Religious moderates and liberals come in many stripes. In this post I want to talk about a couple of related kinds of religious moderates or liberals and why they irk me. In order to do that, I want to draw some distinctions that I do not think I see anyone else making but which it will be helpful to get clear on.
Often when atheists distinguish between and criticize religious conservatives, moderates, and liberals we are referring to their religious beliefs and their relative degrees of traditionalism and inflexibility. But there are at least two other ways to be conservative, moderate, or liberal. Aside from the relative conservativeness or liberalness of the contents of one’s beliefs there are the different ways one holds one’s beliefs (mindfully or peripherally) and the different ways one practices one’s beliefs (more conscientiously or more conveniently).
The normal paradigm case of conservative religious believers conceives of them as people who are committed to strongly religious-specific beliefs which they hold and think about often and with great fervor, and which influence their lives and religious practices in deep ways. Moderates are often assumed to be people whose beliefs are a mixture of traditional religious thought moderated by secular influences. Since they are thought to be open to more sources of insight outside their religions and open to changing their minds, their religious practice is often assumed to be less austere and more secular and it may sometimes be assumed that their beliefs may be held less fervently since they are subject to modification.
Finally, there are tendencies to think that liberal believers do not hold their beliefs very strongly since they deviate so much from the most conservative or traditional versions of their faiths. And if central doctrines or tenets of their faith are negotiable then it also seems reasonable that austere religious practices would be less absolutely necessary and binding, and so they can live with a looser commitment to religious obligations and practices, or acknowledge relatively few of them at all.
Now surely some religious conservatives, moderates, and liberals fit these models but people are much more complicated and less logical than all this. And understanding how they diverge from these models helps understand why many of us New Atheists are wary of many religious moderates and liberals.
So, how do people deviate from these standard models and what are the negative consequences of this?
For one thing, I find that many people who are loose about religious practice and who do not typically put much thought or care into defining or defending their religious beliefs, often nonetheless hold surprisingly conservative religious beliefs by default. Not having put much thought or effort into their religion, they defer to their religious authority figures as unquestioningly as most of us defer to scientists on scientific questions. Quite often these apparently nominal believers even prove willing to let religious authorities trump or augment scientific knowledge. Even though their religious beliefs are not always on their mind or distinctly influencing most of their daily practices, they have an ingrained allegiance to their religious identities and many of their religion’s doctrines—at least in principle.
They usually won’t initiate religious conversations but when they feel pushed into them by challenges to the contents of their beliefs, they will respond with frustration, confusion, defensiveness, and assertiveness about their beliefs. Sometimes their views will swing to some of the least sophisticated (and often least coherent and informed) versions of their faiths. Quite often, out of cluelessness, they will unintentionally say things that their own theologians, who they intend to agree with, would consider heretical. But if they are caught up to speed on what they are supposed to believe, they will unhesitatingly assent to it. They will essentially believe as told by religious authorities. If confronted with an awful or illogical or counter-intuitive belief that their religion typically asserts and of which they are ignorant, they will be confused but reflexively assume that their religious authorities have satisfactory answers even though they themselves do not know them.
Their beliefs will be hardly liberal or moderate in the sense of tempered by secular philosophy and science. They will believe syncretistic religious nonsense which credulously jumbles up numerous mythic and symbolic and superstitious patterns of thought they have picked up and will try to develop and defend versions of their faith that are as literalistically supernatural as the most devout believer’s. They will be haphazard in making concessions in debates based on their spotty understanding of what parts of their faith are supposed to be most important and which parts are considered more debatable.
And despite not being generally fervent or outspoken about their beliefs or devoutly committed to regular religious practices, there may be any number of specific hot buttons where they become fiercely religious. Their religion serves certain cognitive and emotional purposes and when they need it they may suddenly think and act very devoutly, even though they are spiritually lackadaisical and disobedient to their religion when it is not immediately relevant to their daily life. For example I knew one Catholic woman who never went to church and who found my family’s outspoken evangelicalism creepy and annoying, but when her daughter ran away from home and her best friend suddenly got cancer she was at church everyday. And recently when the Catholic Church started making political waves by insisting on its rights to be exempt from laws it does not like involving contraception, a disquieting many pro-contraception Catholics snapped in line to defend their regressive Church—seemingly as a matter of identity politics and reflexive, conservative loyalty to the Church’s authority.
These quietly, selectively, and conveniently pious people provide religions with their presently impenetrable numbers advantage over non-believers everywhere that religions have a lot of social and political clout. These are the people who evade the rigors of serious religious commitment while also not taking their beliefs seriously enough to ever be confronted with all the serious reasons to doubt them. The fundamentalists who treat fervency of belief and committed, religiously infused daily practice as central to religiosity deride these mushy headed and spiritually lazy people and question their seriousness and sincerity of belief and piety.
But it is these, the silent lazy majority of believers, that give religions a serious “voting bloc” in the American culture wars and which give religions their hegemonic cultural and political power in other nations the world over. It is these believers who make religion easy enough on themselves that they do not feel it a great burden to faithfully make sure their kids are indoctrinated and kept in the fold and that their religious authorities have inordinate social power. Even though they do not satisfy the fundamentalists’ desires of full surrender to their faith, these sorts of loose religious believers and practitioners do their religion favor enough by keeping their religious identities, by passing on their faith identity to their kids (any of which may just turn out surprisingly fundamentalist), by endorsing religious social, moral, and/or political power in key ways, and by not asking too many (or any) hard questions.
Finally, these people who hold their reflexive, barely-questioned conservative beliefs loosely and practice them loosely often have a guilty appreciation for people of greater religious stamina. They admire those who commit to their beliefs in more life consuming ways. They see them as having greater spiritual strength than themselves. And so even though they themselves are lax about daily devotion, they are ready and willing to pipe up in defense of the “holy”. Even though those holy people see them as spineless and lazy, they stand up for those holy people and defend them as true models of faith. Even when the demands of the holy are extreme, they find they often have the political allegiance and backing of the loosely practicing who disobey them in practice but who grant them all manner of theological and moral authority, with amazing cognitive dissonance, as a matter of identity and allegiance to real (though well-compartmentalized) religious beliefs.
Sometimes, these more religiously lazy true believers seem even to be over-compensating for their lack of daily devotion when they back their regressive religious leaders or the devout laity.
And among those who hold religious beliefs with moderate or liberal contents, there is a segment who only come to their compromised beliefs and practices as a matter of religious atrophy and spiritual and mental drift. They are moderately religious for having “lapsed”, rather than for having reasoned things out deliberately. In other words, they do not work out explicit, strong, clearly defined religiously moderate and liberal positions that they defend on principle but they religiously and mentally meander until they espouse a vaguely defined hodgepodge of platitudes which incorporate mostly the more palatable of faith beliefs, universalistic sentiments, and modern political values. These only vaguely religiously believing and practicing people who hold mostly to platitudes also in many cases seem to have a reflexive spiritual inferiority complex in the face of devout people—sometimes even as they do not respect them intellectually. They admire adamant belief and arduous ascetic religiosity, except in their craziest and undeniably dangerous forms.
They often seem to feel embarrassed about what feels to them like the mushy permissive easiness of their own spirituality and feel like the (supposedly) holy deserve respect for their intensity, sincerity, and determination about values. These are strong character traits that the lukewarmly religious who hold only vague beliefs feel like they do not have (or do not have as much as those who are devout in costly ways), and so they feel obliged to grant some appreciation to the devout. Some even envy the true believers their ability to believe in and commit to something with so much of their being.
Even many atheists (like some of the apatheists and the accommodationists) seem to have a similar feeling about the faithful’s strengths of commitment, idealism, and belief. They see these things as intrinsically admirable and deserving of some modicum of reverence in themselves, regardless of whether their beliefs are literally false. Sometimes of course, the vaguely religious moderates and liberals and the apatheists and accommodationists do not much respect the more devout and conservative, but will nonetheless patronize them anyway because of their supposed sincerity, irascibility, stupidity, and/or sheer political clout.
Now of course there are religious moderates and religious liberals who come to hold moderate or liberal contents of their beliefs as serious matters of intellectual conviction that they have worked out with religious and intellectual seriousness. These people are not the same as those who are only moderately or loosely serious about religious matters. A committed religious person of moderate or liberal bent will likely not feel any need to grant the fundamentalist, or otherwise holier than thou believer, any special credence as more sincere or committed than they are. The religious moderates or liberals of this stripe may have more compassion for some of the errors of the fundamentalist than the average New Atheist does and may take them more seriously as theological interlocutors needing to be carefully refuted on religious grounds rather than outright dismissed, but nonetheless they do not reflexively think of the fundamentalists as the most authentic and admirable version of their religion.
I decided to explore these distinctions not only for their inherent interest and potential for clarifying differences between believers who are often lumped together by atheist commentators, but also to make a point from my own experience as an ex-fundamentalist who once held religiously conservative views fervently and let them overwhelm my whole way of living before I became an atheist.
I am immune to the devout’s illusion of holiness. I don’t see halos hovering above their heads. I do think I appreciate their distinctive virtues and understand their thought processes in ways that those who were never one of them rarely seem to. But I do not think of them as especially spiritually strong people but rather pretty spiritually weak, to be honest. And I appreciate that many of them are conscientious but I also think that their moral reasoning is, frankly pathetically, inept.
And so I resent the over-compensation efforts of the spiritually insecure who are fooled by and pander to their mirage of moral seriousness. They don’t deserve the favors. They don’t deserve those who in practice jettison 90% of their faith nonetheless submitting their children to the most piously closed-minded and shallow thinking religious people for purposes of indoctrination and identity-formation. They don’t need to accept so unthinkingly that the necessary inculcation of values in children or development of meaning in life requires religious practices that are tied to false beliefs, regressive moral ideologies and intellectually shallow and confused pieties.