empathy for “the moderates”

the following post, along with POI’s recent podcast with Austin Dacey have helped me re-think some of my views towards the moderately religious.

writerdd (of the skepchick blog) had this interesting post which i respect since it’s coming from an open and skeptical mind:

Should We Embrace Moderate Christianity?

Ok, maybe not embrace, but befriend?

This afternoon on a whim I bought a book from the new books display at my local bookstore (what else is new, right?). The title is The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church. I’m on page 53 right now, and I had to stop to think and write about something that’s been on my mind since Sam Harris’s first book came out. I’ve been thinking about it even more since I read about half of Chris Hedges’s latest while having coffee at the bookstore a few weeks ago (I decided not to buy it).

Here’s the question: Is fundamentalism the authentic religious voice?

We’ve discussed this several times here on Skepchick. My current thoughts are below the fold…

My answer is “no”…. but I seem to be in the minority of opinion.

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.

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).

I really have no answers today, I just wanted to share a bit about what was on my mind. I would like to think that Jimmy Carter John Shelby Spong, not James Dobson, is the better example of authentic Christianity. I would like to make people who value the compassion of Christ, not people who value the punishment of the law, spokespersons for faith. I would like to make fundamentalism irrelevant, and the way to do that may include taking a more positive view of those with liberal interpretations of their religion.

Sam Harris and many others often claim that moderate religious groups give cover to fundamentalists by honoring the holy books that they use to build their walls of doctrine. I used to agree, but now I’m not so sure that’s true. No, we shouldn’t have to respect beliefs that are based on a foundation of straw, but we can respect people who share many of the same goals that we do, even if we do not share the same beliefs regarding religion. Just because I think all religion is a waste of time, doesn’t mean I have to think that all believers should be shunned or ridiculed.

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 think I’d like to befriend people with this type of faith and work together with them to keep fundamentalism in check, to preserve the separation of church and state, and to protect the benefits of a scientific and secular society. I’d like to see society become less polarized, not more. I’d like to see people talking to each other instead of fighting with each other.

So what’s the skeptical way to look at this issue? I really don’t know. But I think that asking hard questions is a good place to start.

the following comment represents the opposite position quite well. b.dewhirst said:

  • So long as people are allowed to uncritically regard the Bible as a “good book” which teaches real lessons about moral philosophy, there will be those who read the portions which call for genocide, the execution of homosexuals, and which call for women to remain silent in public.Furthermore, these moderates are more than happy to join ranks against agnostics and atheists.

    Christianity enjoys an overweening privilege in conversation and culture, a default deference which allows the religious to get away with everything from a conspiracy to conceal repeated child molestation to the refusal to provide children with modern medicine… and while it may be fundamentalists who perform these actions, it is the moderates who enable them.

Furthermore, these moderates are more than happy to join ranks against agnostics and atheists.

i’m all for making bridges between people with different beliefs, promoting dialogue and steering away from black and white thinking. but i’m also for a slow, steady shift in the zeitgeist of religious belief towards a general skepticism of the supernatural and promotion of good science. i admit i still lean towards the camp of dawkins and harris, though. letter to a christian nation summarizes many issues that “respect for the moderates” approach most likely cannot remedy.


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