When Moderates Walk Away, the Bottom Falls Out
Yesterday I blogged on the dangers of modern religion. You can read it here if you like. I want to continue along that same train of thought. Today both politicians and the mass media are constantly blaming religious extremists for all of the problems that religions are causing in the world. While on the surface, this may be appear to be true, it is not the whole story. As writers and thinkers such as Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins, have at times stated, the moderately religious have a role to play in this story as well. That role is the part of the enabler. In this blog, I am going to focus mostly on Christianity in the U.S. It is what I am most familiar with. However, my argument can be extrapolated to any religion and country that you choose.
Do people like Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson, Cardinal Dolan, and others speak for all Christians in America? I would posit that they do not. The majority of Christians that I know do not agree with much of what the extremists preach. However, it is the moderately religious person who provides the foundation for the extremist pulpit. The fact of the matter is this: The majority of religious people in the U.S. are moderates. These moderates are the backbone of religion in this country. What they say, what they believe, and how they act will determine the future course of religions. It is time, in my opinion, that they understand their role in this tragic saga.
Before we get to our discussion of moderates and extremists it is important to discuss the relationship between reason and religion. Religion strongly discourages questioning of its leaders, dogma, and doctrines. In fact, the word “discourage” often does not go far enough. In many religions the questioning of leaders, dogma, and doctrine is against the rules—it is a “sin” or violation of “laws”. In many religions this offense, has at times, or in some religions is still, punishable by death. Questioning the faith is simply not allowed. In the Old Testament Yahweh routinely wiped out whole civilizations for consorting with other gods or no gods. How many millions of dead can we lay at the feet of Christianity for apostasy over the last two centuries? Islam does not hide the fact that apostasy is still punishable by death. It is a fact of life in much of the Muslim world. This is a fundamental problem for religion. People by their nature are inquisitive beings. Reason is a part of what we do and who we are as a species. Why would religions deny the right to question and reason? Or in the words of Martin Luther:
“Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom… Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism… She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets.”
—Martin Luther, Works, Erlangen Edition v. 16, pp. 142-148.
The answer is quite simple really. Think about your own life. I find, and find in others that I (or they) become most defensive about a position when I (or they) are unsure of their ability to back it up. It would appear to me that the less “sure” we are on a topic often, the more we dig in our heels in a defensive maneuver. In the opposite scenario, when I am sure on something I will welcome the discussion, questions about whatever we are talking about, etc. I do not become defensive in those scenarios. Religion has been on the defensive for centuries. Religious leaders have known for a long time that their dogma and doctrines will not hold up to close scrutiny. The route they chose was perhaps, the only one open to them if maintaining their religion was paramount. That route was, as we know, making it against the rules to question the leaders, dogma, and doctrine.
I made an important statement in the last paragraph that I want to devote a sentence or two towards. I stated that religious leaders know their dogma/doctrines cannot hold up to close scrutiny. I truly believe this. When I was younger before I left Catholicism, in high school for example, I wondered how people like the Pope could go to sleep at night knowing they are “full of it”. The Pope stands there every day and claims to be infallible when it comes to the dogma of the Church. The reality of the situation is that he is no different than me or you. He was elected from a group and put in power. When he speaks about dogma he must know that he could be wrong. In the same way that a scientist, who thinks he/she is right has to take into account that he/she could be mistaken. And, let’s be honest here, there is often a lot more evidence to back up our scientist’s position that the Pope’s. He is just one example. I firmly believe that every religious leaders knows in deep down inside that they are “full of it”. I digress—back to our topic.
What have religions replaced reason with? Faith. To me, it is such a vile and dirty word. Faith, by definition requires ignorance. To take something on faith, we have to admit one of two things or both. First, that we do not know an answer. Second, that we will not be asking the question any longer. Some combination of these two things is required by faith. This is abhorrent to me. Why would we, as inquisitive human beings who can figure out how to send people to the moon, unravel the mysteries of the double helix, and be mathematically astute enough to contemplate what happened before the Big Bang, willingly admit to stop questioning something and accept ignorance? There are three answers that come to mind. The first is laziness. I recognize that some of us are lazy and do not want to be bothered with figuring things out. I don’t like that idea, but it is a fact. The second is that we are too busy. Modern life is a struggle to get through the day at times. Wake up, get kids off to school, go to work, come home, drive kids to a,b,c,..etc. Many of us are pressed for time. The third is religion. Those of us who were brought up in religions have had it drilled into us that faith is a virtue. That it is a wonderful thing to take something (religion) on faith. That in fact, it is faith that makes this whole thing (religion) special—and separate from anything else on earth. The religious leaders of old realized, and have done a great job in passing down the idea that it is imperative to keep the flocks ignorant. That further, the best way to accomplish this task is to teach that faith is a virtue on the one hand and that questioning that faith is a “sin” on the other. If nothing else, this has to be the best PR job in history.
When discussing moderates and extremists the above conversation must be taken into account. The extremist buys everything that a religion stands for hook, line, and sinker. If they do not actually “buy” it, they are at least willing to play the part to further some other end. The moderate, while perhaps not “buying” everything, still struggles with the idea of questioning religion too deeply. As we have pointed out, it has been ingrained in them that it is wrong for them to do so. As atheists, we must realize this is one of the main “humps” that they may struggle getting over.
The moderates of religions often are, as the name implies, somewhere in the middle. They often do not agree with all tenets of their religion. Each of us knows Christians who support gay marriage, are pro-choice, and use contraception. They have found it acceptable to question their religion in some areas. I would urge them to continue that line of thought. If moderately religious people started to question the core of their religion’s dogma and doctrine, religions would, in relatively short order, cease to exist. Daniel Fincke (blogger at Camels with Hammers) made a great point in his blog yesterday (It was titled “Six Temptations Atheists Must Avoid” actually he made several good points, though I am only going to discuss one here. I recommend you read his entire post by clicking the link above). He pointed out that religious people are not stupid just because some of what they believe appears stupid. I would agree; they are not stupid. They are just not asking the questions or are not listening to the answers. It is important to note, that there is a difference between being unintelligent and uneducated. The moderately religious need to be encouraged to take their thinking further, to start asking the harder questions regarding their faith. It is my sincere belief that if that is done honestly, houses of worship would find increasingly less people in attendance.
The moderately religious are the people who are supporting the extremists. While they may not share the same views as the extreme members of their religions, by their passivity or acceptance of “faith as a virtue” they are allowing their religion to continue and to thrive. It is the moderates who keep religion strong. It is the moderate Christian who has not been to a mass since Christmas, who will attend an Easter service this weekend; then disappear until next Christmas that is as much a part of the problem as the extremist. It is the person who attends a religious service every week, rejects the extremist position, but continues to show up week after week, while never pausing to ask the hard questions that is as much a part of the problem as the extremist.
It is in this way that the extremist has a platform to preach to the moderate. Do not forget, it is the moderate that the extremist’s audience. The extremist is not preaching to other extremists, they are already on board. Nor is the extremist preaching to people of other faiths or atheists—they will never be on board. If the moderate walks away, the extremist’s pulpit crumbles. There is no one left to listen. A quick scenario: Cardinal Dolan has made it quite clear that the Church will not compromise on this whole contraception debate. What do you think would happen if he; and Priests all across the country showed up to mass one Sunday and found the pews empty? My guess…he would suddenly see a need to compromise. We could come up with many other similar scenes played out in all religions across the world. If the moderates walk away, the extremist platform crumbles.
Al Stefanelli opened a blog of his yesterday with the following quote, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” – Thomas Jefferson. In the U.S. today religions are trying desperately to rewrite so many laws it is becoming harder and harder to keep track of them. If we, as atheists, do not want to live in a society that is so heavily influenced by the religious, we must do our part. I realize that there many atheists out there who shy away from activism, who have not “come out” to friends and family, and/or want nothing to do with politics and just want to be left alone. I realize that I do not have many religious people reading my blog. Taking those two things into account, I would challenge my fellow atheists this Easter season with the following: Ask one religious person you know one hard question about their faith and have a discussion. The time of Easter is a good time to do this. Religion is on the mind of most Christians, and at least in the U.S. most citizens are Christian. If you have not “come out” to your friends and family, you can still accept this challenge. It is after all, only a discussion. In fact, it is the type of discussion I had with friends and family before I left Catholicism and it is the type of conversation that led me to the conclusion that I was an atheist. You need not “come out” to have this type of discussion. They key to success here is to address a moderate theist. Taking on an extremist, will most likely not get you far.
If we do not want to be an example of Jefferson’s quote, if we do not want to have religious concepts dictated to us in our laws, then we need to act in some way. I have argued that if the moderates walk away from religion, the bottom falls out. Imagine what could happen if every atheist had a conversation with one moderate theist they know, and that theist started to question his/her faith… It is not hard to have a conversation with a friend or family member and the results could have quite an impact.
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