Against the Religiously Lazy Defenders of the Pious

My work and my personal life have been a bit overwhelming of late, so please forgive my unusual two week stretch without any original writing. I hope to get back in the groove any day now and will have nearly a month’s worth of time off from lecturing coming up where there should be more time to blog than usual. In the meantime, I offer you this rerun of a post I liked a lot but which I initially buried under a flurry of new posts quickly after I posted it. 


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 evenenvy 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.

Your Thoughts?

For more of my views on religious moderates and how atheists should relate to them read my summary statement of my general views on the subject and the links at the end of it.

A Moral Philosopher on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson
A Photographer On Why The Same Dress Looks Black and Blue to Some and Gold and White to Others #DressGate
“The History of Philosophy” and “Philosophy and Suicide”
City on a Hill
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.

  • smrnda

    I think you’re right that the vast majority of allegedly ‘religious’ people are probably not putting much thought into what they believe and why, and sometimes seem at a loss to even come up with a coherent belief system. I’ve found this to be a problem too, when I once had a conversation with a guy who was a Tea Party type who also had a government, unionized job; does he realize that when he throws out a slogan of ‘government waste’ and ‘too much entitlement spending’ that he’s attacking his own pension plan? I was thinking there it was more a cultural loyalty.

    When you wrote this gem, “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”

    I thought of all the people I’ve met who said they were ‘mystics’ – to me, the whole mysticism deal is just what you wrote, an attempt at avoiding making any specific claims so that there’s nothing to really debate or discuss; the mystic can make assertion after assertion and since they mean nothing (or everything) there’s nothing really left to say.

  • Hilary

    My thoughts? That you are completely entitled to take time off from blogging to deal with your personal life, and that I enjoy reading your stuff. I can’t always follow you through the twists and turns of serious philosophy and I just don’t get Nietzhche, but you are interesting and challenging.

    I’m glad you made the distinction between liberal religous people who put time, thought and effort into their religious world view and work understanding the traditions, history and language of their faith, and people who are just lazy about it. I’m a religious Reform Jew and I do take the time to study and understand my religion, and think about what I believe and why. I take that seriously – if I’m going to claim a belief I’d better know what I’m talking about. I also know that however my religious beliefs may inspire or influence how I interact in the world, anything I do beyond private ritual observance had better pass a secular sniff test. By that I mean if I advocate for something in the general public square, it had better stand on it’s own merits completely independant of religious belief.

    I think being spiritually weak can apply equally to fundamentalists and liberals, like you said, it’s more a matter of refusing any critical reflection on beliefs. But I’m more interested in the end results of peoples action, then getting specifically hung up on the inner workings of faith. So if different people of diverse religious points, including none at all, work together for the specific concrete action of planting community gardens on public land to share the harvest poor families, it’s more important to me to see veggies in the homes of those families then an ideological purity test about what they believe. But when religious belief hinders something that can be scientifically proven, like global climate change, then that religious belief has to be challenged. And I don’t believe religious freedom trumps secular, civil rights.


    • Tony

      I agree this is an important paragraph. “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.”

      In fact I feel like this post makes too little of alternatives to both the moderately religious and conservative religious. Nor do I think that moderate is a particularly good word to describe left wing relgious for example Malcolm X (Muslim), Tolstoy (Christian) and their fans. I think there is a real radical left that draws on religion – religious Anarchists like Ghandi for example. But perhaps not so much in the U.S.?

  • emptyknight

    I was not yet reading your blog when you originally posted this, so I’m glad you decided to pull it out of the file! I ended up drawing diagrams and graphs trying to work out the relationships between liberalism–conservatism, mindful–peripheral, and conscientious–convenient. I ended up with a couple of semiotic squares skewered with a third axis. You end up with eight different categories of religious types. Fun stuff. Yes I’m a big nerd.

    I like how your continua (or is that continuums? spell check says the first one is correct…) can also be used to describe the evolution of the role of religion in a person’s life. In my case I was raised to be conservative-mindful-conscientious, and slowly drifted liberal, convenient, and peripheral, in that order, until I fell off the diagram and joined the heathens.

    Meh, it’s almost 5 in the morning and I’m not sure I have a coherent point. Unless it’s to say thanks for the interesting post and subsequent nerdgasm.

  • Marta L.

    I really like the distinction you’re trying to draw here, Dan. I remember when that poll was released a while back showing that the fastest-growing religious group were the “nones” (which I took to include both atheists and theists who rejected organized religions), I actually found it encouraging. It’s better for democracy and the religions in question if the nominally Christian (or whatever) describe themselves as unaffiliated rather than claiming a label they one who don’t really represent. And of course I have a personal stake here: as someone who’s progressive but not intellectually lazy about her religion, I’m all for any who points out the ways that my progressive faith is different from the watered-down lazy/moderate faith you’re describing.

    Maybe this is a mistaken impression, but you seem to assume that the conservative or fundamentalist wing is the more authentically religious. I’ll give you credit – you do recognize that some but not all progressives have some sort of reason for holding to that position. I’d suggest that that’s a good description of fundamentalists as well: that some but not all have some sort of reason for holding to fundamentalist religion, meaning that some of them don’t have good reason. They may be driven there by politics directly, or maybe it’s the psychological forces that drive people to conservatism in the first place, like fear and the need for control. Looking at the history, on many issues progressive Christianity comes closer to the early church than fundamentalists do. (Take, for example, issues of war and peace – for centuries most Christian theologians said you couldn’t be a soldier and a Christian, and the concept of just war is a fairly recent development. Or take the issue of abortion; as Fred Clarke argued a few weeks back, Christians didn’t always think humanity began at conception.) My point is that simply because fundamentalists are further from secular humanism than religious progressives, that doesn’t mean fundamentalists are the more authentically religious of the two groups.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I tried to talk about how fundamentalists are not always more authentic representatives of their faiths a bit in this post.

  • Hilary


    I read the post you highlighted for Marta – interesting. I agree with you that there is no one true Christianity, rather overlapping Christianities of traditions of people living with the Gospels in different ways at different times. My mothers parents (of blessed memory) were Catholic, and my mother in law is a retired pastor from the UCC. Both authentic, both sincere in their beleif, but very different types of Christians.

    Yes, I know I identified myself as a Jew – both my mother and my wife converted to Judaism. When you grow up lighting Hanukah candles at home, then leave for Christmas over at Grandma’s, you tend to develope a very flexable view of religious identity and authenticity.

    If you don’t mind, I have a question for you. Since you come out of the fundamentalist mind set, and can also look at it from the outside, maybe you could explain something to me. In following the on line conversations following the election, I occasionally come across the view that the world has always hated Christ, that being Christian has always ment bearing witness to a hostile population that despises you. I don’t get it – what part of “You guys have been the majority of Europe for over a thousand years and been the majority religion in US since this countries founding” do they not understand or belive in? Is it something like Republican math on election night, aka Karl Rovian polls?

    If those people – I’ve read some interesting responses over in the Evangelical Channel – really want to learn what it’s like to live as a religous minority in hostile territory, they should spend some time studying the history of Judaism in Christian Europe. Do you know why they think being told they can’t dictate the personal lives of non-Christians as the equivalent of pogroms, the blood libel, ghettos, forced explusions, the Inquisition? Is being told to play by communal rules in a public playground really so evil?


  • Alan

    Very good article. I personally have quite a bit of respect for the final group, those who try to question their beliefs and put a lot of effort into trying to understand them but are quite liberal in their views. One of my best friends is like this and I’ve found we can have interesting discussions about the pros and cons of religion without them getting defensive. They’re often very willing to learn and I respect that, regardless of what they believe.

  • Chris

    While people are obviously very complex, and this post can’t possibly capture all the nuances of religious belief, this is in general so close to the truth that I really only can think of one person who evades these categories. The piety of the ultra-conservative is no more than an annoyance to me, an apparent attempt to identify who is and is not part of the tribe, especially as they repeatedly tell me I’m going to Hell or stab me in the back in my personal life.

    I fall into the third category, I suppose, of liberals who think their liberal ideas are serious business. There are not many of us, it would seem, but I do believe we are growing. There are a number of good Christian blogs right here on Patheos which would indicate a growing acceptance of more liberal belief. Dr. Peter Enns, Slacktivist, and Exploring Our Matrix all come to mind. Personally, I think discussing ideas with atheists is one of the best things a believer can do, because an atheist has no particular affiliation with any given belief and will generally tell you like he/she sees it. This leads to critiques which you won’t get from fellow theists, unless they are particularly insightful.