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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/7/09

Religious Moderation

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Originally posted:

I largely agree with Sam Harris that religious moderation 1) gives cover to fundamentalism by arguing that people's religious beliefs should be respected regardless of evidence, 2) is intellectually bankrupt in that the justification it gives for holding beliefs about objective reality is the comfort or meaning those beliefs provide, and 3) is scripturally bankrupt in that religious moderates pick the parts of their traditions that they like and simply ignore those parts that they don't.1 If you're going to pick and choose your beliefs based on something other than what your given religious texts says, why be a Christian, for example, at all? Why not just be an individual and study the Bible the way you study the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Iliad, the various Buddhist writings, world literature, the philosophical works from every age and culture, etc? Why limit yourself? And perhaps more importantly, why distinguish yourself from the rest of humanity in this manner?

Tobin discusses a danger in liberal Christianity:

"Indirectly however liberals do cause harm-by providing the main raw material, lukewarm Christians, as potential converts for fundamentalist churches. In his book The Mind of the Bible Believer, psychologist and ex-fundamentalist, Edmond Cohen, mentioned the 'bait and switch' method of these conversions. By firstly presenting a benign persona of the Bible, using the word 'love' a lot, fundamentalist Churches are able to attract lukewarm believers who are already predisposed to believe in this. Once they are 'in' of course, the 'sugar coating' disappears. This is what Dr. Cohen remarked about the role of the liberal churches here:

'Ironically, the liberal preachers of the mainline denominations, by talking themselves and their followers into the notion that they had found something contemporary and gratifying for the Bible to mean, set their people up to become recruits for the new, conservative Christian hucksters. Between the attempted liberal redefinition of the Bible message and the host of distracting features to be observed in conspicuous manifestations of incomplete biblical indoctrination, the present-day Evangelical American simply does not know what he is looking at when he encounters a conservative Christian group...The misleading biblical surface impressions are not inadvertent. Initial recruitment contacts could not succeed without them. A short description of Device I [The Benign Persona of the Bible-PT], is that a colossal bait-and-switch sales pitch is worked on the new believer.'

(Cohen, The Mind of the Bible Believer: p171.)"

It seems to me that problems with liberal Christianity are that it is arbitrary, involves idol worship, masks the truth, and supports conservative Christianity. Many liberal Christians may have no idea why I speak out against Christianity when "Jesus just taught love." The question is, of course, which Jesus are you talking about? The Jesus created by liberal Christianity taught love, but neither the historical Jesus, the biblical Jesus, nor the Jesus created by conservative Christianity would seem to be primarily about love. Liberal Christianity is arbitrary in that its references to Jesus and the Bible are largely vestigial and add nothing of significance to an otherwise humanist outlook-like the appendix its biggest contribution to the system is that it gets in the way. It's idol worship in that it uses Jesus as the model of love instead of seeking the virtue of love independently and unfettered-or more generally, it focuses on a person instead of on life and virtue directly. It masks the truth in that the Jesus it presents is not historical and its presentation of the Bible is not critical-it doesn't incorporate contemporary scholarly understandings when presenting the Bible to people. It supports conservative Christianity by gaining influence for Christianity in general and softening people up for the conservative Christian worldview-both in the general political arena, with individual ideas, and by providing the "main raw material" that conservative Christians convert to their position. In other words, at best it seems empty of unique ideological content (humanism with a Christian coating) and at worst it seems to serve as the PR face of a monster. I am reminded of Confucius's words, "The town worthies are the spoilers of virtue." They don't do anything wrong for you to point out, but through their lack of concern for virtue they do harm.

It seems to me that religious moderation is doomed to failure, since it doesn't have a strong ideological base. Perhaps such liberal groups will one day become secular humanitarian organizations with no unique ideology at all-Christian, for example, in name only. If liberal groups come to speak out more loudly and clearly against fundamentalism, however, they may prove to be powerful allies against it. It certainly seems to me that certain segments of the population are probably more likely to be persuaded to oppose fundamentalism by a Chris Hedges or a John Shelby Spong than a Sam Harris or a Richard Dawkins. And while the tolerance provided faith by moderates may give shelter to fundamentalism, it's not necessarily the case that religious moderates themselves do. Because it seems to me that religious moderates do criticize fundamentalists-for their obsession with tradition, their anti-intellectualism, and their categorical intolerance of other worldviews. If they can get more organized around and clear about their opposition to fundamentalism, which would be in their own interest to do, I would welcome them as good bedfellows. All religious groups do provide a source of fellowship and community, and I can appreciate this. But can either religious fundamentalism or religious moderation fly in the long run? I doubt it.

1 This is from a fantastic speech that Harris gave at the 2005 Idea City conference in Canada:

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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)
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