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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.

  • I draw largely from Sam Harris’ book “The End of Faith.” Here is an excellent talk about it. I believe his views should be heard more.
20 Comments Post a comment
  1. I disagree with a few of your premises:

    “…That is, there is zero scientific evidence to suggest any of these [pagan] Gods are real, though most people overwhelming favor one.”

    Religion and/or deities are not worshiped and honored for their provability but for the values we believe they expect us to live by. We believe, through reason and study of history that certain values should be passed down in order to maintain the foundations of our very existence.

    “…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.”

    The word Israel means, “struggle with God”. Abraham questioned God directly (as the story goes) and God did not strike him down for his hubris but he listened to him and explained himself to Abraham. It is a myth propogated by those with a superficial knowledge of the Bible that to question and doubt is a sin.

    On the rest of your post, I tend to agree that we should criticize God just as we criticize any other idea. As a student of the human body, if I differ with a particular diet, exercise, coaching tactic, etc, I draw from my experience, education and further research to explain where I differ. I posess a certain degree of expertise on that which I comment. I find this to be the case in all other areas save for religion. It seems anybody who ever got slapped on the wrist by a nun or had overbearing religious parents feel adequately justified in offering a perspective that is widely accepted by the anti-religion community. I don’t see my objection as special pleading; I just agree that as we demand a certain level of authority from those who make assertions about any idea in science, philosophy, economics, etc, we should also vet our sources on religion.

    October 19, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Good comment. I’ll try to stay organized and succinct

      1) Fair enough, but this gets dangerous when values such homosexually is morally wrong go unchecked. Love thy neighbor should get passed down because it is very reasonable. Killing homosexuals for being homosexual shouldn’t because it is very unreasonable. “Certain values” should get passed on, as long as they are reasonable.

      2) I simply reject the notion that the Bible says it is ok to question. In Luke 19, for example, Jesus says “enemies of mine who did not want me king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me.” All the Abrahamic religious are set up such that it is sinful to question the religion itself. You can, of course, but prepare to die is basically the consequence.

      3) When it comes to the history of Christianity or the Bible then yes, it would be wise to listen to those who are close to religion. When it comes to morality, well-being, human flourishing, values and how to live, I think we should listen to science.

      October 19, 2011
  2. Sorry for the length of the message. I wanted to post as my own blog response, but don’t necessarily have the proper outlet. So I posted here.

    I agree that a progression of religious/spiritual thought can only be gained through discourse and agreed upon evidence. I’m cautious around the term scrutiny though. I don’t believe that blatant scrutiny will produce the results you desire. I also think direct scrutiny will invite others to bring your inherent beliefs to the fore, via reciprocation. The result — and hopefully benefit (progress) — will be that your underlying beliefs are scrutinized in return and your belief structure makes a fundamental shift. However, I think this can be produced through dialogue, a conversation, as opposed to aggressively attacking (I’m using as a synonym for scrutinizing) one another’s fundamental beliefs.

    And so my religious moderation comes out, and I will take an example you illustrated above to expand my point. Freud’s psychodynamic theory is largely based on the subjective experiences of a person. Behaviorism and cognitive sciences are measured studies on objective behaviors of people, and came about through scientific methods. Subjective experiences are messy, illusive, mercurial. They are not easily measured. Yet their existence is undeniable (I obviously have thoughts, feelings, and beliefs). To measure them, however, we must make them objective — I can tell you my experience or you can infer it through my facial expressions and behaviors. At that point, the objective measurement is already 2-3 steps removed from my direct subjective experience. Behaviorist and neuro-scientific methods came through the means to understand more about experiences, but had to approach it from a quantifiable means. Psychological science produced — and is producing — many profound results regarding human nature, and has made remarkable correlations between patterns of behavior and certain experiences. Yet, we still cannot equate subjective experience with objective behaviors or measurements. They are not the same.

    My position is this: the best we can do is hold both as important to understanding psychology. As flawed as some of Freud’s positions were, his ideas still hold tremendous power and influence in psychological thought. Likewise, as precise and accurate as behavioral and cognitive sciences are, they cannot describe my experience right now in this moment — only I can with the limited self-monitoring and expressive capacities I have. Yet if you put these two theoretical perspectives in discourse . . . pshew . . . you double the power of understanding psychology. That can only happen if they come to the table willing and able to both listen AND talk. Then, the strengths of each side can be honored while the weaknesses can be questioned and let go.

    Whether we like it or not, we all hold underlying beliefs that are not necessarily true. When was the last time you experienced your beliefs being scrutinized? It could be right now as you are reading this comment. Did you accept your beliefs were false and adopt the other side’s position outright? I’m going to guess no, and I wouldn’t expect that response from anyone else – except possibly someone with symptoms of depression (I won’t get into that here). Instead, an approach that allows for progress is one that is aware of and is willing to examine the underlying beliefs/assumptions of both sides, and makes the assumption that both sides can progress further.

    When you talk about scrutiny, I hear “if we can make a strong enough case that their wrong, they’ll have to believe us” –perhaps a little exaggerated. A little self-awareness shows that belief as inaccurate. I believe a more powerful impact might be had by coming into discourse with others with opposing beliefs wondering what aspect of my – or our, or your – will be challenged in this interaction. In other words, what dimension of this topic am I missing? Where’s my blind spot on this? When I am capable of doing this, I find that I come across as more accessible and actually more persuasive than coming in with a loaded gun.

    October 19, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      1) Many times, it is a good idea to understand the assumptions and beliefs of both sides before an exchange. But sometimes this is a bad idea when it comes to religion. For example, it is a bad idea to try and understand the beliefs and assumptions of someone who believes that blowing themselves up is a good idea and will give them 72 virgins and passage to heaven. We have enough knowledge from brain and social sciences to know that those ideas are harmful to persons and communities. It is also a bad idea to try and understand someone like Terry Jones – the minister who wanted to burn Qurans. Again, we know enough from science to know that that is bad for well-being and human flourishing. Consider this. Would you ever take time to consider the underlying beliefs and assumptions of a scientist (who is alive today) who sincerely thought the Earth was flat? Who believed that the Sun moved around the Earth? Or that the Earth was 6000 years old? No. You would call him crazy. Likewise, when we know that religious beliefs or assumptions are ridiculous, like those of suicide bombers and Terry Jones, it is useless to try and understand them in the same way it is useless to try and understand a scientist who thinks that the Earth is flat.

      2) I’m not interested in converting people. So your are wrong to paraphrase me as saying “if we can make a strong enough case that their wrong, they’ll have to believe us.” I am interested in promoting more rational thinking, especially when it comes to religion and religious beliefs. If we stick with your watered down politically correct discourse we will go nowhere.

      3) Not sure what you are trying to say in regard to the Freud example. But a few corrections. You don’t double the power of understanding when you combined the subjective experience as reported by the subject with what we know from cognitive psychology. One of the major findings in cognitive psychology is that subjective reports are notoriously inaccurate. Yes, we are still a long way from having a full understanding of the subjective experience – or, Qualia as some have termed it – but relying on it e.g., “the best we can do is hold both,” is a bad idea. The quantifiable stuff is much more important.

      Thanks for the comment

      October 20, 2011
      • What if you can’t stop irrational thinking?

        October 20, 2011
        • sammcnerney #

          No one is entirely rational (or even close), and you could never stop irrational thinking. However, history is clearly showing that humans are becoming more and more rational (if your standards for rationality are well-being, human flourishing, decrease in violence, increase in peace, increase in education, health care, earnings, etc.)

          October 20, 2011
      • I beg to differ on your “correction” to #3. If cognitive psychology can lend its wisdom to a person who is “notoriously inaccurate” in articulating experience and support them in articulating them clearer, then the understanding of qualia benefits. Yet the “quantifiable stuff” likewise relies on qualitative/subjective experience. It has zero meaning otherwise. I can look at a bunch of EEG readings and they would tell me absolutely nothing if I had no knowledge of the person, the context, and what was happening during the readings. Even “objective science” cannot escape reliance on qualitative reasoning. A scientist has to interpret the data with the best understanding they have to make the data meaningful, and we hope that scientist has an accurate understanding of their qualitative experience as well (complete with limits, assumptions and biases), right?

        October 20, 2011
        • sammcnerney #

          Certainly, subjective reports are helpful and in many studies necessary. However, EEG or fMRI data can tell you a lot how a brain works without knowledge of the participant and context. This happens in virtually every neuroscience study. The only personal information labs record are things like gender, date of birth, race, primary language, and handedness. They don’t care about the subjective experience of the study.

          Of course, labs certainly need to know what is happening during the readings, otherwise the data is useless.

          October 20, 2011
          • Hey Sam. Just wanted to say thanks for the convo and debate. I certainly agree with many of your points, and for some reason felt frisky to take on several of the others. I appreciate your skill in responding articulately to my rantings.

            October 26, 2011
            • sammcnerney #

              Likewise Matt, look forward to your comments in the future

              October 27, 2011
  3. Sam,
    Quick comment now, to be expanded on when I’m more able: don’t look now, but classifying Zeus et al with God is committing a category mistake. It’s like saying “most bananas are atheists.” In the immortal words of Vincent Vega, to be continued.

    October 20, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Look forward to it Fred, as always.

      October 20, 2011
      • I have to say, Sam, you’re too reasonable and pleasant to argue with and so I heartily abjure my position.



        Just kidding.

        October 20, 2011
  4. Is a cult know by the name of its Gods or how a god is worshiped. Lots of the current cermony around military funerals for example is more in the tradition of Odin than a Iron Age Jewish guy, even if he has transformed himselves into an Adonis type fertility figure with Buddist undertones manifested as the late Roman Empire state religion. As the three Fates or is it the male trinity or is Sophia a white bird or word.

    As the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Wonderful article from a moderate Dawkinonian.

    October 20, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Thanks for the comment Patrick

      October 20, 2011
  5. Very clever way of making your point. I find that this is why the study of religion is so important. You could look at the vaious myths and parables across the globe and discount them all or you could do as I do and make it the subject of a life in spiritual curiosity. I practice my own Roman Catholic Faith quite actively but I know that theology alone does not define a faith. Just as with matters of health and medicine, there are several modalities but they do not render eachother obsolete. The way in which God has revealed himself to his people does not need to be uniform in order to be effective to carry out God’s will on Earth. It is when the lazy or self-serving mininterpret or manipulate the revelation and scripture to carry on with their own agenda that the theological inconsistencies are of any consequence.

    October 20, 2011
  6. I had written two paragraphs of what amounts to an apologetic for religion and why it was not unreasonable to have both a belief in God and science (God knows better and infinitely more intelligent men and women than I have no problems living such a life) but I thought, eh, to hell with it.
    You’re an intelligent guy, Sam. If you really wanted to investigate what the ramifications of a belief in God were, you’d know where to find the source material. If you wanted to understand the repercussions of atheism, what the ontology (NOT epistemology) of objective morality was, you’d know which stones to unturn. If you wanted to truly understand, you’d find a way. Nothing I’d say would make much of a difference. Maybe a little, but after spending all that time in school, presuming you learned anything(!), what could I do, really?
    So, bon chance my friend. Let’s busy our minds with talk of other things, women (men?), wine, song.

    October 21, 2011
    • I like your perspective, Fred. Here I am arguing with someone with the desire to change his mind. Then, your comments remind me that much more intelligent folks that Sam is capable of finding could shift Sam’s mind with much more sophistication and persuasion. Thanks. My ego needed it.

      October 26, 2011
      • The mind is a powerful force, and it offres another way for us to experience the world beyond our physical interaction. Abstract thought in humans is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes we can get lost in our thoughts and get distracted from the real world around us. This eBook sounds like a good way to eliminate negative thoughts and ramp up the positive aspects. However I would also advocate physical exercise, to provide a comprehensive and balanced experience of the world. Thought provoking stuff Daniel, thanks for the heads up.JohnLeamington Spa, England

        December 19, 2012
  7. – I have been thinking this FOR YEARS. I am so glad that you took the time to put this on your weibtse to spread the message to others. You touch so many people with your weibtse. What a great way to spread a wonderful message. Thank you. Blessings.November 18, 2008 9:26 am

    December 19, 2012

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