The Value Of Religious Moderates And The Danger Of Isolating Religious And Political Fundamentalists

Recently Karen Armstrong is coming out with a book arguing for an extremely apophatic conception of God that rejects all manner of biblical literalism but still insists on some important reference to God and is critical of the New Atheists.  Recently she and Richard Dawkins both responded to a Wall Street Journal solicitation for their views on God in light of evolution. In a previous post, I quoted a Daily Dish reader advocating against Armstrong.  In reply to my post, in the comments section, VorJack of Unreasonable Faith fame

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I never feel knowledgeable enough about the Middle East to pronounce precisely on these issues.  So, as much as ever, I need Your Thoughts.

Your Thoughts?

2009/09/17/nuff-said-award-winner-a-daily-dish-reader/#comment-1452″ target=”_blank”>wrote the following:

Speaking practically, I don’t know if there’s enough difference between Dawkins’ “God in no way exists” and Armstrong’s “God in no way exists – but is nevertheless the most important reality” for Armstrong to work as a moderate. Folks like Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary are just lumping her in with the atheists.

And despite what Armstrong seems to think, people with her mystical approach to religion have always been in the extreme minority throughout history. I don’t think that’s likely to change.
So I don’t think Armstrong is likely to have much success in converting people, and so I generally consider her a side show without much chance of making it to the big tent.

If Armstrong ever brings any unity to the warring sides, it’s because atheists and fundamentalists are joining forces to beat up on the moderates.

HA, indeed.   This reminds me of my earlier post written in reply to your initial thoughts on Robert Jensen’s comparably vague God idea.  I personally acknowledge some value to the existence of the Armstrongs and Jensens in the world as a halfway house for religion itself as it hopefully might moderate generation by generation.  The moderates by staying within the faith at least have some pull with other believers (even if they become stigmatized for their abandonment of non-literalism, etc.) since they at least talk the language.  There is a danger of leaving religion only to the fundamentalists the way that the Republican party has now been left to them.  You see what happens when there are no moderates left and the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs and Sarah Palins are the only voices within the movement.  There is no countervailing reason and the lay people radicalize where they may have moderated due to the conflict and nuance among leaders with varying viewpoints.

So, similarly, if all the moderates went all the way to atheism then there would be greater social and intellectual pressures against fundamentalism.  While that might make it less attractive and atheism easier to accept, it also would also expose us to the fundamentalism backlash effect.  Fundamentalism, by its nature, seems to me to be reactionary.  It’s a reassertion of alleged “fundamentals” against perceived threats to identity.  It is a reaction that fears change as a form of obliteration of order and identity.  So, if all the moderates jump ship from a party or a religion, the remaining fundamentalists are susceptible to self-fulfilling prophecies that the world is against them.  They entrench in their insistence on their narrow, indisputable conception of the world while conscious of huge swaths of the culture at odds with them.  This only redoubles their reactionary determination.  And they now lack moderate voices that they at all identify with.

So, these are serious reasons to consider at least some moderates to be important allies even while thinking in a perfect world they should just be atheists helping us move on from faith based thinking altogether.  And, additionally, I really think there are many for whom simply saying no to their faith tradition decisively is not psychologically possible despite their complete disbelief for all intents and purposes. The Armstrongs and Jensens of the world accommodate them in a way that, yes, keeps them from just becoming atheists, but also keeps them from flipping back to fundamentalism as their only other option.  For me, moderateness was never an option, it would always have been sheer insincerity.  I had to be either a devout Evangelical or an atheist.  For many if their only other option is atheism they will go more fundamentalist but since they have moderate options, they stay there.  It’s better moderate leaders exist for those people.

Finally, the reasons to object to moderates are also twofold.  First, their leavening effects on religion also comes at the price of their helping provide institutional support and cover for religions that also breed fundamentalists who take the trappings of the tradition literally (and these are probably inevitable within any mythic tradition.) And secondly, and the occasion for the frustration of The Daily Dish reader I quoted in the previous post is that the moderates irritatingly characterize the atheists as doing more harm than good, as being obtuse to sophisticated theology and philosophy, and of being innately belligerent simply for speaking up for unequivocal, but vigorously rationally defended, beliefs.   It’s frustrating to have Karen Armstrong accusing Dawkins of superficiality when all she’s offering are poetic non-statements.  And more frustrating than that is when the moderates perpetuate the idea that anything but accommodationism is “militancy.”

The moderate temperament makes them hostile to passion in either direction and so they equate both passions, that of the fundamentalist and that of the uncompromising atheist, as irrational.  And similarly the atheist accommodationists seem particularly miffed that other atheists would bother to make an argument to them that they should stand up for atheism.  They tend to project an attitude that says, “What did I do wrong, I think like you, why are you complaining about me.” What they don’t realize but which the New Atheists do realize is that it’s not simply about your abstract positions but whether you help aid the cause of increasing rationalism and stem the tide of backlash irrationalistic fundamentalism.  And so where the moderate dislikes the adamancy and passion of both fundamentalists and New Atheists, the New Atheists and the fundamentalists both dislike the moderates’ seeming obliviousness to what’s at stake in these debates and the moderates’ seeming indifference to logical consistency and truth in general.  The New Atheists and the fundamentalists agree on one thing—that one side must be fundamentally right and the other fundamentally wrong and those in the middle are just fooling themselves.

I would rather the moderates, if they must fool themselves and they must be a moderating force within their religious traditions would at least do us logically consistent atheists the favor of not accusing us of just being motivated by hate or militancy and to stop equating us with being as irrational and badly informed as fundamentalists, and, finally, to stop telling us to shut up.  I recognize the moderates’ place as moderators.  I’d appreciate it if they’d appreciate ours the ones who give the strongest most unreserved pull against fundamentalism in the tug of war over the ethos of our culture and the world at large in the favor of rationalism in reason and politics and morality.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Mogg

    Hi Daniel,

    I’ve had a look at your website, partially because I liked your name when you started posting on Unreasonable Faith and partially from your interaction with Clergy Guy.
    I’m glad you brought up this subject, actually. As someone who has recently moved away from the aberrant fundamentalist end of Christianity, I find the commonly expressed view that moderate Christians are ‘fundamentalist enablers’ and ‘self-deluded and just can’t face the truth’ uncomfortable. I think that the moderates need to be there for probably the majority of those looking to move away from fundamentalism. It gives people an option to move in little steps, rather than feeling that their only choice is taking a leap out into something that they have always considered enemy territory. I don’t even think it’s bad if people stay there, if that’s where they are comfortable and they are doing some good or at least no harm to themselves or others (which is of course a very, very difficult thing to determine – too difficult to go into here). Certainly I couldn’t have moved on as successfully as I did without the support of what I think would be considered in the US to be a moderate church, which I am still happy to be a member of.
    For what it’s worth, I agree that moderate Christians should be more vocal about the stupidities and failures of their own house – even though that is difficult for the naturally moderate in temperament. I also think that the US style of Christianity in particular, and its influence elsewhere including in my own country, is anti-reason, and I have a big problem with that. So yeah, I agree with you that that moderate Christians should take a second look at what sceptics and atheists are saying about the world. I too would like to see an increase in rationalism. So I won’t tell you to shut up, even when I don’t agree with you :-)

  • Daniel Fincke

    Hey, thanks Mogg for coming by and for sharing your experience. I hope to see you around regularly in the future! And thanks in particular for putting flesh and bones (or at least virtual ones) on my hypothesis about the valuable role that moderates play. I am torn really. I do think it is important that they moderate and leaven faiths so that within them there is a greater sense of flexibility of faith. But I also look at the last 200 years since the initial emergence of modern liberal theology in Europe and I think that as much as it has created more contemporary and rational forms of religious belief and expression it has nonetheless not been able to stamp out fundamentalism but rather antagonized it almost as much as secularism into hardening itself. (In fact, moderate religion is in many ways just another form of secularization, another version of the process that imports elements hostile to theocratic faith, including by expanding political, epistemological, and moral authority to include all rational agents and not merely those sanctioned by religious power.)

  • Mogg

    Thanks Daniel, I’ll keep an eye on what you’ve got to say. You’ve got lots of good stuff here and lots of stuff that I find challenging.

    Ahh yes – “They’re not real Christians!” I have seen exactly that attitude expressed by my family (phrased in such a way that I have no doubt at all that people higher up told them so) in dismissal of criticisms of the group I am pleased to no longer be a part of. The move from far extreme to moderate still requires the individual to make a decision to challenge what their sub-culture says, it’s perhaps just not quite so far a leap.

    I’m a part-time psychology student, so I was interested when doing introductory social psych that some of the ‘classic’ research into group dynamics bears out my experience. Having intermediate views helps people to move from the extremes, but having only extremes tends to cause people to huddle closer to their companions even if they know they are wrong, particularly if they are a minority. I also found the difference in ‘spiritual styles’ interesting – I suspect that ‘questers’ are natural moderate types, and extremists are often of a different personality style. This could explain part of the disconnect between extremists and moderates, and also why moderates in general often both accuse atheists of being as bad as extremists (different personality shown in motivation and expression), and fail to see it as their job to address the extremists who claim the same faith. We all tend to want everyone to think the way we do, and this is just an example of that writ very large. It could also explain why there are some people who just never quite fit into the extremist camp – like me.