A Case Against Religious Moderation
Imagine that instead of, “In God We Trust,” dollar bills in the United States read, “In Zeus We Trust.” Or think what it would be like if Barack Obama ended his speeches with, “Apollo bless the United States of America.” And consider how strange it would sound if one of your friends told you that they recently found deep comfort in Poseidon. What’s absurd about comments like these is not the mentions of Zeus, Apollo and Poseidon, rather, it is that these Gods have the same ontologically status as the Judeo-Christian God that our money, presidents and friends take seriously. That is, there is zero scientific evidence to suggest any of these Gods are real, though most people overwhelming favor one.
Yet, for no real reason, we are quick to call someone who professes a deep faith for Poseidon crazy while we would never challenge someone who profess a deep faith in the Judeo-Christian God. This is a double standard. We should challenge both, not be so politically correct, and be able to scrutinize all beliefs against what we know about the natural world. But we don’t because we are too religiously moderate – our propensity to give people with a belief in God a free pass from legitimate criticisms is too strong. This is deeply problematic, and I’d like to outline three reasons for this, which I draw from religious critic and neuroscientist Sam Harris.
The first problem with religious moderation is that it is “intellectually bankrupt.” When it comes to any legitimate academic subject, we evaluate its findings rationally. That is, we carefully look and its reason, test its hypotheses and try to replicate its findings. This is how academic progress happens. Psychology, for example, shifted from Freudian psychoanalysis, to Skinnerian behaviorism, to cognitivism over the last hundred plus years by using the scientific method. Now we know more about brain and behavior. The same story holds in any other academic subject – knowledge increases when old beliefs are challenged. The same cannot be said of virtually all religions because they are set up such that challenging its tenets is sinful, usually paid for with eternal damnation. If religious beliefs are not subjected to the same analyses as scientific ones they will remain dogmatic, static and “intellectually bankrupt.”
The second problem with religious moderation is that causes people (liberal westerners mainly) to understand something like suicide bombing, the mistreatment of women or homosexuals, or honor killings incorrectly. As Harris explains, when religious moderates see a jihadist say “we love death more than the infidel loves life,” and blows himself up (or herself), they tend to think that religion didn’t have a lot to do with it by citing socioeconomic, educational and societal reasons. This is incorrect. As scary as it is, there are many well-educated people who live in well-established communities who believe that blowing themselves up in the name of God is a good idea. I’m not denying that difficult cultural circumstances could play a role in fundamentalism, but consider this paragraph from a New York Times article a few years ago:
We examined the educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists behind some of the most significant recent terrorist attacks against Westerners. We found that a majority of them are college-educated, often in technical subjects like engineering. In the four attacks for which the most complete information about the perpetrators’ educational levels is available – the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the 9/11 attacks, and the Bali bombings in 2002 – 53 percent of the terrorists had either attended college or had received a college degree. As a point of reference, only 52 percent of Americans have been to college. The terrorists in our study thus appear, on average, to be as well-educated as many Americans.
Religious moderates must realize that well-educated and well situated people have strong, sometimes deadly beliefs.
The third problem with religious moderation is that it gives cover to the fundamentalists. If people want to say that everyone has the right to believe what they want and practice their own religion, they are allowing people to believe that anyone who isn’t a _____ (fill in your religion) will be damned to hell. In other words, they opening the door up for a whole number of harmful ungrounded beliefs. For example, religious dogmas are keeping stem-cell research, an incredibly promising field surely beneficial to human beings, from happening. Likewise, they are forbidding the use of condoms in Sub-Sahara Africa where there are extraordinary high rates of people dying from AIDS. Religious tolerance is a good idea, as is respecting other people’s beliefs, but there should be a limit.
To review, I believe that religious moderation is bad for three reasons: It is intellectually dishonest – we should scrutinize religious beliefs in the same way we scrutinize academic beliefs; it causes us to be blind to how powerful beliefs can be; and it allows cover for fundamentalists. Hopefully, we can be less politically correct and begin to criticize God in the same way we criticize any other idea.