on Saturdays, then that is okay. If I don't believe in your set of irrational beliefs, then that is okay. That is being liberal. But if you are religious and you think that I am morally defective because I am not religious, then you are not a liberal.

The funny thing, is that if you still claim to believe in God, and are spiritual, and try to adhere to the laws of your religion, but you honestly think that those who do not follow this religion are sane and cool people too, then you're not religious. You're probably spiritual, but you're not religious. Or in other words, you're simply picking and choosing what set of beliefs you want to adhere to. Because if your Bible tells you that those who do not believe in God will be destroyed, and so you shouldn't associate with them, and yet you still do, then you're disobeying some religious tenet, and therefore you're basically saying that you know better than your Bible.

That's basically what this boils down to. It all boils down to how much you want to think for yourself, and how much you want to surrender your brain to some holy book. If you are liberal, you're basically saying that it is okay if other people don't live and behave the way you do, and that is totally okay. But that also means that you're thinking for yourself, and superseding what your holy book has told you. That's a good thing, but that would make you not as religious as you think.


  1. I mostly agree with you, but I would say that because religions fragment and change constantly, it's hard to say that people opting out of specific beliefs makes them not religious. If that were the case, you'd have to base your judgment of whether someone follows a specific religion on how closely they adhere to some proto-version of that religion. This means that most likely nobody today would qualify as practicing that religion. For instance, what we know of Christianity is that it was formulated as a religion not by Jesus, or even those closest to him, but by people who came later and wrote what people said about what Jesus said. So, by that metric, what Christians are religious? Are Protestants not religious because they don't follow Catholic dogma? Are Catholics not religious because they picked and chose their canon almost four centuries after Jesus did his preaching? I think you could say that, on an individual level, people can be poor practitioners of their religion, but if they want to identify as a certain religion, they can still be described as religious. As you said, if it's about thinking for yourself, and you are getting your cherry-picked religious ideas from others, then you are still trying to adhere to what you are taught is your religion.

    1. David,

      Hi! And sorry for the late reply, as I am actually in Morocco traveling for three weeks. Anyway, as Renan below said, I don't think the evolution of religion is of concern here. Whatever the form of the religion currently, if a person opts to cherry-pick beliefs from the total set of beliefs, in order to accommodate people who don't follow these beliefs, then that makes the person less religious in my book. It doesn't matter whether these beliefs evolved from the original form or not.

  2. I think Jeruen stays uncorrected in his argument.

    If I got Jeruen's point, he is calling liberal a person that is fine with people living their lives in a way he/she wouldn't.

    If the person opts out of the believes his/her religion holds as the truth, he/she presumes he/she knows better than whatever is the source of the teachings of that religion, be that the holy books, the words from the priests or whatever. How could we call that person a religious person?

    Fragmentation of religion is not relevant on this discussion, I think. Neither is where you fall on the good-poor practitioner spectrum. The point is: once you've picked your set of religious believes, how able are you to hold them, without judging the others' wrong?

    Here is a hypothetical religion I would consider liberal, using Jeruen's use of the word: one that contained liberal statements on its holy book. For example, one that had 11 commandments rather than 10, the 11th being ''the ten commandments here stated are not to be considered superior to those of other religions or to secular sets of moral principles.''

    Another example would be one that contained statements of fallibility on its holy book, or that suggested uncertainty on its accounts of the past and the future, such as ''it might be that the world was created in 7 days, and that there is a god, and that those that lie will go to hell, if the god described in these scriptures exists indeed.''

    Religions however seem to struggle to exist without claiming to hold the only truth and the only acceptable code of conduct. If a religion states that being gay is a sin, I wonder how a follower can disagree with that and consider him/herself religious.

    1. Renan,

      Well said! I apologize for a late response, as I have been backpacking in Morocco for the last couple of weeks and won't be back in Berlin until next weekend.

  3. Based on examples around me, I'd say yes. I can think of liberal believers who accept their religion may not hold the truth and who are critical of their beliefs (or the way they are used and misused) if needed.

    1. Zhu,

      In that case then these believers don't hold their faith as high as other more pious believers are. That's the crucial thing, people must be able to question their beliefs. When people blindly obey and put faith on their religion then that is where things go wrong.