Tuesday, May 13, 2008

We should not embrace moderate religion

On de-conversion writerdd exhorts us to embrace, or at least befriend moderate Christianity. I think she's incorrect.

She first asks the question, "Is fundamentalism the authentic religious voice?" Her answer is no.

The problem is that the frame of the question is wrong. There is no such thing as the authentic religious voice. All voices of people who sincerely profess a religion — left, right and moderate — are "authentic". And atheists and the non-religious — precisely because we are not religious — do not have standing to contribute to the religious voice.

(And I think the more accurate and less presumptuous word is "extremist", not "fundamentalist". Religious moderates might well object that their interpretation of religion is just as or even more compliant to the fundamental nature of their scriptures and theology as the extremists. I might disagree, but I'm an atheist; I have no standing to interpret theology.)

writerdd would like it if the moderates were the "authentic" voice of religion.
I don’t know about you, but I, for one, would rather encourage a moderate, liberal kind of faith where people are free to cherry pick what they want to believe while they conform to modern, secular values and use skepticism to make decisions in daily life.
I'd like that too, but it's not up to me or any other atheist. I'd like to see that portion of any community that conforms to my personal views become the "authentic" voice of that community, but the whole point of defining a community is that they get to define their own authentic voice; outsiders are entitled only to criticize that voice, not define it.

People outside of any community, physical or self-identified, do not have the standing to contribute to or restrict the voice of that community. The religious do not have standing to contribute to the atheist voice, white people to the black voice, men to the feminist voice, straight people to the LGBT voice. We might have an obligation to listen to these voices, but we cannot directly contribute. Standing is what defines the community; standing is an essential property of the entire notion of a community.

In just the same sense, the conservatives would like to see the stay-at-home moms become the authentic voice of feminism; they'd like to see the hard-working black people condemning affirmative action as the authentic voice of the black community; the self-hating celibates become the voice of the gay community. You simply don't get to do that though, and any attempt is fundamentally patronizing, condescending, and intrusive. The community defines itself.

As skeptics first and foremost, atheists do have an obligation to the truth. And the plain truth is that there are religious moderates and they are not extremists. It would be patently false to state or imply that all religious people actually are extremists. But I'm obligated to speak the truth even about enemies who were actively trying to kill me; speaking the truth does not seem to constitute embracing or befriending.

writerdd asserts that moderate believers are being "left out" of the conversation:
The media features fundamentalists or extreme conservative believers every time a topic regarding morality comes up, as if these are the only people who can speak for believers, as if they have authority to speak for all people of faith on these issues. Not only are atheists and agnostics left out of the conversation, but moderate and liberal believers often are as well. They are not taken as seriously as those who are literalist or extremist in their views, and are often considered “soft” or “lax,” as if they were not “true” followers of the faith. When journalists act this way, they are echoing the fundamentalist point of view.
This idea is just nonsense. It's very difficult to determine in the first place what constitutes being "left out of the conversation" or not taken seriously. Even if we could make that determination, what power do atheists have to change the situation? And why is the marginalization and exclusion of the religious moderates our problem as atheists? writerdd just points out a pseudo-problem that atheists couldn't change even if it were a real problem.

Reading further, though, we perhaps get a sense of where writerdd is going:
The new atheists seem to agree. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris wrote that fundamentalists, who take their scriptures literally, are in a very real sense the best practitioners of their faith because they follow their scriptures most closely. Richard Dawkins also belittles those of moderate faiths when he insists that religion never changes because it is tied to the ancient writings of scripture, an entirely fundamentalist viewpoint (and entirely wrong, but that is another issue all together).
It's important to understand that Harris and Dawkins here (assuming writerdd accurately represents their views) are stating matters of truth or falsity. They are either correct or incorrect.

The closing parenthetical comment tells the story: the truth or falsity of Dawkins' statement is beside the point. This is an outrageous statement for any soi disant skeptic to utter. The whole point of skepticism is that the truth is paramount. If Dawkins is wrong, that he's wrong is the issue. writerdd seems to demand that we should not investigate the truth or falsity of some claims because simply raising the question "belittles those of moderate faith." This position is bullshit postmodernism at its worst.

One is a skeptic only if the truth always matters, only if the truth always comes first. Subordinate the truth to any consideration, and one is a skeptic no more.

Sam Harris may be a woo-woo loving airhead, but his fundamental point is either true or false, and deserves to be decided on the merits: Are extremists really "better" because they are truer to the literal meaning of their scripture? Are moderates really giving cover to extremists by endorsing the notion that sincere belief in an invisible sky fairy gives one a privileged position to talk about morality? These are serious questions, questions that seem to have a definite yes or no answer. If embracing or befriending the religious moderates means that the truth or falsity of these questions doesn't matter, that merely raising them is insulting or wrong, then I want no part of this "friendship".


  1. Shorter post:

    Bullshit is bullshit - it doesn't matter if the people who believe it are assholes about it and want to force it on you or if they are content to quietly believe the bullshit. It's still wrong.

    Unrelated tangent alert:

    This also reminds me of why one can never vote for even moderate Republicans in Congress (well, if you aren't so cynical to think that it doesn't matter who controls Congress) - the moderates just provide the votes to give the crazies a majority, and then after that they are basically ignored by the GOP - and even where it might count on a close vote, they almost always vote in lockstep with the GOP leadership, simply because that's what authoritarian parties do. So really, there is effectively no such thing as a moderate Republican.

  2. "I don’t know about you, but I, for one, would rather encourage a moderate, liberal kind of faith where people are free to cherry pick what they want to believe while they conform to modern, secular values and use skepticism to make decisions in daily life."

    Would that be better? Liberal theology, precisely because of its tolerance of cherry-picking, strikes me as intellectually dishonest, but perhaps that's just my former fundamentalist self talking. All the same, even as an atheist I have more respect intellectually for the religious fundamentalists who, having accepted the divine inspiration of the Bible (or whatever their fairy tale of choice may be), have the integrity to apply it consistently, even the parts that may make them uncomfortable. Moreover, with the fundamentalists at least there's something to debate; they agree with atheists that the existence or non-existence of God is an objective fact of the universe that is not contingent on any individual's belief. Liberal religionists are so relativistic that it's virtually impossible to dispute anything they say, since it all comes down to "feelings" and personal "intuition."

  3. Can we "embrace" religion if the believer is hot?

  4. Avoiding uncomfortable truths about religion does not make one a friend of moderate Christianity.

    It makes one a Svengali.

  5. And Hitler was a moderate Nazi- no really. He positioned himself so he wouldn't get the blame for the "extremist" wing.

    A moderate is simply a fundamentalist who hasn't showed their true colors.

  6. Just had to share this: Someone on another blog commented that we should pray for the rapture because then after the rapture, average IQ should go up considerably...

  7. I want to sell Rapture Insurance: It'll pay your beneficiaries when (if) you, as a True Christian, are called to Jesus.

  8. I keep trying to find a "In case of Rapture, can I have your stuff?" bumper sticker.


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