Why Let The Fundamentalists Define Their Religions?

Let me forestall a couple of New Atheist freak outs from the start.

This post is not going to argue that we should ignore fundamentalist versions of religions as mere aberrations or perversions of their faiths. Fundamentalists exist and they pose serious risks to science, freedom, philosophical advance, and numerous other important values around the world. Attacking them for their absurd beliefs and their regressive ethics and politics is always a-okay in my book—as long as one does not descend into becoming temperamentally like them in the process. (My views on how to avoid doing that can be discerned from a careful reading of my dialogue: Atheist Fundamentalism?)

This post is also not going to say that non-fundamentalist believers are intellectually, ethically, and politically just wonderful allies to science, philosophy, and progressive values who should by no means be criticized. Even non-fundamentalists believe unjustified things and should be challenged vigorously for that. And there is some truth to Sam Harris style challenges to liberal believers that they’re often a positive obstacle to secular efforts to effectively isolate the fundamentalists. In short this post is not a plea to simply be nice to moderate and liberal religious viewpoints.

What I want to write about instead, as I have a few times before, is the question of who really belongs to a religion and challenge a familiar stance my fellow New Atheists take on this question that I believe is ill-considered both rationally and strategically.

New Atheists frequently credit the fundamentalists with at least taking what their religions say seriously and not “picking and choosing” what they want to believe. I think this is wrongheaded and I will take Christianity as an example (while noting that other religions have similar distinctions that can be made about how they work as well).

Fundamentalists “pick and choose” what they want to believe just as much as liberals do. Christian fundamentalists claim that they are strictly obedient adherents to literal Bible but that is a dubious claim. They typically accept the traditional philosophical definition of God as eternally unchanging, immaterial, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, all-loving, singular, and triune (i.e., a single person comprised of three persons—the Father, the Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit). There are plenty of texts in the Bible which contradict these notions.

In Genesis 6:5 God is sorry He created humans. In Jonah 3:10, God changes His mind about destroying the Ninevites because He sees that they repented. In Genesis 18:16-33, Abraham bargains with God to try to convince him not to wipe out everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah if He can find ten righteous people there. God goes on to wipe them out when He judges there were not enough righteous people. But did He have to? Do Christians have to believe he was just messing around with Abraham and humoring him that He would even consider sparing them?

In Hosea 11:8-9, God describes shifting emotions: “My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again.” He goes through thought processes and has feelings, as only a temporal and changing being can. This is illustrated in Jeremiah 31:20 when He says, “Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him.” He is also surprised by turns of events as when in Jeremiah 32-35 (NRSV) he says that it “did not enter his mind” that they the Israelites would engage in some particular acts he considered wicked.

In the Garden of Eden story, God has a body and walks through the garden such that Adam and Eve can hear Him approaching (and He evidently does not know what they did at first—unless we are to believe He is deceptively playing with them as though He is playing hide and seek with children and pretending for their sake He does not know what he really knows). God also talks about creating humans in our image, which could be taken to imply that (a) there was more than one god and (b) they had an image, i.e., they were visible. Exodus 34 describes God passing in front of Moses. There we also read that God is slow to anger, which again implies varying emotional states. God also directs Elijah in 1 Kings 19 to stand on a mountain where He is going to “pass by” so that Elijah can bask in his “presence”. This is not a timeless, unchanging, immaterial deity being described. It takes hermeneutic gymnastics to square such texts with the god of Greek philosophy that most fundamentalists (and most Christians generally) believe in.

I could go on and on actually reading the literal text of the Bible to which the fundamentalists claim such automatic and unyielding deference, pointing out how it contradicts beliefs which are central to their understanding of their faith. Their actual beliefs are a hodgepodge of Greek philosophy infused with centuries worth of Christian thinking and a healthy dose of modern politics. Nowhere in the Bible is the Trinity laid out at all clearly. Jesus never even comes out and says in completely unambiguous literal terms that he is identical in some key way with God himself. It’s all cryptic stuff about being “one with the Father” or “the Son of Man” or “I AM I AM”. And do I really need to point out all the ways God and His thoughts on things seem to have changed between the Old Testament and the New Testament? Or do I really need to tell New Atheists about all the ways the Old Testament is not morally good and does not have benevolence to all people indiscriminately? (Hello, the Canaanites? The victims of child sacrifice he approved of? The people whose enslavement or marriages to rapists he codified in law? And does no one know about all the predestinarian verses in the Bible (see Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 for a start) that Arminian fundamentalist Christians obsessed with free will just ignore?)

And why should “true” Christianity be interpreted as either biblical literalism and absolutism in the first place? Who has the authority to say such a thing? Christians disagree on such things. Who are atheists or anyone else to decide which ones are right? Christianity existed for hundreds of years without any identifiable settled consensus on what books even belonged in a “Bible”. And even after that disagreements continued.  Richard Carrier summarizes:

Contrary to common belief, there was never a one-time, truly universal decision as to which books should be included in the Bible. It took over a century of the proliferation of numerous writings before anyone even bothered to start picking and choosing, and then it was largely a cumulative, individual and happenstance event, guided by chance and prejudice more than objective and scholarly research, until priests and academics began pronouncing what was authoritative and holy, and even they were not unanimous. Every church had its favored books, and since there was nothing like a clearly-defined orthodoxy until the 4th century, there were in fact many simultaneous literary traditions. The illusion that it was otherwise is created by the fact that the church that came out on top simply preserved texts in its favor and destroyed or let vanish opposing documents. Hence what we call “orthodoxy” is simply “the church that won.”

Astonishingly, the story isn’t even that simple: for the Catholic church centered in Rome never had any extensive control over the Eastern churches, which were in turn divided even among themselves, with Ethiopian and Coptic and Syrian and Byzantine and Armenian canons all riding side-by-side with each other and with the Western Catholic canon, which itself was never perfectly settled until the 15th century at the earliest, although it was essentially established by the middle of the 4th century.

Presumably there were Christians for the hundreds of years before the Bible was either entirely written or agreed upon as an authoritative text within the Christian tradition. And since it was preexisting Christian tradition that judged the Bible authoritative in the first place, what is there to stop the Christian tradition from changing its mind about either the nature or standing of the Bible within the tradition? Who says it has to be taken as literal and infallible? Fundamentalist Christians? Why do they get to define the tradition for everyone? Some of the earliest, greatest, and most influential Christian theologians were understanding the Christian story in thoroughly allegorical terms within the first few centuries of the faith. Right from the start, Christians were reinterpreting their stories so that they were actually vehicles for expressing abstract philosophy more than literal propositional truths. And as canonical a Catholic and Protestant philosopher-theologian as St. Augustine was even okay with the idea that the creation account in Genesis was not literal!

Are the church fathers, including St. Augustine himself simply “pickers and choosers” about their faith and not real Christians like modern literalist creationist fundamentalists? Why in the world take such a position?

When growing up and then studying as a fundamentalist Evangelical late 20th Century American Christian, I was convinced that this was the only real kind of Christianity and that if it was false the whole thing was false and that other forms of Christianity were corruptions. So, I deconverted rapidly when that interpretation of the faith collapsed. And, frankly, the other, less literal versions of the faith are also shot through with falsehoods so the year I spent reading them as a last ditch effort to give faith every chance I could after I deconverted didn’t dent my atheism a bit.

But, nonetheless, the fundamentalists are not any more “truly” Christian or even more biblically consistent, either in principle or often in practice, than their intra-faith rivals. And within Roman Catholicism, there is a centuries long record of philosophical evolution that the Church spins not as “changes” but as ongoing further “understanding” of the “unchanging truth”, achieved through guidance from God over the course of time.

In philosophical and theological practice, the Catholic Church is very much like any longstanding legal tradition. It is constantly rife with factions trying to argue for new interpretations and reconcile them with the existing tradition. And over time, high level philosophical and theological debates do lead to the introductions of nuances that are taken to be Church teaching. Unfortunately, in recent decades, the Church is doubling down stubbornly on sexual regressiveness rather than finding ways to incorporate new, modern, moral and scientific realizations about human sexuality, equality, and happiness into account.

But the moderate and liberal Catholics are not just completely deluded or “unreal Catholics” for seeing their Church as one which at least in theory could give their progressive values a fair hearing. They are trying to change their Church through participation in a centuries long tradition of argument. They are, or can be, seen to be “real Catholics” as much as any other once radical and now canonized Catholics of past eras are. Thomas Aquinas’s ideas were at one point condemned by the Church and he went on to be given the distinction of being regarded “the Angelic Doctor, the Universal Doctor, the official philosopher of the Catholic Church”—distinctions he is still accorded today.

There are plenty of reasons to think the Church is too corrupt and/or false to submit one’s obedience or one’s mind to it in good conscience. But those attempting to participate in the tradition and influence it to update its values and beliefs for the 21st Century are not some novel aberration who have no real place calling themselves real Catholics.

Catholicism and all other forms of Christianity have always evolved. We atheists can criticize each iteration of Christianity as false and immoral in whatever unique ways each one proves itself to be wrong and counter-productive to human flourishing.

But we should leave questions of who are “real” or “unreal” Christians to the side. There is no truth to Christianity. It is a living tradition of people bound by much more than a single book or a single style of interpretation of that book or of its relevance. As non-believers, there is no “true Christianity”, just many Christianities, each of which are problematic and which should be addressed on their own terms. We can also point out contradictions in their own professed views. For those who actually profess a doctrine of biblical literalism, we can show all the ways their values and beliefs are inconsistent with what they say they believe. For those who profess a doctrine of transubstantiation, we can push them to acknowledge its absurdity and to abandon belief in it and the pretense they trust the Church’s teachings on all such matters.

But even though it would be simpler to reduce the entire faith to a single monolithic set of propositions or a priori commitments and just show that they are all false and therefore claim to have decisively and once and for all proven all “true” versions of the religion false in that way. But that is just not a true account of what Christianity is in its actual totality. And so it is beneath critical thinkers to think that way and it makes us sound historically ignorant and sociologically shallow.

For posts where I have analyzed what makes a religion “true” or not, analyzed the natures of non-fundamentalist believers, and talked about or modeled strategies for criticizing non-fundamentalists, please read any or all of the posts below which strike you as intriguing:

Islam, 9/11, and “True Religion” (Or “What Could George W. Bush Mean When Talking About True Islam?”)

What I Think About How To Engage Religious Liberals, Moderates, and Fundamentalists

In Defense of Dawkins’s Reason Rally Speech

13 Practical Strategies For Arguing With Religious Moderates

Against The Religiously Lazy Defenders of The Pious

American Values vs. Fundamentalist Values

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

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellecuals

How Genesis Is Not Only Literally False, But Metaphorically False

True And False In Adam And Eve

Why Progressive Interpretations Of The Old Testament Still Do Not Justify Its God Morally

On God as the Source of Being But Not of Evil

How Belief In “Theistic Evolution” Is Nearly As Much A Denial Of Science As Creationism

The Evils of the Sermon on the Mount

Both Refute The Best Counter-Arguments You Can Think Of And Create Gestalt Shifts (Tip 8 of 10 For Reaching Out To Religious Believers)

What About Philosophical Christianity With Progressive Values? A Debate With Marta Layton

Defending The Catholic Faith, But Not The Pope. A Conversation With Mary The Catholic Graduate Student

Religious Privilege and Grievance-Based Catholic Identity Politics on Full Display

True Religion?

“True” Chrisianity?

“True” Christianity? (part 2)

Your Thoughts?

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Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
A Photographer On Why The Same Dress Looks Black and Blue to Some and Gold and White to Others #DressGate
“It’s amazing what some people will justify through their religion, isn’t it?”
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.

  • http://songe.me Alex Songe

    Origen is one of the earliest church fathers on record, and his whole attitude was something like “Of course the Bible’s riddled with historical inaccuracies. That’s when you know for sure that it’s allegory and that there’s extra meaning.” If you count (perhaps) the first 300 years or so of Christianity, you’ve got such a pluralism going on that you can trace back most of the modern traditions in some form or another. There really is no church at all that is truly sola scriptura, because the dogmas extend to the exegesis and hermeneutics (also known as “excuses” if you do want to cut to the chase) on how you interpret the Bible precisely because the text is so ambiguous. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are the only ones attempting to take off the glasses of Christianity to peer into the text, but usually they substitute authoritarian dogmas that are just a lot more recent. Despite this, there’s some redeeming consequences to this attempt in that they translated their own Bible in some very odd ways that allows for some inspiring kind of midrash, if that’s your thing.

    Anyway, there is just so much stuff that’s not in the text (like the Holy Spirit) but is part of Biblical Literalism. The faces I get from Christians of ALL STRIPES when I say that they cannot find the story of Simon of Cyrene picking up the cross because it’s not in any gospel! It’s the dogmatic acceptance of the passion narrative that’s a consequence only of trying to reconcile the synoptics with John. You can go on and on with the synoptic differences and how John just really kinda conflicts with them all or has completely different kinds of theological opinions.

    Also, Dan, if you’re really interested in getting someone who’s a super-expert at all this stuff, please see if you can do an interview with Robert M. Price (fellow Nietzsche guy too!) in exchange for letting him plug his books and things. He’s somewhat out of the new atheism circles sometimes, but man does he know the literature (he wrote a book somewhat on this subject called “Inerrant the Wind”). He’s coming out with a new book soon about all the ways that Christians try (and fail) to reconcile evolution with Genesis called “Evolving out of Eden”.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    Good post!

  • http://www.improbablejoe.blogspot.com Improbable Joe

    Yeah… I don’t get in the middle of defining what a Real Christian is.

    What’s more fun is to use that as a weapon to get Christians to STFU if you want a quick zinger to shut down debate before it starts, say for instance if someone discovers that you’re an atheist and wants to proselytize in your direction when you’ve got someplace to be in the next 15 minutes. I’ll just say “Hey chum, when you and your fellow religious brothers and sisters manage to come up with one consistent story, come find me and share it with me. You Christians have a couple of hundred different splinter churches, and none of you can convince any of the rest of you that you’ve got the one right church. You sure can’t convince the Jews or Muslims to convert to your church even though you all three believe in the same ‘God of Abraham’ thingy. All you Abrahamic kids believe in one sky daddy and can’t convince any of the other world religions that you’ve got the one and only correct one.

    If you can’t convince each other, and you all believe some version of the same superstitious crap, why in the world would you believe you can convince me?”

    And while they sputter you can make a quick escape!

  • CJO

    Anyway, there is just so much stuff that’s not in the text (like the Holy Spirit)

    πνευμα αγιον (pneuma agion, occurs 13 times in Luke and 41 times in Acts, and 89 times total in the New Testament.

    The trinity, or any explicitly trinitarian theology, may be what you’re thinking of.

    • Mary

      Mark 15:21
      New International Version (©1984)
      …”A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.” Yeah, Simon of Cyrene is in the canon.

    • CJO

      Not sure what it has to do with the frequency of the use of the term “holy spirit” in the NT, but yes, the Simon of Cyrene passage is puzzling, like so much else in Mark.

    • http://songe.me Alex Songe

      Yeah, what I meant was that Simon of Cyrene never picks up Jesus’s dropped cross. I mixed a bit up there.

      Also, I said the Trinity, not the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is a doctrine of 3 distinct beings sharing the same divine essence. It’s heretical to the Trinitarian Christians to believe any of the various heresies that are only a SLIGHT VARIATION of this concept. As a concept, it exists in the King James Bible, but is a proved interpolation and no other texts except those that the KJV was based on include that in (I think) I John chapter 1.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    Of course the Biblical literalists pick and choose what they want out of the Bible. They’re good with Leviticus declaring homosexuality to be an abomination but claim they don’t have to keep kasrut because Jesus said they didn’t have to (even though in another Biblical passage Jesus said they did have to).

    Biblical literalness is more about believers’ opinions and prejudices than about following the word of the Bible. Often these opinions and prejudices aren’t those of the individual Christian but rather those of a church leader. Joseph Smith, the inventor of Mormonism, thought smoking and chewing tobacco were disgusting and so tobacco use was declared against “the Word of God” in Mormon doctrine.

  • Patrick

    1. Its true that fundamentalists in the Christian context pick and choose as much as anyone else. BUT! At least they care about whether they pick and choose. At least they value not being a hypocrite.

    2. There’s a difference between letting the fundamentalists define their religion, and denying that the liberal believers have the right to define their religion. You can do the latter without the former.

    3. And you should- liberal believers have no more right to define “true” Xism than conservative ones, particularly when the reality is that Xism is an incoherent mash. The problem isn’t over who gets to define the religion- the problem is that the religion isn’t coherent enough to be defined in the sense that people want to define it.

    4. Or to put it another way, liberal Catholics really aren’t “real” Catholics. That’s a true sentence in the literal sense. The idea of “true Catholicism” is an error theory.

    5. Liberal Catholics are incredible hypocrites. Lets not let the underlying point slip. If you sit in church and mouth your agreement to oaths that you don’t believe (e.g., the church hierarchy’s orders are a binding moral guide that you accept, etc), you’re lying. And you’re teaching your children to lie.

    6. In fact, if you do it like most Catholics I know, you’re normalizing the idea of lying in this context so incredibly thoroughly that you (and your children… that part enrages me) eventually lose the ability to tell that you’re uttering something untrue. It becomes a genuine blind spot that you can’t look at or even think about- your mind just goes fuzzy with confusion when someone brings up that the thing you just said in church… isn’t something you believe. That’s a serious problem. We can’t even have coherent conversation, or even coherent thought, about religion if we can’t establish what people do or don’t think. And if someone’s mind is so wrecked that they can say, loudly, in a public proclamation of faith, that they believe something they do not believe… and then turn around and say that they don’t believe it and are shocked that you’d think they did… that’s cult level indoctrination right there, in the form of smiling, friendly, otherwise-functional people. Its a problem.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      It’s bullshit to say that the fundamentalists somehow uniquely care about not being hypocrites. That’s incredibly selective and charitable to them.


    • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

      Most of this only applies to Catholics, and then perhaps not so much as you think. Protestants don’t believe there’s some earthly authority they are beholden to, so it’s not like they are going against their teachings by being liberals.

    • Patrick

      The idea that its wrong for humans to pick and choose what to believe out of the Bible is practically the defining feature of the self identity of modern fundamentalist theology.

      By contrast, the defining feature of liberal theology is probably that everyone goes to the Bible with a heuristic, and that you can’t prove that their personal heuristics are any worse than any other.

      The vice of each is pretty easy to guess from that information. The fundamentalists want to believe what the Bible says, but the Bible contradicts itself, so they get mired in trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. Plus they have to throw certain passages down the memory hole.

      By contrast, the liberal theologians openly, blatantly, and proudly pick and choose what they believe from the Bible, while claiming to take the Bible as an authority.

      The latter is hypocrisy. The former has its own flaws (massive, massive flaws), but if we’re going to have a debate about who’s being hypocritical, the fundamentalists at least deserve points for effort that the liberals do not.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Patrick, the liberals acknowledge explicitly that hermeneutics involves subjectivity so they are not being hypocritical when they engage in it. The conservatives claim they are eschewing subjectivity and being completely objective while twisting the Bible ridiculously to fit their own values and condemn others. They’re FAR less self-aware and FAR more hypocritical and are so in ways that HARM far more people.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      “The idea that its wrong for humans to pick and choose what to believe out of the Bible is practically the defining feature of the self identity of modern fundamentalist theology.”

      Which just means that fundamentalists are completely blind to their own practice. Which is what makes fundamentalism so laughable. Fundamentalists rely on some particular interpretation of the Bible, including selective reading, typically in complete ignorance of how or when that interpretation originated. As one common example, there are millions of fundamentalist Christians who push the views of John Darby, not knowing they are doing so, not know who John Darby was, falsely thinking those views go back centuries earlier, and doing all this under the umbrella of “literalism.”

      Liberal Christians tend to be a bit more honest with themselves. Which doesn’t make their belief sensible or rational. But at least not so absurd.

      I fully agree with Fincke that it is wrong to treat fundamentalism as if it defined a religion, or to view all believers as fundamentalists, or to think that a religion is rebutted by rebutting fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are the intellectual weaklings of a religion.

    • mandrellian

      Fundamentalists don’t care about not being hypocrites? I disagree very strongly with that assertion.

      What fundamentalists do is deny that they’re being hypocrites whilst in the midst of rank hypocrisy – as much as a young-earth creationist might deny they’re being irrational and ignorant when claiming to have science on their side in their fight against evolution.

      Christian (and indeed, probably most religious) fundamentalism is dishonest, inherently and by definition, because it necessarily entails active ignorance, denial or compartmentalisation of any data that conflicts with dogma.

      Hypocrisy is an integral part and parcel of that inherent dishonesty. When a fundamentalist proclaims that only he is a True Christian because he follows and believes the Bible absolutely while those False (liberal) Christians are picking what they want to believe and adhere to, the fundamentalist is precisely as guilty as the liberal. The fundamentalist may be erring on the side of authoritarian prescriptive conservatism instead of liberalism, but the fundamentalist is allowing their personal/cultural mores (chosen, inherited, enforced, etc) to dictate what parts of the Bible they live by, as much as a cafeteria liberal. Both sides cherry-pick; the difference is that a liberal Christian is more likely to admit it.

  • laurentweppe

    And there is some truth to Sam Harris style challenges to liberal believers that they’re often a positive obstacle to secular efforts to effectively isolate the fundamentalists

    Do you mean «Harris’ challenges to liberal believers that they’re often a positive obstacle to secular ethnicist efforts to effectively isolate the fundamentalists uses their religion as a pretence to oppress the brown skinned underclass»?

    See: if you need to start your text by

    1.Pretending that there is some hidden merit behind Harris cultural-determinism and bourgeois supremacism.
    2. Sugarcoating you readership hostility toward liberal religious people.

    In order to discourage your ow readers to throw the dreaded A word at you, well… there may be a problem with your readership.

  • John M

    Why can’t you get into your heads: 33For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

    34Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.

    It all Satan at work messin’ up yer heads.

  • Eldoon Feeb

    The amateur psychologist in me thinks fundamentalism is mostly a personality issue, maybe even a disorder. It’s about a craving for certainty, about needing to feel absolutely right about absolutely everything — sometimes as an anchor in the chaos of life, sometimes to feed feelings of superiority. It’s about building a fortress around magical thinking (which is much easier and more fun than rational thinking). It can be about feeling justified in condemning others. Unfortunately, the fundamentalist personality and world view can be inflicted on others via indoctrination.

  • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

    This, absolutely. I spent time in both fundamentalist and liberal circles, and while fundamentalists may know their Bibles better, their approach to it is inevitably mired in an interpretive tradition which (unlike mainstream and liberal churches) they refuse to honestly acknowledge. Harris is simply wrong on this point. Liberalism my be no truer or more faithful to some “original” teaching than fundamentalism, but I very much prefer the company of people who allow physical reality and compassionate values to drive their dogma, rather than the other way round.

    It’s probably worth noting that doctrinal cherry-picking goes right back into the New Testament itself — see Acts 17(?) where an early church council abrogates some of the kosher laws for Gentile converts.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Good call. We can also look at the ways the New Testament authors quote mine the Old Testament to say whatever they want, regardless of original contextual meaning of the passages.

  • http://thegatewayboyfriend.blogspot.com Dan_Brodribb

    @ Eldoon

    I think you might be on to something. I consider myself a moderate, but I’m starting to believe that moderation is more a reflection of temperament than actual beliefs.

    I am now going to rant about The Agony of Being A Moderate for a while:

    The thing I notice as a moderate as I get piled on by both sides of an issue. Neither side particularly trusts me, and they think I’m some fickle, wishy-washy enabler.
    Both sides demand I a) reign in the extremists and b) take a stronger stand for what is right (the right side, inevitably being the one the person talking to me embraces).

    What neither side seems to realize is that both of them seem to be saying the same thing which comes down to “don’t be who you are.” If was into doing the things you were asking, people wouldn’t be calling me a moderate.

    The thing I resent most is when one side accuses me of enabling the other. I feel like I’m being told I’m responsible for another person’s actions and that makes no sense to me on an intellectual or emotional level.

    I’m not meaning this as a shot at either side. Certainly, I’m not asking you to be someone other than who you are. I can’t speak for all moderates,but personally, I envy your passion, your zeal, your commitment, and–most of all–your certainty. There are times I wish I had those things. But ‘winning’ or ‘being right’ aren’t really a strong part of my personality. I like to think I, and other moderates as well, have other things we bring to the table.

    I think I drifted away from my original point…oh yeah, I think fundamentalism and moderation are more a reflection of personality than belief. I think extreme fundamentalism leads to violence, intolerance, and other bad things. I think too much moderation turns into wishy-washiness, lack of commitment, and enabling. But I think most of us fall along the spectrum, and as long as we’re in the healthy range, I think there’s something to be said for respecting people on a human level for who and what they are.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Thanks, Dan. Yes, there can be a significant difference between someone whose temperament is simply moderate and someone whose views are comparably “moderate” given the spectrum one is on related to others. Someone could be adamant and passionate about a viewpoint that is itself “moderate” compared to the extremes. OR someone can be just moderate in temperament and regardless of how extreme their views actually are not be an antagonistic and confrontational person. OR someone can have a middle position held with an accommodating and confrontation-averse temperament.

      The moderates I criticize are the ones who make excuses for the extremists. There was an infamous scenario where a non-Muslim Westerner teaching elementary school students who were Muslims, in a predominantly Muslim school, suggested they name a stuffed animal Muhammed. There were calls for her to be executed. When moderates did not denounce the calls for execution but instead tried to say, “well, she doesn’t deserve to be killed because she didn’t know that that was inappropriate” they SERIOUSLY did not go far enough in diagnosing the REAL authoritarian ugliness in their religion. They were willing to find a way to get a fair result for this woman while STILL placating the extremism in their religion. And there is an analogy to be made on a theological level. A religious moderate who wants to assure us that TODAY God would never order genocides or call for homophobia IN THE PAST had some good reasons, STILL isn’t getting to the heart of what is wrong with the authoritarian structure of their religion and its epistemology.

      But, according to Laurent, no one really thinks what I just argued. We’re just racists.

  • eric

    IMO self-identification is the best criteria for who (or what beliefs) count as christian. I’m not saying its a good criteria, just that its better than the alternatives.

    Anything else, and you’re implicitly or explicitly endorsing one sectarian interpretation over another.

    I liken sectarian disputes over ‘right interpretation’ to a kid’s game of cops and robbers, played with fingers pointed and pow-pow noises rather than guns. The kids will inevitably start fighting about who shot who. When that happens, smart adults don’t whip out lasers and try and perform a serious analysis of shot angles. They don’t go over audio data to see who shot first. That’s silly. The job of the adults is to make sure the kids play without hurting themselves each other. Likewise, when sects argue oven who has the right interpretation of some passage, the job of the academia and goverment should not be to support the fantasy that there is a right answer and claim we will analyze the data to get at it. The job of academia and goverment is to to make sure they don’t hurt each other, themselves or bystanders while they have their argument.

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      Heh, I’m going to use this opportunity to push a meme of mine: Religions are best treated as role playing games. The different religions are different RPGs, with religious disputes being over which RPG is the “best” one to play, or over details of the rules of a particular RPG (think: D&D players arguing which edition of the books to use, and how many hit points a particular monster should have).

      And the rest of us should treat believers the way we treat enthusiasts of a game we happen not to play: that’s a nice hobby you’ve got, we’ll certainly allow you the legal and social space to play it in (within limits — we don’t let D&D players stab each other with real swords!), but don’t expect us to give it any special respect, and — especially — don’t expect anyone else to follow any of the in-game rules or conventions, not even for the sake of “getting along”.

    • http://thegatewayboyfriend.blogspot.com Dan_Brodribb

      I really like this post, Eric.

      The struggle I have with a lot of these debates is that for a lot of people, religious identity is complex and doesn’t happen in isolation

      I have a relative who self-identifies as a Catholic and attends mass regularly. At the same time, this person is the most vocal critics of Catholicism I know. Is he a real Catholic?

      Similarly, I consider myself a member of a specific religion, but I also sometimes “get” parts of certain substrains of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, more than certain parts of my own religion. So am I a real (My Religion Here) or not? Are those differences of religious or differences of culture, personality, and values?

      To take it a step further, with respects to the existence of supernatural beings, I have more points of agreement with atheism than my religion. But I still practice my religion. So am I an atheist or not?

      I love these discussions. I LIKE different faith traditions as well as atheists. It isn’t so much the answers I like is to find people who are interested in tackling the questions.

  • John Horstman


  • Leni

    I have a relative who self-identifies as a Catholic and attends mass regularly. At the same time, this person is the most vocal critics of Catholicism I know. Is he a real Catholic?

    This is how my mother is. She’s a staunch proponent of marriage equality, birth control and abortion, is divorced, and thinks the Pope is full of shit on a variety of topics, but she still goes to Mass every week. I tend to think she’s a “real” Catholic despite this. Perhaps not a very good one, but then again that’s what Confession is for, no? She doesn’t toe the party line on many issues, but I think she sees this as errors and injustices that will eventually be corrected.

    So if she feels like a Catholic (whatever that means) then, and aside from the fact that it’s none of my business, I have no real reason to disagree with that. I mean, I consider myself a Democrat, even though I don’t actually agree with every position on the official Democratic Party platform. I think I would be incredibly irritated if someone were to redefine that for me.

    • John Morales


      She’s a staunch proponent of marriage equality, birth control and abortion, is divorced, and thinks the Pope is full of shit on a variety of topics, but she still goes to Mass every week. [...]
      So if she feels like a Catholic (whatever that means) then, and aside from the fact that it’s none of my business, I have no real reason to disagree with that.

      Here is your reason: Roma locuta est.

      (She is plainly heretical, and yes she may feel like a Catholic, but she ain’t one, just either stupid or intellectually dishonest)

    • John Morales

      FWIW, here is something which Catholics supposedly believe in order to be in the Communion: Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 3, Article 3 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    • Leni

      Lol John, I’m sure she is, and if they excommunicated her I would understand why.

      She thinks they are wrong and she wants them to change, and I think she hopes and expects that they eventually will. Foolish as you find you might think that is, she isn’t the only one. I’m not even sure she’s a minority. If it were up to me they’d all up and leave and let the papacy rot, but it isn’t up to me. It is what it is and she is leagues better than the Bill Donohues of the world.

      And she knows she’s a heretic, but here’s the thing- I don’t think she cares that much about what the hierarchy thinks about that. I doubt she cares much what you or I would think either.

    • Leni

      PS An my mother isn’t stupid. I disagree with her about this and she isn’t a saint, but she isn’t stupid.

      So that leaves intellectually dishonest, I suppose. That may be, but I don;t see that this changes the facts. She’s a practicing Catholic. Nothing much anyone can say that will change that if the fucking pope can’t do it.

    • John Morales


      So that leaves intellectually dishonest, I suppose. That may be, but I don;t see that this changes the facts. She’s a practicing Catholic.

      She and many millions of others. :|

      (But I bet she wouldn’t say any of that stuff during confession, would she? ;)

      If so, at some level, she knows, but just daren’t face it.)

    • Leni

      She and many millions of others.


      Like I said, if the church hierarchy is powerless against it, what do you suppose our chances are?

      And that isn’t necessarily bad. Millions (?) of Catholics are not on board and that’s good. I can think of worse things.

      And I wondered that about her confessions too lol. Part of me thinks the less she tells those perverts the better, the other part wishes she would throw it all in their faces. I don’t know either way, and even if I did it’s not like I get to decide.

      Here’s the other part: by her account, my father basically date raped her, she got pregnant and they “had” to get married. Her own parents had 11 children and were told by their priest to suck it up- God wouldn’t give them more children than they could handle. I read her journal because I’m an asshole that way and saw something she wrote about being a teenager and finding her mother sobbing in the bathroom, ripping up her panties because her period hadn’t come. Again.

      There is a reason she is angry, and there is a reason she wants to see things change, and it’s more than a little understandable.

      You and I might leave, but I think she wants justice and I don’t really feel like it’s my place to deny her that, or to confirm that what those be-robed pricks say about her and people like her is true.

    • John Morales

      Leni, I think I’ve upset you.


    • Leni

      John, you didn’t upset me. Well, I should qualify that by saying you absolutely pissed me off by calling my mother stupid and/or intellectually dishonest.

      But then I decided that even if she were both it’s just irrelevant. That’s how she defines it, and there’s nothing you or I or even the Pope can say about that.

      I just wanted you to understand that her reasons were a little more complicated and infinitely more personal than you seem willing to acknowledge.

  • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

    Why have I got a comment from Deepak Shetty by way of FTB, in my email, but it doesn’t appear anywhere here? I wanted to argue with him ;-).