This is an old article of mine that has been revamped a couple of times, but I think is still well worth the read. I hope you enjoy it.
One of the most controversial questions among atheists involves moderate theists. Many who identify themselves as simply non-religious would prefer that us outspoken atheists leave moderates alone. After all, they will say, moderates don’t hurt anybody, and most of them are really nice people. Their religion is mostly just cultural. They don’t really believe the nasty parts of the Bible. They should be left alone even though they do happen to practice a potentially nasty religion. I take an opposing view, and I believe there is a very good reason for doing so.
Without spending thirty minutes finding statistics that will be debatable, I’m going to hazard a guess that maybe 20% of Christians in America are either fundamentalists or evangelicals or both. It doesn’t really matter. The point is, they’re the minority of Christians. Most are moderates. They believe in some version of Christianity, most likely one that leaves out the nastier elements like stoning homosexuals, and the unscientific elements like a 6000 year old cosmos.
These moderates, in my view, are the ones directly responsible for the decline of America into quasi-theocracy that has occurred in the last 30 years. Their complicity is a result of at least two things: first, they defend fundamentalists as “slightly misguided, but genuine, honest people,” and second, they defend “faith” as a legitimate source of knowledge. The first defense is maddening. In any other discussion, moderates would most likely not advocate letting people continue to do harmful things just because they are well intentioned. Imagine an alternative medicine guru who advocated a return to the use of mercury to cure various illnesses. Suppose that he had been living by himself somewhere for the last thirty years, and was simply unaware of the mortal danger involved with mercury. Would moderate Christians say that he should be allowed to continue with his recommendations simply because he had a genuine desire to help people?
At this point, many people, including some atheists, might be balking at my comparison. After all, we know that mercury kills, and advocating taking poison is not the same as letting people have their religious beliefs, is it? Well, in the case of right wing fundamentalism, it’s not really much different. After all, it is right wing fundamentalists who refuse to permit stem cell research, effectively killing people who would benefit from cures available only through this new research. If that’s not concrete enough for you, think for a minute about abortion clinics. They have security systems that would make a Guantanamo Colonel swell with pride. That level of security isn’t excessive, either. Without it, we would have a lot of dead doctors. With it, many doctors who perform abortions fear for their lives, and occasionally, one of them dies at the hands of someone doing “God’s will.” Every election, two of the biggest issues are gay marriage and abortion rights. It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that George Bush gained eight years of power riding the coattails of the Fundamentalist Right.*
Still, you may object that most moderates are vehemently opposed to right wing violence. They detest it as much as us non-theists. It’s unfair to say that they are not opposed to such things. This is where I, along with Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and other atheist activists, part company with even the majority of atheists. I say that not only do they facilitate violence, they are actually causing much of the violence because of their refusal to examine their own beliefs and reject the very foundation of religion itself!
Moderate Christianity is deceptively alluring because of its seemingly scientific basis. Most educated Christians have no problem admitting that there’s something to evolutionary science, and they have no problem admitting that the earth is very old, and that dinosaurs once roamed about. In fact, if you get a good Moderate Christian into a theological discussion, they will almost inevitably tell you that they believe questions are good, and that any thinking person ought to question what they believe.
Forgive me, but the devil is in the details, and they’re missing a very, very important detail. The admission that questions ought to be asked makes it seductively simple to believe that moderate Christianity is ok, and doesn’t hurt anyone. Maybe it’s even helpful in some way. The problem, and the main point of this essay, is that questioning is not ok for moderate Christians. I can prove it. Next time you’re talking to a moderate, try getting them onto the nature of god. If you’re any good at debate, you can quickly steer them to one of the half dozen paradoxes inherent in god belief. Once you get them there, note how quickly they will revert to the position, “There are some things you just have to take on faith.” If you press them into explaining why, they will get defensive. They will probably end the discussion very quickly.
The simple, indisputable fact is that any god belief requires faith, and if you follow my writings at all, you know that “faith,” properly defined, is “belief in a thing despite evidence to the contrary, or a total lack of evidence.” Once you get them to the point of admitting that they hold a belief despite it’s opposition to reason, you can see that the facade of moderation is just that – a facade. At their core, they are exactly the same as fundamentalists. They just pick a more socially acceptable irrationality. What they really mean when they say you should question everything is that you should question everything – except for the validity of faith as a means of acquiring knowledge.
This is why I don’t let spiritualists off the hook, either. They advocate the same thing. There are some things that are true because they just feel true. It’s exactly the same foundation, and it leads to exactly the same place. If we, as skeptics and atheists, allow this hedge-bet to go unchallenged, we are also complicit in the religiostupidification of America. In the case of both fundamentalists and moderates, the individual’s own sense of morality determines how much “faith” they need, or in other words, how much irrationality they will accept.
Another way of saying this is that where religious faith is concerned, allowing a little irrationality is no different from allowing a lot. This point is so important that it needs to be made again. Accepting the belief that some things are true and irrational is what gives a perception of validity to every religious belief. Right wing fundamentalists are crazy. These are people who are out of touch with reality. The reason they are not either publicly ridiculed or maybe even forcibly medicated is that they are given a free pass — because it’s religion. If people believed the Jolly Green Giant was making proclamations from the side of a can of vegetables, they would be examined by a psychologist. However, when they believe an invisible man in the sky tells them to kill abortion doctors, they’re politely encouraged to be a little more moderate.
The primary reason that moderates refuse to come out publicly against fundamentalists is the vulnerability of their own position. The really smart moderates know this, and I suspect that the rest sense it even if they can’t put their finger on it. The only way to effectively call out the fundamentalists is to challenge them on rational grounds. Moderates are too intellectually dishonest, or too scared, to apply logic to all questions, lest they have to give up the precious illusion that their own personal invisible friend will make everything ok for them. So, you see, the lie in Moderate Christianity is that it is moderate at all. It is not. It is, however, to use the colloquial term, chicken shit. Moderates do not take a stand against those of their own faith who are using faith as a weapon, and causing untold suffering among gays, women, atheists, and, dare I say it… Iraqis.** They cannot, in good ecclesiastical conscience, take a firm stand against those within their order who eschew science, for if they did, they would be opening the door to the scientific scrutiny of their own beliefs.
Moderate Christianity is a lie. It is a whitewashed facade covering up a hateful, irrational, and utterly nonsensical faith. I suggest that it is time to stop giving moderates a free pass just because they embrace a softer, gentler version of insanity. People of reason will never have a rational leg to stand on until we challenge the very foundation of religion – all religion – that is, the errant and dangerous belief that “faith is a virtue.”
* UPDATE: It is refreshing that at the time of this update, President Obama (by all accounts a religious moderate) is attempting to alleviate some of the worst atrocity inflicted upon the world by the Bush administration. I certainly applaud the President for his efforts. However, I would caution the reader to avoid the temptation to conclude that moderates aren’t so bad after all. I’ve never said or implied that moderates are not good people, or that they don’t often try to do good in the world. My argument is that their own religion hampers them by condoning the actions of those they oppose. Without the religious idiocy that led to the Bush administration’s very existence, Moderately Religious President Obama wouldn’t have a problem to fix. Moderately Religious President Obama, along with the rest of Moderately Religious America, allowed Fundamentalist President Bush to be an idiot and ruin America precisely because it didn’t have a rational leg to stand on — because all religion is founded on faith.
** (UPDATED 3/09) Let us not forget that just because we have a new president, the Iraq Debacle is not finished. Perhaps the trillions of dollars spent on the military would have been better spent shoring up the faltering economy and preventing the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. We are still hemorrhaging money abroad while jobs, homes, and livelihoods are being lost at home. Let us not forget that Christians elected George Bush — not just fundamentalist Christians. Without support from the middle, the Fundamentalist Right would not have enough power to elect a local mayor, much less a president.