Religious liberalism

Conception of religion which emphasizes personal and group liberty and rationality

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Religious liberalism is a conception of religion (or of a particular religion) which emphasizes personal and group liberty[1] and rationality.[2] It is an attitude towards one’s own religion (as opposed to criticism of religion from a secular position, and as opposed to criticism of a religion other than one’s own) which contrasts with a traditionalist or orthodox approach, and it is directly opposed by trends of religious fundamentalism. It is related to religious liberty, which is the tolerance of different religious beliefs and practices, but not all promoters of religious liberty are in favor of religious liberalism, and vice versa.[3]


In the context of religious liberalism, liberalism conveys the sense of classical liberalism as it developed in the Age of Enlightenment, which forms the starting point of both religious and political liberalism; but religious liberalism does not necessarily coincide with all meanings of liberalism in political philosophy. For example, an empirical attempt to show a link between religious liberalism and political liberalism proved inconclusive in a 1973 study in Illinois.[4]

Usage of the term liberal in the context of religious philosophy appeared as early as the mid-19th century[5] and became established by the first part of the 20th century; for example, in 1936, philosophy professor and Disciples of Christ minister Edward Scribner Ames wrote in his article “Liberalism in Religion”:[6] .mw-parser-output .templatequote{overflow:hidden;margin:1em 0;padding:0 32px}.mw-parser-output .templatequote .templatequotecite{line-height:1.5em;text-align:left;padding-left:1.6em;margin-top:0}

The term “liberalism” seems to be developing a religious usage which gives it growing significance. It is more sharply contrasted with fundamentalism, and signifies a far deeper meaning than modernism. Fundamentalism describes a relatively uncritical attitude. In it custom, traditionalism, and authoritarianism are dominant. … There is no doubt that the loss of the traditional faith has left many people confused and rudderless, and they are finding that there is no adequate satisfaction in mere excitement or in flight from their finer ideals. They crave a sense of deeper meaning and direction for their life. Religious liberalism, not as a cult but as an attitude and method, turns to the living realities in the actual tasks of building more significant individual and collective human life.

Religious traditionalists, who reject the idea that tenets of modernity should have any impact on religious tradition, challenge the concept of religious liberalism.[citation needed] Secularists, who reject the idea that implementation of rationalistic or critical thought leaves any room for religion altogether, likewise dispute religious liberalism.[citation needed]

In Christianity[edit]

“Liberal Christianity” is an umbrella term for certain developments in Christian theology and culture since the Enlightenment of the late 18th century. It has become mostly mainstream within the major Christian denominations in the Western world, but is opposed by a movement of Christian fundamentalism which developed in response to these trends, and by Evangelicalism generally. It also contrasts with conservative forms of Christianity outside the Western world and outside the reach of Enlightenment philosophy and modernism, mostly within Eastern Christianity.[citation needed]

The Catholic Church in particular has a long tradition of controversy regarding questions of religious liberalism. Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801–1890), for example, was considered to be moderately liberal by 19th-century standards because he was critical of papal infallibility, but he explicitly opposed “liberalism in religion” because he argued it would lead to complete relativism.[7]

The conservative Presbyterian biblical scholar J. Gresham Machen criticized what he termed “naturalistic liberalism” in his 1923 book, Christianity and Liberalism, in which he intended to show that “despite the liberal use of traditional phraseology modern liberalism not only is a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally different class of religions”.[8] The Anglican Christian apologist C. S. Lewis voiced a similar view in the mid-20th century, arguing that “theology of the liberal type” amounted to a complete re-invention of Christianity and a rejection of Christianity as understood by its own founders.[9]

In Judaism[edit]

German-Jewish religious reformers began to incorporate critical thought and humanist ideas into Judaism from the early 19th century.[citation needed] This resulted in the creation of various non-Orthodox denominations, from the moderately liberal Conservative Judaism to very liberal Reform Judaism. The moderate wing of Modern Orthodox Judaism, especially Open Orthodoxy, espouses a similar approach.

In Islam[edit]

Liberalism and progressivism within Islam involve professed Muslims who have created a considerable body of liberal thought about Islamic understanding and practice.[10] Their work is sometimes characterized as “progressive Islam” (al-Islām at-taqaddumī); some scholars, such as Omid Safi, regard progressive Islam and liberal Islam as two distinct movements.[11]

The methodologies of liberal or progressive Islam rest on the interpretation of traditional Islamic scripture (the Quran) and other texts (such as the Hadith), a process called ijtihad.[12][page needed] This can vary from the slight to the most liberal, where only the meaning of the Quran is considered to be a revelation, with its expression in words seen as the work of Muhammad in his particular time and context.

Liberal Muslims see themselves as returning to the principles of the early ummah ethical and pluralistic intent of the Quran.[13] They distance themselves from some traditional and less liberal interpretations of Islamic law which they regard as culturally based and without universal applicability.[citation needed] The reform movement uses Tawhid (monotheism) “as an organizing principle for human society and the basis of religious knowledge, history, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics, as well as social, economic and world order”.[14]

Islamic Modernism has been described as “the first Muslim ideological response to the Western cultural challenge”[15] attempting to reconcile Islamic faith with modern values such as nationalism, democracy, civil rights, rationality, equality, and progress.[16][page needed] It featured a “critical reexamination of the classical conceptions and methods of jurisprudence” and a new approach to Islamic theology and Quranic exegesis.[15]

It was the first of several Islamic movements—including secularism, Islamism, and Salafism—that emerged in the middle of the 19th century in reaction to the rapid changes of the time, especially the perceived onslaught of Western culture and colonialism on the Muslim world.[16] Founders include Muhammad Abduh, a Sheikh of Al-Azhar University for a brief period before his death in 1905, Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, and Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935).

The early Islamic modernists (al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu) used the term salafiyya[17] to refer to their attempt at renovation of Islamic thought,[18] and this salafiyya movement is often known in the West as “Islamic modernism,” although it is very different from what is currently called the Salafi movement, which generally signifies “ideologies such as wahhabism“.[18] According to Malise Ruthven, Islamic modernism suffered since its inception from co-option of its original reformism by both secularist rulers and by “the official ulama” whose “task it is to legitimise” rulers’ actions in religious terms.[19]

Examples of liberal movements within Islam are Progressive British Muslims (formed following the 2005 London terrorist attacks, defunct by 2012), British Muslims for Secular Democracy (formed 2006), or Muslims for Progressive Values (formed 2007).[citation needed]

In eastern religions[edit]

Eastern religions were not immediately affected by liberalism and Enlightenment philosophy, and have partly undertaken reform movements only after contact with Western philosophy in the 19th and 20th centuries.[citation needed] Thus Hindu reform movements emerged in British India in the 19th century.[citation needed] Buddhist modernism (or “New Buddhism”) arose in its Japanese form as a reaction to the Meiji Restoration, and was again transformed outside of Japan in the 20th century, notably giving rise to modern Zen Buddhism.[20][21]

Liberal religion in Unitarianism[edit]

The term liberal religion has been used by Unitarian Christians,[5] as well as Unitarian Universalists,[22] to refer to their own brand of religious liberalism; the term has also been used by non-Unitarians, such as Quakers.[23] The Journal of Liberal Religion was published by the Unitarian Ministerial Union, Meadville Theological School, and Universalist Ministerial Association from 1939 to 1949, and was edited by James Luther Adams, an influential Unitarian theologian.[24] Fifty years later, a new version of the journal was published in an online format from 1999 to 2009.[25]

See also[edit]

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  1. ^ Newman 1991, p. 144: “… when people talk about ‘religious liberalism,’ they are normally referring to a commitment to a certain kind of conception of what religion is and, accordingly, of how religious attitudes, institutions, and communities should be developed or reshaped so as to accommodate and promote particular forms of personal and group freedom.”
  2. ^ Newman 1991, p. 159: “… religious liberalism came to be so concerned with respect for reason, reasonableness, and rationality … .”
  3. ^ Newman 1991, p. 143–144: “However, given the way in which terminology has evolved, we must be careful not to assume too close an association between ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious liberalism.’ Many people who think that religious liberty is basically a good thing that ought to be promoted do not wish to be regarded as advocates of religious liberalism; some of them even feel that many of those who call themselves ‘religious liberals’ are enemies of religious liberty, or at least end up undermining religious liberty in the process of promoting their own special brand of ‘liberal religion.’ … One notable problem here is that, when liberalism is considered in relation to religion, one may be thinking primarily of a certain ‘liberal’ conception of religion itself (in contrast with, say, orthodox, conservative, traditionalist, or fundamentalist conceptions) or one may be thinking more of a ‘liberal’ political view of the value of religious liberty. But, when people talk about ‘religious liberalism,’ they are usually thinking of the former more than the latter, although they may uncritically assume that the two necessarily accompany one another.”
  4. ^ .mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit;word-wrap:break-word}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:”””””””‘””‘”}.mw-parser-output .citation:target{background-color:rgba(0,127,255,0.133)}.mw-parser-output a{background:url(“//”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .id-lock-free a{background-size:contain}.mw-parser-output a,.mw-parser-output a{background:url(“//”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited a,body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration a{background-size:contain}.mw-parser-output a{background:url(“//”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription a{background-size:contain}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:url(“//”)right 0.1em center/12px no-repeat}body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background-size:contain}.mw-parser-output .cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:none;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#2C882D;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right{padding-right:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .citation .mw-selflink{font-weight:inherit} .mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{color:#18911F} .mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error, .mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{color:#f8a397}@media(prefers-color-scheme:dark){ .mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error, .mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{color:#f8a397} .mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{color:#18911F}}Stellway, Richard J. (Summer 1973). “The correspondence between religious orientation and socio-political liberalism and conservatism”. The Sociological Quarterly. 14 (3): 430–439. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.1973.tb00871.x. JSTOR 4105689.
  5. ^ a b For example: Ellis, George Edward (November 1856). “Relations of reason and faith”. The Christian Examiner and Religious Miscellany. 26 (3). Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Company for the American Unitarian Association: 412–456 (444–445, 450). OCLC 6122907. The first of all the requisites in such a religion is that it shall be Liberal. We mention this condition even before that of Truth, because a religion that is not liberal cannot be true. The devout and intelligent demand a liberal religion, a religion large, free, generous, comprehensive in its lessons, a religion expansive in its spirit, lofty in its views, and with a sweep of blessings as wide as the range of man’s necessities and sins. This is what is meant by a Liberal Religion, or Liberal views of religion, or Liberal Christianity. … Thoughtful, earnest, and devout minds now demand a liberal religion. Liberal in the honest, pure, and noble sense of that word. Not liberal in the sense of license, recklessness, or indifference; not in making a scoff of holy restraints and solemn mysteries. Not liberal as the worldling or the fool uses the word, for overthrowing all distinctions, and reducing life to a revel or a riot. … Such a faith cannot afford to raise an issue with reason on a single point, so far as their road on the highway of truth will allow them to keep company together. When they part for faith to advance beyond reason, they must part in perfect harmony.
  6. ^ Ames, Edward Scribner (July 1936). “Liberalism in religion”. International Journal of Ethics. 46 (4): 429–443. doi:10.1086/intejethi.46.4.2989282. JSTOR 2989282. S2CID 144873810.
  7. ^ “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another…”, J. H. Newman ‘Biglietto Speech’
  8. ^ Machen asserted that “If the Jesus of naturalistic reconstruction were really taken as an example, disaster would soon follow. As a matter of fact, however, the modern liberal does not really take as his example the Jesus of the liberal historians; what he really does in practice is to manufacture as his example a simple exponent of a non-doctrinal religion whom the abler historians even of his own school know never to have existed except in the imagination of modern men.” Machen, J. Gresham (2009) [1923]. Christianity and liberalism (New ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. pp. 6, 81. ISBN 9780802864994. OCLC 368048449.
  9. ^ Lewis, C. S. (1988). The essential C.S. Lewis. New York: Collier Books. p. 353. ISBN 0020195508. OCLC 17840856. All theology of the liberal type involves at some point—and often involves throughout—the claim that the real behavior and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by his followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars. (From an essay titled “Modern theology and biblical criticism” written in 1959.)
  10. ^ Safi, Omid, ed. (2003). Progressive Muslims: on justice, gender and pluralism. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. ISBN 9781851683161. OCLC 52380025.
  11. ^ Safi, Omid. “What is Progressive Islam?”. Averroes Foundation. Archived from the original on July 9, 2006.
  12. ^ Aslan, Reza (2011) [2005]. No god but God: the origins, evolution, and future of Islam (Updated ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 9780812982442. OCLC 720168240.
  13. ^ Sajid, Abdul Jalil (December 10, 2001). ‘Islam against Religious Extremism and Fanaticism’: speech delivered by Imam Abdul Jalil Sajid at a meeting on International NGO Rights and Humanity”. Muslim Council of Britain. Archived from the original on June 7, 2008.
  14. ^ “Tawhid”. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Archived from the original on September 17, 2017. Retrieved 22 March 2015.
  15. ^ a b Moaddel, Mansoor (2005). Islamic modernism, nationalism, and fundamentalism: episode and discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 2. ISBN 9780226533339. OCLC 55870974. Islamic modernism was the first Muslim ideological response to the Western cultural challenge. Started in India and Egypt in the second part of the 19th century … reflected in the work of a group of like-minded Muslim scholars, featuring a critical reexamination of the classical conceptions and methods of jurisprudence and a formulation of a new approach to Islamic theology and Quranic exegesis. This new approach, which was nothing short of an outright rebellion against Islamic orthodoxy, displayed astonishing compatibility with the ideas of the Enlightenment.
  16. ^ a b Martin, Richard C., ed. (2016) [2004]. Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim world (2nd ed.). Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. ISBN 9780028662695. OCLC 907621923.
  17. ^ Brown, Jonathan A. C. (2009). “Salafism: Modernist Salafism from the 20th century to the present”. Oxford Bibliographies. doi:10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0070.
  18. ^ a b Atzori, Daniel (August 31, 2012). “The rise of global Salafism”. Archived from the original on April 24, 2014. Retrieved 6 January 2015. Salafism is, therefore, a modern phenomenon, being the desire of contemporary Muslims to rediscover what they see as the pure, original and authentic Islam, … However, there is a difference between two profoundly different trends which sought inspiration from the concept of salafiyya. Indeed, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century, intellectuals such as Jamal Edin al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu used salafiyya to mean a renovation of Islamic thought, with features that would today be described as rationalist, modernist and even progressive. This salafiyya movement is often known in the West as “Islamic modernism.” However, the term salafism is today generally employed to signify ideologies such as Wahhabism, the puritanical ideology of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
  19. ^ Ruthven, Malise (2006) [1984]. Islam in the world (3rd ed.). Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 318. ISBN 9780195305036. OCLC 64685006. Retrieved 23 April 2015.
  20. ^ McMahan, David L. (2008). The making of Buddhist modernism. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195183276.001.0001. ISBN 9780195183276. OCLC 216938497.
  21. ^ Havnevik, Hanna; Hüsken, Ute; Teeuwen, Mark; Tikhonov, Vladimir; Wellens, Koen, eds. (2017). Buddhist modernities: re-inventing tradition in the globalizing modern world. Routledge studies in religion. Vol. 54. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781138687844. OCLC 970042282.
  22. ^ For example: Murphy, Robert (1995). “The church green: ecology and the future”. In O’Neal, Dan; Wesley, Alice Blair; Ford, James Ishmael (eds.). The transient and permanent in liberal religion: reflections from the UUMA Convocation on Ministry. Boston: Skinner House Books. pp. 195–206 (195). ISBN 1558963308. OCLC 35280453. Does liberal religion have a future? If we answer in the affirmative, can we begin to imagine the outlines of liberal religion in the next century? What will the Unitarian Universalist movement look like in the decade of the 2090s? Cf. Miller, Robert L’H. (Spring 1976). “The religious value system of Unitarian Universalists”. Review of Religious Research. 17 (3): 189–208. doi:10.2307/3510610. JSTOR 3510610. The repetition of the distinctive pattern in both higher and lower ranking of both terminal and instrumental values leads one to a firmer basis for sensing a distinctive Unitarian Universalist pattern of religiousness. It is, perhaps, more accurately defined as a pattern of liberal religion which further research may disclose is typical, for example, of such groups as Reform Judaism.
  23. ^ For example, on Quakerism as liberal religion: Dandelion, Pink; Collins, Peter, eds. (2008). The Quaker condition: the sociology of a liberal religion. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 18. ISBN 9781847185655. OCLC 227278348. This is the first book of its kind and is intended to be the beginning, rather than the final word. It adds considerably to the study of Quakerism but also to the study of Liberal religion per se. And on Islam as liberal religion: Foody, Kathleen (October 2016). “Pedagogical projects: teaching liberal religion after 9/11”. The Muslim World. 106 (4): 719–739. doi:10.1111/muwo.12167.
  24. ^ “The Journal of Liberal Religion”. Retrieved 2017-11-20. Published from 1939 to 1949.
  25. ^ “The Journal of Liberal Religion”. ISSN 1527-9324. Retrieved 2020-06-19. Published from 1999 to 2009.



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