Religious Extremism in Three Faiths

Claudia Parsons of Reuters has an article discussing a report put out by the EastWest Institute regarding religious extremism. It’s in advance of a conference to be held Thursday called “Towards a Common Response: New Thinking Against Violent Extremism and Radicalization.”

What does the report say?

It said extremists from each of the three faiths often have tangible grievances — social, economic or political — but they invoke religion to recruit followers and to justify breaking the law, including killing civilians and members of their own faith.

The report discussed three faiths in detail: Muslims in Britain, Jews in Israel, and Christians in America.

“It is, in each situation, a case of ‘us’ versus ‘them,”‘ [the report] said. “That God did not intend for civilization to take its current shape; and that the state had failed the righteous and genuine members of that nation, and therefore God’s law supersedes man’s law.”

Perhaps the most provocative statement (though perhaps not surprising) came from slated conference speaker and Harvard University lecturer Jessica Stern:

She said it was dangerous for U.S. President George W. Bush to use terms such as “crusade” or “ridding the world of evil.”

“It really is falling into the same trap that these terrorists fall into, black and white thinking,” Stern told Reuters on Wednesday. “It’s very exciting to extremists to hear an American president talking that way.”

Stern said to compare violent extremists from the three faiths was not to suggest that the threat was the same.

“These are not equivalent,” she said. “The problems arising from Christian or Jewish extremism are not threatening to the world in the same way as Muslim extremism is.”

Apparently, the conference’s goal is to develop a “nonpartisan strategy to combat religious extremism.”

A lofty goal… Good luck with that one.

As Sam Harris and others say, though, the only way extremism can change is from within the faith. Outsiders trying to make religious change happen won’t be able to do it, regardless of their strategy.

(Thanks to Kyle for the link!)


[tags]atheist, atheism, Claudia Parsons, Reuters, EastWest Institute, Muslim, Britain, Jew, Israel, Christian, America, God, Harvard University, Jessica Stern, George W. Bush, Sam Harris[/tags]

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    As Sam Harris and others say, though, the only way extremism can change is from within the faith. Outsiders trying to make religious change happen won’t be able to do it, regardless of their strategy.

    Very prescient. I listened to a Truthdig debate between Sam Harris and Chris Hedges the other day and I was quite disappointed. I think that Chris Hedges is an example of a self-proclaimed religious person who is doing a great job to speak out against the dangers of religious extremism, yet Sam Harris seems to think that Chris Hedges is still part of the problem of moderates providing cover to extremists simply because he insists on believing in God.

    Although Hedges uses the word God, he seems to be talking about a non-theistic “ground of being” or something similar (reminded me of Spong), and so I think it’s a shame that he is so adamant about hanging on to the loaded terms of institutionalized religion.

    I think people like Harris and Hedges should be on the same side in this fight against extremism, so I was sad to see them engaged in a debate about where they disagree, rather than talking about what they agree on and how they might work together toward common goals.

  • Maria

    Apparently, the conference’s goal is to develop a “nonpartisan strategy to combat religious extremism.”

    A lofty goal… Good luck with that one.

    As Sam Harris and others say, though, the only way extremism can change is from within the faith. Outsiders trying to make religious change happen won’t be able to do it, regardless of their strategy.

    I agree. While I’m no longer practicing my faith, I’m still friends with many people who are; and many of them are liberal believers. I believe it is people like them and myself, who are going to have to be on the frontlines to help bring about these changes. I know I am going to try.

    Very prescient. I listened to a Truthdig debate between Sam Harris and Chris Hedges the other day and I was quite disappointed. I think that Chris Hedges is an example of a self-proclaimed religious person who is doing a great job to speak out against the dangers of religious extremism, yet Sam Harris seems to think that Chris Hedges is still part of the problem of moderates providing cover to extremists simply because he insists on believing in God.

    Although Hedges uses the word God, he seems to be talking about a non-theistic “ground of being” or something similar (reminded me of Spong), and so I think it’s a shame that he is so adamant about hanging on to the loaded terms of institutionalized religion.

    I think people like Harris and Hedges should be on the same side in this fight against extremism, so I was sad to see them engaged in a debate about where they disagree, rather than talking about what they agree on and how they might work together toward common goals.

    I agree. Richard Dawkins recently said in an interview he does not think liberal religous people like his friend The Bishop of Oxford are deluded, just wrong, and he wants to work with them. Sam Harris could take a page from this. He comes across as very dogmatic himself in his whole “moderates are bad just b/c they believe in God”. It’s almost as if he wants them to be as bad as the fundies b/c then they are easier to attack. Why does he care if they only follow the more “reasonable” parts of their holy books? Doesn’t he want them to become more reasonable? If he doesn’t believe in the books anyway, why does he care if parts are thrown out? Why does he say “if you believe this you have to believe this too?”-that’s what the fundies say too, and I don’t get it. As long as moderates are not providing cover to extremists (and I admit too many do), many of them would make great allies. What about all the progressive organizations that fight the extremist ones? There’s a huge list of them on AU’s website. It’s a mistake to throw them all into the “enemy camp”. Look at the Bishop of Oxford. If religion were modernized and evolved to the point where it was a big improvement over how it is today, that would be a good thing wouldn’t it? I think Lawrence Krauss said it best “faith is the enemy only when it gets in the way of knowledge”. I agree with him. It doesn’t always.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    Maria, I think you’re missing Sam Harris’s point–or mine. I agree with him that most moderates are providing cover for fundies. Not just because they believe, because they are unwilling for religion to be criticized. Those like Chris Hedges (and Randall Balmer and John Shelby Spong) who ARE vociferously criticizing the religious right do not, I think, belong to the category of moderates who are providing cover for fundamentalists.

    Of course, everything’s more complicated than can be presented in a blog comment posting–or even in a short book.

    I just would have much rather that Truthdig had set up a discussion between Harris and Hedges to discuss what they agree on and come up with some positive suggestions for action. But instead the media seems to be hellbent on presenting controversy, even when there is none. It was really weird to hear Harris and Hedges trying to argue when it was clear that they were both saying the same thing in different language. They do disagree on some points, but they agree on much more important points.

    That’s why I was disappointed.

  • Stephan

    I guess I missed the part where Christians are using religion as a reason to kill people. I realize Bush says he is a Christian, and that he started the war in Iraq, but I don’t think he ever said, “God told me to kill these people.” He definitely has a good-versus-evil world view, but I don’t think that directly translates into using religion as a reason to kill. Also, he does not want to kill them simply for what they believe, but because they want to kill us and others. That seems a little different from the Islamist belief that all infidels must die.

    Also, I don’t agree with this statement:

    I agree with him that most moderates are providing cover for fundies. Not just because they believe, because they are unwilling for religion to be criticized.

    I believe many of us are willing for religion to be criticized and challenged. I have reconsidered some of my beliefs because of questions brought up by my atheist friends here (particularly Siamang). There is a difference, though, between criticizing a belief and telling people what they believe is stupid, which is what Harris and Dawkins tend to do. True discussion can only happen when you put yourself on the same level as your opponent, and Harris and Dawkins can only look down on us in arrogance from their high horses.

  • Darryl

    “These are not equivalent,” she said. “The problems arising from Christian or Jewish extremism are not threatening to the world in the same way as Muslim extremism is.”

    I bet you wouldn’t get that viewpoint from Muslims around the world. That’s a debatable point. When the world’s only superpower, with the world’s most dangerous weapons, has a President and half a Congress that largely confesses and belongs to a Party that says it listens to God, a whole lot of bad can be done. Has anyone noticed how bellicose the Righties are, how warlike? Our government is headed in the wrong direction when it comes to war and peace, and the Christo-fascists are only accelerating the downward slide.

    As Sam Harris and others say, though, the only way extremism can change is from within the faith. Outsiders trying to make religious change happen won’t be able to do it, regardless of their strategy.

    Religious change, yes; but we can’t wait for that change when we are threatened as we are. We have long-term and short-term goals. Religious reform is long-term; we’ve got some short-term problems. Right now, I’m more concerned with political change, and outsiders can and must make that change happen.

  • Darryl

    When it comes to Sam Harris, may I suggest that we make the distinction between stating an argument and setting a strategy. Harris is making the case against religion, not describing the ways by which religion can be moderated. Criticisms of Harris’s position based upon comparisons made between him and some moderate believer are pointless. One can hold, as I do, both positions: yes, moderate religion provides cover for all religion; and yes, moderate religion is always to be encouraged when religion is a fact of life.

  • HappyNat

    I guess I missed the part where Christians are using religion as a reason to kill people. I realize Bush says he is a Christian, and that he started the war in Iraq, but I don’t think he ever said, “God told me to kill these people.”

    Bush says he talkes to God everyday, Jesus is his favorite “philosopher”, he states that God is on “our” side, and uses words like crusade. If his Christianity is not the reason for the war, it is certainly being used to support the war to his political base. He can’t talk about Christianity as much as he does without outsiders thinking it has an influence on his actions.

  • Stephan

    He can’t talk about Christianity as much as he does without outsiders thinking it has an influence on his actions.

    I think you read too much into his actions. If someone says they are an atheist, they read atheist philosophers and talk with other atheists, then they litter, should I assume that they litter because they are an atheist?

    I agree that Bush says he is a Christian and that he is pro-war, I just don’t see that he (or any other prominent leader) is pro-war because he is a Christian. This is a non sequitur.

    The difference I see is that Bush is not quoting scripture to justify the war. Islamists directly quote the Koran and their religious leaders to justify their killing. That, to me, makes Islamism much more of a threat.

    There is also much more dissent among Christians regarding the use of violence and war. Many pastors and leaders have condemned the war, while very few Imams have openly criticized Islamist terrorists and their actions.

  • Erin

    Very well said Stephan.

    The way Christians or non Christians view the war on terror as a holy war or otherwise is immaterial because the fact remains that Islamofascists believe they have been commissioned to convert by the sword and kill in the name of Allah. The threat should unite anyone who values their freedom.

  • Miko

    I realize Bush says he is a Christian, and that he started the war in Iraq, but I don’t think he ever said, “God told me to kill these people.”

    “I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did, and then God would tell me, ‘George go and end the tyranny in Iraq,’ and I did.”

    – GWB

    Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,1586978,00.html

  • Stephan

    It is possible that I stand corrected, however…

    That quote is an English translation of an Arabic translation of something someone claimed Bush said in a meeting with Palestinian leaders. The source is certainly questionable. I would expect a true skeptic to check the facts.

    Unless you’re just interested in proving your point, despite the facts…

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/13/AR2005101301688.html

  • Miko

    That quote is an English translation of an Arabic translation of something someone claimed Bush said in a meeting with Palestinian leaders. The source is certainly questionable. I would expect a true skeptic to check the facts.

    From what I’ve heard, the people who were at the meeting agree that he did say it, and those who weren’t there and had the perspective of another two years to see what a quagmire it was becoming and have political reasons to cover up the fact say that he didn’t.

    Do we know for certain? No. But then, we never know anything with absolute certainty. It just comes down to whether you’d rather accept the testimony of a witness or of Bush’s Press Secretary.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    I guess I missed the part where Christians are using religion as a reason to kill people. I realize Bush says he is a Christian, and that he started the war in Iraq, but I don’t think he ever said, “God told me to kill these people.”

    He uses the word “Crusade” and then with a wink and a nod says that he didn’t mean it. Then he lets his mouthpieces speak for him while he stays above the fray, not even mildly rebuking those who work for him and say that they ARE indeed fighting against satan and the “idoloters” who follow islam. It’s the wink and a nod.

    Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, whose promotion and appointment was confirmed by the Senate in June, has said publicly that he sees the war on terrorism as a clash between Judeo-Christian values and Satan, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday.

    Appearing in dress uniform before a religious group in Oregon in June, Boykin said Islamic extremists hate the United States “because we’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christians. … And the enemy is a guy named Satan.”

    Discussing a U.S. Army battle against a Muslim warlord in Somalia in 1993, Boykin told one audience, “I knew my god was bigger than his. I knew that my god was a real god and his was an idol.”

    http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/10/16/rumsfeld.boykin.ap/

    Ask yourself this: why is this man in the White House? The majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there?… I tell you this morning he’s in the White House because God put him there for such a time as this. God put him there to lead not only this nation but to lead the world, in such a time as this.

    This was not a momentary lapse on Boykin’s part. He has been an active translator of war into religion for many years. After he led the failed “Blackhawk Down” raid on Mogadishu in 1993, he flew over the city taking photographs. When developed, the pictures showed black smears on the landscape. He showed them to his Sunday-school-teaching mother, and she asked, “Don’t you know specifically what you were up against?” Only then did he get the full supernatural meaning of the pictures. “It was a demonic presence in that city, and God revealed it to me as the enemy that I was up against in Mogadishu.” He remembered, in this light, the first feeling he had experienced in that non-Christian country: “I could feel the presence of evil…. The demonic presence is real in a place that has rejected God.” His task was not simply to defeat an enemy force, but to carry Jesus to the benighted. “It is the principalities of darkness. It is a spiritual enemy that will only be defeated if we come against him in the name of Jesus.” The evangelical groups he addressed responded eagerly when he attacked the “godless” courts of his own country. “Don’t you worry about what these courts say, our God reigns supreme.”

    When General Edwin Walker began to promote the John Birch Society to his NATO troops, President Kennedy removed him. What happened to General Boykin after he went around calling Muslims Satanic? He was not silenced, demoted, removed, or even criticized. He has continued to work on the Pentagon’s special intelligence group. His boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said, “This is a free country,” and that Boykin had “an outstanding record” in his active career as a Delta Force commander. What caused the difference in response between President Kennedy’s time and President Bush’s? Could it be the power of the evangelicals? As soon as Boykin became an object of public criticism, the evangelicals rallied around him.

    When President Bush, asked about the content of Boykin’s remarks, said, “He doesn’t reflect my point of view,” Gary Bauer was quick to attack his own leader for this mild expression of difference. He sent a memo to his organization’s members:

    I must be missing something. The general has said that America is under attack because we are built on a Judeo-Christian values system; that ultimately the enemy is not flesh and blood, but rather the enemy is Satan, and that God’s hand of protection prevented September 11 from being worse than it was…. Precisely which of those statements does the president take issue with?

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19590

    And of course, there’s always this classic:

    “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”

    -Ann Coulter

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    Lots more at that last link. Way too much to quote here.

    Sorry for the lengthy post.

  • monkeymind

    Stephan, I think regardless of what Bush may or may not have said, a lot of American fundamentalists have this idea that the U.S. has some kind of special relationship with God and this idea is tied with supporting Israel unconditionally. I don’t want to get in a big discussion about Middle East policy, but I don’t think that our foreign policy should be influence by the bizarre interpretation of Revelations and the “end times” that is prevalent among many fundamentalists.

  • Stephan

    Looks like we’ll have to agree to disagree, although I admit that my viewpoint may be skewed by the fact that A), I’m a Christian and 2), I’m against the war. While I’m sure there are Christians that are in favor of the war in Iraq (and some of them are my friends), I don’t believe that Christianity in general is in favor of war.

    Also, I don’t take anything Ann Coulter says seriously. I think she, like Rush Limbaugh, is a closet liberal out to make conservatives look bad. And I think they’re both doing a sensational job at it.

  • Miko

    I don’t believe that Christianity in general is in favor of war.

    I don’t believe that Christianity in general can be said to be in favor of or against anything. There are just way too many Christians out there for them to agree on anything.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    I don’t think that Christianity in general is for the war either.

    But I do think that people who are for the war are more likely to be self-described Christians and are more likely to give religious reasons why the war was necessary and even a good thing.

    As Jerry Falwell so succinctly put it, “God is pro-war”.

    And I do think that that pro-war religious ferver, the jingoism of it, was a very powerful voice in the halls of power leading up to the war and in the first years of the war, speaking much louder than the voices of peace or the voices of caution.

  • monkeymind

    writerdd said:

    I agree with him that most moderates are providing cover for fundies. Not just because they believe, because they are unwilling for religion to be criticized.

    This is the one that really annoys me. First of all, Harris never bothers to define what he means by “moderate” and those that pass on this “meme” use it to mean a variety of different things. Does it mean someone who is basically a nice person, but sends money to running dog fundamentalists like Falwell and Robertson? Does it mean someone who has a non-literal interpretation of the Bible and uses it to support efforts toward positive change in the world?
    Harris himself says that he prefers the fundamentalists, because they are at least “honest.” He doesn’t seem to understand that any approach other than a literal one could be serious or honest. Has he ever taken a higher-level literature course, I wonder, or any discipline where the ability to see multiple interpretations is seen as the way to deeper understanding?
    He also seems to imply that “moderate” believers are apathetic, wishy-washy. Well some of the more liberal believers I know have been pretty passionate in their commitment to progressive causes. Harris and his ilk don’t seem to get it that a non-dogmatic belief system can be allied to a strong existential commitment.
    And the whole idea of “concentric circles” that he presented in this article
    doesn’t really correspond to any reality I know. When liberal believers like Chris Hedges write books critical of the religious right, when an evangelical pastor writes a book called “Myth of a Christian Nation”, how is that “protecting the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn”, as Harris claims all moderate Christians do in the above article.
    No doubt religious moderates will object to sweeping claims that “religion poisons everything” or that they (moderates) are giving cover to fanatics – but that’s because these points are highly arguable. But where are these hordes of moderates trying to prevent “an honest word being spoken about God in our society?”

  • Darryl

    No need to apologize, Siamang. The intentional dissemination of fundamentalist Christianity within our military has been recently well-documented and ought to be very troubling to anyone who understands the threats such a situation poses to a liberal democracy. Anyone that thinks that military coups or mutinies are not possible in the U.S. Armed Forces is naive in the extreme. After the last 7 years in our country I’m convinced that anything is possible.

  • Darryl

    Please excuse me my religious friends, but I have to say this:

    people who habitually think in stark, black and white terms about life;

    who habitually look for the moral component first in any situation that they see as problematic;

    who habitually view humans as naturally errant, distorted beings;

    who habitually divide humanity into those that are on the side of the truth and goodness and those that oppose them;

    who habitually convince themselves that they are on the right side of worldly matters;

    who habitually denigrate the law of man in favor of the Law of God;

    who habitually dismiss the government of man in favor of the Government of God;

    who habitually put their loyalty to God above all other loyalties;

    who habitually think that a supernatural being guides their decisions and will rescue them in the end;

    who habitually downgrade the seriousness of the affairs of this world because they are less important or even trivial by comparison with a future heavenly inheritance;

    who habitually have an apocalyptic backdrop to all the events they see in the world;

    these people, when you give them political power, abuse it and those who have delegated it—those they are supposed to be serving. These people cannot possibly make sound decisions that are in the best interests of any secular state. If anyone thinks that Christian fundamentalists of the kind that have infiltrated our government are not part of the problem we have with fanatical religion, that person him/herself is a part of the problem.

  • Darryl

    Hedges can only go so far and no farther with his negative critiques of religion; Harris can go all the way—that is the difference.

  • monkeymind

    Hedges can only go so far and no farther with his negative critiques of religion; Harris can go all the way—that is the difference.

    I guess if you are an abolitionist in regards to religion, then the idea that there might be anything positive or at least neutral about religion- that criticism might stop somewhere and not “go all the way” – would be anathema.

    Those seem like “stark, black and white terms” to me.

  • monkeymind

    Darryl, other than the part about “all religion is evil and must be abolished” what is the difference between your views about faith and politics and Greg Boyd’s (author of “Myth of a Christian Nation”:

    In his six sermons, Mr. Boyd laid out a broad argument that the role of Christians was not to seek “power over” others — by controlling governments, passing legislation or fighting war
    Christians should instead seek to have “power under” others — “winning people’s hearts” by sacrificing for those in need, as Jesus did, Mr. Boyd said.

    “America wasn’t founded as a theocracy,” he said. “America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    monkeymind, thank you for taking up the cause of once more debunking Harris’ ridiculous statement that religious liberals and moderates are “providing cover” for fundamentalists. I’ve argued against this statement more than a few times here and I’m getting tired of covering the same ground over and over again.

    The bottom line is that Harris can’t provide any evidence that moderate believers “provide cover” unless he simply means that moderates will defend belief in God and the broad concept of religion in general. But in nearly all other respects (political, theological) liberals have been at least as antagonistic towards fundamentalists over the past century as atheists have been.

    If Harris thinks that the only way to overcome fundamentalism is to eradicate religion all together, then his claim would make sense. But that can’t be what he thinks if what Hemant said about him above is true:

    As Sam Harris and others say, though, the only way extremism can change is from within the faith. Outsiders trying to make religious change happen won’t be able to do it, regardless of their strategy.

    If Harris really said that, then it doesn’t jive with his claims about moderates “providing cover”. The only conclusion I can come to then is that Harris is just ignorant of the long history of conflict between fundamentalists and liberal Christians.

  • Darryl

    Monkeymind, please refer me to the comment where I said “all religion is evil and must be abolished” without an qualification. Anyone that has read the sum of my posts will know that I’m a little more nuanced than that.

    Also, to place two ideas in opposition within a statement can always be described by someone as “stark, black and white terms,” but such a description may not mean anything, right? Harris seems to me to be making a summary judgment about religion; Hedges can’t because at some point he has some kind of faith commitment. That’s all I mean to say.

  • monkeymind

    Darryl- ok, I concede that it’s an exaggeration to say that your position is that all religion is evil and must be abolished without any qualification. I’m interested in the difference is between your criticism of the Christian right and Hedges’ or Boyd’s in the article I linked to above. I’m not waiting to jump on you this time, I’m just curious.

    Also, I don’t see why Harris’ critique of religion should be privileged over Hedges simply because Harris rejects religion altogether.

    I can be a harsh critic of individual samples of chocolate mousse, while at the same time vigorously defending the proposition that chocolate mousse can be a delicious dessert and not detrimental to health if eaten sparingly. In fact, I think my critique of this or that restaurant’s chocolate mousse is probably more informed than that of someone who hates chocolate mousse.

  • Miko

    who habitually look for the moral component first in any situation that they see as problematic;

    What’s wrong with this one?

    who habitually convince themselves that they are on the right side of worldly matters;

    I’d be more scared of those who convince themselves that they are on the wrong side and don’t change their position anyway. Luckily, I don’t think they exist.

  • Miko

    The bottom line is that Harris can’t provide any evidence that moderate believers “provide cover” unless he simply means that moderates will defend belief in God and the broad concept of religion in general.

    I get the impression that that is what he means. Harris: “Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn.” In this line of thought, the fact that moderates are fighting against fundamentalists as well is not relavent, since they’re still holding some of the same beliefs as the fundamentalists. And Harris suggests that it would be easier to defeat fundamentalism by attacking the validity of these root beliefs (there is a god who wrote/inspired a perfect book) instead of attempting to engage in a higher-level argument of interpretation, etc. He’s almost certainly right that it would be easier, too. I’m not convinced that it would be better, however.

    If Harris really said that, then it doesn’t jive with his claims about moderates “providing cover”.

    Perhaps he changed his mind. ;-) Not knowing where Hemant got that from, I couldn’t say.

    The only conclusion I can come to then is that Harris is just ignorant of the long history of conflict between fundamentalists and liberal Christians.

    I think it’s more likely that he just doesn’t care about it.

  • Marai

    I get the impression that that is what he means. Harris: “Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn.” In this line of thought, the fact that moderates are fighting against fundamentalists as well is not relavent, since they’re still holding some of the same beliefs as the fundamentalists. And Harris suggests that it would be easier to defeat fundamentalism by attacking the validity of these root beliefs (there is a god who wrote/inspired a perfect book) instead of attempting to engage in a higher-level argument of interpretation, etc. He’s almost certainly right that it would be easier, too. I’m not convinced that it would be better, however.

    That does make sense Miko, thank you for explaining that. I don’t think it would be better, but it certainly would be easier. Perhaps Harris should clarify what he means so he doesn’t come across as “black and white” as he does. The thing is, the divinity of Christ is pretty much the only thing some Christian groups agree on…….

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    And Harris suggests that it would be easier to defeat fundamentalism by attacking the validity of these root beliefs (there is a god who wrote/inspired a perfect book) instead of attempting to engage in a higher-level argument of interpretation, etc. He’s almost certainly right that it would be easier, too. I’m not convinced that it would be better, however.

    I’m not sure that it would be easier. For many Christians (and especially conservative Christians) their belief in God is so deeply ingrained and based on so many intense personal spiritual experiences that to root it out entirely would be very, very difficult. If you want to change their political and social attitudes I think it would be easier to convince them that they need to change by using the Bible that they already revere rather than asking them to give up God and the Bible altogether.

    I know that was true for me. I was a staunch Republican growing up, and what changed me towards more progressive views was not an encounter with liberal atheists but when I started to read the Bible itself and noticed how much it has to say about justice for the poor and compassion for the marginalized and the oppressed (over 3000 verses). Likewise, what opened my mind to accepting evolutionary science was not arguments from secular atheists but was when I started studying Biblical hermenuetics and realized that literal 6-day Creationism was actually the wrong way to interpret those chapters in Genesis.

  • Maria

    Mike C you make a good point too

  • Darryl

    Monkeymind, I have heard Mr. Hedges speak, and I can’t think of anyone with as clear and eloquent and informed a warning about the Christo-fascists as his. I don’t know the writing of Mr. Boyd, but I will say this. The Christianity that I came to understand was one that, like Billy Graham’s credo, thought it should stay out of politics and stick to doing the work of God, which is a spiritual work, not one of the flesh. Now, if anything is a work of the flesh, it’s got to be politics. I was given to understand that the war the Church was to wage was fought against spiritual wickedness using spiritual weapons. The social gospel of the more liberal, mainline protestant churches adopted a socially-activist agenda that had at its heart many of the emphases of Jesus, but had to by its very mission get involved in at least tangential ways with political power systems. The more fundamentalist churches came late to political activism for any number of historical reasons that included their marginalized social status and a distrust of secular authority. I hate the doctrines of the fundamentalists, but it would be hypocritical of me to commend liberal-church activism and criticize conservative-church activism. Both of them involve entanglements of Church and State which is troubling. It goes without saying that just as I prefer moderates to fundies, if I have to endure a little religion in my politics, I want it to be the former, but I’d prefer none at all.

    I have not privileged Harris’s argument over anybody else’s. I simply think that his argument is sometimes mischaracterized.

    Hmm . . . chocolate mousse–I’m a chocoholic.

    Miko, two things about “the moral component:” first, I’m talking about moralizing, and second, fundies attempt to make moral issues of things that I don’t think ought to be. Hurricane Katrina was payback for the New Orleans lifestyle (Robertson); 9-11 was payback for the permissiveness about gays (Falwell); the gay lifestyle is an abomination to God (all fundies that I’ve ever heard of); gay marriage is an assault on the family (sound familiar); anything having to do with public health that in any way involves sex, they moralize it—no condom distribution, no sex education, no planned parenthood, etc.

    Marai, there is a time for “black and white” thinking, and it can be a good thing. Pick any nearly universal moral truth and champion it without black and white thinking and you end up with an indefensible relativist morality. To defend, for example, the universal right of freedom of conscience does not seem to me a bad thing even though it requires black and white thinking—to defend this freedom is good; to attempt to restrict this freedom is bad.

  • Miko

    I’m not sure that it would be easier. For many Christians (and especially conservative Christians) their belief in God is so deeply ingrained and based on so many intense personal spiritual experiences that to root it out entirely would be very, very difficult. If you want to change their political and social attitudes I think it would be easier to convince them that they need to change by using the Bible that they already revere rather than asking them to give up God and the Bible altogether.

    Perhaps so. But I have noticed that the fundamentalists seem on average to know the Bible quite a bit better than the nonfundamentalists. And while different interpretations may be possible, they seem to think that all interpretations but theirs are heretical. So neither approach is going to be easy.

    The bigger problem with the Harris view in my eyes is that it’s talking about scientific knowledge, essentially. Just as I could be convinced that god does exist by scientific evidence without converting to any particular religion, I’d imagine that even if we were successful in convincing fundamentalists that god didn’t exist there would still be no guarantee that they’d stop holding the other fundamentalist ideas.

    I know that was true for me. I was a staunch Republican growing up, and what changed me towards more progressive views was not an encounter with liberal atheists but when I started to read the Bible itself and noticed how much it has to say about justice for the poor and compassion for the marginalized and the oppressed (over 3000 verses).

    Fair enough. But I’d still rather that people adopt progressive views because they’re better views than because any particular book tells them to do so.

  • Darryl

    If you want to change their political and social attitudes I think it would be easier to convince them that they need to change by using the Bible that they already revere rather than asking them to give up God and the Bible altogether.

    Mike, you are the exception to the rule. For every one of us that escaped fundamentalism there are a lot more of those that will never get it. The chances of making much headway in reforming the fighting faithful by using the Bible are slim to none. Besides, it would take too long. Only a generational change coupled with a lot of horrible debacles at the hands of fundies will get them booted out of influence. This has already begun.

  • Miko

    Miko, two things about “the moral component:” first, I’m talking about moralizing, and second, fundies attempt to make moral issues of things that I don’t think ought to be. Hurricane Katrina was payback for the New Orleans lifestyle (Robertson); 9-11 was payback for the permissiveness about gays (Falwell); the gay lifestyle is an abomination to God (all fundies that I’ve ever heard of); gay marriage is an assault on the family (sound familiar); anything having to do with public health that in any way involves sex, they moralize it—no condom distribution, no sex education, no planned parenthood, etc.

    Ah. Gotcha. I would say that we should have morality at the forefront of our minds on all of those issues and that the problem is that those fundamentalists you’ve mentioned don’t. “True” morality in the aftermath of Katrina means doing something to help. What they’re doing seems to me like picking a random target and then contorting logic in the most horrible ways imaginable in an attempt to attack it/them. I’d much rather reclaim the word morality for our side. :-)

  • Darryl

    I’d much rather reclaim the word morality for our side.

    No question about it. It’s not morality but the origin of morality that is at issue for me.

  • crystal

    Marai, there is a time for “black and white” thinking, and it can be a good thing. Pick any nearly universal moral truth and champion it without black and white thinking and you end up with an indefensible relativist morality. To defend, for example, the universal right of freedom of conscience does not seem to me a bad thing even though it requires black and white thinking—to defend this freedom is good; to attempt to restrict this freedom is bad.

    Very true. There’s a time and a place for it, of course. But most things are usually some shade of gray……….

  • Mriana

    What bugs me is that they aren’t too far off with the assessment. The religious extremists seem to get more and more extreme every year. However, I can’t say that moderately religious people are covering for them. I know several who do not like what the religious extremists do- be they Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. I think moderates and liberals get just as frustrated as everyone else when they see religious extremism.

    I have a friend who is Church of Christ and when I go on one of my rants, she seems to understand what I’m saying and does not take any personal offense, but I try to make clear when I go on a rant that I am talking about extremists, not the liberals and moderates.

    The problem is, I’m not sure how to remedy the problem. I don’t think the extremists are listening to anyone.

  • Liberal Christian Person

    Mriana
    RE: Remedy?
    The remedy is for left leaning moderates and liberals of any religious belief (and even moderates in general) to unite in purpose in putting down the very real threat of a Radical Extremeist Christian theo-fascist regime. If we unite, we will be the majority of the population, but part of the neo-con strategy is to divide us b/c they know they are a minority. They are the ones responsible for the current divisions in society: racism, homophobia, religion v. science debate, pro-life v. pro-choice, misogynism/sexism/antifeminism, social class boundaries (rich and poor, though that division has been going on since the beginning of civilization), ethnic boundaries, and, of course, religious boundaries (duh); the list goes on and on. They often create controversey where there shouldn’t even be any (*cough* creation museum). If the mainstream voice of America puts aside petty differences, opens up their minds, and stand together, the religious extremists wouldn’t have a platform to stand on. Sorry for the lengthy post. Am I close to a reasonable solution?

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Mike, you are the exception to the rule. For every one of us that escaped fundamentalism there are a lot more of those that will never get it. The chances of making much headway in reforming the fighting faithful by using the Bible are slim to none. Besides, it would take too long.

    And yet I see it happening all the time. This is exactly what is going on in the emerging church movement. And even among mainstream evangelicals there is a noticeable shift to the left. (e.g. this Newsweek article about the trend among younger evangelicals towards social justice and away from Culture Wars). I saw it among almost all of my peers at Wheaton College (probably the single most influential evangelical school), and that was a decade ago. Most of us came in as conservative Republicans (having been raised that way by our evangelical parents) and yet most left with far more compassion for the poor, a concern for the environment, and a distaste for the intolerance and vitriol of the old-school culture-warriors like Dobson and Colson – and all of this was because we really encountered the Bible, not because we rejected it. Like you said, it will take a generational shift to see it fully realized, but trust me, it’s already in progress among my generation.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    The problem is, I’m not sure how to remedy the problem. I don’t think the extremists are listening to anyone.

    The remedy for me is friendships. I’ve already “converted” more than one fundamentalist Christian to a new kind of Christianity through patient conversation. It does take time, but what if each progressive person out there (whether Christian or atheist or whatever) were to befriend just one person and just start asking them good, hard questions about their intolerance, their prejudices, their unthinking assumptions? And for those of us who are Christians, what if we patiently showed them a new way to be a Christian (but not preach at them or try to manipulate them into changing) and helped them through their questions and knee-jerk resistance to it until they finally got it? In my old evangelism training classes they used to say “each one reach one”. That’s all it would take, I think, to make the difference. It’s not so hard to make one friend and change them just through the fact of your friendship is it?

  • Darryl

    I wonder if our troubles with the fundies isn’t a luxury of relatively good economic times. In other words, I wonder, if the economy goes to hell–I mean not just inflation and recession, but a depression or hard times, will the country be so obsessed with that that the values rantings of the fundies will no longer be tolerated? On the other hand, there is a precedent here: in the ’30′s we saw the rise of serious anti-semitism and racist demagogue preachers like Father Coughlin. Maybe the fundies will go over the edge.

  • Mriana

    I agree with you, Liberal Christian Person and Mike too. It would help a lot if the extremists started seeing things liberally and progressively. Thing is, I wasn’t going to say it because I wasn’t sure if I had the right idea. I also think the books Spong writes are good for people too- esp the religious who are looking for a more progressive Christianity or even a Christian Humanist view. Not so sure if one is already a Humanist though. I doubt it would change their view much, but they could still learn something from such writers.

  • Maria

    Mike C., Mriana, Liberal Christian Person, and Darryl, I agree with you all and I think you make excellent points. Mike C, I am very glad to hear that you have “converted” some people away from extremism. That is encouraging……now can we get more people to do what you are doing????

  • Miko

    In other words, I wonder, if the economy goes to hell–I mean not just inflation and recession, but a depression or hard times, will the country be so obsessed with that that the values rantings of the fundies will no longer be tolerated? … On the other hand, there is a precedent here: in the ’30’s we saw the rise of serious anti-semitism and racist demagogue preachers like Father Coughlin.

    The economy in Germany was pretty bad before Hitler took over too. To me, the trend (based on insufficient data) seems to be responding to economic woe with a search for easy answers against unpopular targets.

  • Stephan

    Mike, you are the exception to the rule.

    Call me another exception. The book “A New Kind of Christian” started it for me. Mike C. knows it well, I’m sure. I am one of those mainstream evangelicals he talks about that is moving away from extremism. I can’t say that I’ve become a “liberal” per se, but I’m definitely not the same person I was five years ago. I’ve gone from seeing black and white, to shades of grey, and eventually I’ll see things in full color! I have not moved away from believing in God and in the incarnation – not at all – but I see the world very differently from how I did in the past. And I’m brining my wife and kids with me. My parents, who brought me up to be a good Republican, are even on the journey, touched off by the same book, “A New Kind of Christian.” If I had to pick one book that really jump started the whole emergent movement, that would be it. If you want to understand how emergent Christians think and what motivates them, I highly recommend it!

  • Liberal Christian Person

    If we got into a major depression, I can easily picture fascist fundamentalist demagogues using gays, liberals, “commies,” secularlists, etc. as scapegoats like Hitler did w/ the Jews, blaming all the problems of the world on them (kinda like what they already do). A scary thought is that people might get fed up w/ economic & social woes to the point of buying into propaganda and letting the “Religious Reich” rise to power. An economic depression would be an oppurtunity for them in that case. I know Pat Robertson or Ann Coulter would just LOVE a Holocaust against “infidels” & “heretics.”

  • Darryl

    Mike and Stephan, your experiences are encouraging.

    I wonder, do any of you know of a ministry that has as its purpose the transitioning of fundamentalists towards moderate or liberal views regardless of their particular faith? Over the years as I have watched certain people move from initial doubts to significant change in their beliefs, from a faith that weighs on you to one that liberates, and knowing how painful, scary, as well as joyous that process can be, I thought that one day I would like to help people in whatever way I could to negotiate such a transition.

    I have thought up till now that this would be a needed service, but perhaps I’m incorrect about this, judging from what Mike’s experience might indicate. I indeed do see a generational difference, and this gives me hope. Perhaps the fundies are fighting so hard just because they see it too.

  • Mriana

    I forgot where I read the article, but when the economy is bad, there are more people who are religious than at other times. When the economy is good there are less religious people. According to the study, and I’m not sure if there are more like this one, economy and education played hand in hand with religious values.

    My questions were, how did they get this information, how did they study it and so on. Times are not the same as they were during the Great Depression. People don’t think the same way as they did back then and education has progressed. So if they compared now to the G.D. it would be an inaccurate picture. If they compared the U.S. or Europe to like say Zimbobway, it would not be an accurate picture either. They MIGHT get a good picture IF they compared the 70s to now, but even that is not quite accurate IMO. So how did they get this information for this study?

    It could have been on the Edge site, I don’t know and there are too many place for me to search to find it again. Even so, I question it’s validity, but I can see how financial headaches could bring on a belief in the supernatural if one is proned too and has ever believed in a supernatural. I think it also depends on how they were raised and their psychological make-up too.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    I wonder, do any of you know of a ministry that has as its purpose the transitioning of fundamentalists towards moderate or liberal views regardless of their particular faith?

    That’s a good question. I don’t know of any specifically. However, within the emerging church we do have a coordinating group called Emergent Village that has become a kind of gathering place for people on a similar journey towards a “new kind of Christianity”. EV organizes local cohorts of people who are reading similar books or have similar questions and thoughts and need to know that they’re “not the only crazy ones out there”. I lead the Chicago area cohort, up/rooted, which Hemant is coming to visit on Monday.

  • Maria

    Perhaps the fundies are fighting so hard just because they see it too.

    I agree Daryl. I think this is one of the main reasons they are fighting so hard.

  • Miko

    I forgot where I read the article, but when the economy is bad, there are more people who are religious than at other times. When the economy is good there are less religious people. According to the study, and I’m not sure if there are more like this one, economy and education played hand in hand with religious values.

    I’ve heard similar ideas and also don’t have a source handy. The two main theses I’ve seen are: 1) lack of financial freedom and education makes people malleable by the church, and 2) drops in financial stability and similar crises cause people to reach out to the supernatural because they feel unable to solve their own problems. The first thesis is generally applied over a longer time period, to explain the secularism of today versus the intense religiosity of the Dark Ages. The second is generally applied to specific events, like the Great Depression.

    I’m not a sociologist, so I wouldn’t even know where to begin deciding whether either of these is valid, but it seems reasonable. Christians themselves often talk about the idea of a “god-shaped hole.” If they really only believe in god because of some flaw in themselves, then it’s logical that religious adherence would rise and fall as events cause that “hole” to become larger and smaller. Traditionally, education and financial stability have been pretty good measures of ability to succeed, so the affluent educated should have a much smaller “hole.” Add in European-style social programs as a safety net and the “hole” should disappear entirely. (Disclaimer: I don’t like the “hole” theory, and I’m sure there are a few Christians who have better justifications for being Christian than thinking that there’s a hole in themselves.)

  • Mriana

    I’m glad others have heard of it too and I agree Miko, it does sound very reasonable to me too. I don’t think there is a hole in people, except emotionally and they try to fill it with what seems safe emotionally. The Hole theory makes sense, just has a bad name.

  • Richard Wade

    Ohhhh. Now I understand. Once somebody next door was yelling something about god and a hole. It was just some religious stuff.

  • Darryl

    Christians themselves often talk about the idea of a “god-shaped hole.” If they really only believe in god because of some flaw in themselves, then it’s logical that religious adherence would rise and fall as events cause that “hole” to become larger and smaller. Traditionally, education and financial stability have been pretty good measures of ability to succeed, so the affluent educated should have a much smaller “hole.” Add in European-style social programs as a safety net and the “hole” should disappear entirely. (Disclaimer: I don’t like the “hole” theory, and I’m sure there are a few Christians who have better justifications for being Christian than thinking that there’s a hole in themselves.)

    Makes sense to me. The “God-shaped hole” is a dubiously-effectual ploy to entice unbelievers into religion: “Hey there, unbeliever, that shitty feeling you have; it’s not because you realize that your life is going nowhere, your bank account is running on fumes, your wife is bored with you, you depend on Viagra, you lost your job (such as it was), your dog died, you’ve got colon cancer, and the terrorists want to kill you. No! It’s because there is a God-shaped hole in the core of your very being. So, come to church; we can help with that!”

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Though it’s sometimes used that way, the “God shaped hole” thing is not primarily intended as an evangelistic argument. Rather it’s a devotional reflection about our existential connection to our Creator, originally stated by St. Augustine about 1600 years ago. He wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” Later the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal built on this idea by talking about an “infinite abyss” of longing for true happiness that we try to fill with things in this life that do not ultimately satisfy.

    Of course, this idea of longing for true happiness that transcends mere temporary pleasures dates back even further than Christianity. Most of the Greek philosophers – Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, stretching back to Aristotle – had as their primary goal the achievement of eudaimonia, i.e. contentment/true happiness/joy. Of course, this concept has its counterpart in the Hebrew Old Testament and other wisdom writings as shalom – which our English Bibles translate “peace” and which Christ was referring to when he said “My peace I bring to you”.

    The point that most of the Greeks and Jesus and Augustine and Pascal and many other philosophers throughout the ages have agreed on is that there does seem to be this deep pit of existential longing within human beings that the ordinary pleasures of life are simply incapable of satisfying. This is not seen as a “proof” of God, though C.S. Lewis has suggested that our longings are perhaps a hint that something may exist which could in fact satisfy them.

    Anyhow, sorry for the history and philosophy lesson, but my point was simply that we shouldn’t trivialize the philosophical reflections of some of the greatest sages of human kind on the subject of human longings, by writing this off as a mere marketing gimmick by Christian evangelists (though admittedly some evangelists try to use it that way). Your experience may differ, but just speaking personally, I know exactly what the ancient philosophers are talking about when they talk about these deep existential longings which no earthly thing can satisfy.

  • Miko

    Anyhow, sorry for the history and philosophy lesson, but my point was simply that we shouldn’t trivialize the philosophical reflections of some of the greatest sages of human kind on the subject of human longings

    I won’t deny that it has a long philosophical history. In addition to the Western tradition you covered, there’s the Hindu/Jain concept of atman and the Buddhist concept of nibbana. That said, the phrase “god-shaped hole” sounds so funny that it’s hard not to laugh when I hear it. The underlying existential idea is fine, although the fact that so many traditions didn’t associate it with a god makes that name for it misleading.

    Your experience may differ, but just speaking personally, I know exactly what the ancient philosophers are talking about when they talk about these deep existential longings which no earthly thing can satisfy.

    The “Thin Places,” to quote your blog. I won’t say too much on this as I don’t want to risk diverting the thread, but I’ll agree in principle. It comes down to what one calls an earthly thing. The places we see as holy often seem more like temples to silence and emptiness: wide, void spaces where any action is magnified by the lack of competing attractions. Definitely experiences worth cultivating. But not filling a god-shaped hole. Rather creating an earth-shaped hole.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    The places we see as holy often seem more like temples to silence and emptiness: wide, void spaces where any action is magnified by the lack of competing attractions.

    Yes, indeed! Such places and such experiences (like the “hole”) are expressions of what theologians have called apophatic theology – i.e. knowing God as much by his “absence” as by his “presence”.

  • Darryl

    Once one can no longer believe in gods, any existential longing will have to be satisfied by other means. If there is a hole in the human psyche that needs filling, it is not necessarily God-shaped. I would imagine that such a hole is amorphous, fluctuating, and maleable.

  • Mriana

    I think good friends do a good job of whatever this hole thing is that people talk about. I can honestly say, I have not clue what it is.

    Yes, I get down about things, but I have friends to talk to and they come up with some good ideas that give my encouragement, hope, and help. Going to friends helps to fill the frustrations and alike. Those feelings I had before I went to my friends vanish more often than not.

    I think people get so tied up in the supernatural that they forget that other humans are actually the ones helping them feel better.

  • Richard Wade

    So, uh, what shape is it?

  • Mriana

    How the heck should I know? I don’t even know what it is. :lol:

  • Richard Wade

    Well, everybody was talking about it and if we knew the shape of the God-shaped hole we would then know the shape of God. At least one part of god, I guess. That would seem kind of interesting.

    Actually I’m not being entirely facetious. If we were to assume that this need is particularly fitted for God then the nature, features and properties of that need (the “shape”) would give us insight about the nature, features and properties of God.

    See? I can be philosophical too, when I want to.

  • Mriana

    Yes, but whose God would it be shaped like? The trinity- in which case could be “the son of God AKA Jesus” or would it be Brahman, Vishnu, the prophet Buddha- in which case it could be in our stomaches. :lol: You get the point and sorry for the bad joke.

  • Richard Wade

    I’d rather not get into where the hole is. People are lurking. What bad joke?

  • Mriana

    If I have to explain it, then it was bad. :lol:

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Actually I’m not being entirely facetious. If we were to assume that this need is particularly fitted for God then the nature, features and properties of that need (the “shape”) would give us insight about the nature, features and properties of God.

    If you’re really serious about this question Richard then I’d recommend several of C.S. Lewis writings, since he has written extensively on this topic of joy and longing.

    I’ve uploaded a couple of excerpts from Lewis that speak to the nature of our longings (and thus the “shape” of the “hole”). The first is from his chapter on Heaven in The Problem of Pain. The second is his essay The Weight of Glory. You may or may not find them fascinating. I do, but that’s ‘cuz I’m into this stuff. YMMV.

  • Richard Wade

    Thanks, Mike. I’ll Check them out. You already know about my glacial reading speed, so it may take a while.

    Uh, YMMV is, let me guess, …your mind might vacate? …you make me vomit? …your money might vanish? …your mother mangles violets? …young Mike memorizes verses? …yes men mean vexation? …yellow mangos may vary? …? …? …?

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    YMMV=Your Mileage May Vary

  • Darryl

    Mriana, I find music and poetry, in addition to friends, are also ingredients of the good life. I don’t think there is a spiritual hole (god-shaped or otherwise), unless ‘spiritual’ is meant metaphorically, but I do think there is a thirst for knowledge that naturally occurs, barring impediments. These brains of ours want to be filled. This is an evolutionary consequent.

  • Mriana

    Yes and it seems the religious extremist want to prevent them from being filled.

    I do agree, music and literature are good too.


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