Why religious moderation fails

In a post 9/11 world, our preoccupation with religious “literalism” has impeded our collective consciousness from realizing how the culture and discourse of religious “moderation” shelters this kind of religious lunacy.

This was one of the many theses from Sam Harris’ polemic “The End of Faith.”

Though both moderates and extremists are ambiguous titles, and both groups partake in a form of selective faith, Harris argued moderation poses a problem for all of us because it discourages harsh criticism directed at religious literalism.

“All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us,” Harris wrote. This deviance from literalism, argued Harris, has nothing, in principle, to do with any belief in God, but rather “the product of many hammering blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt.”

This moderation offers future generations a milder version of yesteryear’s biblical delusions, obscuring the degenerative content that pervades scripture while preventing themselves and others from soberly confronting the mutual incompatibility of leading monotheisms.

This milder version is borne of moderates’ effortless journey to the cafeteria of religion: A buffet of religious tenets that, at the moderate’s discretion, can be made into a personal—and protected—hodgepodge of faith.

A Barna Group survey showed 71 percent of American adults are more likely to develop their own set of religious beliefs, and 61 percent of born-again Christians pick and choose from the beliefs of different denominations.

This anomaly intrinsic to religious moderation was assessed by Harris quite candidly.

“By not living by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray both faith and reason equally.”

Also, the Christian Science Monitor reported last year that “most U.S. Christians create their own theology.”

We can call literalists many things, but their sincerity about the fate of non-believers, liberal and moderate believers is in accordance with their faith. In fact, literalists, despite the madness of their beliefs, reach a logical conclusion, albeit from an illogical premise. Moderates, however, by way of incoherent biblical exegeses, reach an illogical conclusion from the same illogical premise, which is that an ancient book was in some respect God-breathed.

Perhaps more covert and damaging is how moderates celebrate ignorant intemperance masquerading as knowledge and insight.

“Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word ‘God’ as though we knew what we were talking about,” Harris wrote.

This idea that theology can somehow describe an immaterial world, a transcendent reality, is sustaining the false divisions in our world. It is a blatant denial of our insufferable ignorance and fosters the abjectness of our public discourse that unapologetically congratulates others for claiming to know things they cannot possibly know.

The problems and effects borne of misguided moderation were illustrated by Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement. King reached the regrettable conclusion that the most formidable barrier to the emancipation of Negros was not the highly visible Ku Klux Klan, but rather the white moderate—fellow clergymen who supported King’s end, but not his means of civil disobedience. By demanding patience and respect for the political system that had fostered the ugly oppression of Negroes, white moderates failed to acknowledge the degree of lunacy demanded by an acceptance of segregation. The urgency of their response did not scale with the urgency of the situation. Therefore, in practice, moderates had de facto tolerated the irrationality of segregationists.

In a similar respect, moderates portray themselves as a bridge to peace. Moderates have no qualms with rejecting diplomacy and pushing racists to the margins of society with harsh, but necessary criticism because they acknowledge the societal implications that follow from standing idle on the matter. But moderates are unconscious as to how their conciliatory engagement with literalism, stemming from their lack of biblical- and self-criticism, fosters the iniquities borne of divine warrant.

MLK’s moderate orientation neither supports, nor rejects this analysis. MLK is as laudable for his works as he is guilty of justifying the false connection between faith and ethics—a wholly false juxtaposition that must be destroyed with all of our might. This utilitarian argument—a non sequitur when used in defense of biblical truths—gives shelter to those who actually believe what these ancient texts presuppose.

I am not equating moderates with literalists, but moderates are typifying precisely what I am objecting to—by demanding the very idea of religious faith be exempt from what Harris calls the “normal rules of conversation,” they are de facto fostering the societal repercussions they claim to vilify.

This systematic shelter blinds us to salient problems borne of rendering schizophrenic dogma and theology beyond reproach. The ancient texts we are saddled with today provide both literalists and moderates core beliefs that if held outside of a religious context would be deemed by all as patently insane. If a man makes public his ability to make Zeus appear over his Lucky Charms, his friends would suggest a neurologist before running for the hills to warn surrounding communities that a psychopath is abound. But to broadcast that a cracker can be made into the presence of Jesus Christ; or that a 7th century illiterate warlord suffering delusions in a cave revealed that which parallels the ramblings of any raging lunatic; or that a 19th century thief, convicted felon and known polygamist was the last of a long line of prophets; is to simply be one of billions of Catholics, Muslims or Mormons, respectively—and others must maintain their acquiescence. This kind of tolerance “leaves billions of us believing what no sane person could believe on his own,” wrote Harris.

In assessing the problems of religious literalism, moderates must tread lightly.

“To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world—to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Qur’an both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish—is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it,” Harris added.

In defense of their position, moderates often accuse critics of religion of being unreasonably dogmatic, while touting themselves for their “humility” by way of having what they call “doubt” and a lack of certainty. This patently false and circular argument should be, to all thinking men, like dirt in their mouths. “Doubt” is what one has after registering for an 8:00 a.m. section of organic chemistry. When pertaining to the fantastical claims of yesteryear, “doubt” is a false term. It is like moderate Nazis in Germany circa 1930 inviting the Tenenbaums over for Sunday dinner because they have doubts as to whether this “Jew-hating” thing is a sane position to hold.

I am not advocating the burning down of churches, synagogues and mosques or to be rude toward your pious neighbors. I am suggesting something far more radical and untried than that. If we are ever to become serious about the tangible and cyclical problems borne of religious literalism, it is imperative that we call into question, publicly and incessantly, what Harris calls the “entire project of religion.”

“Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question—i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us—religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.”

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