The inevitable breakdown of religious moderation


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 14 August 2010 Updated: whenever

This is my opinion. If you wish to communicate your opinion regarding this topic, you can contact me at cdoswell at - either use the email hyperlink or cut and paste after replacing _at_ with @). However, if you're not willing to have your comments posted here, along with my response, don't waste my time or yours.

There’s a widespread use of the rationalization that religious fundamentalists are some sort of insane minority that are not representative of the 'true' believers. This is especially so with christianity and islam. When an atheist, such as I, brings up the excesses for which religions are responsible, we’re told that this is the work of an evil minority that has distorted the true belief (which embraces peace, love, and tolerance). I want to consider the accuracy and relevance of this idea.

The major religious faiths (christianity, islam, and judaism) all have their sacred texts (the bible's old and new testaments, the koran). In each of these putatively 'holy' documents, the idea is put forth that in order to be a true believer, one must believe in the supremacy of the deity within that religion. In fact, they all contain some words to the effect that "If you’re not with me, you’re against me." This necessarily means a pretty much black and white view of religious faith - and was a catchphrase of the G.W. Bush administration. It's a defining characteristic of monotheistic religions.

Also within these documents are various injunctions for true believers: apart from such trivia as dietary restrictions, there are admonitions that homosexuals must be killed, unbelievers must either be converted or killed, women must be subservient to men, and so on. These elements of the major monotheistic religious faiths have their origins in a time thousands of years ago when societies were, to put it mildly, rather more brutal than we are now. The moderate followers of all the major religious faiths must somehow explain away these barbaric aspects of their sacred texts. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, take all of the sacred texts literally, despite the numerous internal contradictions within those documents. Fundamentalists embrace the repulsive, barbaric elements just as readily as the elements espousing tolerance, peace, and love. How one can reconcile the contradictions within all religious scriptures is beyond my understanding, but I have to concede that fundamentalists are at least consistent about taking literally everything within those documents.

Moderates, on the other hand, are challenged by the contradictions. They can adopt a variety of strategies for explaining away the vicious barbarity of their holy scriptures: they can choose only to take literally those parts of the texts that are aligned with their position of moderation, they can describe the texts as allegorical and not really word-for-word truth, and so on. In effect, they’re taking a position that's not fully in accordance with the supposed wishes of their chosen deity. Atheists describe this as a sort of 'cherry-picking' from the sacred texts. Moderates feel they can choose to embrace only some of content from their holy scriptures.

In a pluralistic, democratic society that protects the rights of minorities, a full range of religious beliefs is possible, so here in the USA, moderates (at the moment) are free to choose their own interpretations of their holy documents. Even clerics in these religions are free to interpret their scriptures as they see fit, and clerics have the power to influence the actions of their congregations. Freedom of (and from) religion is guaranteed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights in the United States, in which the separation of church and state is a fundamental policy allowing this diversity. Once states begin to merge with religion, then an erosion of someone's religious freedom is inevitable. History is replete with stories of religious persecution, imposed on minority religions by the dominant ones. This is an inevitable consequence of the "You’re either with me or against me!" character of all major montheistic religions. Religions are much more likely to clash with each other than with atheists, because they can't tolerate a different version of a deity, or even a different version of the rituals by which the deity is worshipped.

Moderates find themselves in their church/synagogue/mosque mouthing words of unswerving faith, obedience, and belief in all of the doctrines within their religion of choice. Among those doctrines is always an enmity toward all other versions of religion. So long as society maintains a barrier between church and state, this enmity is not given state sanction and support. Take a look at the theocracies in the world today, and you see the consequences of lowering the barrier between church and state. We are currently in the midst of an undeclared war between islam and judaeo-christianity – the continuation of an earlier war which began when Islam became powerful enough to represent a threat to christianity. Antisemitism lies mostly quiet today in the christian-dominated world, but it's far from gone (and certainly is in ascendency in the islamic-dominated world), and should islam's threat diminish in the future, many christians once again will be at odds with jews.

When religion and the state combine forces, a goal being actively sought by fundamentalist christians today (like their twins, the muslim fundamentalists), the challenge to religious moderation becomes acute. Should fundamentalists gain ascendancy via state-sanctioned authority, they inevitably see themselves as obligated to force the moderates to choose: you're either with us or against us. There can be no middle ground! That’s the inescapable nature of all the monotheistic religions. Tolerance simply is not possible for the 'true believer'. That's what is written in the sacred texts, and that's how it will unfold. Moderation won’t be permitted to exist – only a dichotomy between the faithful and infidels is acceptable.

Moderates are people who, among other things, find the barbarity explicit in their sacred documents to be unacceptable, and in a free society they can get away with embracing the faith without embracing the logical implications contained within their beliefs. Faith is the logical opponent of reason. Faith doesn’t ask for acceptance, it demands it! Faith doesn’t request obedience without question, it requires it! Faith doesn’t respect evidence, it explicitly rejects any evidence that contradicts the tenets of that faith! Your montheistic religious faith contains barbaric elements which, if put into practice, will require that you either participate or stand aside and watch as others carry out repulsive actions, or perhaps suffer punishment (even including your death) for your opposition. Is that what you want from your faith?

The idea of a deity controlling our world and watching over us is comforting to many believers. Perhaps faith in a deity is their way of dealing with life’s problems, so moderate believers want to accept this benefit without accepting the barbaric requirements of monotheistic religions. But where are the moderate muslims, giving loud voice to their repudiation of the murderous acts of islamic extremists? Their voices are mostly absent. Where were the moderate christians decrying the persecution of the jews by the Nazis? Cowed into submission and many were probably not all that unhappy with persecution of the jews, anyway. Moderates are inevitably swept into one bin or the other by extremists when they come to power: they're either cowed into silent acceptance of barbarity or killed. Religious moderates profess their belief in dogmatic rituals, but there might come a time, should the fundamentalists ever gain the power they seek, when they'll be required to abide by the oaths and creeds of their faith. That’s the word of their deity as expressed in their sacred scriptures, to be put into physical actions by extremists, if they can. Every major religion has its extremists, of course - there's no religion without them. The extremists of all monotheistic religions constitute the greatest threat to freedom around the world today! Moderation is not going to be allowed, if the extremists get their way. Moderate believers should look carefully at the price they'd have to pay for their beliefs if extremists get their way. They should consider the consequences of accepting the contents of their 'holy scriptures' without question.

There’s a reason why the years of the dominance of christianity in Europe are known as the Dark Ages. There’s a reason why the emergence from the Dark Ages is known as the Enlightenment. There’s a reason why the founders of the United States espoused separation of church and state. Moderates need to weigh the value of submitting to barbaric belief systems against the moral values that cause them to reject the literal truth of barbaric content in their sacred texts. They should begin to think about the result associated with having faith in a deity who demands unquestioning obedience, expects worship without a single tangible shred of evidence for his divinity, and is inexorably seeking total dominion by converting or killing everyone in the world.