Should we embrace moderate Christianity?

Ok, maybe not embrace, but befriend?

This afternoon on a whim I bought a book from the new books display at my local bookstore (what else is new, right?). The title is The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church. I’m on page 53 right now, and I had to stop to think and write about something that’s been on my mind since Sam Harris’s first book came out. I’ve been thinking about it even more since I read about half of Chris Hedges’s latest while having coffee at the bookstore a few weeks ago (I decided not to buy it).

Here’s the question: Is fundamentalism the authentic religious voice?

We’ve discussed this several times here on Skepchick. My current thoughts are below the fold…

My answer is “no”…. but I seem to be in the minority of opinion. 

The media features fundamentalists or extreme conservative believers every time a topic regarding morality comes up, as if these are the only people who can speak for believers, as if they have authority to speak for all people of faith on these issues. Not only are atheists and agnostics left out of the conversation, but moderate and liberal believers often are as well. They are not taken as seriously as those who are literalist or extremist in their views, and are often considered “soft” or “lax,” as if they were not “true” followers of the faith. When journalists act this way, they are echoing the fundamentalist point of view.

The new atheists seem to agree. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris wrote that fundamentalists, who take their scriptures literally, are in a very real sense the best practitioners of their faith because they follow their scriptures most closely. Richard Dawkins also belittles those of moderate faiths when he insists that religion never changes because it is tied to the ancient writings of scripture, an entirely fundamentalist viewpoint (and entirely wrong, but that is another issue all together). 

I really have no answers today, I just wanted to share a bit about what was on my mind. I would like to think that Jimmy Carter John Shelby Spong, not James Dobson, is the better example of authentic Christianity. I would like to make people who value the compassion of Christ, not people who value the punishment of the law, spokespersons for faith. I would like to make fundamentalism irrelevant, and the way to do that may include taking a more positive view of those with liberal interpretations of their religion. 

Sam Harris and many others often claim that moderate religious groups give cover to fundamentalists by honoring the holy books that they use to build their walls of doctrine. I used to agree, but now I’m not so sure that’s true. No, we shouldn’t have to respect beliefs that are based on a foundation of straw, but we can respect people who share many of the same goals that we do, even if we do not share the same beliefs regarding religion. Just because I think all religion is a waste of time, doesn’t mean I have to think that all believers should be shunned or ridiculed.

I don’t know about you, but I, for one, would rather encourage a moderate, liberal kind of faith where people are free to cherry pick what they want to believe while they conform to modern, secular values and use skepticism to make decisions in daily life. I think I’d like to befriend people with this type of faith and work together with them to keep fundamentalism in check, to preserve the separation of church and state, and to protect the benefits of a scientific and secular society. I’d like to see society become less polarized, not more. I’d like to see people talking to each other instead of fighting with each other. 

So what’s the skeptical way to look at this issue? I really don’t know. But I think that asking hard questions is a good place to start.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

Related Articles


  1. With all due respect, Jimmy Carter isn’t a moderate… he is a different kind of fundamentalist.

    So long as people are allowed to uncritically regard the Bible as a “good book” which teaches real lessons about moral philosophy, there will be those who read the portions which call for genocide, the execution of homosexuals, and which call for women to remain silent in public.

    Christianity enjoys an overweening privilege in conversation and culture, a default deference which allows the religious to get away with everything from a conspiracy to conceal repeated child molestation to the refusal to provide children with modern medicine… and while it may be fundamentalists who perform these actions, it is the moderates who enable them.

    Furthermore, these moderates are more than happy to join ranks against agnostics and atheists.

  2. I suspect there are two aspects of this:
    Who represents religion as the “ideal”? Fundamentalists.
    Who represents religion as practiced by the majority? Moderates.

    Depending on which aspect you want to talk about changes which group are religion’s voice.

  3. b.dewhirst, you are right, Carter is a fundamentalist, or at the very least an evangelical, albeit not a politically conservative one. I changed my example to John Shelby Spong.

    Thad, what I am saying is I don’t think fundamentalism is the ideal, and it should not be the ideal, in part because I don’t want to agree with the fundamentalists themselves!

    TAFN. Duke it out amongst yourselves. :-)

  4. Should all believers “be shunned or ridiculed”? Of course not. It would be a lonely world for most of us non-believers if we adopted that attitude.

    A large number of “believers” just believe there’s some supernatural force or god out there. I don’t agree, but that sort of belief seems harmless.

    The “enemy”, it seems to me, is the segment of society who insist the only “truth” worth discovering is what’s found in scriptures. Our beef is with those who simply won’t listen to reason or consider evidence, and especially those among them who lash out at non-believers in various ways.

    Those are my thoughts for now. I’m really interested in what other skeptics have to say about this.

  5. To paraphrase Mao Zedong, “The Fundamentalist is the fish; The General Communion of Believers is the ocean.”

    It is the general population of believers is what nourishes and lends respectability to the fundamentalists.

    While on the one hand, I cannot bring myself to be too harsh with the genuine non-fundie believer, it does seem like a mistake to be hospitable to them.

    On the other hand, there must be some valid reason for faith, as we would not have developed such capabilities unless it were evolutionarily advantageous.

    I honestly don’t know what to do. I am not able to be as firm as Richard Dawkins, but I do not like the idea of lrtting the religious pass without a nod. In general, I do not “crusade” against them, but I will fight if engaged in a skirmish.

    Damn. Whatever happened to the consolations of Philosophy? Epicurus…Epictetus…Diogenes…Seneca…Confuscius…Laozi…Zhuangzi…Bodhidarma…Hui Neng….

    Ah, well…. :(

  6. An atheist critique of religion undermines the whole enterprise; there’s no way to focus on certain beliefs. All you could say is, “Well, actually, I know God better than you, and he thinks something different from what you say.” Not very compelling, needless to say. So, while some people may have relatively benign religious beliefs, they are built on the same faulty premises as the harmful ones. Either you say the method of reaching conclusions (i.e. faith) is invalid, in which case you reject all religion, or you say it is valid, in which case any conclusions reached are also valid. We might not aim criticisms at more moderate believers as often, but our criticisms will still apply to them.

  7. i think that b.dewhirst sums up the opposite position quite well. as for me- i’m all for making bridges between people with different beliefs, promoting dialogue and steering away from black and white thinking. but i’m also for a slow, steady shift in the zeitgeist of religious belief towards a general skepticism of the supernatural and promotion of good science. i admit i still lean towards the camp of dawkins and harris, though. letter to a christian nation summarizes many issues that “respect for the moderates” approach most likely cannot remedy.

  8. As usual, Donna, I’m pretty much with you on this. Except for this: “Sam Harris and many others often claim that moderate religious groups give cover to fundamentalists by honoring the holy books that they use to build their walls of doctrine.”

    I actually have to agree with Harris on this one point, even if I don’t necessarily share the rest of his views on moderate religiosity. To a certain extent, fundamentalism survives because it exploits certain cultural touchstones that are important to the identity of the moderately religious.

    The Bible is a good example of how this works. Most Christians never read it and don’t know what’s in it apart from what their preacher quotes in church, but they’d still rate it very highly in terms of importance to their faith — not because of the content but because it’s something they share in common with all the Christians.

    The trouble is that, because religious moderates prize these things as cornerstones of their religious identity, they’re vulnerable to being told by fundamentalists that “The Bible says God hates fags, so you have to, too!” And even if they don’t agree, what do you say to that? Because, yeah, the Bible kinda does say that in a few certain passages, among many, many other things that it condemns like eating shellfish or whatever. But when it comes out of that context and is presented as, “You’re a bad Christian unless you do X because the Bible says you need to do X”, it can cause problems for people who don’t have a response ready.

    Since I acknowledge that religion is really never going away, my ideal version of a Cool Religion of the Future is one based entirely in the community and shared culture of the Church that does away with the reliance on cultural touchstones, e.g. the Bible or Koran, to define the religious Identity. Identity should be defined by the people who call themselves Foo-ists and what those people actually believe and do. To a large extent, this is already true, but unfortunately the perception of many believers has not caught up to that fact yet; active well-poisoning campaigns by the fundamentalists who rely on those cultural touchstones as part of their religious power structure are to blame for this, mostly if not entirely.

  9. “On the other hand, there must be some valid reason for faith, as we would not have developed such capabilities unless it were evolutionarily advantageous.”

    Um, what if a craving for religion is just a by-product of something else that _is_ useful, but not advantageous per se? Like maybe having the ability to reason comes with the ability to fit observations into theories, and this ability can produce things like religion when it is done not so well. Similarly, maybe dreams have no evolutionary advantage, per se, but are just side effects of having big brains…

  10. Oh, and this maybe be a useful distinction for the topic:

    Global vs. local rationality. If I believe that I am made of cheese every night at precisely 11:00 PM, but behave like a normal person otherwise, then that is a local bit of irrationality. If my life is consumed by devotion to a cheese cult, then that is more global. There are degrees…

    The moderates seem only locally irrational, and the fundies, well… you get the picture.

  11. This will sound militant, but if you’re looking to change the world: Get to the children. Breed religiosity out of society.

    The adults are indoctrinated, and the older they get the more set in their ways they become. But the children and adolescents are a new breed of skeptical thinkers, and latest intelligence shows that they’re turning away from religion in droves.

    PS: The preview button isn’t working…

  12. “So, while some people may have relatively benign religious beliefs, they are built on the same faulty premises as the harmful ones.”

    I disagree. There’s a qualitative as well as quantitative difference between extremists of any faith and moderates.

    Moderates are not more lax in their faith just because they’re more accepting of external views (i.e., more realistic), and far less likely to isolate themselves from society in order to concentrate those views.

    As to why the media gravitates toward the extremes, I’m told that controversy sells. That may be true, but it results in a highly unrealistic view of the landscape of religious believers, at least politically.

    “And even if they don’t agree, what do you say to that?”

    What a friend’s pastor always says: such was never the message of Christ.

    There are vast theological problems with the modern fundamentalist’s viewpoint*. Some of which may be rather surprising in their deviation from the Fundamentals.

    * (Not the least of which allegory and metaphor meet an untimely demise if the Bible (KJV, presumably) is supposed to be the literal word of god, instead of a human-made document. This bizarre belief resides only in fantasy, not reality.)

  13. I don’t think I could personally embrace moderate Christianity as it exists now. By “embrace” I mean in the sense of “smoking the peace pipe with” rather than “accepting Christ into my life.” I think it would have to become more self-critical and recognize its mythological nature for me to be okay with it.

    I don’t believe religion has to or necessarily ought to be eliminated, but it must change if we are to move on as a species. And the changes that are needed most are the eschewing of supernatural explanations and a clear distinction between self-knowledge and knowledge of the outside world.

  14. I would just as soon embrace moderate christianity as I would moderate pedophilia.

  15. If religion is thought of on the model of a virus, then moderate forms are perhaps the most insidious, because they replicate and spread the easiest. Nearly everyone has it – like oral herpes!

  16. I don’t see how a literalist interpretation makes a religion more “authentic”. Not every religion centers on its sacred literature. That strikes me as a mostly Protestant thing. Fundamentalists think they are returning to the fundamentals of Christianity, but considering all the other historical revisionism that they do, I doubt that they’re returning to anything but an imagined past.

    Anyway, it shouldn’t be relevant to the atheist whether this or that is more “true” to religion. I mean, from my perspective, being true to religion is completely unrelated to whether it’s good or bad. When atheists say fundamentalism is the more authentic religion, I take it as a rhetorical trick with no real meaning.

  17. Miller, would you care to point out where in the Bible:

    a) God or His prophets indicate democracy is an acceptable form of government
    b) God or His prophets indicate slavery is wrong
    c) God or His prophets indicate His commandments are negotiable or optional

    It is in the sense that “The Bible doesn’t say that” that moderates are seen as less authentic. Greatly preferable to full-blown fundamentalists, but that isn’t good enough.

  18. Moderates may differ in their conclusions, but they still ground the religious claims in faith. There is no other way to validate them. There is also no way to argue that one faith is more accurate than another. The fact that I agree with some their conclusions does not mean I should agree with reasoning that led them to those conclusions. So, the dilemma is, faith is a valid way of reasoning, in which case anything at all is a valid conclusion, or, faith is not valid, in which case moderate as well as immoderate religion is out. Until someone offers a methodology for determing which faith claims are reliable (in which case, it would cease to be faith), the only way to refute a faith claim is by criticizing the epistemic validity of faith. This necessarily undermines all religion.

    So, it’s all well and good to say we shouldn’t worry about the moderates, but how do you propose we criticize fundamentalism without criticizing moderatism? To say their conclusions are immoral fails, because their morality is predicated on their religion. If they say, “God says X”, then to challenge X, you have to challenge their god, as there is no way to challenge what it says. “I heard God differently” will get you nowhere.

    Certainly, I don’t think we need to go out of our way to seek out and direct arguments at the moderate believers, but a lot of the best arguments will tear away at moderate religion too. I don’t think we should avoid powerful argument because they will be interpreted by the moderates as assaults on their own religion (which they will be, and in some sense, are). It’s just collateral damage.

  19. That strikes me as a mostly Protestant thing. Fundamentalists think they are returning to the fundamentals of Christianity, but considering all the other historical revisionism that they do, I doubt that they’re returning to anything but an imagined past.

    I agree completely. And yes, it’s a Protestant thing. Fundamentalism originally referred to a very specific group of Protestants. The term has since come to mean extremists or literalists of any religion, and even more lately extremists in general. Hence many people’s ability to read “fundamentalist atheist” without their heads exploding from the dissonance.

    I finished the book and there’s much more of interest in the later chapters. I may post about some other ideas from the book during the month if I have time.

  20. P.S. Lots of interesting comments about religion and religious people…

    First, let’s separate institutions (religion, specifically Christianity) from individuals (believers, specifically Christians).

    Second, how many of you are talking about people you know versus people you’ve heard about or seen on TV? Just curious.

  21. Donna, I agree it would be a great idea for atheists and moderate believers to work together.

    Christine Wicker, the author of The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, is a friend of mine. I’m going to post an interview with her on my blog on Monday.

  22. dewhirst,
    I could not possibly point out any Bible verses because I used to be Catholic, and I never read the Bible. The Bible was never particularly important to me.

    It’s not like most moderates think to themselves, “some religion is good, but too much religion leads to fundamentalism, so I’ll stay here in the middle.” To the moderate, fundamentalism is not so much an excess of religion as it is a corruption of it.

    If you define “true to religion” to be “true to the Bible”, of course fundamentalism will be more authentic. But that’s just playing around with the definition of “religion”, and doesn’t signify a whole lot.

  23. Whoa! People!

    Some of you are way too “us vs. them” when it comes to religion. We must always remember that religious people are not the enemy; dogma is the enemy. “Moderate pedophilia”? Seriously?

    There is no one “authentic religious voice.” They’re all authentic religious voices. How are we supposed to judge which version is the “true” one? We’re not the ones who believe that God actually revealed the true form of the religion to anyone. In general, moderates do not believe they have “the” truth, and they aren’t dogmatic. Even if some of them have an imaginary friend (some of them don’t even have that; many moderate views of “god” are things atheists could subscribe to, if it weren’t for the semantic issue), they’re not trying to force their opinions on anyone, and are as freaked out by the fundies as we are.

    Naturally, we have to argue against irrational ideas, even if they are irrational ideas held by moderates. “Faith” is a big one. And sometimes moderates do give cover to fundamentalism. I’m really annoyed at moderate critics of the “New Atheists” who say Dawkins et al. are attacking a “strawman,” as if nobody believed in fundamentalist religion. But rather than accusing them of being “cherry pickers” who aren’t as truly serious about their religions as fundamentalists are, we should just say, “if you think fundamentalism is a poor representation of your religion, tell that to the fundamentalists.” Also, moderates don’t all hate atheists (there are even fundamentalists who don’t hate atheists). As for the ones who do, we just have to show them we’re decent people.

    In conclusion, moderates are religious people we can live with, and we shouldn’t deride them as being just half-assed fundamentalists. Their worldviews are primarily reality-based. Even if we think some of their beliefs are silly, we shouldn’t alienate them because of that.

  24. Spacesocks, you’re ceding the rhetorical advantage to folk who’re already far too well provided for in our culture.

    “It is a part of my faith” is, presently, the only justification they -need- to give.

    I, for one, think the comparison to pedophiles is apt. There are some things one does not compromise away.

  25. Seriously Spacesocks. I don’t see why we differentiate between one kind of psychosis and a lesser psychosis. These people need help, not a wink and a nos because they aren’t as nutty as the fundies. The case could even be made that moderates are MORE dysfunctional than fundies. At least the fundies can point to the bible. The rest of them cherry pick the bible and are wilfully ignorant of the rest. To me, that is two degrees of crazy! Thank goodness that I was confronted with my irrational thinking and not “lived with” as you propose to do. It may be controversial to say, but I believe that religion is a mental illness and any degree of it should be treated as such. I will not “live with” dysfunction and lies.

  26. The moderately religious can be as dangerous as bible beaters. Someone might think that God won’t let us cause major problems with the climate, or that any environmental destruction is in the Great Plan, or that we are committed to fight Islam = whatever. There are lots of ways to be a wing nut without being a biblical literalist.

  27. Some issues may have been conflated by asking the question “Should we embrace moderate christianity?” Is this question really the one that needs answering?

    We could totally reject any form of Christianity and still embrace the people who follow it, for instance. Or we could embrace neither, and simply _tolerate_ one or both, in some sense. There are lots of options, and most of them come in degrees.

    In practical terms, what is it we are deciding here? Whether to pal around with moderate Christians? Whether to vote for moderate politicians? Perhaps whether to form some sort of political alliance with moderates?

    There are a lot of options left to decide about, even if we categorically reject any kind of Christianity in the epistemic sense. It seems many of the previous posts have gotten at something similar.

    Perhaps most importanly: you can often rely on the reasonableness of a person, even if you know they are locally irrational, as long as you stay away from that one troublesome epistemic spot. My old boss has wild anti-realist philosophical beliefs, but he’s a fine scientist, for example. I work with him still, but I would never confuse supporting his science with supporting… those other ideas of his!

  28. I don’t believe that moderate Christianity will have a negative impact on society as a whole; I don’t think that I or my loved ones will suffer because of the actions of moderate Christians. I’m more concerned about the emotional and mental wellbeing of individual practitioners of moderate Christianity. Even moderate Christians experience guilt and fear because of their religion. Even moderate Christians buy into the Original Sin meme. Even moderate Christians have swallowed the big lie.

    We should not shun or ridicule any Christian, fundamentalist or moderate, but neither should we give moderates a pat on the back just because they aren’t psychotic in their beliefs. Everybody deserves freethought. Good is the enemy of great.

  29. b.dewhirst: I do not advocate “ceding the rhetorical advantage” to religious moderates. I am not saying we should shut up. I argue against nonsense wherever I see it, even if the nonsense is being promoted by religious moderates. I’m saying we should argue against ideas, not attack people, and certainly not attack people for ideas they don’t actually hold. I’m for treating people like human beings.

    sethmanapio: Um, do you actually know any religious moderates?

    Seriously Alan. I know it’s kind of hard for some atheists to see how anyone can believe in God etc. without being a little crazy, but I’ve come to realize it’s normal for people to be a little “crazy.” We’re imaginative creatures and we’re all prone to fallacious thinking, anthropomorphism, etc. Good skeptics know they’re just as crazy as everyone else; that’s the point of being skeptical, knowing all the ways your thinking can lead you astray. You can’t just pat yourself on the back and retire from skepticism once you become an atheist. It doesn’t make you more rational, it just makes you not-deluded about ONE THING.
    I fully advocate promoting rationality. It is possible to do so without being an asshole. If you tell people they’re crazy and need help, you’ll just alienate them. If you point out WHY you disagree with their ideas in a respectful way, then you actually help them.

    What we really should be promoting is skepticism and freedom of thought. Atheism should never become dogma. If we start acting like we have a monopoly on truth and lump everyone who disagrees with us on religious issues together as “enemies,” we become as bad as the fundamentalists.

  30. “Second, how many of you are talking about people you know versus people you’ve heard about or seen on TV? Just curious.”

    Valid question. I’m speaking of both people I know and, well, know only from the media. Since I don’t watch much teevee (if only there were enough time in the day), there’s a trickle-down effect at work in my viewing. That is, I tend to only see extremist teevee (and even then only on Yootoob), even though I mostly know moderates.

    However, I also know, personally, a number of extremists. They carry their fringe status like a badge (whenever it suits them to do so). They do write letters to the editor, and they do often get them published.

    The moderates I know tend to be more modest in their faith.

    But what you’re asking–from sentence one–is a political question. Do we need religious moderates? The answer is unequivocally yes. They need us less, because there are a lot less of us, but I think you’ll find that it takes rather more to alienate them than extremists.

    Those who believe we need to appease religious moderates fail at politics. We don’t have to appease them; we just have to not be stupid about lumping them in with extremists.

    Moderate christians are not the opposition here. With regards to education, evolution isn’t a cultural marker (Mike the Mad Biologist). Creationism is a purely political battle. And how are political battles won in a democracy?

    That’s right.

  31. “Those who believe we need to appease religious moderates fail at politics. We don’t have to appease them; we just have to not be stupid about lumping them in with extremists.”

    Exactly. In fact, I don’t really think they want to be “appeased.” The moderates I know are grownups and don’t freak out when people disagree with them.

  32. “I don’t believe religion has to or necessarily ought to be eliminated, but it must change if we are to move on as a species.”

    I don’t believe so either, but I think religion stands less chance of being relegated to oblivion than does the typical paranormal woo-woo.

    Adherents of the woo can sometimes be reasoned with. It’s not the case where the other group is concerned.

    There’s a sadness in there.


  33. Um, do you actually know any religious moderates?

    If you mean any of these things, then yes.

    A religious person (specifically a Christian) who…

    is not part of the religious right

    does not think everyone who believes differently is going to hell

    talks to me (an atheist) like I am a normal human being, not a Satan worshipper

    believes in separation of church and state

    is pro-choice, feminist, a tree hugger, or [plug in your favorite cause]

    is skeptical about many things in their daily lives, even though they believe in God

    is a supporter of evolution and science education

    thinks James Dobson and other televangelists are asses

    goes to church for tradition or community, not to be brainwashed every weekend

    doesn’t believe the Bible is the literal or even inspired Word of God

    Well, that’s a few for starters. But it’s good to talk about defining what we mean by “religious moderate” especially because the people who used to be known as “mainstream” Protestants are now becoming marginalized as their ranks continue to shrink and evangelical churches continue to grow. I would even go so far as to say that evangelicals (depending on how you define that) may be the new mainstream. But even among their ranks, there are more moderates than extremists.

  34. I was hoping to put together a little something more profound here. However, I did want to throw in my voice to say that I agree with WriterDD in many of the points she is making.

    I can understand how many skeptics/athiests/rationalists feel that any embrace of religion is intellectually dishonest.

    But what’s the goal here? If you think it’s ending religion, that’s not gonna happen. No way no how. So if we want to do any good with helping people to think more critically and more moderately, (which I think is the goal), we need to work within their framework, which in this case is some form of Christianity.

    Doesn’t matter if you personally think it’s a mass-delusion. Shunning moderate Christianity will cause the skepticism movement to fail.

  35. First, let’s separate institutions (religion, specifically Christianity) from individuals (believers, specifically Christians).

    Second, how many of you are talking about people you know versus people you’ve heard about or seen on TV? Just curious.

    Well, I am going by people I have known personally. I don’t have television, but when I did, the televangelists and “teaching” programs struck me even then as beyond the pale.

    But here, I am speaking of Fundamentalists. I have run into far more moderate people, but these would be Buddhists of the Ch’an sect (including Abbot Shi Deli, as a matter of fact), and Daoists of Wudangshan.

    In the case of the Asian philosophies, the focus is on “self-actualization” and compassion for all living things. While there are numerous irrational ideas about how the universe works, there is no dictatorial god figure to whom one must enslave oneself.

    What is it in the West that leads us away from moderate types of religion, anyway? We wouldn’t even have to go East for inspiration re. spiritual, less-irrational philosophy: Stoicism and Epicureanism are sadly neglected these days.

  36. How many of you are only friends with other skeptics, atheists, agnostics, etc? It’s hard to believe that some of you actually know any people who believe in God, the way you talk about them.

    I guess this post is about two levels: the personal and the political.

  37. Sorry– Drifted off topic. But the only Christians I have run across have been Fundies. The only moderates I have known have been either Jewish, or East Asian.

    Sorry. I have a fever. Mind isn’t clear today.

  38. Ah, well since you snuck in between my posts, DD, I have to say that whilst most of my friends are indeed rationals, I do have some good acquaintences who are Buddhist, Daoist, Jewish, and Russian Orthodox.

    …And one full-blown Whackaloon Jehovah’s Witness who still tries to “save” me.

  39. To return to the last question posed by the original entry . . .

    Isn’t the skeptical way to approach this problem to recognize that you seem to come to the question favoring one conclusion (as do I and most of the commenters) , but without a solid rationale? Therefore, be very skeptical of any arguments that seem to support the conclusion that you favor.

    I think it is difficult to argue against the Harris/Mao that a broad but moderate religious base protects the small but razy fringe. If the only Christians were fundamentalists, then their role in our society would be something more like the Scientologists–a fringe cult eyed with great, but insufficient suspicion.

    and what about the children? Dawkins talks about religious education as child abuse. It is an unpalatable idea, but right in its core analysis. Children are unequipped to protect themselves from superstitious thinking, and the damage can be hard/impossible to undo.

    on the other hand, as arguments for embracing the moderates, we seem to have that 1) they ain’t so bad as some others and 2) we sometimes need their help.

    So shouldn’t start interrogating these reasons to see how they hold up? I am willing to say that the first is pretty classic bunk.

  40. If we say that it is not ok to believe things without evidence, won’t moderate believers interpret this as an argument against their own beliefs (and rightfully so)? We may only say it to counter the beliefs of a specific group, but all the others will realize it applies to them as well. I don’t see any way around this.

    As for fundamentalism being the authentic religious voice, I think this idea stems from understanding the Bible as a product of its time. It expresses the sentiments of its writers, and I imagine its writers would likely have opposed things like abortion or same-sex marriage. Thus, fundamentalism more faithfully reflects the opinions of the people who wrote the Bible. What’s the point of keeping the Bible if you’re going to reject its content? I may personally prefer people do that, but I don’t think it’s a logically justifiable position. In light of that, I can’t in good conscience argue for a reading of the Bible that is ok with, say, homosexuality. I don’t believe the Bible means that, even if I think people should think it. It would be dishonest for me to suggest the Bible should be read that way.

    So, I think fundamentalism is more often (not necessarily always) a more authentic reading of the Bible. I don’t know that I would say it is a more authentic form of Christianity, simply because this seems like a meaningless phrase.

  41. A pox on all those who use the definite article and say “the Bible.” There ain’t no such thing, just books sold under that name. Nothing more, nothing less. Different churches regard different sets of books as inspired. All we’ve got are translations — often poor, and plainly influenced by ideology — of texts made by piecing together fragments which are copies of documents made decades or centuries after the documents were written, which was in turn decades or centuries after the events they purportedly describe. As Hector Avalos says, all you’ve got in your hand is a text “reconstructed by elite scholars.”

    Both “liberal” and “fundamentalist” believers all pick and choose the verses they choose to live by. If you follow the LaHaye/Jenkins Left Behind version, your canon is basically Revelation plus a few fragments of this or that. . . making you no more or less a literalist than the urban sophisticate who holds as inspired Ecclesiastes, a few lines of John and as many of the Proverbs as will fit on a refrigerator door.

  42. Donna, to answer your questions, I’m basing my opinion on religious people I’ve actually known. And while most of my friends at this point are fellow skeptics and atheists, I do know a good number of moderate Christians.

    Just for one example, there’s my mom, who grew up Catholic, went through a Baptist stage after she married my dad, and nowadays is practically Spinozan. One of my good friends from high school who I still keep in touch with is still a more traditional moderate Christian, with the church-going and the singing in the choir and what-not. And I have several religious co-workers I’m on pretty good terms with. One of whom is ferociously liberal, politically, and still a Catholic. All of these people are good and sensible folk who just happen to believe in a magic man in the sky.

    That said, I knew a lot of asshole fundies growing up, and in general I do prefer the company of other atheists. Although I think I have more in common with most moderate Christians than some of the asshole atheists who’ve been popping up around here lately.

  43. PZ wrote something interesting and related today:

    Sometimes, I am extremely annoyed with the principle of separation of church and state — it leads to absurdities, like this recent court decision that a gay student support group was was using unconstitutional tactics — it was using materials that mentioned that some religions are more tolerant of homosexuality than others. This is, apparently, an endorsement of particular religions and therefore violates church-state separation.

    Well, yeah, it is — for specific subjects, like gay rights, science education, and pacifism, some religions clearly are better than others — yet because we have to mindlessly avoid any perception of preference for one over another at any official level, the more enlightened faiths must be lumped with the dumbest, vilest, crudest kinds of religions, and you are not allowed to distinguish between them. I’ve said it before: church-state separation is a principle that protects and privileges religious belief in the United States, and furthermore as we can see here, it isolates pathological, dangerous beliefs from valid criticism.

    emphasis mine

    I’m not saying I am against separation of church and state, or that I agree with everything PZ says, but this is certainly an interesting viewpoint.

  44. writerDD – thanks for starting a very interesting thread! I admire your willingness to publicly take a position that is, evidently, controversial in skeptical circles.

    I don’t think that Fundies are any more “true” to their religious tenets than moderates – it is, after all, all about “belief” and interpretation.

    Like you, I’m not sure that belittling all religious people, fundie or otherwise, gets us anywhere. I know from experience that being right is often not enough (especially regarding such emotionally charged subjects as religion). I think it is more important for us to be “pro-skepticism” (or pro-science) than “anti-religion”. We should fight to maintain the separation of Church and State. We should fight the ID proponents and others who are confusing religion with science. If we happen to get support from moderate Christians (or Muslims , or…), that’s fine. It doesn’t mean we have to compromise our values or our message.

  45. Moderate religion still teaches children that blind faith is good, that is OK not to use logic and examine things if they make you feel good.
    This allows those children when they get older to easily go along with homeopathy, psychics,the “secret” , astrology ,etc.

  46. Spacesocks, now you’re attacking your fellow atheists… how are you not aiding the opposition by buying into their propaganda?

  47. It’s true that some forms of moderate religion teach that blind faith is good (i.e., that it’s better to believe certain things than not to believe them, regardless of whether they’re true or not). But this isn’t always the case. A Lutheran (ELCA) friend of mine told me that her pastor told her confirmation class that he knew a lot of good people who didn’t believe in God, and a few of the kids actually said in their statements of faith that they weren’t sure they believed God existed (which shocked some of the older members of the congregation). Also, many moderate “theists” have cleverly managed to keep believing in God by changing the meaning of the word, so that it means the mystery of existence or whatnot. I think it’s possible for churches to shed ideas like blind faith and dogma and still maintain a religious identity (look at Unitarianism, for example). Not to say all is rosy in the moderate religion department, but let’s not make blanket stereotypes about what religious people believe.
    Credulity is not a uniquely religious problem (though I understand that “faith” encourages it). Even if there were no churches there would still be people who believe in homeopathy, psychics, and crap like that. Which is why “religion” is not the primary problem here; the problem is widespread poor thinking skills.

  48. b.dewhirst, I didn’t realize I WAS attacking my fellow atheists. I thought I was criticizing what SOME of my fellow atheists were saying. Please enlighten me as to how anything I have said so far could be taken as a personal attack against anyone. I have been trying to point out that not all religious people ARE the “opposition,” and that stereotyping is stupid.
    I’m not the one who’s been taken in by propaganda. Anger is valuable, and there are plenty of things about religion that are worth being angry about, but try not to let it cloud your critical faculties.

  49. You’re not even listening, Spacesocks, so there is little point in trying to explain it to you.

    You don’t understand the arguments being made as to why all faith is dangerous, and don’t appreciate the impact on society of viewing spirituality, religion, and the Bible in a positive light.

    Were this my sight, and it certainly is -not-, I’d expect you to go read and understand Harris’ book before lecturing on it.

  50. No, b.dewhirst. YOU are not listening to ME. Believe me, I am passionately anti-faith. Blasphemy is one of my favorite hobbies. It’s very funny that you accuse me of lecturing on Harris’ book, since I never actually presumed to do that. I understand, and largely agree with, the idea that “faith” (belief in the absence of evidence, or in the face of contradictory evidence) is a bad thing, because it enables dogmatism. If you actually read my posts, you would see that I do think moderate religious ideas often give cover to fundamentalism, but that THIS NEED NOT BE THE CASE, and that we shouldn’t stereotype all religious people.

    All right, now that I’ve said I haven’t been lecturing you on Harris, I’m going to turn around and do exactly that. Throw accusations at me as you see fit. I am familiar with his thesis, so I think I’m marginally qualified to talk about it.

    I think you misunderstand the idea of “conversational intolerance.” Sam Harris thinks that religion has been given a free pass in the marketplace of ideas for too long. We should subject religious ideas to the same level of scrutiny that we give to political, ethical, or scientific ideas. I AGREE WITH THIS. I also think that traditional religion will not be able to withstand said scrutiny.

    You, on the other hand, go right past conversational intolerance and into regular intolerance. When Harris advocates intolerance of ideas, he does not mean we should hate everyone who holds irrational beliefs. It does not mean we should just lump all religious people together as enemies. And we shouldn’t assume all people who say they’re religious are in fact irrational. The word “religious” means different things to different people. We have to figure out what beliefs people actually hold before we criticize them for holding them.

    Please read this, especially the last paragraph:

  51. I would also like to add that people who are legitimately mentally ill (not just crazy for God) are also worthy of respect. I think it’s really sad that some people on this board try to demonize religious people by saying they’re mentally ill, because that just feeds into prejudices against mentally ill people. My aunt had paranoid schizophrenia. Medication helped a lot, but she still heard voices and got funny ideas. When she said things like, “You aren’t Hitler, are you, Dad?” my grandpa would say, “No, of course not.” He didn’t fly off the handle and call her crazy, as some would advocate doing with religiously-deluded people. That would have been mean, and would have made her even more paranoid.

  52. If you were to deign to actually read the original post, you’d see that the -subject- being discussed -was- Harris. Since you said you were “familiar with his thesis,” I’ll take that as an admission that you haven’t actually read his book– if you had, you would have said so.

    Also, if you had, you’d see why it was relevant, even crucial, to the discussion.

    You’ve accused me of spreading hate. You may find it rewarding at this time to google “ad hominem.”

    You are the one suggesting that we’re lumping them together, apples and oranges alike. Neither I, nor Harris, takes this position. Just because the clap isn’t as bad as AIDS doesn’t mean I wish to catch either… and suggesting there is something wrong with both is not suggesting that they are the same.

    You would do well to find out what I actually believe before you criticize it.

  53. b.dewhirst:

    Your powers of discernment amaze me. No, I have not read “The End of Faith.” Feel free to “Gotcha!” me in your next post. If I misrepresent Harris’ ideas, please correct me.

    I never suggested that Harris lumped together moderates and extremists. I actually was under the impression that he didn’t. I accused you of doing that. Forgive me for making that assumption if it was unwarranted, but I really thought you were. Maybe it was lines like “Spacesocks, now you’re attacking your fellow atheists… how are you not aiding the opposition by buying into their propaganda?” and “Spacesocks, you’re ceding the rhetorical advantage to folk who’re already far too well provided for in our culture” and “I, for one, think the comparison to pedophiles is apt.” The persistent us-vs.-them-ism, the insinuation that any defense of religious people was tantamount to an endorsement of delusion, your refusal to acknowledge any of my points about diversity of opinion within moderate religion… do you see how I might have gotten the wrong impression? Or was it the right impression after all?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you believe that we should try to persuade people with irrational, dogmatic beliefs to change their minds? Then I agree with you. I also agree that many moderate beliefs are “irrational.” Does that satisfy you? Because I actually thought this was Harris’ point, and I was really happy with him for making it. If you further agree that we shouldn’t hate people for having beliefs we think are irrational or mistaken (which I assume Harris would also agree with), then what are we arguing about, again?

  54. I’ve been trying to decide what to say in this thread ever since it was started. As part of that, I’ve been keeping up with all of the responses and post so far, sometimes even going back and re-reading the entire dang thread just to make sure that I’m not misunderstanding what I am reading.

    I’ve had to check to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding, you see, because I’ve been so generally appalled at the ignorance, dogmatism, and knee jerk hard lines taken by people claiming skepticism as a justification.

    In the entire thread, I’ve seen only two consistent voices urging thought and consideration, (Spacesocks, and the OP, Writerdd). Two! On a website dedicated to skepticism, with a readership supposedly grounded in rational thought and considered positions, I am instead seeing a discussion that dam near reads exactly like something on a creationist forum thread where someone asked the question of “Should we consider working more closely with Religious Scientist?”.

    I really don’t know where to start addressing how wrong every post talking about how, “Fundamentalism is the truest voice of a religion”, is; how fundamentally flawed the “us v. them” mentality that practically rules this thread is; or how arrogant and baseless the idea that all religious persons came to their belief through empty faith or brainwashing is. I say I don’t know how to start because because I don’t have any idea how to address such points when they would clearly be flying into such dogmatic hostility that it disturbs me.

    *shakes head* I’m not about to defend religious fundamentalist of any faith or breed. However, the kind of thinking that leads to fundamentalism doesn’t just occur in religious environments. It is based upon common human irrationalities, and the thought process that result in religious fundamentalism and dogmatism just as readily occur amongst: atheist, philosophers, westerners of any educational background, and easterners of any educational background.

    In short, we are all just humans, and we are all subject to the same behavioral tendencies and fuzzy ways of thinking. As skeptics, we supposedly are aware of that and try to account for it. I guess that is why I’m so disturbed to see so little consideration for the actual goal, (trying to bring skeptical thought to the masses and how best do we achieve that), and so much senseless, anti-religious vitriol.

  55. In other words, the only people whose positions you feel are well supported are the ones you walked in agreeing with.

    If you’d like to prove you’re very good at considering others points of view… have a shot at summarizing my point of view in a manner I’ll approve of before you start calling me a dogmatist.

  56. What MoltenHotMagma said.

    I am a member of a Unitarian church and I was brought up in that tradition. To the extent that modern American Unitarianism is a religion, I consider myself to be religious. I also consider myself to be a good skeptic and rate myself as neither more nor less agnostic than, say, Richard Dawkins. (On the 7-point spectrum he describes in _The God Delusion_ I’m a 6, leaning toward 7—same as him.)

    What’s more, something I call “faith” plays a certain role in my life. I place my faith in, for example, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” (one of the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.)

    So I can’t help being a bit put off by people who condemn all religions as being equally odious and all faith as being “blind” faith.

    Now some might argue that my religion isn’t a religion at all. And if it were just between you and me, we could agree to stop calling it that. The trouble is there are many people in the world with “religious” beliefs that are not entirely unreasonable and, in my view, it helps no one’s case to lump all religions of the world together.

    Back to the original question: Is fundamentalism the authentic religious voice?

    My answer is: it is an authentic religious voice. But it is not the only authentic religious voice–there are many and they comprise a complex spectrum of beliefs.

  57. Designating any particular thread of religious thought as “the authentic religious voice” comes perilously close to declaring that so-and-so’s faction is “the true Christianity” or represents “the real Islam”. This is the fallacy of essentialist thought. There is simply no way to make that determination on secular, empirico-rationalist grounds. Or, to use Greta Christina’s pithier statement,

    I get angry when believers respond to some or all of these offenses by saying, “Well, that’s not the true faith. Hating queers/ rejecting science/ stifling questions and dissent… that’s not the true faith. People who do that aren’t real (Christians/ Jews/ Muslims/ Hindus/ etc.).” As if they had a fucking pipeline to God.

    So, I confess myself completely lost when the conversation turns to asking who the “authentic” believers are. For that matter, how do we actually define what “moderate” religion is? I tried to make the point above that “Biblical literalism” is a red herring. If Marcion had more followers today, we’d have a sect which self-identified as Christian, took Jesus into their hearts and had a canon consisting only of Luke and a few epistles. Sounds weird, right? But it’s really no worse than what people do today. You can’t ask people “how much of this book here do you believe in” and rank them by percentage — you’d be chasing a phantasm.

    The only sensible definition of moderate religious belief I can think of is that moderate denominations are, generally speaking, compatible with the Enlightenment and able to function within a secular framework. But those are exactly the ones which can get along with atheists. If I then ask, “Should atheists embrace moderate religion as an ally?” then I’ve given myself a problem in circular reasoning: the religions which don’t bother the non-religious are those which do not bother the non-religious.

    So, really, what is there to complain about? Point me to a specific group of people who have done specific things as a result of their beliefs, and then we can judge whether they can coexist in a secular society or if they’re theocrats in the making.

  58. As I am late to this particular party, I’ll start off by saying that I find the diversity of thoughts and opinions expressed on this post fascinating. Like MHM, I’m at a loss as to how to respond to many of the comments. Some inspire me, while others make me embarrassed on behalf of those who wrote them.

    DD, I applaud your willingness to look for common cause with us Christian moderates. We do share many (I would even say most) of the same goals for society, and I’ve always been more interested in finding solutions to those problems than in applying some kind of twisted purity test to see if people were “worthy” of being on the team. Some of what I have read on the comments to your post brings to mind supporters of the Eugenics movement. Hopefully we can all agree that that concept didn’t work out so well!

    Life, and people, is a messy mélange of good and bad, reason and unreason. For better or worse, we all have to figure out a way to live together. People shouldn’t spend so much time focusing on the motivations and pedigrees of those around them that they lose sight of the goals themselves.

    Let’s feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick, and educate the ignorant. I won’t complain about the red ‘A’ on your shirt, if you don’t fuss about the Cross on mine.

  59. Thank you, MoltenHotMagma and thosk. For a while I was afraid I was alone on this thread with b.dewhirst, and it was getting really surreal.

    I was raised Unitarian too. I don’t go to church anymore, but Unitarianism is a constant reminder to me of how “religion” doesn’t need to be a dirty word. Nobody ever told me I had to have faith; we were taught about the religions of the world but weren’t expected to believe 100% in any of them. We were supposed to figure it all out for ourselves. I would have preferred a little more critical thinking, but it was by no means discouraged, and the free thought part was there. We got super-comprehensive sex education. Most from my coming-of-age class (the Unitarian version of confirmation) declared themselves agnostic; a few developed idiosyncratic concepts of God; and as for those of us who were atheists, that was fine too. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I think some of the mainline churches are moving in this direction. Unitarianism and Universalism were historically Christian heresies. These days you don’t even have to consider yourself a Christian to be a Unitarian. And Unitarian Christians don’t believe in the “he died for your sins” nonsense anyway.

  60. Blake Stacey,

    Good point about “biblical literalism” being a red herring. It’s not accurate to say that the”true” members of a religion are the ones who interpret the texts as the authors “intended” them to be interpreted. Fundamentalists are just as revisionist as the moderates supposedly are, they just don’t know it. Hell, if “God” intended for the bible to be taken literally, he wouldn’t have let the authors contradict each other so much.

  61. I’d rather befriend moderate Christians like SteveT than people like b.dewhirst who spew bile at anyone who isn’t an atheist or who defends non-atheists.

    b.dewhirst, if we are misunderstanding you, and you aren’t a hater and a dogmatist, why don’t you stop accusing us of making baseless accusations, and start saying things that don’t sound dogmatic and hateful? Because I think your posts speak for themselves.

    Look at SteveT’s post. He is a real, live, moderate religious person. Notice that he read a comment thread filled with loads of venom directed at him, and is still willing to make common cause with atheists.

  62. b.dewhirst,

    “In other words, the only people whose positions you feel are well supported are the ones you walked in agreeing with.

    If you’d like to prove you’re very good at considering others points of view… have a shot at summarizing my point of view in a manner I’ll approve of before you start calling me a dogmatist.”

    Interesting attempt to ignore everything I wrote.

    As for your point of view, if your post are anything to go by, it is that believers are the enemy, and everyone is either for you on that or against you. Everything else, in relation to your post, that I would say has already been said much better by Spacesocks.

  63. Thosk,

    LoL! Fantastic.

    I only wish you got the reasons for my positions right, it would have made my life significantly more straightforward to have been raised Unitarian instead of having to get to things the way I have.

    You did, however, nail down most of my positions accurately. Thank you for being much clearer than I was myself.


    It was equally surreal reading it,

    I am actually not a member of any church and actively oppose the institution of organized religion whenever I have the chance.

    I was brought up in the “Deep South” and I de-converted myself from the whole ‘religion thing’ at about the age of 14 and became as committed an atheist as a young teenager can be. Eventually, I shifted to agnosticism around the age of 18.

    Much later, (around age 30), I started calling myself Christian, (Though as several have probably guessed, I only really get along with Unitarians and some Anglicans. I make evangelicals very uncomfortable, and am the only person I actually know who has been the subject of sermons in at least four churches – Apparently, I am under the influence of the devil and even talking to me is dangerous and should only be done by those properly trained in the ‘faith’ *snort*).

    Like you, I have actively studied a fair bit of history and a surprising amount of the theology and doctrine, not only of Christianity, but also of most of the other religions of the world (major, and not so major); and I learned all of the theological information in an environment that left it to me to judge its truth or falsity on my own. Also like you, I grew up with a surprising amount of critical thinking taught to me, in spite of my overall environment, and have sought to build on that my entire life.

    In relation to your thoughts on the mainline churches… Well, we can only hope. I still have a lot of family in the south, even though I moved out over a decade ago, and down there the evangelicals and mega-churches are doing way to well for my comfort.

    Blake Stacey,

    “You can’t ask people ‘how much of this book here do you believe in’ and rank them by percentage…”

    I’ve been trying to think of a good way to communicate that point for some time. I hope you don’t mind, but I intend to shamelessly steal your examples and points to integrate into my own arguments with some of the people I know.


    Everyone Else,

    In relation to my calling myself a Christian, I know that most people on this board will consider this a step backwards, (probably two steps backwards since I was actually an atheist at one point). I don’t. I also don’t believe I have compromised my logic or my skepticism in coming to this position. Additionally, my holding of this position does not make me think any less of anyone who doesn’t share it with me.

    Thosk, got how I deal with others on this aspect of my life entirely correct.

    And yes, Thosk, nailed down my answer to the question about the ‘authentic religious’ voice entirely accurately. I would like to add, however, that I do not agree with some of those ‘religious voices’. I do not think that all such ‘voices’ should be given equal weight in society, but thoughtlessly vilifying all of them is never going to be an effective way to minimize the damage done by the ones we disagree with.

  64. A point of Sam Harris is that moderates offer “cover” for the fundamentalists. An attitude has been fostered that it is unacceptable to criticize any religion especially forms of your own.
    Recently where I live (in Delaware) some Jewish families settled a lawsuit with the school district (Indian River) over Christian harrassment and proselytizing. Why didn’t the moderates , who I assume are the majority, speak up to stop the harrassment and teaching of religion in school.
    The examples of moderates given in some above posts do not sound like moderates but instead ultraliberal and certainly not in the majority around here. Read any polls about how many people think the ten commandments should be posted in school (even though that cant even tell you what they all are and would want a sanitized version.. dont want stuff like I am a jealous god parts) or that prayer should be done in school.
    How many moderates actively speak out about the idea of an Armagedon type rapture event. All we need is someone who firmly believes this kind of thing to get into a position of power and actively seek to do “gods will”. In the age of nuclear wepons it would only take a few fundametalists in the right position to cause great misery to everyone else.

  65. JOHNEA13: I think the reason moderates have trouble dealing with fundies is because they basically have no ammunition to use. Moderates cannot argue against fundies without calling into question their own beliefs. Anyone that accepts gnosticism will be in the same quandary. To question another person’s faith is to question your own.

  66. rationalista, you are buying into the fundy definition of religion and faith. I think I am beginning to understand why so many people think that atheists only understand fundamentalism. We, as a group, can’t seem to get a handle on the gray area that encompasses moderate religion and agnosticism. In a way, many atheists and skeptics seem to embrace the same style of black-and-white thinking that fundies do. I’m not surprised at this for myself, as an ex-fundy, I am constantly battling that tendency. But I guess I am surprised to see that so many other unbelievers also have the same problem, even those with no fundamentalist background. When we unbelievers criticize fundies for not being able to entertain doubt, I wonder how many of us take time to entertain doubts about our own conclusions.

    For moderates, there is no issue with questioning your own faith and doubt is considered to be healthy and desirable. It is a part of the constant self-examination that one goes through. It is only when one takes a literal interpretation of the Bible that one cannot question. To me, that makes the religious experience less enriching because there is no self-examination and growth. Fundamentalism causes people to remain in an immature psychological state.

  67. It’s nice to see someone other than myself chiming in for liberal religion in the form of Unitarian Universalism.

    In terms of the original post,”Should we befriend religious moderates? ” I believe we should. No one is going to think any better of atheists, freethinkers and skeptics if we don’t engage in meaningful respectful dialogue with people of differing beliefs.

    Befriend the religious moderates before embracing them, otherwise it comes off as a bit too forward. :-)

    I’d write more but I’m going to church!

  68. I wasn’t entirely serious about the virus thing earlier. On the whole, I agree with writerdd. I don’t even think that being a moderate Christian is necessarily even locally irrational. Just wanted to clarify.

  69. Um, I should point out though, that you can think someone is mistaken about something without always thinking that they are irrational about it. I do still think that the moderate Christians that I know are mistaken about some things. I don’t think that they are stupid, bad, delusional, etc… simply mistaken.

  70. Good point, Geochick. Everyone, atheists included, has at least a few false beliefs, and a few beliefs that they can support only through fallacious reasoning or knee-jerk piety. You don’t have to be irrational or stupid to be mistaken, and we’re all a little unreasonable sometimes. What’s “irrational” is to refuse to examine your beliefs, or to refuse to admit your beliefs rest on a shaky foundation. Or the idea that everyone who agrees with you on a specific point is your friend and everyone who disagrees with you is your enemy, crazy, stupid etc.

  71. “Ok, maybe not embrace, but befriend?”

    I had missed that part; so my concerns about the title were misplaced. Maybe this whole blog commenting thing is just not my bag…

  72. “Why didn’t the moderates , who I assume are the majority, speak up to stop the harrassment and teaching of religion in school.” (JOHNEA13)

    How about Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State? He’s an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, a mainline/liberal Protestant denomination.

  73. Spacesocks, I think JOHNEA13 meant that no local moderates did anything to stop or protest against the harassment in his neighborhood.

    I think it is a good thing that moderates with platforms are starting to speak out publicly, but it is also necessary for moderates to speak out locally in their neighborhoods, on school boards, and so forth.

    The same could be said for atheists as well. I get so tired of hearing about atheists who are afraid to come out and let their families, friends, and neighbors know that they do not believe in God.

  74. Oh, I totally agree that there aren’t enough moderates who are willing to stand up against religious harassment. I think the pervasive idea in our society that it’s better to “believe” than “not believe” is the major problem here, which leads some moderates to buy into prejudice against nonbelievers (and even believers in other religions). I just wanted to point out that we shouldn’t get disgusted with ALL moderates, because they aren’t all like that, and that we have some hope of getting at least some of the rest on our side.

  75. Yes because if locals did not condone or tolerate the activity, it wouldnt have arisen to national attention. As far as atheists, as I have mentioned before, I have never knowingly met another atheist. I have considered myself one for a long time but havent actively revealed it for fear of harassment or ostracism. It is different when you are in the extreme minority vs the majority.

  76. . I think the pervasive idea in our society that it’s better to “believe” than “not believe” is the major problem here, which leads some moderates to buy into prejudice against nonbelievers (and even believers in other religions).

    Spacesocks, Bingo!

    Which is, I think, a lot of what many others have expressed concern about in this thread, and which also disturbs me. How do we deal with getting rid of this prejudice without doing the exact opposite, which is saying that all believers are X?

    JOHNEA13, where do you live? (If you don’t mind saying.) Do you out yourself as an atheist when you talk to other people? I do realize that atheists are less prevalent in certain regions (the U.S. South for example), but I live in Colorado, not far from Focus on the Family, and when I tell people I don’t believe in God or forthrightly declare that I am an atheist, many people seem relieved that I have admitted it, and say “Yeah, me too!” If I never outed myself in public, I would never know how many other unbelievers are all around me.

  77. As far as I’m concerned, the point is made that MHM cannot grasp my position and is singing the praises of his own high ground from a ditch by the side of the road.

    I will not be responding to further comments in this thread.

  78. I agree with the Blue Collar Scientist. I would like to make a “tone” clarification: rather than just accuse moderates of enabling extremists, we should call on them to do more to CHALLENGE the extremists. And we have to keep reminding them that “extremists don’t represent the true faith” is a bad excuse; the extremists are just as convinced that the moderates don’t represent the true faith, and no one has any basis to determine which side God approves of.

    I don’t really think it’s true that the only “ammunition” the moderates have is “I have faith.” Every religious worldview incorporates reason and compassion into it to some extent, and extremists might be more amenable to persuasion from within their religious tradition than from without. When you want to persuade someone with beliefs diametrically opposed to your own to change their mind, you sometimes have to grant them a few premises for the sake of argument. Moderate religious people already share some of the same premises as extremists, so they might have an easier time than we do at getting extremists to adopt a less-scary position.

  79. “It doesn’t matter if you personally think it’s a mass-delusion. Shunning moderate Christianity will cause the skepticism movement to fail.”


    Actually, since even a moderate Christianity is utterly antithetical to skepticism, I’m not sure how you can say this with a straight face.

    Now, I’m sure someone is going to ask me if I actually know any moderate christians or whatever, and the answer is “Yes.” I know plenty of moderate christians. These are people, who, at a minimum, believe that Jesus of Nazareth is a divine being who they will meet after they die.

    This is not a claim that stands up to even a minimal amount of skeptical analysis.

    A moderate Christian doesn’t believe this needs to be punished here on earth. Some of them aren’t even sure that God will punish non-believers after they die. So that’s all good.

    But they can believe strange things anyway, such as believing that God won’t permit anthropocentric climate change, or that God has a plan for their lives, or any number of weird, damaging, wrong things.

    In which case, no, we shouldn’t embrace them, and the skeptical movement would lose all meaning by embracing them.

    Skepticism has room for people who are essentially deists in Christian clothing. But that isn’t moderate christianity. George Bush–who is a Universalist, and hence a heretic to many–is a moderate Christian.

  80. Sethmanapio:
    The fact that we do not and cannot embrace the religious beliefs of even many moderate Christians does not mean that we disagree with them about everything. Many moderates (especially religious minorities) support the separation of church and state, for example. Embracing/befriending moderate Christians is not the same thing as embracing their religious beliefs and it certainly isn’t the same thing as claiming all moderate Christians are “skeptics” like we are.

    We can’t shut ourselves off and extend our friendship only to strict skeptics. We’re such a small and unpopular minority, we need all the help we can get. We shoot ourselves in the foot if we paint everybody as our enemies.

  81. Maybe I should have said “Should we embrace/befriend moderate Chrsitians” instead of “moderate Christianity”….

    I have atheist friends who believe in reincarnation and the effectiveness of homeopathy. So it’s not just the religious who believe in weird things. There are many religious people who are not superstitious at all, if you disregard their belief in God (and as someone else said, some Christians are deists while others believe in a personal God who interferes with the workings of the universe).

  82. Bush a Universalist? If he were theologically universalist (lower case “u”) that would be one thing, but he certainly is not denominationally Universalist.

    However, Bush is not even theologically universalist at least when it comes to the soteriological sense of the word. Bush may have made theological statements along the lines of pluralism or inclusivism, but these positions are different from universalism. While Bush may be a member of a moderate denomination (United Methodist), within that denomination he has moved much closer to theological conservatism.

    To return to the main topic, I think as long as one defines a moderate Christian as someone who is willing to incorporate reason-based knowledge into his or her world-view it is useful for skeptics to befriend (if not embrace) this moderate, if only for the sake of having a dialog to find some common ground. We accomplish nothing by alienating potential allies.
    Most moderate Christians I encounter have at the very least rejected the notion that the Bible (be it KJV, NIV or NRSV) should be taken literally. I’ve never encountered a religious moderate who ascribed to the belief that God won’t let anthropocentric climate change occur. While religious moderates like these may be out there I don’t think that one particular belief should be the litmus test as to whether or not a person is worthy of befriending.

  83. Writerdd;
    I live in Delaware. I have looked on the internet and the closest atheist organization I could find was in Pennsylvania. When I get time I will have to go one of these days.
    I do try to gently expose people to alternate viewpoints hoping to encourage them to be more openminded. When the discussion is woo like psychics,astrology,etc ,I more openly talk about it. When it involves religion I am more subtle. For instance when people at work were talking about how good god is I just asked what they thought about the story of the Midianites in the book of numbers. They were not familiar with the story. I did not give my opinion just said I was wondering about it. Now when fundies come to my door if I am not busy I will give them an earful. There are usually 2 and I figure one is learning so maybe I will give them something to think about. I also figure they are from nowhere nearby so there are no potential repercussions.

  84. “I have atheist friends who believe in reincarnation and the effectiveness of homeopathy. So it’s not just the religious who believe in weird things.”

    Yeah, me too. Or rather, I have friends who are not religious, but you might as well replace Jesus with “Aliens”, “Rudolf Steiner” “The Secret” or”Terence McKenna”. People believe the weirdest stuff. There’s a place nearby that specializes in Quantum Healing or whatever.

    Take away religion and some other BS will take its place. Look how many psychics there are. Tons of non-religious people are moderate woo-believers (like, they’ll believe in astrology but it doesn’t inform every single action, or they’ll get reiki done but also go to the doctor).

  85. b.dewhirst,

    *sigh* fine, I’ll bite, but only because I get so offended by the predictable tactics used by fundamentalist wherever I see them.

    I’ll explain why I haven’t bothered, previously, with any attempt to actually engage you in rational discourse, and why I don’t expect you to rationally respond to this.

    I read your entire ‘discussion’ with, Spacesocks. That’s it, that’s why. However, if that doesn’t clear it up, I’ll break it down for you.

    You pretty much started an offensive against Spacesocks with your statement:

    “Spacesocks, you’re ceding the rhetorical advantage to folk who’re already far too well provided for in our culture.“It is a part of my faith” is, presently, the only justification they -need- to give.I, for one, think the comparison to pedophiles is apt. There are some things one does not compromise away.”

    You also took a very hard line at that point with your final statement. From there, moved on to completely misrepresent Spacesocks after he had rebutted your position and responded to several other people taking similar positions to yours. You did this by saying:

    47″Spacesocks, now you’re attacking your fellow atheists… how are you not aiding the opposition by buying into their propaganda?”

    I’m not going to post the entirety of Spacesocks previous post here, but I will say that anyone who reads them (post 30 and 32) and even pays the most minimal attention will see that he isn’t doing any ‘attacking’ at all. Your post at this point also makes a very clear, US / THEM, delineation.

    The next part of this ‘discussion’ is perhaps the most clear in your approach to disagreement:

    Spacesocks said,
    49 “b.dewhirst, I didn’t realize I WAS attacking my fellow atheists. I thought I was criticizing what SOME of my fellow atheists were saying. Please enlighten me as to how anything I have said so far could be taken as a personal attack against anyone. I have been trying to point out that not all religious people ARE the ‘opposition,’ and that stereotyping is stupid. I’m not the one who’s been taken in by propaganda. Anger is valuable, and there are plenty of things about religion that are worth being angry about, but try not to let it cloud your critical faculties.”


    b.dewhirst said,
    50 “You’re not even listening, Spacesocks, so there is little point in trying to explain it to you.

    You don’t understand the arguments being made as to why all faith is dangerous, and don’t appreciate the impact on society of viewing spirituality, religion, and the Bible in a positive light.

    Were this my sight, and it certainly is -not-, I’d expect you to go read and understand Harris’ book before lecturing on it.”

    I won’t waste time or space filling in the final couple post because the follow this pattern.

    Spacesocks responds to your points and attempts to address them with his counterpoints which he supports.

    b.dewhirst responds to spacesocks by making inflammatory statements without any support.

    Eventually, Spacesocks, takes the rather remarkable step of very clearly trying to determine what, exactly, you are disagreeing with him on and you just stop dealing with him. Instead, at that point, you start firing on me.

    Now, I have previously stated that I agree completely with Spacesocks in regards to the positions he has taken with you. So I didn’t feel, and still don’t feel any need to address points that have already been made and that you haven’t made any attempt to discredit.

    Interestingly you didn’t attempt to engage me on any ‘point’ at all. Instead, you jumped directly to attempting to discredit me, (and I assume, Spacesocks, by proxy through me), by making a baseless accusation (which you seem to specialize in) and challenging me to defend it with the rather ridiculously obvious moving goalpost challenge of doing your job of communication for you by somehow psychically getting into your head and saying what it is that you have apparently intended to say this entire time:

    b.dewhirst said,
    56 “In other words, the only people whose positions you feel are well supported are the ones you walked in agreeing with.

    If you’d like to prove you’re very good at considering others points of view… have a shot at summarizing my point of view in a manner I’ll approve of before you start calling me a dogmatist.”

    Obviously, I didn’t bother with trying to meet the terms of your ‘challenge’, but did go ahead and state what your previous post have communicated, (post 63).

    Finally, you finish off with the Cartman’esque

    b.dewhirst said,
    79 “As far as I’m concerned, the point is made that MHM cannot grasp my position and is singing the praises of his own high ground from a ditch by the side of the road.

    I will not be responding to further comments in this thread.”

    Bravo, take your bat and ball and just go home. Very well done that. It just screams of a deep and mature, even highly defensible position.

    And there we have it. Every time you have been met with reasoned, thought out disagreement, you have either shifted the topic or attempted to attack your ‘opponent’. Your attempt to grasp legitimacy is based upon a completely ludicrous ‘test’ that I have to perform and my rather predictable ‘failure’ at it.

    Here is the trick though. It isn’t my job to explain YOUR position in a way that the rest of us can understand. If we aren’t understanding, it isn’t because we aren’t listening it is because you aren’t communicating what you intend to apparently. The onus there is on you, not us, to clarify yourself; and until you stop your baseless attacks on people who disagree with you and start making the effort to communicate whatever your ‘point’ is… well.. I, for one won’t be heartbroken by your absence.

    Lastly, one brief clarification on the reason I keep comparing you to Fundamentalist. It is because of your conversational tactics in this thread. They are inflammatory, apparently intended to alienate moderates, and to all appearances you only give credence to the positions of a preselected group (atheist who already generally agree with you). You then make points aimed specifically at further radicalizing your target group. That is the only light your ‘counter-arguments’ to Spacesocks make any sense in. One where they aren’t designed to stand up logically, but where they will appeal emotionally to people already leaning in your direction.

    So there we are.

    That is why I do not consider you, b.dewhirst, to be remotely rational on this topic and not generally worth the time to try and engage in meaningful discussion.

  86. I wasn’t going to bite either, but I can’t resist giving b.dewhirst another piece of my mind.

    First of all, MoltenHotMagma, wow. Thank you. (fyi though, I’m a she)

    Second of all, b.dewhirst, I do understand your position. There’s not much to it. You think everything associated in any way with religion is bad (“You don’t understand the arguments being made as to why all faith is dangerous, and don’t appreciate the impact on society of viewing spirituality, religion, and the Bible in a positive light”) and that any concession to it enables Evil (“I, for one think the comparison to pedophilia is apt”).

    This is black-and-white, hardliner, extremist, worst-kind-of-fundamentalist thinking. Four legs good, two legs bad. You recognize that there are different levels of insanity within religion, but maintain that it’s all still insanity (“Just because the clap isn’t as bad as AIDS doesn’t mean I wish to catch either”—not only is the analogy offensive, but no one here is telling you to convert to a religion, so what’s up? Do you think you’ll “catch” religion if you come into thought-contact with religious people?).

    When we try to present a nuanced view, you react by either (a) accusing us of aiding the enemy (“Spacesocks, now you’re attacking your fellow atheists… how are you not aiding the opposition by buying into their propaganda?”), or (b) accusing us of attacking you (“You may find it rewarding at this time to google “ad hominem.”)

    By the way, an ad hominem attack is an attempt to discredit an argument by discrediting the arguer. You have thoroughly discredited yourself. To point this out is not fallacious. It is just stating the obvious. Maybe YOU should be the one Googling fallacies.

    You will probably chew us out for calling you a fundamentalist. There’s this meme going around that there’s no such thing as an atheist fundamentalist. There’s something to that: the only “fundamental” of atheism is nonbelief in gods, and that’s just a matter of definition; there’s no ideological content in there to be a fundamentalist about. However, while atheism itself cannot be a fundamentalism, is can be part of dogmatic atheistic ideologies (like hard-line Communism and Objectivism). You seem to be a “New Atheism” fundamentalist—which sucks, because the current atheist movement is built on reason and skepticism, the opposite of what you represent. Like all literalists, you seem to have a poor grasp of your own “sacred texts.” I really hope you are misrepresenting Sam Harris’ ideas, and I don’t think he’d like to see people thumping his books like they’re the fucking Bible. You’re like a Biblical literalist who tells atheists they’re not qualified to comment on the bible unless they’ve read the whole thing from cover to cover with Jesus in their heart.

  87. You know, this whole discussion has taught me something, that maybe I sort of knew in theory, but now I feel it in my bones:

    When you have had certain beliefs for a long time; especially, when the tenor of a conversation reflects that you are with people who agree with you, it is not only easy to say things that go beyond what is warranted on the available evidence (or even that overstate what you really think) – it is difficult to avoid it.

    Earlier in the conversation, I said that “The moderates seem only locally irrational, and the fundies, well… you get the picture.”

    But that went beyond even what I really think. And I tossed out that thing about moderate forms being like oral herpes without indicating that I was trying to be funny, and not thinking about who it might offend… sigh.

    Thanks everyone (though I know you didn’t do it for me!)

  88. “Bush a Universalist? If he were theologically universalist (lower case “u”) that would be one thing, but he certainly is not denominationally Universalist.”


    Gosh. My bad. He’s a universalist. That is, Bush claims publicly that everyone of good spirit prays to the same god regardless of their actual denomination or even religion, and that they all, therefore, go to heaven. Regardless of whether they accept Jesus.

    This may not be as “universalist” as you would like it to be, but it is certainly heresy according to any strict reading of the new testament. That makes Bush a religious moderate.

    Now, the fact that you do not, personally, know any moderate christians who think that God has set up the universe in such a way as to prevent mankind from doing too much damage to the environment has no bearing whatsoever on whether such people exist. They do. I have met them.

    Now, to spacesocks: dude, skepticism as a movement has meaning insofar as the people involved are skeptics. This is an elementary proposition. I have no interest in being anyone’s enemy, but skepticism has no room for woo, not even in the cause of being popular.

    That’s what makes it skepticism. So I would say that actually, we are doomed as a movement if we compromise ourselves to accommodate popular woo. That doesn’t mean we have to be mean about it, or that we can’t encourage everyone to think skeptically about other topics besides religion.

    What it does mean is that each person should be honest about what they consider to be woo, and that includes the really popular woo.

  89. Whether someone is religious or not has never been a qualifying characteristic when I choose a friend. While religion can be an issue at times there are other characteristics and personality traits I place more value on. Religion in many respects is no more of an issue than skin color ans is usually never a topic of conversation…, except is skeptical forums.

    And to use the reference the logic I’ve seen used in this thread, then clearly everyone who calls themselves liberal or is of socialists leanings is equally or even more responsible for the millions of murders by the communists of the USSR and China. And let’s not forget to cast some blame on the moderate Muslims for all the terrorists. Christians are fairly easy targets, while some Muslims get a little cranky when attacked. I’ll reserve comment on the herpes and pedophile metaphors as they do not appear intended as a meaningful contrabution to the discussion.

  90. Sethmanapio:

    Please see what I wrote in post #82:

    “Embracing/befriending moderate Christians is not the same thing as embracing their religious beliefs and it certainly isn’t the same thing as claiming all moderate Christians are “skeptics” like we are.”

    I agree that we should be honest about what we consider to be woo. You seem to agree that we don’t have to be mean about it. Great, cool.

    What I was trying to point out was that we don’t need to be mean to them (as you said). Furthermore, there are causes we can work toward with moderates. We don’t have to abandon our skeptical principles to do this.

    Also, as I’ve been saying, there are religious moderates (really, liberals) who call themselves “religious” but don’t have woo beliefs. This is a semantic thing—”religion” means different things to different people (some people think it means “love thy neighbor,” and it has nothing to do with God and prayer for them; most think it means worshiping supernatural beings, praying, and other woo). I realize they’re a pretty small minority, and they’re not really religious as you or I usually understand the word, but they exist and call themselves religious. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize woo religious beliefs just because some people don’t hold them (we definitely SHOULD; actually, it would be great if we could get liberals within religions to help us). We should just be careful to criticize specific beliefs and doctrines, and avoid stereotyping.

    I know that there are a lot of moderates who are really into woo—and we should point out why it’s woo if the issue comes up. Actually, I can’t help but point it out—I have a hyperactive scoff reflex. It’s been known to go off at the merest mention of the word “homeopathy.” On the politer end, I’m working on an agnostic friend who still kind of believes in immortal souls.

    What you say about moderates who think God will prevent global warming is frightening. I honestly thought that was a fundamentalist thing, but I can’t say I’m too surprised. That’s the kind of faith-based complacency that has gotten us into all kinds of trouble over the years. But you know, the left (both the religious left and the secular left, I think) have been directing some noise for a while at conservative religion to the effect of “If you’re so religious, why don’t you take care of the planet God gave you!”

    I realize that’s maybe a little manipulative, but it seems to have some effect. The Vatican has declared environmental pollution a sin (a mortal sin, apparently! You go to hell for those! If any of your woo moderates are Catholics, this could be useful info), and some evangelicals (I guess not the Jesus-is-coming-within-the-week-
    so-let’s-dump-toxic-sludge-into-the-groundwater evangelicals, but the less hardcore ones) have joined in. This is a definite improvement over the widespread belief that God put the animals here for us to eat them, the forests there for us to turn into plywood, the water there for us to dump our garbage in, etc.

    So, once again, I’m not suggesting (and never have suggested) that we abandon our skeptical principles in order to work with religious moderates. We should address woo when necessary. But religious moderates, even those who believe in woo, can be our allies in certain things. And if we make enough reasoned noise and show respect for people (not for beliefs), we can actually help move religions down a less woo-ish path.

  91. Geochick:

    I know what you mean. It’s very true. If I’d joined this thread earlier, I might have said the same kinds of things you did (OK, maybe not the virus metaphors). With my godless family and my godless friends, I’m actually pretty snarky about religion, and I’ve even said some hard-line-ish things I didn’t really mean. Snarkiness is sometimes called for, as long as it’s fair; irreverence is essential; but black-and-white thinking is definitely not.

  92. If you go to

    there’s a very interesting epistolary debate between an atheist, Simon Jenkins, and a “moderate” christian, Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford. What I found interesting is that while Harries is undoubtedly a moderate/liberal type of christian, his way of viewing the world was every bit as alien and incomprehensible to me as that of the most spittle-flecked televangelist. What is one, for example, to make of a statement like

    ´Your description of me as “a vaguely agnostic bishop” gets it wrong on both counts. I am a definite agnostic in the sense of St John of Damascus, who said that what God is “in his essence and nature is absolutely incomprehensible and totally unknowable”. And a definite believer in that the only faith I can live with in a world of such anguish is in a God who is at once crucified and risen.´ ?

    From my atheist perspective it is apparently just an arbitrary grouping of words – contentless and meaningless. Yet to the learned bishop it is a fundamental statement of his understanding of the cosmos. Should we embrace moderate christians such as Bishop Harries? Perhaps – but we will need very long arms indeed to reach them across the gulf which separates us.

  93. sethmanapio,

    from post (81)

    “Actually, since even a moderate Christianity is utterly antithetical to skepticism, I’m not sure how you can say this with a straight face.”

    “Skepticism has room for people who are essentially deists in Christian clothing. But that isn’t moderate christianity. George Bush–who is a Universalist, and hence a heretic to many–is a moderate Christian.”

    You said a fair bit in that post and, unfortunately, I have to agree with most of it. I say unfortunately because when we step back and look at population wide trends, the vast majority of people are seen to believe some form of indefensable Wu. Even worse, a frightening percentage of them beleve in types of Wu that are actually harmfull.

    And before anyone can ask, no, I can not point to any study or scientific assessment for that statement, (well, actually I might be able to. A book that I suspect is very pertanant – “Predictably Irrational”, by Dan Ariely may cover a lot of this. I haven’t read the book yet, but have been fortunate enough to hear several interviews with Dr. Ariely and it seems to be all about this topic) . I just have my own experiences meeting people to lead me to that statement. I’m not saying that most people are bad, (I don’t think that they are). However, I’m not saying that most people are good either, (I also don’t think that they are), I’m just pointing out that as a species, we seem to almost rely on Wu to make it through each day.

    I think that it is this general species wide tolerance for Wu that is what provides the most cover for fundamentalist, not moderates whithin the same religion, but the fact that humans tend to believe in crap and this gets coupled with the fact that most humans don’t want to get involved so even the ones who don’t agree with the vocal nutjobs just tend to keep their heads down and hope to be left alone, (many clasic studies and recient ones support this second point).

    So, yes, most people in society hide their poor thinking, superstitions, and predjuces behind some form of unconsidered religion, (In America, most). Going further, many of them then use their ‘religion’ to assuage their guilt that they aren’t doing anything about problems that they know are there, (after all… “God forgives me for being imperfect”, and “I’m only human, but I am sorrowfull for my sins”, are so disgustingly common as excuses that they are trite and almost cliche). But much of the rest of society, the secular part of it, just replaces unconsidered religion with psychics, or aliens, or any of a million other forms of Wu, (Britian is a great example of this trend). These facts are what I find frustrating, and angering, and bafelling, and so many other things that I can only sum up as ‘unfortunate’.

    I guess that what I’m saying is that, from where I’m standing, it seems that the largest percentage of humanity is so steeped in superstition, fear, hate, and dogma that critical thinking and logical thought of any kind actually ARE their enemies because those two things represent threats to the very foundations upon which their entirel lives and world-views are based.

    Because of this, I’m willing to take help wherever I can find it when it comes to fighting sloppy thinking.

    *sigh* I even have to agree with your points about moderate Christianity. I’ve been kidding myself that I’m a ‘moderate’ Christian, (No, don’t get your hopes up.. i’m not moving back out of Christianity). By any comparison of my beliefs to that of what is predominantly calling itself Christianity nowdays I’m probably more of a raving liberal. However, I still can’t agree with such a blanket statement as the one you started with.


    “(fyi though, I’m a she)”

    Ahh… *shepish* Sorry. Habit of thought I guess. I would think that on this site, of all the sites I read, I should probably just get in the habit of defaulting to the assumption of ‘she’ where a nickname is gender ambiguous. Sorry about that.


    “You know, this whole discussion has taught me something, that maybe I sort of knew in theory, but now I feel it in my bones:

    When you have had certain beliefs for a long time; especially, when the tenor of a conversation reflects that you are with people who agree with you, it is not only easy to say things that go beyond what is warranted on the available evidence (or even that overstate what you really think) – it is difficult to avoid it.”

    A very good point, and I would actually like to thank you for stating it so clearly. I suspect that there are probably a fair number of us for whome that statement will resonate.


    Thanks for the link. I hope to get a chance to look at it.

    About something you said,

    “From my atheist perspective it is apparently just an arbitrary grouping of words – contentless and meaningless. Yet to the learned bishop it is a fundamental statement of his understanding of the cosmos. Should we embrace moderate christians such as Bishop Harries? Perhaps – but we will need very long arms indeed to reach them across the gulf which separates us.”

    This actually comes to a point that I’ve been wanting to make for some time. Scientist of any disciplin develop their own, specialization specific, set of terms. These terms then tend to be used in a specialized format of the language and it tends to be incomprehensible to anyone from outside their field. As an example, I’m an automation and control engineer, when talking about things related to my discipline even other engineers don’t tend to follow what i’m talking about unless either they are from my field, or I take the time to shift what I’m saying into laymans terms, (thus loosing almost all of the nuance, precision, and sometimes all but the most general gist of the topic). This isn’t just a problem for scientist and engineers talkign to others either. Lawyers, doctors, philosophers, mechanics, plumbers, and even religious leaders tend to have their own specialized terms and usages of the language and this leads all of them to have the exact same problem. I’d even say that as a movement, skepticism and skeptics possess this problem.

    The bigest dificulty I see then, when atheist and ‘moderate’ religious figures try to communicate with each other is exactly this problem. Often times they will even be saying the same things and just not realize it.

  94. the vast majority of people are seen to believe some form of indefensable Wu. Even worse, a frightening percentage of them beleve in types of Wu that are actually harmfull.

    Here’s the rub. Regarding all kinds of woo, we judge each person on specifically what they believe. But with religion, we pre-judge a whole group of people by the label they apply to themselves, without giving them a chance to show what they’re made of as individuals. That kindof sounds like prejudice to me. Is it any different than a Christian clumping atheists into one group and making assumptions about all unbelievers?

    Regarding most superstitions, we can open a discussion when the topic comes up, and say, “You know, I read something about that. This is what I learned…” and give them some real information to go by. Don’t say “That’s stupid” or (even worse) “What are you, an idiot?” Because that will shut down the conversation instantly and you won’t have a chance to explain how to use critical thinking to figure out what is real.

    Regarding God, I am not sure it’s even worth it in most cases. There’s no way you can argue or debate to convince anyone that God does not exist. In this case, if you’re an atheist, I think the best thing to do is to use the Christian model. Tell people “I don’t believe in God” and then live like a good person to show them that atheists are not immoral baby-eaters. Give them something to think about. The belief in God is so deeply ingrained in society (at least in the US) and in individual lives, that it’s basically pointless to try to argue a person out of that belief. And, I think it may be counter productive anyway.

    Get them thinking critically about other things and maybe they will begin to doubt. Or maybe not. But if they are thinking critical about day to day things, I’m not sure if I really care if they hold on to a belief in the sky-daddy.

  95. writerdd,

    I agree completely. *grins* Even if you don’t believe in my sky-daddy. ;)

  96. sethmanapio,
    I hope I am not coming across as a theological nit-picker but what I was trying to convey is that by definition the “heresy” you are describing and attributing to Bush is not universalism.

    At the risk of oversimplifying the terminology, I offer these short definitions of theological terms as they relate to soteriology (the study of salvation).

    Universalism is the belief that all are saved (this includes atheists), other forms include limiteduniversalism where everyone is saved eventually, though some may have to face some punishment or other delay before achieving full salvation.

    Inclusivism is the idea that all people of faith are praying to the same deity and that (for Christian inclusivists) Jesus will hear their prayers and allow for the salvation of people of other faiths.
    This can be contrasted with Christian exclusivism which holds that only Christians are saved (and in some cases, only some Christians).

    Pluralism is the idea that there are many paths to salvation, the attempts by people of many faiths to connect with the divine are equally valid.

    It would seem that the theological stance you are attributing to Bush is closer to a form of pluralism or inclusivism rather than universalism. So, while I wholeheartedly agree that this places him outside of fundamentalist Christian orthodoxy and that most fundamentalists would see this as heresy, this is not sufficient to label him a moderate Christian.

    Even if Bush many beliefs that fundamentalists regard as heretical, would those beliefs justify labelling him a religious moderate?

    I would argue that it does not. In so many other cases his position is closer to religious conservatism. Also, there exist many faiths that are considered heretical to fundamentalist Protestant Christian doctrine (Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholicism, etc.) that are Christian but not moderate.

    I know that people exist who believe the sort of stuff you’re describing like God not allowing man-made climate change, I’m just saying that these people have crossed the line from being moderates to holding onto another form of religious extremism (insanity) even if they may also meet the criteria of being heretical Christians.

    Clearly we have different definitions of what constitutes a moderate Christian.

    I think ultimately we agree on the idea that we have to be honest about our own beliefs and not cater to religious superstition. We do not have to believe in moderate Christianity to befriend some of its followers. I’m not suggesting we adopt the tenets of moderate Christianity mind you, we don’t have to agree with everyone in order to find common ground.

  97. Waltdakind: Fair enough. Inclusivism sounds like the best description of W. I still think that this particular heresy is very moderate, as opposed to fundamentalist, but therein lies the problem: We don’t have a good description of moderate to work from.

    A lot of non-fundamentalist, politically liberal christians, who believe that god loves gays, that abortion is not murder, and other moderate things also believe that god has a plan for their life. This is not extremism at all, or fundamentalism, at least not as I understand those terms. Its a common belief.

    And if God has a plan, and that plan does NOT include climate destruction… well, then it just won’t happen. Not from clear divine intervention, but just because it won’t. Whatever rules need to be passed will be, whatever changes need to happen will, and everything will be just fine because god has a plan.

    Lots of people, who are deeply liberal christians on most issues, think like this when it comes to big issues like death and the environment. How many times have you heard theists say something like “The universe unfolds as it should” or some such bullshit? Think about the implications of that statement!

    These people are not insane in any meaningful sense of that word. Once you accept the irrational premise that there exists a powerful, thinking being with a plan for your life it stops making sense to worry to much about giant issues that you can’t directly effect. They are drawing rational conclusions from faulty premises.

  98. How do you all think we should address specific instances of harmful woo (like “God has a plan to stop global warming”) coming from moderates?

    Obviously the main stumbling block is the belief that God is watching out for us; it’s basically impossible to get a committed religious person to shake off this belief, because it’s so emotionally appealing. Even people who are generally reasonable can succumb to wishful thinking if they see a situation as otherwise hopeless. It won’t work too well for us to say, “what evidence do you have that God has a plan for us?” even if that’s how we see it.

    I suppose we could try reductio ad absurdum. Is God some kind of cosmic maid service who will clean up our planet after we’ve trashed it? After all, if we can expect God to fix everything, what’s the point of doing anything at all, like disaster relief, education, feeding the hungry, or, I don’t know, any medical procedure whatsoever? Of course, this approach could backfire and make people complacent about a lot of other things as well. Any thoughts?

  99. O.k. now this is a surreal moment. I never, ever, thought a time would come, ever, when I would post a link to a Bible site on this website.

    I certainly never though I would post it with the advice that everyone in the thread should read it, and I absolutely never considered that such an event would be legitimately answering a question.

    Strangely, that is the position I find myself in though.


    “How do you all think we should address specific instances of harmful woo (like “God has a plan to stop global warming”) coming from moderates?”

    I’ve never had any luck trying to remove the woo from this. The tact that I HAVE consistently had results from has been to point out that their position doesn’t actually match what their scripture instructs them on.

    Now this has to be done carefully, but if handled right it consistently gets responses. Even better, the same group of concepts in Christian scripture addresses pretty much all the ‘big’ issues.

    Which takes me to my moment of strangeness. In trying to respond to this question I went looking online and found this web page. It is all about the Christian concept of stewardship, and like the concept of sin, is one of the ones that rarely gets properly understood by most people calling themselves Christians.

    So, read that page. Not because I expect any of you to become Christian, but because it provides an argument, within the Christian framework, to use against people who think that ‘God is looking out for me’.

    Anyway, I’m going to go back to sleep and hope I wake back up in my universe now.

  100. I don’t think someone qualifies as a moderate if they say “God has a plan to stop global warming.”


    Why not? Here you have someone who thinks that the creator of the universe sacrificed himself on a tree in order to provide moral lessons for them, personally. This is a perfectly normal thing for a moderate christian to believe.

    And yet, somehow they become wide eyed radicals when they think that this same creator has somehow set things up so that climate change will be moderated by the right people or technology at the right time? Or maybe they don’t believe in it at all, really, because they don’t think God works like that. Not a radical opinion per se, just a misinformed one.

    I guess I don’t get what you mean by moderate. It seems arbitrary to me, so maybe you could help me out.

  101. Moderate = not loca like I was!

    I don’t really have a working definition. Not part of the religious right. Not believing the Bible literally. Not believing that God will change the laws of nature or cause a football team to win because of your prayers. I don’t know.

    I think it’s like porn: when I see it, I know it.

  102. I like Donna’s porn analogy. (Nice Supreme Court Justice reference, btw!)

    Indeed, it is arbitrary where the moderate Christian line is drawn since wherever one’s own belief system is in relation to the Christian’s belief system will create a different benchmark by which to judge who is moderate, liberal or conservative.

    I agree that Bush’s stated position on salvation is absolutely on the moderate side (which as an aside, I question if this is his sincere belief. He did make the statement in the context of accusations that he was intolerant and a religious bigot following his “crusade” remark.) Regardless, it is one belief amongst many and one that he (or his advisors) chose very carefully to position him as a moderate without undue alienation of his largely evangelical constituency. However, he has also described himself as a born-again Christian which is usually not a moderate position. He also has put a lot of effort into faith-based initiatives. Defying the separation of church and state for a religious agenda does not seem to be moderate Christianity either. Moderate in one sense may not mean moderate in others.

    Perhaps Bush is too fuzzy to be categorized. (Horrible intentional pun, forgive me. I should burn in hell for that, really.)

    Fuzzy Bush aside, even if he were an atheist, I probably would not wish to befriend or embrace anything that he has stood for. (If he were an atheist he would probably have been a better president.)

    I see moderate Christians as people who even if they believed God had a plan to stop global warming, they would see humanity as active instruments in that plan rather than thinking God’s just going to take care of it.

    So, if the term moderate Christianity is what is troubling about this, how about we re-frame the discussion in terms of how progressive does a Christian have to be to be welcomed as our ally?

    Fatalistic God-is-going-to-take-care-of-everything thinking would definitely be a belief that I would want to dissuade any Christian from believing.

    I see your point that ultimately no matter how moderate Christians are, there are inherent mythological underpinnings to their thought that gives one pause. Usually though, the more reasonable the Christian, the more they are likely to see human beings as the creators of their own destiny rather than a deity alone.
    Usually amongst these Christians there is a far greater emphasis on Jesus as a man than Jesus as a god.

    My main point in all of this is basically the hope that we might all be a little more open to discussion with Christians or other religious perspectives. If spreading critical thinking is our goal, we’re far less likely to accomplish it by closing ourselves off from believers.

  103. Wow, what an interesting thread, especially since it started cooling down.

    I still identify as a liberal Christian, though I’m even more liberal than I used to be. I’m still technically a member of a fairly liberal Christian church, which happens to be the third-largest church in Australia.

    To give you an idea of how liberal we’re talking about, the current big debate over homosexuality that the church in question is having is whether or not to allow practising homosexual people to be clergy; votes tend to be split about 50-50 on the topic. There is, of course, no debate over membership; churches are open to everyone. (The current position, incidentally, is to leave it up to local presbyteries to decide on a case-by-case basis.)

    So we’re not talking about a church that’s quite as liberal as Unitarians, but it’s still pretty liberal.

    In what follows, I’m going to speak hypothetically on behalf of liberal Christianity. When I use the word “we”, that’s what I mean. I’ll use the word “I” when speaking personally, and “you” to refer to the hypothetical non-theist who is curious about whether or not to engage with liberal/mainline Christianity or not.

    Naturally, not all liberal Christians will agree with everything, but most will agree with most of it. Same probably goes for many more moderate Christians.

    OK, here goes:

    1. We want to get along with you.

    Some of us think that belief is better than non-belief, but you shouldn’t take this personally. We mean this in the same sense that an avid golfer means when they say that golf is the greatest passtime.

    We don’t think you have to agree with us on everything. Hell, we don’t agree with ourselves.

    While we’re at it, we don’t appreciate being treated as a homogeneous mass. We all have different beliefs, and prefer to be treated as individuals.

    In return, we will treat you as individuals. It’s fair to say that not all of us understand you. Make us understand you as individuals, not as a group. Show us that the overwhelming majority of non-believers are good, decent people. We will respond in kind.

    2. We really, really do not like it when people think that fundamentalism is more “authentic”.

    First off, the nature of Christianity is change, and this has been true since before the Bible was finished being written. Already, in the writings of Paul of Tarsus, we see Christianity changing from a twitchy Jewish sect into something that incorporates Greek culture and philosophy.

    Christianity was arguably the first religion which was designed from the outset to be able to adapt. As such, there is no “authentic” Christianity; it always evolves as the environment changes. This is a strength, not a weakness.

    Someone from the days of the “early church” would find a modern fundie church just as unrecognisable as they would any other church.

    3. The reason why we (perhaps inaccurately) refer to some of the New Atheists as “fundamentalists” is because they act like them.

    Fundies think they’re the more authentic Christianity, and spend a large proportion of their time deciding who’s “in” and who’s “out”. When an atheist does the same thing, what are we supposed to think?

    Even if it’s not really “fundamentalism”, identifying modern fundie churches as being “more authentic” gives them a huge rhetorical point that we’d rather you didn’t concede. By all means, you may want to attack this using a reductio ad absurdum argument (after all, if modern fundamentalism is “authentic”, then Jesus was must have been a right arsehole), but please don’t assume that it’s actually correct.

    3. There are a few reasons why we don’t spend a lot of time attacking fundies, but it’s not what you think.

    We believe strongly in the inherent worth of all human beings, and that no matter who they are or what they do, they are Loved. We can’t bring ourselves to think that people like Robertson or Dobson are bad people, just highly misguided, and nothing that a lot of education wouldn’t fix.

    (We wonder about Fred Phelps sometimes, but we figure there’s probably some kind of mental illness happening there rather than him being made of Pure Distilled Evil. Incidentally, if I lived in the US, I’d love to get a bunch of people with signs which say things like “GOD LOVES EVERYONE” and “GOD EVEN LOVES PHELPS” and stand near the WBC while they’re protesting. Everyone would have strict instructions not to confront anyone, just like Anonymous with the Scientology protests. I think it would be a fun experiment, anyway.)

    We have long memories. We remember what it was like in the bad old days, when Christianity literally fought wars over who was “in” and who was “out”. There is no way we’re going to get caught up in that sort of thing ever again.

    So if you want us to attack people or groups, even the worst of the worst, like the WBC, we can’t. We feel really bad about this, but we can’t in conscience return to the bad old days.

    Sure, we’ll address specific mis-beliefs. We’ll be right there with you defending science education from creationists, for example. But we really cannot attack people or groups.

    4. We think the best use of our time is making the world a better place.

    Take the Salvation Army, for example. It’s not the most liberal denomination there is, this is true. I personally have some concerns with some things that they occasionally fail to do, but I generally support the work that they do.

    Suppose that the Salvation Army knocked on your door, you answered it, and they said “Would you like to hear the Word of Booth?” or “Would you like to help us stop those horrible fundies from destroying society?”

    What would that mean?

    First off, it’s a serious waste of a doorknock. That doorknock could have been spent raising money to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless.

    Secondly, it would put a serious dent in their PR. At the moment, if you donate money to the Salvation Army, you know it’s going into a fund to make the world a better place. If they started talking about something else, you’d start having doubts as to whether or not some of your money is going to some other cause, such as arguing with fundamentalists. The result would be less money going towards feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. Does anyone seriously want that to happen?

    5. We feel that our beliefs and practices deserve a certain amount of respect.

    Not the God stuff, necessarily. We’re okay with “live and let live” for that. But we feel that our desire to make the world a better place is something that everyone can respect. We’re willing to work with anyone who can help us make it happen, and we’re willing to help anyone who wants to make it happen.

    When attacked, it’s human nature to go on the defensive. An attack on our beliefs can easily be interpreted as an attack on our desire and efforts to make the world a better place. It would be helpful if you acknowledged that our efforts in that regard are respected, if not appreciated.

    Even better if you agree with us on this.

    6. We feel just as alien in the modern world as you do.

    It’s human nature to think that everything is about us. That’s the idea behind astrology, for example; the movements of the planets through the celestial sphere is all about us.

    So when you feel that society seems set up to give religion a free ride and shun non-believers… even if you’re partly right, please be aware that everyone feels the same.

    A lot of moderate/liberal Christians in the US also feel left out. Imagine being told: “How can you be a Christian if you didn’t vote for Bush?” Yes, people really used to say that.

    There’s a lot more common ground here than any of us realise. The modern world seems inherently alienating. That’s why we may have a tendency to over-react when some atheists criticise us. It’s easy to misinterpret criticism of our beliefs as criticism of our communities, which in turn seems like the modern world trying to alienate us further.

    And as a final note:

    The Hebrew word for “adversary” is “satan”. While pretty much all liberal Christians don’t believe in a literal “Satan”, we take the metaphor very seriously indeed. As far as we are concerned, the spirit of the adversarial is the greatest of all enemies.

  104. As someone who is kinda still a moderate, deistic, Jeffersonian bible Christian, I’d say yes – embrace me. I’ve also been a skeptic for a long, long time (yup, I was the one in church class asking why we burned the heretics). First, deciding who is an authentic Christian is a fool’s errand, but being a fool I generally regard anyone who can add a phrase beginning unless to “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” as missing the central moral point of Jesus (myth or man – doesn’t really matter to me) – unless they are gay, unless they are commies, unless I’m wearing a uniform, unless I’m the governor of Arkansas at the time.

    I will not argue with any of you whether being a committed atheist would be the more consistent position with an otherwise rational materialistic worldview – probably it would be. However, nothing in our brain biology suggests that we are built for consistency – if anything, we are all a mad parliament of gibbering idiots clammering for attention though in perhaps a few of us, there is a delegate or two that calls for reason and perhaps some hypothesis testing.

    As a skeptic, I will have common cause with anyone who has those delegates demanding rational evaluation of the evidence and provisional knowledge coming out of it. As a “moderate” Christian (though I’ve certainly been told by more than one fundamentalist that I’m not a real Christian), I say just put down the stones – ain’t nobody without sin (except maybe Mike Huckabee).

  105. Well, this is getting really interesting. I sure didn’t realize we had so many readers who self-identify as Christian. I will definitely have to reconsider saying things like “we unbelievers” when talking about Skepchick readers! We Skepchick readers are a more diverse bunch than I thought.

    Lots to think about. Thanks for all the fascinating comments.

  106. Oh, and yes, if a fundamentalist tells you you’re not a real Christian, that is a pretty good sign that you might be a moderate (or a Catholic, whether moderate or conservative, since many fundies think Catholics are as bad as atheists).

  107. I would like to restate that much of the above talk claiming to be about moderates seems to me to be about liberal and ultraliberal christians.
    One of my aunts is “ga-ga” over Glenn Beck. She loaned me his books to read and I occasionally listen to his radio show and watch his tv show so I can see what she is talking about . (Some times I want to watch out of curiosity ….a while ago he had Ben Stein on for a whole hour but I just could not watch I thought my head would explode) Glenn Becks books sell high numbers and his radio show gets high ratings so there are people other than a nutty minority that follow him. I have heard him espouse more than once that he believes, from reading the bible, that a big war in the middle east will precede the end of the world and rapture. There are also Christian groups that believe we should support Israel because this is a prerequisite to the rapture. For all I know a small kernel of this belief was a consideration in the mind of Bush or one of his advisors for the invasion of Iraq. I have seen various polls quoted claiming rather large numbers of people in the US belief the rapture will occur . With the volatile situation in the middle east this is a dangerous belief to be influencing decisions.
    I have heard many people at work say they dont take stories like Noahs ark literally, that such stories are allegorical. These people still cherry pick parts out of the bible that they spout with absolute certitude with god says this or wants that.
    Lastly I believe the attitude of,well, belief in woo has existed all over for a long time so just accept it and dont criticize it is mistaken. This rationale could have been used for many things which have changed over time because of those that have spoken out (such as slavery or womens rights).

  108. I had to look up who Glenn Beck is.
    He’s a right wing Mormon talk show host.

    Regardless of his numbers, he is by no means a moderate Christian. (Albeit, what constitutes moderate has a degree of subjectivity. )
    Literal belief in the Bible is generally a position held by religious conservatives, as is belief in the rapture. No one is arguing that we should accept either of these beliefs.

    The objection that these are liberal Christians rather than moderate Christians doesn’t address the question of just how moderate/liberal Christians would have to be in order to be welcome allies.

    The cherry-picking of the Bible has been brought up a few times. Inherently, those who practice biblical criticism and abandon the idea that the Bible is literally true Word of God will reject portions of the Bible — this is what makes them moderates. It is not logically inconsistent to do this unless one is a biblical literalist.

  109. belief in woo has existed all over for a long time so just accept it and dont criticize it is mistaken.

    Do you think anyone here is promoting the idea that we should not criticize religion?

  110. writerdd:
    I dont think any of the skepchicks are promoting that idea and appreciate the forum to express my views. Some of the responders seemed to be hinting at that. If I misinterpretted them then I apologize.
    To waltakind:
    I am not claiming that Glenn Beck is a moderate but that many moderate Christians listen to his views and are or may be influenced by them. I was raised Methodist ,which is what my aunt is and this is not (at least our version) an extremely fundamental sect. My aunt is not Mormon and still loves a lot of the things he says. Also I would not dismiss him so easily ; his book made the NewYork Times best seller list. Somebody besides Mormons were buying it. My point with him was that there is still a large segment of the population who are influenced by religon in making political decisions that effect the rest of us. Look at the high level politicians who were potential Republican presidential nominees.

  111. The following excerpt is from Harriet Hall’s (MD) current post on Science Based Medicine where she discusses neurologist Robert Burton’s book “Beleiving Your Right Even When You’re Not”, which I think is relevant to this discussion.

    “Richard Dawkins rejects religion but finds purpose and meaning in science. Burton suggests that purpose and meaning are powerful innate feelings. We feel that our life has purpose and meaning, and we look to science or religion to try to explain that feeling. No amount of rational argument is likely to change us. “Whether an idea originates in a feeling of faith or appears to be the result of pure reason, it arises out of a personal hidden layer that we can neither see nor control.”

    Burton thinks irrational beliefs can have adaptive benefits (for instance, the placebo effect) and thinks objectivity and reason should be seen in the larger context of our biological needs and constraints. If science and religion could both accept that all our facts are really provisional, absolutism could be dethroned and a dialog might become possible. What if religious fundamentalists acknowledged even a 0.0000000001% possibility that their beliefs were false? Biology teaches us that absolutism is an untenable stance of ignorance.

    I have long thought that absolutism was one of humanity’s greatest problems. There are implications for politics, religion, and every sphere of human activity. The insights from this book can be applied to every human interaction from marital squabbles to terrorism. It may be frightening to recognize the limits of our knowledge. It will be hard for some to give up their cherished certainties, but Burton says he has gained an extraordinary sense of an inner quiet born of acknowledging his limitations.

    As a reminder that there is never a 100% guarantee that we are right, Burton suggests we use the words “I believe” instead of “I know.” This is the one place where I disagree with him: I don’t like either word. Belief sounds too much like faith. I don’t like the idea of saying I believe evolution is true. Truth in science, at best, can only mean that the evidence is overwhelming. We can’t “know” absolutely in a metaphysical sense. We provisionally accept evolution because the evidence is so overwhelming that it would be perverse to reject it. We remain open to new evidence.”

  112. Pseudonym:

    “There are a few reasons why we don’t spend a lot of time attacking fundies, but it’s not what you think.

    We believe strongly in the inherent worth of all human beings, and that no matter who they are or what they do, they are Loved.”

    I, too, believe in the inherent worth of human beings. I even think Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps, etc. deserve respect as people. You can’t categorically say that someone is a “better person” for holding a belief, or for not holding it, or that we should hate people for holding the “wrong” beliefs. I think a lot of atheists would agree with this (though perhaps not the hard-liners from earlier in this thread).

    The point is, sometimes we need to criticize beliefs, including religious beliefs. Because they can be harmful. People have a strong tendency to get offended or feel threatened when their core beliefs are criticized, but they have to understand that debate on these issues is necessary and desirable. I think this is what the “core” of the “New Atheism” is about, though unfortunately it often manifests itself as scorn for the believers themselves.

    Not that we should immediately pounce on people when they say “I believe in the virgin birth” or something like that. But we really need to encourage people to think critically about their beliefs, including religion. The problem the “New Atheists” have with moderates is that they see them as being unwilling to confront fundamentalists on their beliefs, because as members of the fundamentalists’ own religious tradition they are afraid that’ll bring their own beliefs into question. They also see moderates as being swayed too easily by religious-identity-type rhetoric, for example the idea that American law should be based on “Christian” principles, even though the people doing the swaying have a completely different idea of what those “Christian principles” are than the people being swayed.

    I know not all moderates are like that, and in fact, moderates often do confront fundamentalists on their interpretations of religious doctrines. And I do think it’s effective, even if it isn’t grounded in “pure” skepticism (whatever that means). I’m just trying to explain some of my fellow atheists’ anger towards moderates. In fact, I sometimes get angry at moderates when I see them as doing these things; I’m just careful to remind myself that it’s not all moderates.

    “We really, really do not like it when people think that fundamentalism is more “authentic”.”

    Yeah, that is a horrible, horrible simplistic assumption. It’s just fundamentalist propaganda, meant to marginalize moderate religion, and atheists should stop buying into it. In fact, fundamentalism (as opposed to regular orthodoxy) could legitimately be called a corruption of religion (not that the fundamentalists themselves aren’t personally pious—they definitely are, excessively so).

    I just read a bunch of articles about fundamentalist religious movements around the world for my “Religion and Politics” class. There is actually an important distinction between fundamentalism and religious orthodoxy. Fundamentalism is basically “orthodoxy for dummies” —a distillation (or rather, an oversimplification) of what it means to be a member of a particular religion (consider the word’s original meaning as applied to Protestant Christianity and the “Five Fundamentals”). This makes it very useful as a reactionary ideology— reactionary against all the modernizing forces (secularization, science, etc.) that threaten the “traditional” way of life.

    We also need to separate conservative/liberal attitudes toward religious authority and left/right politics. For example, Sikh fundamentalism is strongly egalitarian and social-justice oriented, but they still shoot people who insist on taking a non-literal reading of the scriptures. They are not “moderate” by any means.

    “Incidentally, if I lived in the US, I’d love to get a bunch of people with signs which say things like “GOD LOVES EVERYONE” and “GOD EVEN LOVES PHELPS” and stand near the WBC while they’re protesting.”

    That’s beautiful. Somebody should do that (in fact, I think some people have). That is one way the way moderates can challenge fundamentalists. And that’s really what I’m talking about: challenging beliefs without attacking people. Moderate/liberal religious people, as well as religious people, can do this. Moderates are often in a better position to do this than atheists.

  113. There is actually an important distinction between fundamentalism and religious orthodoxy.

    Ain’t that the truth. Fundamentalism has nothing to do with orthodoxy. Christian fundamentalists completely reject orthodoxy.

  114. Spacesocks:

    I, too, believe in the inherent worth of human beings. I even think Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps, etc. deserve respect as people.

    Absolutely. This is a central tenet of capital-H Humanism.

    The point is, sometimes we need to criticize beliefs, including religious beliefs.

    I think this is the take-home message from the whole thread: you can challenge beliefs without attacking people. Hate the sin, love the sinner, perhaps? :-)

    But one thing that people need to understand about pretty much all liberal religion, and most of the more liberal ends of moderate religion (and I think this is true for pretty much all religions that I’m aware of) is that doubt is considered quite okay. In fact, it’s considered quite healthy.

    (Incidentally, Robert Winston made almost the same point in his discussion with Richard Dawkins in Winston’s documentary series, The Story of God. What I wouldn’t give to see the unedited version of the discussion.)

    I guess my point is that people who are okay about doubt don’t even need their beliefs to be attacked.


    That kind of thing always reminds me of the old Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch where a bishop (Mel Smith) on a tv show is becoming increasingly irritated by persistently self-pitying whiny questions from an audience member (Rowan Atkinson) who wants to know why a loving God would have allowed him to cut his finger while opening a tin of cat-food. Eventually the bishop comes out with the line “Yes, God does love you. It’s me that can’t bloody stand you.”

  116. A couple of things, while I think of it.

    First, I think that Donna has now realised that the original question posed is in a sense moot. “Should we embrace moderate Christianity?” If by “we”, you mean skeptics or skepchicks, then there are already moderate Christians among you.

    Second, I’m curious what you guys think of this essay. (H/T to A Guy in the Pew.)

  117. Pseudonym, interesting article requiring some thought. :-)

    I understand why he says this (to the particular audience), “think of serious agnosticism and atheism as a stance of faith,” but I think that’s a mischaracterization of atheism from the perspective of an unbeliever. However, since his goal in saying that is to encourage Christians to view atheists as equals, I can accept it from his viewpoint.

    The rest is very interesting and refreshing, including this, “There are millions of intelligent people who aren’t prejudiced against spirituality but who see no signs of the existence of God when they look hard at the same world we live in as people of faith.”

    It’s sometimes hard to remember that intelligent people can look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions.

    That said, the penultimate paragraph (“what about superstition and religious illusion?”) was confusing to me and I’m not sure what he meant. I would like some clarification. Not sure if you can decipher that.

  118. I want to add this:

    I had no choice between atheism and Christianity.

    Belief in the soul, God, and the supernatural flew away from me when I learned more about cognitive science, cosmology, and biology. But I never would have chosen a life without faith. I would have chosen to live in a magical, spiritual world. I think most people would as shown by the popularity of all kinds of fantasy fiction in print as well as on film and TV. Magic is beautiful and, in a way, the Enlightenment robs us of that. A lot of people find this depressing and unsatisfactory, and I can understand their viewpoint. We all want to be Peter Pan in some way, don’t we?

  119. I want to be Dr Who. It would be great to have a tardis and travel anywhere and anytime to see what was up. I would be afraid to leave it lest some large reptile would eat me or some strange virus would infect me.

  120. It seems that the most criticism being levied upon Christian moderates is for the beliefs that some moderates hold that are compatible with more conservative beliefs.
    Yes, moderates do agree with some of traditional theology, otherwise they wouldn’t be moderates. However, moderates are people who exist somewhere between conservative theology and secularism/liberal theology and in general they have rejected the most extreme expressions of fundamentalism such as the rapture, literal interpretation of the Bible, young Earth creationism, etc.

    Here a a couple of articles from third party non-religiously affiliated news outlets:

    NY Times article “Onward, Moderate Christian Soldiers”

    “Moderate Christian Fight Rapture with Sunday School – Source Reuters

    I include this to give a better sense of what is commonly being represented as Moderate Christianity by mainstream media. It seems that their usage falls under what some here are saying is ultra-liberal or liberal Christianity.

    Here’s an article with some interesting statistics about political affiliations of major religious groups in the US:

    The Twelve Tribes of American Politics

    And since I’ve gone link crazy:
    Unitarian Universalist Ad Campaign: Is God Keeping You From Going to Church?
    Some UUs were really offended by this campaign. I wasn’t.

    Pseudo –
    Interesting essay, nice example of a moderate Christian who is willing to have reasonable discourse.
    Donna- I found that passage hard to follow also, though I guess it’s thrust was that it is better to not believe in God than create a representation of God that is false, for that would be a form of idolatry and superstition.

    I’m not dismissing Glenn Beck, though as he is a conservative (in both the political and religious sense) I would argue that anyone who is agreeing with much of what he has to say is moving from a moderate position to a more conservative position.

  121. Before this thread dies out (although it has shown remarkable persistence thus far) I just wanted to make a few more comments. First, I am thrilled to see more representation from skeptical Christians on this blog! I think it does good to show that Christianity is not some monolithic, credulous entity that is composed exclusively of biblical literalists and those who believe that God is directly responsible for the paper cut they just got. I’ve seen far too much vitriol spewed against those who don’t practice pure, ascetic skepticism towards any and all aspects of their lives. Let’s face it, we’re all irrational in some ways. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other and work together on common goals. I really liked Pseudonym’s referenced article that pointed out that (mostly) rational, intelligent people can look at the same information about the world and and still come to different conclusions. In that respect, I would say that many moderate/skeptical Christians are functionally identical to moderate/skeptical Atheists. If we are truly skeptics, then we hold all beliefs and views as being provisional and uncertain. The two “sides” have simply come to different (provisional) conclusions about the existence of God. I understand that this is a gross oversimplification of the issue, but I think there is some truth to be found in it nonetheless.

    I have often chuckled as I have read some of the blog posts and comments on this site when they relate to religion and religious belief. The condescension and broad, sweeping caraciturization of all believers as being simple- minded, irrational woomeisters worthy of only dersions is no different from what you would hear on a conservative Christian blog site, only with the roles reversed. Some of the people here come off as rank dogmatists, only of the non-believing sort!

    Now please understand that I am in NO way urging a stop to the criticism of religious stupidity here. When religion and religious people are stupid (and they often are), they need to be called on it! And feel free to mock while you’re at it. There is much that is worthy of mockery. Just remember what and whom you are really mocking.

    Lastly, I think the Skepchicks are performing a valuable service to society. And they manage to do it in a snarky way that I find really refreshing and thought provoking. This is one of the only blog sites that I read on a daily basis.

  122. Magic is beautiful and, in a way, the Enlightenment robs us of that.

    I couldn’t disagree more. I find more beauty in the ionian enchantment than in all the woo I used to believe. Read Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow as soon as possible!

  123. I agree with you that I can now find all the awe and wonder I need in nature, however, I found Unweaving the Rainbow to be quite boring. I own it and started it several times, but was never able to finish.

    It still doesn’t compete with magic. Just ask the 500 million Harry Potter fans!

  124. It still doesn’t compete with magic. Just ask the 500 million Harry Potter fans!

    I beg to differ… although sometimes I feel like the only living human being who doesn’t like Harry Potter.

  125. writerdd,

    I’m not so sure that it is ‘magic’ that is what draws so many people to Harry Potter and the like. I think, instead, that it is the sense of wonder at the mystery of things and the fantasy of a world where GOOD can win just because it is right.

    People don’t like grays and complexity and red-tape. People like clear solutions. The world we live in nowadays is one that has robbed itself of its heroes; invalidated its cultural stories; has reduced justice to something that is slow, uncertain, and by no means predictable; and is built on a foundation that is all about tearing down any sense of wonder and replacing it with the mundane. Most people are so out of touch with how anything in the world around them works that it all might as well be magic, but it is so ubiquitous that instead of wonder and interest it is viewed with something almost like disdain.

    I think that is the real problem. People lack that sense of wonder, and clarity. People don’t have heroes to inspire them anymore, (and don’t anyone try and tell me that these cheap ‘sports heroes’ actually count). The worst thing about this is that it shouldn’t be this way. We have plenty of great men and women in history to inspire, and science is just as wonder inspiring as any magic – but for some reason there has been a major cultural movement to say otherwise.

  126. It’s not the magic I love, it’s the stories!

    Exactly. Magical fiction and rationality don’t threaten each other. Conflict occurs only when claims to truth are made (as in mainstream religions, quackery, etc.).

  127. On Harry Potter: I agree that it’s not the magic. It’s that J.K. Rowling really understands Joseph Campbell, whether she realises it or not. (It also helps that she’s just a good writer.)

    It fascinates me that the archetypical journey of the hero is so psychologically pleasing, that we see it in all of our best fiction and mythology. It just so happens that it’s easier to conform to the archetype in fantasy and science fiction than in other genres.

  128. The questions you raise in your blog are complex and there are no easy answers to them. To start with it is necessary to define who you are referring to when asking the question, “Should we embrace moderate Christians.” Is it just skeptics? My understanding is that skepticism is a method of thinking that can be used people from very different backgrounds. Not all skeptics are atheists or agnostics. If you placed your blog on an atheist site then the answers to the question would differ. Our interactions are also influenced by the context of the situation. What I am willing to discuss with a friend will differ from what is acceptable at work, at a specific organization, or from what I might write in a book.

    In my local area there are several groups that promote critical thinking. There is the Colorado Springs Skeptics Meetup Group (, the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs (, and there will soon be a local Drinking Skeptically ( in the Colorado Springs area. All of these groups are open all critical thinkers, including those of faith. To me this is not a contradiction. There are critical thinkers who believe in god, who do not accept the human contribution to global warming, and who may believe in some alternative medicines. While I may not always agree with their positions, I encourage their willingness to think critically about the issues.

    What should our approach be in other situations? Do we have to avoid thinking critically about religion altogether? I do not think so. Religious fundamentalists, despite their minority status, are highly vocal and active in their attacks on science and the separation of church and state. To refrain from debating them or critically evaluating their beliefs is not in the best interest of science or free thought.

    In my own case I am quite vocal about my analysis of Christian fundamentalists. Over fifteen years ago I wrote a long letter tearing apart Thomas Kindell’s book, ““Evolution on Trial: With Evolutionists at the Witness Stand.” At the request of Col. GB Singh, author of “Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity,” I updated the letter and it was posted on ( I continue to write a few blog posts about Christianity on the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs website, and am writing a book in the Christian religion. If you arrive at a specific conclusion after receiving all your feedback it would be great if you write another blog about it.

  129. How about this notion? Embrace anyone who is willing to be skeptical about their own belief system in the face of verifiable evidence. Because, frankly, we are surrounded. We are in the minority. The vast bulk of humanity blithely conforms to its memes/creeds without really getting around to questioning it.

    So at the end of the day, I don’t care if you are muslim, capitalist, communist, environmentalist, christian, liberal, conservative, or atheist – if you are willing to discuss the evidence with me, maybe devise a few experiments, and abide by the results, we are on the same team.

    Any ideology or relgion that closes off further investigation is not a friend of skepticism. They are the opponents whether you met them at church or on an atheist message board.

    If we don’t follow the evidence, think critically, and act intelligently, the world is going to be an increasing damaged and dangerous place for my children to live and may not be around for their children. So if you won’t do it for your kids, do it for mine – they are cute, polite, intelligent, and with a nod to Dawkins – mine (or at least 50%).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button