In my “What I Think About” series, I am offering readers concise overviews of my views on various important topics. I have already covered objective values, faith and religion, science and faith, and why I call myself a gnostic theist/agnostic adeist. Below I consider in some detail the challenges of supporting liberal and moderate religious people in their struggles to curb the influence of fundamentalism in their religions (and in our local and international politics and culture), while simultaneously opposing the irrationalism of liberals and moderates themselves. I also defend the New Atheist attacks on fundamentalism which treat its ideas seriously even though the more moderate and educated religious believers accuse them of picking on the wrong targets, the easy targets, and only the weakest formulations of their faiths:
Moderate or liberal theology can and should still be critically scrutinized.
Even when religious thinkers interpret their religions mythically, the myths are not automatically true or good. Saying the Bible is mythical should not spare it philosophical scrutiny.
Saying “Adam and Eve” are just mythic figures does not prove that the myth of the Garden of Eden is one which actually conveys truths about the human condition. Of course religious myths may sometimes be vindicated philosophically just as other works of art can be partially translated into some truthful propositions by art critics, theologians, psychologists, and philosophers. But I resent the deference to religious myths and traditions without argument, even when it comes from liberal and morally/politically progressive religious people. It is too uncritical when they assume that religious myths are somehow especially estimable or truthful and not merely influential myths among others, each to be assessed on its merits alone. I cannot stand the uncritical assumption that Jesus must have been a moral exemplar if nothing else.
Moderate and liberal religious people should take responsibility for their role in propping up the myths of their fundamentalist cohorts.
I agree somewhat with Sam Harris’s argument that moderate and liberal forms of religiosity help give a form of legitimation to the fundamentalists in their religion. When even the relatively skeptical people and freer thinkers that a religious fundamentalist knows still give lip service to their faith, it reinforces it. And often the more liberally (or simply philosophically) minded communicate to ordinary people in myths they do not literally believe. This has the effect that the philosopher, theologian, or the simple liberal believes some bare abstraction which would never keep the fundamentalist or the literalist or the superstitious in the pews, and yet the people in the pews do not realize this. They often do not realize what their priests or theologians or philosophically knowledgeable leaders and friends really mean when they use the words and stories they do.
Instead they take the faithfulness of the learned for evidence that their superstitions and falsehoods are vindicated and go on believing things that the educated would reject as idiocy or idolatry (or both). More liberal or more educated believers have a responsibility to disabuse their less progressive or less educated cohorts of their errors and to publicly disassociate themselves from such errors. When the New Atheists lay waste to fundamentalist sophistries and literalisms, the religious liberals who also do not believe in them should not say, “Hey pick on someone your own size! Stop taking cheap shots at the obviously dunderheaded!”, but instead they should applaud the vigorous attempt to disabuse people of falsehoods and closed-mindedness. They should thank the New Atheists for actively standing up publicly against the fundamentalists before they stake out whatever position against atheism that they want.
It is not a “low-blow” or beneath leading intellectual atheists to dissect and debunk the claims of literalists and other fundamentalists. As long as people are being actively miseducated week after week in Sunday School since the time they are children, there must be somebody with a megaphone or a book that can correct all the misconceptions, debunk the myths, disentangle all the false narratives, correct the science, denounce the intellectual vices they are being taught, educate about critical thinking, argue for a better metaethics and ethics, and show the flaws in religious ethics. Somebody has to aggressively make the case for secular values and for the value of political secularism (even for the religious). Somebody has to take seriously the sheer numbers and international socio-political influence of people duped by fundamentalist backwardness and authoritarianism in thought and value.
These are not merely academic issues. The fact that there already exists some scholarly treatise which has settled a philosophical or scientific issue is not enough. Popular books and outreach to actively counter what is an active process of misinformation are necessary. As long as deliberate inculcation of intellectual vices and of evasive ways of protecting prejudices at all costs is happening, there must be public teachers and advocates for more rigorous, cautious, and open-minded thought. Addressing the most intricate philosophical or theological defense of god is important for philosophers but so is going over the basics of facts and methods in public for the sake of an educated, autonomous, freethinking, ethical citizenry.
As long as people are in error about reality, they risk making bad choices about ethics, bad choices about politics, bad choices about who to trust in matters of knowledge and governance, and bad choices about how to live their lives best.
We have to care about the fundamentalists and all those who could be persuaded by them or who grow up indoctrinated by them and not consider addressing them beneath us.
We should not define religions by their fundamentalist strands, but aid progressives in their reformations of their religions while not allowing them to whitewash either the histories or the present stagnant/regressive states of their religions.
Religions are more than just sets of propositions. They are living, historical traditions of myths, rituals, communities, texts, symbols, etc. When debunking fundamentalists and literalists, it is valuable to take seriously their literal propositional beliefs and force them to confront all the ways they are internally contradictory, at odds with their own values, and discomfited with reality.
But the propositional, literalist believer is not the “true” instance of any religion. There is no way to mediate and determine what “true” Christianity or “true” Islam or “true” Hinduism are in propositional terms. These are cultural institutions, they have changed wildly over time and in different places and still can change in drastic unforeseeable ways. There is no reason to say a biblical or koranic literalist is truer to his or her religious tradition than someone who reads those texts allegorically or selectively or who rejects them entirely but still for some reason identifies with the religion.
If someone wants to argue that Islam is against political violence, let them! Who cares what is in the Koran or if it is a good literal interpretation of the text? If it will help the moderates and liberals in the religion to moderate the potential or actual fundamentalists (who would never even listen to non-Islamic appeals), then that is a good thing. When the liberals and moderates of a religion do not sit on their hands and let their fundamentalist brethren continue in errors but instead push for more rationalistic and more morally progressive interpretations, that is a good thing. And insofar as there is no right or necessary meaning to any of these religions, we should side with the interpretations of them that lead them to be more compatible with truth and good ethics and politics rather than less.
If people can use their existing religious forms to advance in actual truths and moral/poltiical progress, then, to that extent, at least their religions could even be said to be getting truer and more ethical—even if they still need to shed faith and authoritarianism about belief and practice in order to become the kind of religion I could even think of actively supporting.
Now, the dicey distinction is the following. There are debates about what a religion is like and what it should be like. When a liberal or a moderate really is trying to encourage people that they should see their faith in more rationalistic and more progressive terms, to see how it is compatible with such values, and actively encouraging for the future a more rational and humane approach to their religiosity, then this should be encouraged politically and intellectually. We should support the idea that religions can change and that they should be interpreted in the best ways possible.
But if appeals to the rationalism or moral goodness of a religion are attempts to describe what it is already and if these are ways of saying, “there is no need to reform or challenge this religion because it is already rationalistic and morally progressive” when in practice it really is not (or is not sufficiently so), then this must be opposed. There must be honest accounting of religions’ blameworthiness for their nasty habits, nasty hypocrisies, and nasty consequences. The religions cannot use slogans of peace and reason and goodness as mere ad campaigns and PR for what are actually stagnant swamps of faith-based authoritarianism and regressive values.
So, we should encourage anyone who says, “this religion can be recentered on more rational and progressive terms if it goes with a demonstrably better existing strand than another or if it rejects an actually unnecessary doctrine or accretion, etc.” But we should vigorously challenge anyone who says, “this religion is basically right and basically a source of goodness and worthy of the deference people give it without any drastic reform”, when in fact it is a faith-based mess of stagnation and regressiveness.
And this encouragement is consistent with frankness that we ultimately support an end to faith-based belief and practice. We can support the liberals and moderates against the fundamentalists and then turn around and challenge them on their own irrationalistic and faith-based errors when the topic of conversation changes.
This is not a world of good guys and bad guys. Just people on multiple spectrums who can tug-of-war both with each other one day and against each other the next day depending on whether there is someone further to one side of both of them in a way they both want to oppose and can do so together, on the one hand, or it is just the two of them there to tug of war with each other instead.
Posts in which I delve further into the views summarized in this post: