Are the New Atheists Wrong to Suggest Religious Moderates Justify the Extremes?

 For Tikkun Daily

I want your opinion about something. I’m a liberal religious person who doesn’t believe in doctrines, dogma or a supernatural God. 19% of members in my tradition identify as atheist, 30% as agnostic and the rest Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Pagan or otherwise. Many of us have been wounded by the bigotry, homophobia and dogma in the religions we grew up in and find refuge, support and community in my tradition. We come together on Sunday mornings to enjoy music and hear sermons about social justice, the power of community and how to live inspiring and meaningful lives. Some ministers may use the word God in an all-inclusive way but most choose to avoid the term because of its troubled history. Here’s my question for you: Should I abandon my tradition because liberal and moderate religion serves to justify the extremes? Is my participation in this religious institution providing legitimacy and credibility for fundamentalism, violence, oppression and bigotry done in the name of religion? I’m studying to be a minister in this tradition. It’s called Unitarian Universalism. Am I guilty by association? Should I jump ship? What do you think?

I know what Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins would tell me. They are two of the new atheists most responsible for spreading this idea about liberal and moderate religion justifying the extremes. Liberals are “aiding and abetting” the most dangerous religions because they give them credibility by participating in the institution of religion itself. Sam Harris states that moderates are “in large part responsible for the religious conflict in our world” and “Religious tolerance-born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God-is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” And Richard Dawkins states, “The teachings of “moderate” religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.” And when asked about why he lumps liberal religions like Unitarianism in with fundamentalism Hitchens responded a reference to Camus stating that he believes all religion is comparable to rats and vermin.

Believe it or not I’m open to their ideas. As someone who is committed to ending oppression against marginalized groups including atheists (see my post “We’re All Born Atheists”) I listen very carefully to what they have to say. While I don’t have any plans to drop out of my graduate school and abandon my career path anytime soon I want to consider this question they raise very carefully. Maybe you can convince me otherwise.

The first question I have for Harris and Dawkins is this, do other liberal and moderate things justify their extreme forms? For example if Harris drinks liberally or moderately shall we conclude that he lends credibility or legitimacy to alcoholism? Does his liberal behavior justify the tens of thousands of deaths each year which are attributable to alcohol abuse? Why? Why not? Does the pot smoker give credence to the heroin addict? How about politics? Does the liberal congressman Dennis Kucinich lend credibility to the Bush administration era policies that led to torture, war and occupation? Is Kucinich guilty for associating with the political system despite his fierce criticism of U.S. Imperialism? Was it enough for congressmen to speak out against the Vietnam War? Or should they have rid themselves of all government? Following Harris’ logic one could also say that the child building a baking soda volcano for her science fair legitimizes the most dangerous nuclear weapons that we have ever known because they both employ science. Can you think of any other real world examples that the logic of Dawkins or Harris would actually apply to? Or is this only true when it comes to religion? If so, what is unique about religion that makes this principle valid?

The second question I want to ask Dawkins and Harris is, would you rather have an atheist who remains silent about the abusive forms of religion or a liberal religious leader such as Dr. King who rejected the Christian doctrines and condemned the Church for supporting slavery, monopoly capitalism and bigotry? Does an atheist who says nothing about religious extremism bear any of the responsibility for the reign of religious fundamentalism? I ask this because some of the most prominent critics of the abuses of religion and its associated dogmas are religious themselves. Just like some of the biggest critics of the Bush era torture policies are elected government officials. Dr. King said,

…We must admit that the church is far from Christ. What has happened is this: the church, while flowing through the stream of history, has picked up the evils of little tributaries, and these tributaries have been so powerful that they have been able to overwhelm the mainstream. This is the tragedy of the church, for it has confused the vices of the church with the virtues of Christ. The church has been nothing but the slave of society; whenever the mores call for evil practices, society runs to the church to get its sanction.

As early as 1805 there were Universalist Christians like Hosea Ballou who critiqued the atonement and taught that all people are saved by the love of God no matter what. He wrote in “Treatise on the Atonement”:

The belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creatures to that degree, that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers, for many centuries. The error has been fatal to the life and spirit of the religion of Christ in our world; all those principles which are to be dreaded by men have been believed to exist in God; and professors have been moulded [sic] into the image of their Deity, and become more cruel.

And William Ellery Channing wrote about Calvinism in “Unitarian Christianity” (1819):

The worst errors, after all, [have] sprung up in that church, which proscribes reason, and demands from its members implicit faith. The most pernicious doctrines have been the growth of the darkest times, when the general credulity encouraged bad men and enthusiasts to broach their dreams and inventions, and to stifle the faint remonstrances of reasons, by the menaces of everlasting perdition. Say what we may, God has given us a rational nature, and will call us to account for it. We may let it sleep, but we do so at our peril…. This system also teaches, that God selects from this corrupt mass a number to be saved, and plucks them, by a special influence, from the common ruin; that the rest of mankind, though left without that special grace which their conversion requires, are commanded to repent, under penalty of aggravated woe; and that forgiveness is promised them, on terms which their very constitution infallibly disposes them to reject, and in rejecting which they awfully enhance the punishments of hell. These proffers of forgiveness and exhortations of amendment, to beings born under a blighting curse, fill our minds with a horror which we want words to express.


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