Viewed in the context of most everyday activities and situations and in line with Aristotle’s idea of the “Golden Mean” (which states that virtue lies at the midpoint between two vices; i.e. courage lies between cowardice and recklessness, etc.), it could be said that a moderate stance is generally better than an extremist one. For example, being a moderate drinker seems to strike a pretty good balance between being healthy and having fun, as opposed to the opposite extremes of being an ascetic teetotaler or a raging alcoholic. Likewise, being politically moderate, if nothing else, tends to generate far less strife during dinner conversations amid mixed company or at large family gatherings.
Then again, for some activities moderate is still too far from the bell curve – particularly in cases where conventional wisdom has taken up residence at one of the distant ends of the spectrum of possibilities. For example, while being moderately racist may be an improvement over being a hate-filled white supremacist neo-Nazi skinhead, it still leaves a lot to be desired if hoping to join enlightened humanity in recognizing equal rights for all people based on our shared human condition. Along these same lines, it’s doubtful that someone declaring himself to be only moderately pedophiliac will bring much comfort as far as entrusting him to be alone around children.
For some realms, such as the purely logical field of mathematics, being moderate in the sense of trying to strike a balance or compromise between positions doesn’t make any sense at all. You can’t choose to be neutral between the vast majority who acknowledge that 1 +1 = 2 and some lunatic who insists 1 + 1 = 3 by simply splitting the difference and declaring 1 +1 = 2.5.
When it comes to religion, being moderate is similarly troublesome. Despite the high regard in which this seemingly sensible, centrist position is held among polite society, it is, to put it bluntly, intellectually unsupportable. When you think about it, how does one actually go about being moderate in religious belief? Do you say that Jesus sort of died for our sins? Do you declare that God is clearly omnipotent but omniscience is pure fantasy? Perhaps moderation consists of subtly acknowledging the likelihood that your most dearly-held religious convictions are flat-out wrong? Or is it less a matter of substance than of commitment – a socially acceptable apathy that allows one to care far more about football than divinity while still going through the motions for the sake of conforming to tradition or satisfying the in-laws?
The basis for believing the tenets of any organized, faith-based religion – particularly the big three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – is ultimately the holy book that each one is predicated upon – the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an respectively. It should be pointed out that for all of their numerous flaws, fundamentalists of all three persuasions are at least consistent in recognizing this. To say, “I think this book was dictated by the Almighty Creator of the universe as explicit instructions for how humans are supposed to live, and therefore I strive to abide by every last word it contains,” while perhaps not a rational belief (as it’s not based on evidence and reasoned argument, nor does it take into account the inevitable translation and transcription errors in going from Aramaic, to Greek, to Latin, to English or from palm leaves and camel bones to parchment) – it’s at least perfectly logical. If your initial premise is correct, then your chosen course of action logically follows.
Most moderate adherents of these religions, however, practice what can be termed “salad bar theology” – picking and choosing only the parts they like and discarding the rest. Let’s say for instance, that you prefer to look upon the Bible as a mixture of folk history, tribal mythology, and “inspired” verse presented in the form of allegory and metaphor. Fine, then where do you begin? How do you decide which parts to accept, which to reject outright, and which to “interpret” or take with a grain of salt? No matter how you answer this question, how is it not completely arbitrary? By what non-subjective criteria do you determine the truth? By what means do you separate fact from fiction or decide which of two contradictory passages is correct?
Contrast this with how science works. Scientists are not really at liberty to accept claims made by biologists regarding the basic facts of evolution while simultaneously rejecting claims made by physicists regarding the speed of light. To do so would invalidate the objectivity of the entire enterprise. Science operates by gathering observable facts about the universe, organizing them into a rational framework based on a recognition of the underlying patterns connecting them, and then testing these hypotheses through experiment and further observation to see if they accurately describe reality. If they appear to do so, then science can move forward, adjusting for future discoveries as necessary. If they don’t align with the facts then it’s back to the drawing board, but it still counts as progress, for at least incorrect proposals have been eliminated. The point is that the scientific method applies equally to all fields of inquiry, so it’s not valid to just decide the truth by fiat based on what happens to emotionally sit well or not for any particular facet of existence.
The irony as this relates to religion is that most people claiming to be moderate or liberal religionists do so because they’re caught in a bind – they’re not willing to reject science outright but nor do they want to have to give up their comforting illusions which are largely incompatible with it. At the same time, they don’t wish to be lumped in with the zealots, fanatics, and violent extremists (of which there are disturbingly many). So they’ll say things such as, “I don’t believe the stuff about the virgin birth or walking on water [as these are demonstrably, physically impossible] but I still think Jesus was a great moral leader and I still believe in some kind of higher power whom I’m perfectly comfortable calling ‘God.’” Yet in doing so, they seldom if ever stop to critically examine these beliefs. More likely than not, they were ingrained in them at a very early age by their own parents – people whom they love and trust implicitly – and they were further reinforced over long years of being surrounded by others of like-minded beliefs.
The problem is, by never questioning the root of such beliefs, they render themselves incapable of honestly criticizing those who take these supposedly moderate viewpoints to violent or oppressive extremes. For examples of such religious wrongdoing and the moderates’ confused responses, one needs look no further than the daily news.
Much has been said elsewhere about the obvious problems with radical Islam (the 9-11 attacks in New York, the Bali bombings, Madrid train bombings, London Underground bombings, and countless suicide bombings in Israel) as well as about the conspicuous lack of “moderate” Muslim voices denouncing such atrocities. Likewise with Judaism; the ongoing issues with the Palestinians – particularly those of illegal settlements and the disputed status of Jerusalem and its holy sites – speak volumes about extremist Jews and their clashes with their more moderate and secular compatriots. For the moment though, let’s redirect our focus back to the dominant religion in America today – Christianity.
Christianity has a long and distinguished history of brutality; from the Crusades and the Inquisition, to the Wars of Religion that ravaged Europe in the 16th century, to the subjugation and slaughter of the natives of the New World and South Pacific. But such barbarity continues right into the present day.
Take, for example, the case of Nigeria. Evangelical Christian pastors there have recently taken to denouncing children as witches and having them subsequently tortured and murdered – usually by members of their own family. (Click here to read about it.) This is done in accordance with the Bible’s exhortation in Exodus 22:18 that, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” What’s so enlightening about this particular example is that it’s such a clear-cut case of causation – these atrocious acts are being instigated by religious leaders on a direct religious pretext, so it can’t be written off as mere correlation (violence committed by people who just so happen to be Christian).
Behavior like this ought to strike any ethical person, anyone with the least bit of compassion or sense of shared humanity, as nothing less than inexcusable savagery. The fact that it’s being done in the name of religion would seem to make it all the worse. But does it really? For when you think about, on what basis can moderate Christians condemn this act without being hypocrites?
To condemn the source of it they would have to discredit their own holy book – the supposed basis of all their ideas regarding good and evil as well as their feel-good notions about Jesus. After all, these pastors sincerely believe they are following God’s explicit instructions to a tee. The same could be said for those who take too seriously (without necessarily acting on) commands such as, “Whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death,” which Rick Santorum equates gay marriage to. Or, “if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife,” – the origin of shotgun weddings.
Maybe they could appeal to some other parts of the Bible, such as the commandment that “Thou shalt not kill”? The problem here is that this and the other nine commandments were delivered by Moses (via God/talking bush on fire) – the exact same guy who, two chapters later, dictated the instructions for how to deal with witches. So which Moses command is one supposed to obey? Are the Ten Commandments the express will of God but the witch stuff just Moses having a bad day?
If, as described above, moderates choose not to view the Bible as the direct word of God and they instead permit themselves to selectively ignore large parts of what’s supposed to be their own sacred Scriptures, they must then employ some kind of extra-Biblical morality in order to condemn its contents. They have to somehow be able to decide that things like slavery and the subjugation of women are morally reprehensible despite what the Bible says to the contrary, thus demolishing the commonly accepted argument that the Bible is the source of our ideas about right and wrong. So, if it’s not the source of morality and it doesn’t accurately convey the intentions of the master of the universe, it quickly devolves into just one book among millions and therefore deserves no special, exalted status. It might be of historical interest for the inordinate influence it’s wielded over Western culture for the past two millennia but even on that count, for eloquence it has nothing over Cicero and in profundity it lags far behind Plato (incidentally, both pagans). I’d strongly encourage anyone to read all three and decide for yourself.
Where then does this leave the moderate Christian wishing to disavow the barbarous actions of those Nigerian pastors? I suppose they could take an old-school racist/imperialist perspective and just dismiss this behavior as that of sub-human, uncivilized, backward jungle dwellers but that would hardly fly with modern sensibilities or standard notions of racial equality and multiculturalism. Besides, it was white Europeans who led the charge on Bible-based witchcraft hysteria and mass murder with the Malleus Maleficarum of the late Middle Ages, when hundreds of thousands of accused witches were burned at the stake, and then again in the early days of the colonization of America with the infamous witch hunts in Salem.
Perhaps moderates can look to these pastors’ reasons for believing the Bible in the first place. It’s pretty obvious they don’t believe it as a result of objective analysis, clear, deliberative thinking, or because of all the empirical evidence supporting its assertions. If they did it wouldn’t be called religion; it would be called science. So it must be that they accept its contents as a matter of faith. Does that mean that moderates can then attack faith as the root of such evil? Alas, no such luck; for it’s been hammered into their heads since birth that faith is “much more precious than of gold.” (1 Peter 7) It’s no wonder either. Of course “doubting Thomas” was ridiculed by Jesus for his skepticism, for without faith (and the fact that the falsifiability its most basic claim – the gift of everlasting life – lies conveniently out of touch, beyond the grave), faith-based religion as a system of thought or way of describing reality is left looking pretty pathetic.
Okay then; let’s recap where the moderate stands. They believe in God based on faith and the Bible. But they can’t be fully on board with the Bible as it contains far too many contradictions, absurdities, and atrocities for any moderately intelligent and reasonably ethical person to latch onto wholeheartedly. So they resort to using their naturally evolved, inborn sense of right and wrong (possessed by theists, atheists, and all other humans alike) to pick out some parts they like and reject others that they don’t. As for God, they can’t try to prove his existence as they would do with the existence of say, the planet Neptune, by appealing to observational evidence (and for which, as the ones making an extraordinary claim, they are saddled with the burden of providing proof). So they rely instead on faith. But faith, as we’ve seen, by not requiring further justification other than, “It’s just what I choose to believe,” can be used as a pretext for the actions of saints and sinners alike. As the saying goes, “Science flies people to the moon. Faith flies people into skyscrapers.” So all the moderate can really do is sadly exclaim, “Well I may happen to believe that same crazy stuff but I don’t do crazy things because of it.” That doesn’t seem like much of a basis for trying to establish oneself on the moral high ground.
Atheists on the other hand, face no such limitations, for atheists are not shackled by any preconceived ideas of how things are supposed to be. We are free to find fault with any idea or action that is maladaptive to or incompatible with human well-being – that is, with health, happiness and general flourishing. We can cheerfully point out the flaws in radical Islam or radical Christianity with equal irreverence and we can do the same with even moderate strains of religion as well as the hate-filled books upon which they’re based. And the crucial difference is that we’re not using our own irrational prejudices as our basis (unless you count a predilection for rationality to be a prejudice).
I’ve pointed out elsewhere the inherent problems with “just believing” in a higher power based on intuition, wishful thinking, or the superficial attractiveness of the idea. Moreover, like those who watch kiddy porn or buy ivory jewelry, all adherents of faith-based religions act as enablers for the perpetrators of terrible crimes. By revering the same books, and by worshipping, loving, and fearing the same supernatural God, they inadvertently permit religion-inspired violence to continue by providing a veneer of respectability for the worst of the devout crazies. On top of this, they render themselves impotent to criticize such acts without engaging in selective reasoning at best or blatant hypocrisy at worst. I’ll thus leave it up to the reader to decide – atheist, moderate, or zealot – which is best for humanity? Where should the bell curve lie?
Colby Hess is a freelance writer and photographer living near Seattle, WA. He is currently writing a book about science, philosophy, and freethought. Follow him on Twitter @ColbyTHess.