Monday, October 3, 2011

The Price of Moderation

I'm reading a book by Sam Harris, noted atheist and free thinker, called "The End of Faith." In it, Harris makes an interesting point about the dangers of religious moderation.

Everybody thinks religious moderation is a good thing. Live and let live, people say. Different strokes for different folks. Various cultures have their own ways of eating, dress, speech, art, and it stands to reason they would have their own ideas about religion, too.

When compared to religious extremism, the case for moderation is even stronger. Everybody hates religious extremism, right? After all, it was extremism that caused the jet planes to fly into buildings on September 11, 2001. Extremism entices people to do extreme things. If everyone was a religious moderate, there would be no extremism and no extreme acts.

Well, the world doesn't quite work that way. There will always be religious literalists; that is, those who believe that their scripture of choice needs to be interpreted word-for-word. A prime example is, of course, the Bible. There are a lot of people in the world who feel the Bible is the unadulterated Word of God. Other people of faith kind of roll their eyes and say that a lot of the more outlandish pronouncements in the Bible really don't mean what they say, and you can opt to live by them or not, your choice. To the moderate, an extremist is rigid, didactic, strident and inflexible. To the extremist, a moderate is a "failed fundamentalist," someone whose faith is not strong enough to hold up to strict interpretation.

Where does religious moderation come from? Harris points out that maybe a thousand years ago, people were much more amenable to allowing the Bible to dictate their everyday lives because it offered some structure and understanding to the universe that science, at that time, could not. Nowadays, the education level of the general public is considerably higher than a millennium ago, and many people understand how the world works. They integrate this knowledge into their faith and back away from the strict, literal interpretation of the Bible because it just does not fit the modern world into which they were born and have come to understand on a detailed level.

The main failing with religious moderation is that it requires the moderate to tolerate extremism. The religious extremist must be accepted unconditionally, and when their extremism leads to violence, the religious moderate is left in the uncomfortable position of trying to condemn the violence without condemning the extremist and their beliefs.

Just when does "extremism" become intolerable? Again, moderation insists that we tolerate all religious viewpoints, but in a practical sense even the most moderate will have some line they will not cross. Not that I'm a moderate, but for me any ritualized killing of animals is completely unacceptable. I don't care if you believe in God, Mammon, Isis, Buddha, Zeus or the lady with snakes in her hair, I will never ever be okay with taking the life of an animal just to appease some invisible being who's having a hissy fit over some imagined infraction. Others will disagree and are okay with killing animals. Maybe they draw the line at ritual sacrifice of humans. Or maybe seriously object to the Islamic tradition of arranged marriages between children. Point is, moderation says all religious viewpoints must be respected, until you come across something you can't tolerate. Then, moderation breaks down and in fact, turns into a form of extremism.

Harris says, "By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally." This is the price of moderation. a niche in the middle where extremism on one end and secularism on the other continually pull at the moderate, forcing them to accept everyone's positions, no matter how incompatible they are. By leaving the door open to all opinions and beliefs, the moderate will find themselves more and more isolated in the no-man's land of the middle.