On the Responsibility of “Religious Moderates”

I’ve been involved with the Quaker community for 14 years. Before that, I was a Pentecostal, but on the very tiny “left-wing” of that tradition. I know first-hand the wonderful things that a religion can accomplish, and also, as a survivor of child abuse at the hands of my Pentecostal preacher father, the horror of toxic religion.

Although I no longer believe in a personal god, I am still passionately involved with my Quaker community. I am also involved in interfaith dialogue and even enabling dialogue between atheists and theists. I believe that most Atheists are actually enormously ignorant about the lived reality of religious communities. In fact, if we are “radical philosophers” who want to make the world a better place, one huge piece of that work is constructive dialogue across the boundaries of religious communities.

I am pasting an excerpt from Daniel Dennett’s book _Breaking the Spell_ which outlines exactly what the Atheist movements should expect from religious “moderates” – those who work within a traditional religion to reform it from the inside. It also emphasizes that we have no choice but to encourage religious moderates to do this work. If not, the fanatics will win and keep enslaving millions in regressive conditions.

 Here is a riddle: how is your religion like a swimming pool? And
here is the answer: it is what is known in the law as an attractive
nuisance. The doctrine of attractive nuisance is the principle that
people who maintain on their property a dangerous condition that is
likely to attract children are under a duty to post a warning or to
take stronger affirmative action to protect children from the dangers
of that attraction. It is an exception to the general rule that no
particular care is required of property owners to safeguard
trespassers from harm. Unenclosed swimming pools are the best known
example, but old refrigerators with their doors not removed,
machinery or stacks of building materials, or other eminently
climbable objects that could be an irresistible lure to young
children have also been deemed attractive nuisances. Property owners
are held responsible for harms that result when they maintain
something that can lure innocent people into harm.
 
 Those who maintain religions, and take steps to make them more
attractive, must be held similarly responsible for the harms produced
by some of those whom they attract and provide with a cloak of
respectability. Defenders of religion are quick to point out that
terrorists typically have political, not religious agendas, which may
well be true in many or most cases, or even in all cases, but that is
not the end of it. The political agendas of violent fanatics often
lead them to adopt a religious guise, and to exploit the
organizational infrastructure and tradition of unquestioning loyalty
of whichever religion is handy. And it is true that these fanatics
are rarely if ever inspired by, or guided by, the deepest and best
tenets in those religious traditions. So what? Al Qaeda and Hamas
terrorism is still Islam’s responsibility, and abortion-clinic
bombing is still Christianity’s responsibility, and the murderous
activities of Hindu extremists are still Hinduism’s responsibility.
 
 As Sam Harris argues in his brave book The End of Faith (2004), there
is a cruel Catch-22 in the worthy efforts of the moderates and
ecumenicists in all religions: by their good works they provide
protective coloration for their fanatical coreligionists, who quietly
condemn their open-mindedness and willingness to change while reaping
the benefits of the good public relations they thereby obtain.
 
 In short, the moderates in all religions are being used by the
fanatics, and should not only resent this; they should take whatever
steps they can find to curtail it in their own tradition. Probably
nobody else can do it, a sobering thought:
 
 “If a stable peace is ever to be achieved between Islam and the West,
Islam must undergo a radical transformation. This transformation, to
be palatable to Muslims, must also appear to come from Muslims
themselves. It does not seem much of an exaggeration to say that the
fate of civilization lies largely in the hands of “moderate”
Muslims.” [Harris, 2004, p. 154]
 
 We must hold these moderate Muslims responsible for reshaping their
own religion—but that means we must equally hold moderate Christians
and Jews and others responsible for all the excesses in their own
traditions. And, as George Lakoff has noted, we need to prove to
those Islamic leaders that we hear their moral voices, and not just
our own:
 
 “We depend on the goodwill and courage of moderate Islamic leaders.
To gain it, we must show our goodwill by beginning in a serious way
to address the social and political conditions that lead to despair.”
[2004, p. 61]
 
 How can we all keep the cloak of religious respectability from being
used to shelter the lunatic excesses? Part of the solution would be
to make religion in general less of a “sacred cow” and more of a
“worthy alternative.” This is the course somewhat haplessly followed
by some of us brights—atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secular
humanists, and others who have liberated themselves from specifically
religious allegiances. We brights are quite aware of all the good
that religions accomplish, but we prefer to channel our charity and
good deeds through secular organizations, precisely because we don’t
want to be complicit in giving a good name to Morality and Religion
301 religion! This keeps our hands clean, but that is not enough—any
more than it is enough for moderate Christians to avoid giving funds
to anti-Semitic organizations within Christianity, or for moderate
Jews to restrict their charity to organizations that are working to
secure peaceful coexistence for Palestinians and Israelis. That is a
start, but there is more work to be done, and it is the unpleasant
and even dangerous work of desanctifying the excesses in each
tradition from the inside. Any religious person who is not actively
and publicly involved in that effort is shirking a duty—and the fact
that you don’t belong to a congregation or denomination that is
offending doesn’t excuse you: it is Christianity and Islam and
Judaism and Hinduism (for example) that are attractive nuisances, not
just their offshoot sects.
 
 Any vicious cult that uses Christian imagery or texts as its
protective coloration should lie heavily on the conscience of all who
call themselves Christians, for instance. Until the priests and
rabbis and imams and their flocks explicitly condemn by name the
dangerous individuals and congregations within their ranks, they are
all complicit. I know many Christians who are privately sickened by
many of the words and deeds done “in the name of Jesus,” but
expressions of dismay to close friends are not enough. In Darwin’s
Dangerous Idea, I wrote about the brave Muslims who dared to speak
out publicly against the obscene travesty of the fatwa pronounced on
Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, condemned to death for
his heresies, and urged, “Let us all distribute the danger by
joining hands with them” (p. 517n). But here is the truly
distressing Catch-22: if we non-Muslims join hands with them, we
thereby mark them as “puppets of the enemies of Islam” in the eyes of
many Muslims. Only those within the religious community can
effectively start to dismantle this deeply immoral attitude, and
multiculturalists who urge us to go easy on them are exacerbating the problem.
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