I think that many well-intentioned, reasonable people probably believe in some version of the following statement:
Religious extremists are a problem, but religious belief itself is often a positive force that is simply misused by extremists.Until roughly 2005 or so, I was someone who held this belief. While I was no fan of religion, I probably would have agreed with the notion that moderate forms of faith were not particularly harmful and that it was really just extremism about which we should be concerned.
In 2005, I realized that I could no longer regard religious belief as a positive force for humanity. I came to recognize that faith is detrimental to our progress as a species. Moderate faith may be somewhat less detrimental than the faith of extremists, but this is a matter of degree rather than a matter of kind.
What changed? One of the things that helped change my mind was Sam Harris' book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. It was the first book on atheism I had read in many years, and it sparked a renewed interest in the subject. It also helped to open my eyes to the dangers of faith.
In a 2005 op-ed piece titled "The Virus of Religious Moderation," Harris summarized the argument he makes in his book. Religious belief, he argues, even in moderate forms, continues to inspire violent conflict and ignorance about the natural world today. It is not merely a matter of religious belief interfering with our progress centuries ago, although one could certainly argue that it did this as well. Rather, faith currently causes us problems.
The problem with religious moderation is that it offers us no bulwark against the spread of religious extremism and religious violence. Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word “God” as though we knew what we were talking about. And they don’t want anything too critical to be said about people who really believe in the God of their forefathers because tolerance, above all else, is sacred.Moderate religion makes it more difficult to critically examine any form of religion. In fact, attempting to do so will almost certainly bring condemnation (e.g., accusations of intolerance).
If this was the only problem, we might be able to forgive the moderates. After all, it makes sense that one would seek to protect one's tradition. But as Harris makes apparent, this is far from the only problem. He notes that the presence of moderate religion prevents us from more fully exploring secular pathways to happiness, leads us to deny the inherent animosity most religions direct at adherents of other religions, and to minimize real dangers.
There are still places in the Muslim world where people are put to death for imaginary crimes, such as blasphemy, and where the totality of a child’s education consists of his learning to recite from an ancient book of religious fiction. Throughout the Muslim world, women are denied almost every human liberty, except the liberty to breed. And yet, these same societies are acquiring arsenals of advanced weaponry. In the face of these perils, religious moderates—Christians, Muslims and Jews remain entranced by their own moderation."...entranced by their own moderation" is a scary thought but one that seems accurate. It seems that those so entranced are ill-equipped to deal with necessary realities.
This is a revised and expanded version of a post that initially appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2005.