April 19, 2007

Moderate Religion: Culpability and Possibility

Most atheists believe that religious extremism is a problem. Many religious moderates in America agree with us, especially if we are discussing Islamic extremism. However, most American atheists are more focused on Christian extremism because we encounter it more frequently, see countless examples of it throughout our society, and marvel at the reach of its influence to the highest levels of our government. Unfortunately, fewer Christian moderates have been willing to stand against their extremist brethren within Christianity. What role are moderate Christians to play, if any, in our opposition to Christian extremism?

The culpability of religious moderates in facilitating religious extremism was a central theme in both Dawkins' The God Delusion and Harris' The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. In fact, this theme seems to have been an important part of what made both books unusually controversial. The point to emphasize here is that moderates are not accused of simply contributing to extremism through their inaction. Instead, they are described as actively contributing to the problem of religious extremism. In The God Delusion, Dawkins writes:

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, "sensible" religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.
Non-fundamentalist (i.e., moderate) religion is accused of making it easier for fundamentalist religion to survive. How? Because, as Dawkins notes, religion (both moderate and fundamentalist) promotes faith. Faith limits discourse, restricts the sort of questions that can be asked, and thus fosters delusion. By teaching their children that strong faith is virtuous, especially when one's faith is tested and manages to survive, believers strengthen all religion - not merely the moderate type.

Unfair criticism? I don't think so. To teach a child to value faith is to teach a child to reject reason and to devalue thought. Faith puts emotions and desires above reason, science, and critical thinking.

But moderate religion does not have to remain locked in faith. Consider an alternative possibility. What if moderate Christian parents taught their children values such as compassion , empathy, and tolerance - values which are not in any way derived from scripture - along with their religious traditions and customs. Instead of learning to take pride in any sort of faith, these children might learn to appreciate the power of critical thinking. They would grow up valuing church, respecting their religious heritage, and wanting to participate in religious rituals because they would identify with this tradition. However, they would also have an adaptive moral base from which to operate and an appreciation for reality-based thinking. They would accept most of the core values Christians claim are central to Christianity but without the mental headlock of faith.

Implausible? Probably, but I'm not sure it has to be. Just think of the possibilities.

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