Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Religious moderates, atheists and religious fanatics

A common theme amongst preachers of atheism is the idea that "religious moderation fosters extremism". This is the idea that all religious faith is toxic because extremists can use religious faith to pursue their fundamentalist agendas. The idea is hinted at in the title of chapter 8.7 of the sacred text of atheism; "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. The chapter is entitled "How 'moderation' in faith fosters fanaticism" and the reason I said the argument is "hinted at" is that the chapter does absolutely nothing like demonstrate "how moderation in faith fosters fanaticism", it is perhaps one of the most misleading chapter titles I've ever seen in a lifetime of reading.

To begin with, Dawkins doesn't make a single mention of any of what I'd describe as the "moderate faiths" (Buddhism, Quakerism, the other peace churches, liberal Anglicanism, Sufism, Zoroastrianism), he doesn't even mention any middle ground faiths (Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Church of England) either, preferring instead to focus the whole chapter on a polemic about the activities of the most extreme religious fanatics. After a quick count I found at least 35 mentions of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism (suicide bombing, Bin Laden, 9/11, martyrdom, London bombings, Saudi Arabia, Taliban, Al Qaida, Ayatollahs, jihadists, and on and on he went) plus three mentions of Christian fundamentalism (abortion terrorists, rapture Christians) in the chapter. This is a chapter that is supposed to be about the dangers of "religious moderation" but it doesn't mention a single moderate faith, not even once, it doesn't even make a single mention of any of the semi-extremist faiths such as Catholicism, but it mentions Islam and Islamic fundamentalism at least 35 times.

Dawkins utterly failed to demonstrate his theory that "religious moderation fosters religious fanaticism" simply because he spent the whole chapter ranting on about extremism and forgot to actually mention any religious moderates, relying on the confirmation bias of readers to sell the message, after all it is difficult to disagree with criticism of murderous Islamic fundamentalism.

Once you have mentally agreed that murderous religious extremism is bad so many times, it is easy to overlook the fact that the chapter doesn't even come close to establishing what is claimed in the title.  Had this been a first year Philosophy of Religion undergraduate essay, I'd have failed it because it completely failed to establish what is claimed in the title. Not only that, it was also full of petty unsubstantiated generalisations, such as the idea that "religion discourages questioning". This is such a facile generalisation it's remarkable, it is as if Dawkins has never even heard of Søren Kierkegaard, or has simply wished out of existence the school of thought that "man cannot truly understand that which he has not doubted" (quite a thing to do for someone that preaches the scientific method).

Just in case one thinks that the chapter title was perhaps a publishing error, and that he actually meant to call it "An angry polemic against murderous religious fanaticism", Dawkins drops this one liner into the middle of the chapter:
"The teachings of moderate religion though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism."
 A sentence that makes it absolutely clear what he is supposedly trying to establish. The problem is though, that he doesn't establish it at all, he just thrusts this sentence into the middle of the text, then continues on with his rambling polemic. He doesn't actually demonstrate the validity of this statement at all. He fails to establish validity because this quote is is practically the only (extremely vague and generalised) reference to "moderate religion" in the entire chapter.

Had Dawkins actually demonstrated how aspects of moderate religion (Quaker lobbying for the UK establishment to legally recognise their gay marriage ceremonies; the Rastafarian leader Haile Selassie's repeated calls for human equality; or the Dalai Lama's calls for respect and tolerance between people of all faiths and none) had fostered religious extremism, I'd have been mightily impressed. However he failed to do it, and he failed quite spectacularly from a philosophical point of view. Not that I expected him to succeed in proving such an ill defined and generalisation riddled assertion of course. In fact, I challenge anyone to create a reason and logic based essay demonstrating how a specific example of "moderate faith", lets say, the Quaker peace testimony has fostered such extreme religious fanaticism.

After defending "religious moderates" from Dawkins' rambling onslaught, I have to say that I strongly believe that religious fanatics must be confronted, in fact I have used this website to speak out against religious bigotry and creationist drivel on a regular basis.

In my view, the most important thing when speaking out against religious fanaticism is to be careful about the language we use to make these criticisms. If we use lazy generalisations (generalisations are one of the very lowest forms of fallacious reasoning) like "religious people" instead of specifics like "creationists" to make these criticisms, then we are completely undermining our own position and driving anyone moderate or rational away from the debate.

Driving away moderate and rational voices ends up leaving just the all too familiar shouting match between inarticulate, or just plain ignorant atheist ranters (that can't even understand the fallaciousness of their own arguments or believe that invoking "sky pixies" or "spaghetti monsters" ever, under any circumstances, actually adds value to the debate) and fanatical religious extremists (that are deluded enough to think they can win an argument simply by quoting bits of ancient religious text or threatening divine retribution!).

These extremists on either side of the debate are precisely the people that should be ignored (and derided by anyone rational if they simply wont stop spouting irrational nonsense).

Any real progress is only ever going to be made through co-operation between reasonably rational and tolerant people (sceptical agnostics, humanists, Buddhists, Quakers, other peace churches, religious moderates within less moderate churches, liberal atheists, liberal secularists, ignostics, etc). Therefore; carefully considered and rational language is hugely important from all sides, especially from the side that so often tends to assume that the rational high-ground belongs to them.

When Dawkins creates incoherent criticisms of "religious moderates" which rely on nothing more than abject generalisations and rabble-rousing polemics, he actually undermines the atheist position. It is quite remarkable to see a "man of science" make such an appalling mess of an argument, devoid of reason or coherent methodology as it is. One wonders whether Dawkins would accept an evolutionary biology essay from a student at Oxford University (where he teaches), which substitutes vapid generalisations and angry polemics for the normal methodologies of empirical evidence gathering and rational analysis.

It is undeniable that Dawkins made a complete mess of his so called critique of "religious moderation". A friend of mine called David Simon Banbery framed the argument much better than Dawkins ever has, when he defined the problem as being "moderates' inaction against extreme factions within their own religion". This at least removes the huge generalised, homogeneous label "moderate religion" that Dawkins was relying upon and places the emphasis onto moderate individuals within specific religions.

I think it is fair to say that myself and David share the view that whatever the organisation, there will always be individuals determined to use their power within that organisation to suit their own objectives. Whether this desire is based on pure selfish self-interest or on underlying psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies; powerful individuals will use political, corporate or religious power structures to promote their own (often warped) moralities.

I believe that I am not being unfair to summarise David's position as "extremists exist in all walks of life, and that it is a particular failing of some religions that they have allowed extremist factions to develop within their midst". I broadly agree with the view but I'd say the problem isn't just limited to religions though. For example; democratic political organisations are by no means immune to infiltration by extremists. The classic example being the rise of neoliberalism (a right-wing ideology which seeks to undermine democratic control over the economy). Even nominally left-wing organisations like the UK Labour party, the Polish Solidarity party and the South African ANC have been infiltrated by neoliberal extremists. The fact that neoliberals actually want to undermine democratic control over the economy demonstrates that this infiltration by political extremists is perhaps even more dangerous than infiltration by religious extremists from a structural perspective, since most religious extremists at least want to maintain the power structures of the religious system they are bastardising, rather than trying to destroy the entire structure from within by severely limiting the powers and capabilities of their own institutions in line with some external dogma (orthodox corporatist neoliberalism).

I think David's argument that moderates within any given religion have an obligation to prevent their organisation being hijacked by extremist usurpers is much stronger than Dawkins' argument (I hesitate to even use the word "argument" it is so poorly constructed) that religious moderation (in general) fosters (very specific and extreme kinds of) religious fanaticism. Whether these extremist usurpers are driven by self-interest, sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies or they are people pursuing some personal or political vendetta, I believe that it is the moral obligation of moderates within any given organisation to stop them.

If you believe this to be the case, then what I said previously about rational language is especially important. These religious moderates (with the moral obligation to fight extremism) need to be engaged in rational discourse, rather than just getting lumped into the same generalised category as the extremists and ruthlessly derided by shouty "all religion is evil" atheists.

Religious moderates must actually be engaged in constructive discourse and then supported by voices of reason and sanity as they fight to root out extremist elements from their religion. If however, they are abused and derided by people who are simply pretending to be rational and tolerant, who are these moderates going to turn to? To the extremist voices within their own religion of course.

In my opinion, irrational obnoxious atheism actually "fosters religious extremism" by abusing religious moderates and pushing them towards religious extremists, who are always delighted to hear their concerns and build new audiences to mindwash with their anti-scientific mumbo-jumbo (and worse).

The rise of religious extremism is absolutely great for ranty atheists: Confirmation bias tells them that they were right about the inevitable rise of religious extremism, making them feel nice and smug and giving them even more self-justification to continue their half-witted ranting. After all, the last thing the "all religion is evil" ranter brigade would like to see is the growth of a new era of respect and compromise between people of moderate faith and people of none; a compromise of moderates with a mission to eradicate religious extremism.

The kind of intolerant atheist ranter that would like to see all religious thought eradicated, would see this kind of compromise between rational and tolerant theists and rational and tolerant atheists as a catastrophic and intolerable defeat. Therefore, in their minds it is always necessary to keep stoking the flames of religious hatred. These intolerant atheists fear statements like "We need an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without" (from the Dalai Lama) as much as the religious fanatic does, because this sentiment clearly demonstrates that their simplistic "all religion is evil" worldview is exactly the same kind of inaccurate and divisive "us and them" lunacy that drives religious fundamentalism.

The rise in religious extremism is great for the religious extremists too of course, but it is extremely bad for almost everyone else: At best we have to listen to even more demented gibbering from these morons (ranty atheists and theist science-deniers alike) and at worst we must suffer the very real consequences of religious fundamentalism (violence, oppression, misogyny, homophobia, anti-scientific propaganda, barbaric practices...).

Next time you see Richard Dawkins trying to direct his followers to deride and ridicule all religious people and treat them with "naked contempt", I believe you should think carefully about what his agenda actually is (is this kind of ridicule and naked contempt strategy a reason based strategy or something else?), what the outcomes could be (could this kind of insulting and intolerant derision strategy actually turn moderate people away from science and reason and foster more religious extremism?) and remember that this is a man that has a history of basing his anti-religious arguments on extremely broad generalisations and extremely narrow polemics.

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