As I define it, liberal religion is the adherence to religious traditions and beliefs that do not outright contradict modern secular ethics or science. Often, Secular Humanists and liberal theists agree on a lot of topics. For example, many liberal theists accept evolution, global warming, gay rights, women's rights, sexual freedom, and cultural tolerance. In the end, the world would be a much better place if fundamentalist theists embraced liberal religion. Despite this, however, liberal religion still creates many problems which harm society.
Lacking Intellectual Integrity
As I've outlined in previous posts, the Bible is chock full of prescribed morality that can be backward and unethical. In addition, I've also addressed how the God of the Bible is closer to a Bronze Age tyrant than a loving father. It is because of these issues that, since the adoption of Christianity as the state religion in the Roman empire, sexuality has been repressed, slavery continued unchallenged for over 1,000 years, misogyny thrived, religious wars and persecution pervaded, and critical thought was severely stifled in the West until the Age of Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, theological claims of authority were rejected in favor of human reason, empiricism, science, and democracy. In the end, the intellectual and ethical evolution of humanity that led to modern political systems, technologies which enhance our lives, and emphasis on civil rights occurred after we began to reject Biblical authority. It is from this tradition that liberal theists truly get their morality, not the Bible.
Liberal Christians don't necessarily see it that way. They believe the Bible is inspired by God, and they focus solely on areas of the "holy" text which emphasize God's love, and Jesus' message of compassion and forgiveness. They either outright ignore the nasty aspects of the Bible or employ mental gymnastics to dismiss them. I've encountered some who ignore everything in the Bible except the supposed words of Jesus and others who dismiss the idea of Satan and Hell entirely. While this take on Christianity may be much more compassionate, it is based entirely on cherry picking aspects of the Bible they wish to be true. In the end, liberal Christians outright ignore what Christianity has stood for during the past 2,000 years, and they simply do not grasp that their morality exists despite their religion, not because of it.
Given the emphasis on compassionate elements of their faith, Liberal Christians feel that Christianity is a positive religion. On top of that, given their general tolerance of other cultures, they tend to believe that all religions, if practiced in their "true" sense, benefit humanity. Liberals' problem with fundamentalism is that fundamentalists are simply not practicing their faith correctly. Thus, instead of admitting that the fundamentals of religions are simply inadequate at best and dangerous at worst, they give undeserved credibility and authority to religious traditions, texts, leaders, and ideas. In addition, many reject atheism as merely another form of intolerant fundamentalism. This is why openly atheist politicians are rare, and why liberal Oprah Winfrey believes atheists are incapable of experiencing awe and wonder. It is also why politicians, both liberal & conservative, feel they need to use religious language in their speeches and build alliances with religious leaders. Tolerance for this practice is a big reason fundamentalists have been allowed to infiltrate government.
In order for society to function, we need a government and citizenry focused on finding and implementing the best ways to encourage human flourishing on this planet. We need to be concerned, informed, and properly equipped to identify world issues and the most effective solutions to our problems. Given that religion is based on flawed notions of morality and of the nature of humanity and our universe, it is not conducive to these aims. Thus, the fact that the US gives religious organizations $82.5 billion a year in tax benefits is a very bad thing, since we could have used that money on much more worthy causes such as education or scientific research. The same could also be said about the $95.88 billion Americans donated (knowingly) to religious organizations in 2011. To put this into perspective, a recent study indicated that 73% of American charitable giving goes toward religion. Beyond financial resources, just think of the billions of hours people spend thinking about, trying to appease, and requesting help from a God that probably doesn't exist. In my opinion, this time could be much better spent on learning about how the world actually works, improving oneself and society using solutions that have been shown by science to work, or merely experiencing other aspects of life that are fulfilling. Ultimately, every religion diverts resources that could be better spent on endeavors that help to solve, rather than create, problems for humanity.
As I will explain in future posts, religion is not necessary to be moral, to be a part of an altruistic community, to experience awe, to deal with life's challenges, or to lead a fulfilling life. Even if religion may have some benefits, it carries with it a great deal of baggage. Often, examples of religious compassion are secretly marred by backwardness and intolerance.
Consider the case of Mother Teresa, who most people consider a paragon of virtue. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work caring for the dying in the poverty stricken streets of Calcutta, and is likely to someday be beautified as a saint. However, those who have looked more closely at her deeds have found that she was far from the savior of the poor. In fact, she helped found 517 missions in 100 countries, in which most of the dying poor were given no actual healthcare. She was also a fervent critic of abortion, and considered the suffering of the poor to be beautiful. In her own words, "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people."
Also consider the Salvation Army, which is well known for their red donation buckets and bells they use around Christmas time to collect money for the needy. Not only do they help the poor, but as an Evangelical Christian organization, they also consider homosexuality to be a sin. In fact, one of their Australian officials was purported to have stated that gays should be "put to death."
Let's also not forget the National Prayer Breakfast, which has been the prime networking event in Washington for more than 50 years. It brings together the president, members of Congress from all parties, foreign diplomats and thousands of religious, business and military leaders to pray and eat breakfast (thus the name.) As it happens, the primary sponsor of this event is a Christian organization called The Family. This group has thrown their political weight behind legislation in Uganda that calls for the imprisonment and execution of homosexuals. Innocent breakfast centered on theistic camaraderie, or a means to give bigots greater political influence? Something tells me the most powerful people in the world have more important things they could be doing.
What's the problem with liberal religion? Instead of acknowledging secularism and Enlightenment thinking as the source of their morality, Liberal theists give credit to their religion. In so doing, they allow nonsense to influence the direction of our society, thus distracting them from more effective and less baggage-ridden methods of improving their lives and those of the rest of humanity.
My examples tend to be focused mainly on liberal Christians as this is the group with which I am most familiar. However, the liberal non-Christians to which I've been exposed tend to have many similar issues. Thus, while I'm focused on Liberal Christians, much of my arguments can still be generalized toward other religions.
Christopher Hitchens' Mother Teresa documentary
Article regarding the $85 billion US taxpayers give religious organizations every year
Great conversation regarding the labeling of anti-Islam atheists "Islamophobes"
Richard Dawkins discussing respecting moderate religion