Saturday, September 09, 2006

To hell with "moderation"

A humble request: everyone stop using the term "religious moderate".

The term "religious moderate", whatever that means, is opposed to the term "religious extremist". And a religious extremist, whatever that is, is clearly someone who is extremely religious; meanwhile a religious moderate is someone who is merely moderately religious. Now, to be merely moderately religious is to be merely moderately committed to God--but in this area of life, a moderate commitment is no commitment at all.

The moral of the story is: religious moderates don't really believe in God.

Which is just how the anti-religious author Sam Harris puts it (see here):
People are really being motivated by the content of religious beliefs.... Religious moderates and secularists don’t understand that because they don’t really know what it’s like to believe in God.
For some reason, this strikes me as problematic.

Suppose that it makes sense to classify the varieties of religious faith on a continuum with the religious extremists on one end and the moderates on the other. On such a continuum, people like Jerry Falwell, Fred Phelps, and, yes, Osama bin Laden, are obviously placed towards the extremist side of things. So what of people like me? I just want everyone to get along. According to this classification system, I could only be stuck in the moderate end of the spectrum. From which we can conclude that, despite my claim to be a Christian, I don't actually believe in God.

So this is how it is: anyone who, like Harris, conceptualizes religious people in terms of extremists and moderates is in effect accusing me (and countless others) of being religious in name only. We are faithless, we are hypocrites, we are apostates.

Harris, for his part, is entirely happy to think of theists like me just like that. I think he would be happy to do so simply on the basis of the information that I'm a liberal leftist--he would think that information to be entirely sufficient to warrant the conclusion that I am in reality a faithless hypocrite.

Well, I'll be damned if that's the case.

No, really: I'll be damned.

I think Sam Harris doesn't know anything about the people he calls "religious moderates". Here's some insight from Real Live Preacher:
That old man that you brushed aside? The one you called a liberal and a wishy-washy Christian? He spent the last fifty years with his hands and his heart in the pages of that sacred book. He has wept over it and searched for truth in its stories. His unanswered questions have increased every year until finally he knows nothing at all but the love of God and neighbor.

He knows something that you do not know.
RLP originally intended this to address a certain variety of Christian, but his words might as well be aimed at Harris and the following that he has collected.

Of course, many of the people Harris calls "moderates" really are religious in name only--97% of Italy is "Catholic", because they have been baptized, which says nothing about their relationship with God; throughout the West there are what you might call "cultural Christians", people who are "Christian" in a similarly superficial sense. And, yes, many "extremists" are indeed very serious about their faith.

But then there are people like RLP describes, who would also be called "moderates", and yet are as serious about their faith as anyone. And there are also people who would be called "extremists" who seem to be more interested in a hollow legalism than any sort of genuine faith--they are extremely something, but not particularly committed to God.

Long story short: the distinction between "religious moderates" and "religious extremists" is insulting and empty. Please don't use it.


JohnV said...

Jesus was fully man and fully God. To really know Him, you must get to know both sides.

Liberals naturally tend to see the humanity of Christ. The challenge for them is to search for the divinity.

Conservatives naturally tend to see the divinity of Christ, and need to consciously seek an understanding of his humanity.

RLP sees the shortcoming of conservatives who don't go beyond their natural understanding, but he doesn't understand that he's doing the same thing, but from a different starting point.

Toby said...

I don't want to get into weighing the relative merits of theological liberalism and conservatism, largely because I don't think that's a particularly useful spectrum, either.

(Though those terms are clearly more sensible than "moderate" and "extremist".)

I called myself a theological liberal early on, but I don't think I like that category any more. A lot of theological liberals seem inclined to deny original sin, but I think original sin is theologically central. Just this might be enough to want to lump myself in with the conservatives, who are more likely to take the concept of sin seriously. But for me to adopt the conservative label would be misleading in all sorts of other ways.

Fred said...

Ummm.. I always used the extremist/moderate distinction not to state that someone was extreme/moderate in their religious convictions, but in other aspects of their life, which may or may not be part of their religion. Phelps, for example is an extremist, but many of the ways in which he is extreme are only loosely (if at all) tied to religion.

Toby said...


I agree that there is a clear sense in which Phelps is an extremist. He is extremely all sorts of things.

But sticking the words "moderate" and "extremist" after the adjective "religious" (or "Christian" or whatever) is at least suggestive of the understanding of the term that e.g. Harris has, and this is what's problematic.

No, not everyone who utters those words has to mean it in just that way... but there seems to be a strong tendency to do so (which Harris exploits in his attacks on "religious moderates").

Fred said...

Actually, I disagree with your interpretation of the grammar. IMHO, the more obivous interpretation of "religious extremist" would be an extremist who is religious (the same kind of interpretation that you would give "religious ice-cream man" - clearly not someone that hold particularly "ice-creamy" religous views).

That being said, I agree that in this case the extremism would likely be considered to be of a religious kind. But really, almost any term at all can be misconstrued. I think Harris is just wrong in this case about the meaning of the term, as accepted by the general English speaking populace. Similarly, I think the meaning you've given for the terms is also incorrect.

Here is where I think you've made your mistake. You wrote: "a religious extremist... is clearly someone who is extremely religious". No. I don't think that this reflects common usage at all. "Religious extremists" are those that have extreme religious views. Those are two quite different things. This is not about having an extreme or moderate committment to God. Rather, the distinction is over what that committment entails.

If it entails going out and smiting the unbeliever, that might be considered extreme (it is by me at least). Whereas if it means quietly living a life of faith, that would be considered (very) moderate.
The actual degree of committment to God is totally irrelevant. Both of these people could be totally committed to God, yet differ in how that belief impacts their behaviour. Furthermore, there is no way to know whether someone is actually committed based on their behaviour.
Either of these people could be total believers or closet atheists, and we'd never know the difference.

Toby said...


By way of comparison, it would sound odd to say: "political liberals and theological liberals are both liberals". This is because in both cases the sense of the noun ("liberal") is relative to the context set by the adjective--what "liberal" means depends on whether you're on a political, theological, or whatever spectrum.

Anyway, that's one way it could go; the language could be meant otherwise. I don't really want to argue about the correct interpretation or use of "religious extremist" or "moderate", because, like I said, people take it in different ways. My post addresses one way it could be taken.

Clearly this language doesn't lead you to misunderstand the varieties of religious faith in the way Harris does--well, good. Rather than argue about who's using the term correctly, let's say that your distinction is just different from the one I attack in the post. That said, in most cases the two distinctions look exactly the same, not only because the same words are used, but also because they are co-extensive: everyone more or less agrees about who counts as a "religious extremist", and who counts as a "religious moderate". The difference is in the conclusions you think you can draw after applying the labels. Often this is indeterminate until someone actually gets into a somewhat deep discussion about religion, at which point the labels can (not will, but can) suggest a certain way of thinking about things.