The Myth of Moderate Religion
The Myth of Moderate Religion
The debate between the religious and the atheist has grown more vigorous and heated, particularly since the recent spread of religiously inspired violence to parts of the world that never knew such terror before. The debate has never brought any significant result when conducted with fundamentalist believers, which are in general, a minority. As a result the majority, those holding 'moderate' faith of any kind, blending in easily with modern society, not killing for their faith, inciting hatred nor discriminating against those of alternative faiths to theirs, do not identify with either extreme, neither fundamentalist nor atheist, arguing that 'moderate' religion is the way through the ideological woods. It is generally non-proselytising, tolerant, charitable, and inoffensive. They see themselves as the 'golden mean'; not too religious, or too irreligious and they have no shortage of ecclesiastical scholars giving them theological basis for such practice. This, they argue, allows all faiths to co-exist peaceably, allowing for freedom of belief and expression for all. In this article, I will attempt to point out the oxymoron of the idea of 'moderate religion', its corrosiveness, and how I think the only way to co-exist without religious conflict, is to live without religion at all.
I'm going to particularly speak here concerning holy books in general, though in particular the Christian scriptures, because those are which I know intimately through many years of study (Having begun my life as an agnostic, I converted to Christianity in early adulthood and my faith was so strong that I was determined that I was called to be a minister of the Gospel. Going to seminary and 5 years of study of church history, philosophy of religion, and biblical studies soon cured me of that.)
There is no doubt that the Christian Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is riddled with features that are abhorrent to the modern mind. Such was the way of life in ancient times. Atrocities committed on a massive scale, genocide, stories of God slaying tens of thousands of his own people for a breach of his commands, in addition to his commands to slay those among them who commit sins too, commands for even the innocent family members of the accused to be slain mercilessly, daughters murdered on account of an irrational promise made to God, and fathers offering their daughters to be gang raped in order to spare their guests. The Hebrew Bible is riddled with racism, violence, glorification of war, hatred, incest, murder, ethnocentricity of the 'people of God' and all of it sanctioned by God himself. This special status, this belief that they were chosen by God, gave them the permission and justification for any atrocity available to them. Such texts were for centuries also used by the Church in crusades, colonisation, forced conversions, plundering of countries' wealth and resources, slavery, and even more recently, Apartheid.
The New Testament is no exception, though lacking the commands to brutally slay all those who don't believe (mostly because the early church knew, as a minority sect, that such was impossible in the face of the might of the Roman authorities) it still contains radical commands to separation, division, and condemnation of those who do not follow their ways. Jesus statistically spoke more about Hell than any other topic in the Gospels, a place of eternal suffering and torment for those who don't 'do as they're told' so to speak, and apocalyptic books predicting the wholesale slaughter of non-believers, and their eternal damnation. Much has been said about these things before, and everyone who has ever read the Bible knows full well what is in there, though many choose to overlook such things every time they open the book in favour of the more 'acceptable' passages. I suspect that moderate Muslims and Jews do the very same thing. Even in the official calendar of readings of the Catholic and Anglican churches, such 'offensive' texts are avoided, never preached about, never explained. Just skipped over as if they weren't there, or if mentioned, simply given a spiritual interpretation or 'spiritualised', to avoid the ugly facts, which brings me to my next point.
Once humanity finally began to kick off the chains of medieval religion and develop themselves intellectually, study science, search for empirical truths about the world around them and seek justice for all, they quickly began to notice the enormous disparity between faith and reason. The earth was round, the Church demanded it was flat, the earth rotated around the sun, the Church demanded that the world was the centre of the universe, the Church openly executed all who dared to think differently, persecuted minorities, abused women and children, practised torture, and dangled over the fires of Hell anyone who didn't unquestioningly obey the authority of the Church. People of reason, of science, or simply seeking justice and freedom of thought, were frequently persecuted and punished by the church. However, over time, such truths became evident to the point that it was impossible for the church to continue in its denial, and little by little the church was dragged kicking and screaming into modernity.
However, a problem was then created for the church. The books that they so depended on all those years had obvious flaws, untenable precepts, principles and practices quite unacceptable to modern society. People were leaving the faith in droves. What to do? Dismantle the religion? That would have been the most honest solution, but no. They got their best scholars together and gradually, little by little reinterpreted faith. This didn't happen overnight, it's been happening for hundreds of years and always through the developments made in the secular world. Even in my time in theological seminary, I witnessed the rise of reinterpretations of the Bible to fit every new social movement. One good example is with the rise of environmental concern in the last 30 years has come (late as usual) a theological version of environmentalism, verses and passages gleaned from the scriptures to try to make God a greenie. The church never had such concern until the world put pressure on it to do so. Desperate to survive, the church creates a 'theology' for every new movement in human society. In the 1950s and 60s, faced with the question of religious pluralism, it was no longer acceptable for the church to simply say all non-Christians are going to fry in Hell, so they simply overlooked the verses of the Bible which say exactly that, reinterpreted by their theologians such as Paul Tillich, they came to a belief in 'anonymous Christians', those who are good, and though ignorant of the Gospel, obey god's commands and will be saved anyway. Such dilution of the Biblical message was necessary for the survival of the church. This has been happening in all religions, in all places for many years. Desperately playing 'catch-up' with the world despite its founder Jesus commanding them to be a 'light to the world', they follow every whim of the world, trying to be 'relevant' and producing a mirror culture. Christian versions of everything are found in the world, Christian rock, video games, books, psychologies, bumper stickers and every other fad imaginable. In short, so many centuries ago the church accepted these books as the holy and infallible word of God and then have spent the last 500 years desperately excusing the Bible from itself, speaking for God, embarrassed by his pronouncements and examples, explaining away and apologising for him constantly. I speak here of the Christian church, but Islam and Judaism are no different. Another result of this dilution of the faith is the creation of tens of thousands of sects and denominations. Each dilutes to his own taste. So what's the problem? Is it such a bad thing? Well, I propose that it creates two major issues which have led to the religious situation we have in today in this world.
Firstly, the creation of radicals and fundamentalists is a direct result of this dilution. People within the church, eager to please and obey their God, read their Bibles and see something radically different to what is being practised and preached in their churches. There is a good reason why for so many centuries the Catholic Church did not allow its members to read the Bible for themselves. They knew what would result, and it did. Jesus' call to serve and his ethic are radical and uncompromising, Christians who read their Bible honestly, listen to Jesus words, then look at their church pews and see fat, rich, comfortable Christians who don't think of God from one Sunday to the next, sacrificing nothing than an hour a week to the faith, and when confronted, they respond quickly with, 'Don't judge me!' The more radical believers, I actually respect more, at least they see the hypocrisy, the compromise, and dishonestly, but unfortunately, instead of turning to reason and simply abandoning this corrupt institution and it's mythic scriptures, they maintain the basic assumption that these books are 'God's Infallible Word', think themselves 'called of God' to demonstrate 'true' religion to the world, latch on to the most radical texts in scripture, and then use them to justify all kinds of horrific acts. But I speak here not only of 'horrific' in the sense of physical violence, but also the terrible social damage such radicals do. One only needs to see the damage the radical orthodox Jews are doing in Israeli politics, the effect of conservative Christianity on US administrations such as that of G.W. Bush, the division of Palestinian politics (and now Palestine) by Hamas, the influence of radical Islamic clerics in countries like Iran, and the chaos caused in political structures all over the world by radical religious zealots taking to politics. These radicals are so divisive they are even divided among themselves, committing and encouraging violent acts on each other, Sunni against Shite, Catholic against Protestant, etc.
Secondly, it has driven the realm of religious belief purely into the private sphere and thus exempted it from reason. Moderate religion, in its inability to explain and justify itself has pushed faith into the unquestionable private sphere though all the time permitting it to influence their everyday lives and decisions. A politician must justify his policies, his economic position and social policies, he must reasonably explain himself to his electorate to be taken seriously. However, they are never required to explain their religious position, never required to justify their faith, give reason and defence for it, explain how it will benefit the electorate, while all the time letting that very faith influence and make crucial decisions on matters of policy, though they frequently deny it. One only has to see in my country, Australia, how much the current opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has let his Catholicism influence his policy proposals and his stand on important issues such as women's rights, education, abortion, stem cell research, etc. All this influence with no responsibility to justify it. Why? The relegation of religious faith to the private sphere has exempted it from the need for defence, while letting it affect every area of the religious person's life and of the lives of those they are responsible for, whether it be political leader, boss at work, parent, teacher, scientist, or academic. Such faith clouds all they do. Surely they should be required to give more justification that simply 'it's my religion and you can't question it'.
A common argument in support of 'moderate' religion is that these religions have a good 'core', a 'pure' faith that has no such problems, and the problems are caused by the religions of the world being corrupted by their 'host' cultures, defiling the 'pure' religion and creating the bigotry, discriminations, divisions, fighting, denominations and all other such evils. On the contrary, there is no religion outside of individual cultures, the religious person's excuse that they need to simply follow the core of faith and the only problems are caused by cultural additions is a fallacy. There is no 'core' of any faith, no 'pure' Christianity, Islam or Judaism, they are all in, and of, cultures. Even the earliest Christians were simply sectarian Jews, every Christian ritual and act, even their description of the nature of God, is a result of thousands of years of cultural and ideological development, not only Jewish, but Greek and Roman too. Religion is an expression of ignorant culture, not something outside of it.
In short, the final result of the development of 'moderate' religion is the dilution of the holy books and the relegation of faith to the private sphere, rendering it unquestionable; thus fermenting the rise of radicals and actually giving them the status of inscrutability. The 'moderates' all over the world, claiming freedom to believe nonsense in one area of their life and then its exemption from reason and public scrutiny, have given the same freedom to the radicals and fanatics. What freedom you take for yourself, you must admit to others.
So what do I propose? One can't sit and simply criticise the status quo without presenting an alternative. Shall we attempt to eradicate religion completely? Would that free the world of evil and create a human Utopia? I'm not so foolish to believe that religion is the root of all evil. Evil will still exist. People will still fight and do violence to each other over politics, money, power, and many other things. However, though we can never have a perfect world, how much better would this world be if the problems caused by religion were eradicated? Imagine, for example, the Palestinian/ Israeli territory being a country of peace with all Semites living side by side, having no religious claims to set them apart, and the tourists visiting the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Tomb of Jesus as simply interesting historical sites, no different to how we now visit the ancient Roman and Greek temples? However, I unfortunately recognise this as a pipe dream. No-one will ever be able to convince everyone to give up their religious faith voluntarily and doing it by force is an option doomed from the outset, no government can police what happens in the privacy of the home whether it be sexual, religious, or even culinary practices. One can see how religious faith survived Stalinism in the Soviet Union. It survived in the minds and homes of the common people determined to believe at all costs. The best that can be achieved is to educate as many as possible, particularly children (not allowing them to be religiously indoctrinated at a young age by their parents), allowing them to see for themselves the error of religious faith and cast it off once and for all. Then, after enough years have passed, so few people will believe any such nonsense that religious people will finally have the credibility they deserve in society. None!
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