June 05, 2006

Is Moderation a Blip?

Where have the religious moderates gone?

Perhaps religious moderation is a temporary blip, a quirk of history....

Is Religious Moderation an Accident?

During the 19th and 20th centuries, science, technology, and industrial progress endowed religious skeptics with an enormous imbalance of power over the more devout people of the world.

Technology and science brought massive material advantages, but only to those who could set aside the myth of Divine Creation, the prohibition on Usury, and the Satanic theory of disease. As unambiguous as religious texts were, it was not possible to understand the building blocks of nature without more than a little freedom from the dogma that the universe was literally constructed by the Deity during a single busy work week. So the beneficiaries of technology were those small pockets of the world that were run by religious skeptics and moderates.

As a result, for two centuries the skeptics enjoyed more wealth, fatter population growth, more mobility, and dramatically more influence on the globe than the strictly devout. And the modern world built by the skeptics is largely irreligious. Instead of the Vatican, we now have the U.N. Instead of religious art, music, and architecture, we now have Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Instead of religious teachers we now have S.A.Ts, IQ tests, and public education. The superpower designed by technocrats — the United States — is almost unique in its separation of Church and State. Religion in the U.S. has tended to be moderate, leaving political power to the government, content to coexist.

However, at the knee of the 21st century, the world has changed again.

Religion is No Longer a Disadvantage

Through the wonders of container shipping and electronic communication, the world has enjoyed a flood of globalization that has affected everybody from moms in Mississippi to teens in Tehran. Almost all the people of the world now enjoy the benefits of modern industrial science and trade. In practical terms, suddenly everything is cheap — and Made in China — somehow, amazingly, more economical to ship around the planet than to manufacture next door.

The result is that even where the people do not know or care to believe in basic findings of biology, physics and economics, they enjoy low mortality, great material wealth by historical standards, a surplus of leisure time, and an ability to communicate globally.

Perfect global trade means a level playing field between the devout and the skeptical. As we enter the 21st century, you no longer need to question your religious beliefs to enjoy more prosperity, have more children, or wield more influence. To enjoy the fruits of science, you no longer need to be a technocrat; it is enough to trade with one.

If you can read the Quran, you can publish a blog about outrageous idolatry at the local cafe; sending your photons around the world requires no scientific background. And if you can sell some oil to China, you can buy an atomic bomb to protect your way of life; it is no longer necessary to grow a Harvard University or Robert Oppenheimer first.

The commoditization of technology means that literalist, fundamentalist religious thought is enjoying a long-delayed resurgence. With globalization, the disadvantages of being devout have melted away. The return of religion will be widespread and permanent.

Sam Harris's View

The skeptics, of course, are not taking this loss of power lying down. There are those that are calling for a battle.

Vocal atheist, philosopher, and neuroscientist Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith) seems to lead the charge.

He argues that the whole idea of "religious moderation" is a fiction. The very act of maintaining religious faith in the face of modern science and knowledge is an act of extremism. And so he believes that the practice of religion itself is the source of the world's troubles.

The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not "cowards," as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith — perfect faith, as it turns out — and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.

Whether you agree with Harris or not, assertions like this demand a response.

Is Harris tilting at windmills? Or is he sounding a clarion call from the next century's cultural war?

I wonder about the world our children will inherit.

Amazon: The End of Faith, by Sam Harris (Paperback)

Posted by David at June 5, 2006 06:59 PM

Uh, I'm a religious moderate. If you aren't hearing much from us lately, its because the fundies are behaving like noisy asshats.

You'll notice I'm using a psudonym - I don't need targeted trolling by my fundie co-religionists. Fundamentalism is just organized asshaberdashery, and moderates like me would like to ignore them the way one likes to ignore the paranoid schizophrenic on the city bus. Yes, they need treatment, but its important to pick your battles.

I'd rather engage them one-on-one, in person, when I can, than en masse online. After all, I have credibility with them, and can clobber them with the scripture they subscribe to, without mixing in outside issues. Engaging with fundamentalist asshats of different religions is trickier, but the calm, in person approach centered on acknowleging common grounds seems to work ok.

You'll notice that I'm not specifying my religion here, either - I don't want anyone reading this to take this post as thinly disguised proselytizing, or have their views of what I have said colored by my background.

I have a problem with the reasoning present in Sam Harris' excerpt (maybe this doesn't represent the full complexity of his thought.) The fact that the sept 11 muderers were motivated by their faith doesn't make faith bad, any more than a murder motivated by jealousy makes love bad.

There are bad (and even fundamentalist) skeptics just as there are bad, fundamentalist religious folk - but since coorelation is not causation, I don't think thats a point for any side. My fundamentalist co-religionists have a long list of bad people who were skeptics and do draw a causal connection, much like Harris'. I don't think drawing those conclusions reflects well on anyone.

Harris is right though - murder motivated by faith, (or other worldview, e.g. stalinism), is qualitativly different than other kinds. It would be worth exploring in what ways - there are some subtlties. And finally, we religious moderates have sinned: we are silent, and so are complicit.

Posted by: anon at June 5, 2006 09:18 PM

Anon writes: "I'd rather engage them one-on-one, in person, when I can, than en masse online."

This is the point which I think is interesting. It seems to me watered-down, moderate, tolerant religion has serious evolutionary disadvantages when pitted against extremist religious memes:

Extremist religions are more simplistic, so take less energy to articulate, to learn, and to spread. Extremism is precisely the kind of meme that can be spread en-masse, online. One lesson of the Internet is that memes that spread quickly are short and simple.

Extremist religions favor conquest, violence, and intolerance, whereas moderates try to find ways to avoid conflict. The result is that, when trapped in conflict, extremism tends to intimidate non-extremist alternatives into silence.

Extremist religions treat women as baby-making factories. I used to find this almost-universal characteristic puzzling. But is a natural feature of strong memes: the result is very high population growth. The non-extremist alternatives can barely replace their own populations.

In the past, all these advantages enjoyed by extremism were balanced by the advantages of scientific progress that were the exclusive domain of moderate cultures. But efficient trade is reducing the local advantage of science and changing the game in favor of extremism again.

What's a moderate to do?

Posted by: David at June 6, 2006 08:19 AM

But pretty much everyone thinks they represent the reasonable and moderate view. And if there is one thing all religions agree on, it is that Atheists are extremists - so it is far more opinion than fact for an atheist to make the reverse statement.

It looks more like Harris and Co. feel they are losing ground and are decrying that fact, rather than dispasionately observing a change in belief systems within populations - and more power to them making their points.

But historically it has not been Voltair's athiestic France that triumphed, but America with its all-faiths-accepted-and-not-surpressed approach. If my observation is correct, attempts to curtail the faith of people to "moderation acceptable to atheists" will destroy the benefits that atheists think they (and their systems of thought/belief) created.

Posted by: Quadko at June 8, 2006 08:14 PM

Quadko: the observation of shifts of power between populations is mine, not Harris's. Why is it that in 2006 many non- or moderate- religious people feel so marginalized? And why on the other hand does the power of the religiously devout seem to be on the rise both in the U.S. and overseas. Is it a fluke? Or is it because of Wal-Mart, container ships, and free trade?

On Harris's work: although his distaste for all things religious is colorful, I think his arguments miss the core issues. He pins many of the evils of the world on religion by pointing out scripture and dogma that are connected to the suffering of millions. But these arguments are about as convincing as arguments that blame science for the suffering caused by the nuclear bomb or thalidomide. Religion - like science - is a powerful force, but what ultimately comes of it is in how imperfect humans choose to apply it.

My wife believes that the world's problems come down to the fact that people are too lazy to treat other people like human beings. Whether it's politics, religion, wars or football competitions, there is plenty of evidence that people really love having enemies. Perhaps Harris would be more convincing if he advocated against our divisive instincts directly.

I agree that there is something great in the triumph of America's accept-all, surpress-none approach. It takes the very highest values that people are willing to kill and die for - their religious values - and tells people that in the public sphere, you don't kill and die to advance your religion. No, you go out and vote, and debate, and respect the views of others.

But is the American model sustainable, or is it a blip? If something is odious to your religious values, shouldn't you be willing to die - and kill - to defend those values, even if it is offensive to others, illegal, and even unconstitutional?

If we believe the American model is worth keeping, how do we keep it?

Posted by: David at June 10, 2006 10:49 PM

On the one hand, if the “moderates” feel marginalized, I do not know of any group that doesn’t! The "more devout" groups certainly have for a long time and still do. On the other hand, as you point out, there has been an imbalance in power for a while. If the “moderates” have been the marginalizers rather than the marginalized, perhaps that is what is changing as the balance shifts. If so, I expect the definition of “moderate” will change, and “non- and moderate- devout” will be seen as an extreme and devout segment of their own, while the new power group of once-devout-categorized will become the “moderates” who’s devotion is neither too extremely fervent nor flaccid. That would make moderation just a function of power, as in “the winners write the histories,” rather than the intrinsic value of your belief or mine. (I don’t know if I entirely believe that, but it seems at least partially true.)

And I would adjust “you don't kill and die to advance your religion” to “you don't HAVE to kill and die to advance your religion.” To be willing to kill and die if backed in a corner, but to have much better options in a peaceful and free society. I wonder how much the power shift is due to a increased response goaded out of a segment of “more devout” citizens who had their buttons pushed over time with the much argued and temper raising issues like prayer in school, abortion, evolution, and the Ten Commandments on public property – issues where the accept-all, surpress-none approach gave way to suppression and no-tolerance of views contrary to those held by the “non- and moderate- devout” who had the power at the time.

For the real and excellent questions “But is the American model sustainable, or is it a blip” and “how do we keep it?” – I wish these were more frequently publicly discussed! I suspect it is sustainable with difficulty, but easy to lose. Whether we lose it or not, I do not think it is only a blip that is guaranteed to be lost, mostly because of similar successes from somewhat comparable social structures found in Hong Kong, Australia, and Israel. I expect we would disagree on what the details of the “important ingredients” are, but I would emphasize the generalities of “Western Culture” – a broad spectrum of complementary Christian beliefs and Greek philosophy without a central organization like a state religion – as the vital atomic core while avoiding the model sustainability killers like a single state enforced religion (including atheism, polytheism, monotheism, whatever) or suppression of the core beliefs and philosophy.

This would mean if one devout group wins too much power, the model dies. There are no groups truly moderate in such a way that they can have the power to shape society alone – certainly not today’s “moderates,” and certainly not any other individual “devout” group (including my own). For our society to work we all have to feel marginalized to some extent and put up peacefully with other’s triumph as well as our own, though we never have to stop trying to triumph ourselves. I would bet historically that the more power a group gets for long times, the smaller it gets and the more active its opponents get, resulting in change. The rationalistic 1900’s, the hedonistic 20’s, the devout 50’s, the free 60’s, the 80’s, now, 20 years from now…

(Sorry it got longer! Thanks for responding to my first comment.)

Posted by: Quadko at June 12, 2006 04:57 PM
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