Otherwise rational people who look to ancient manuscripts for moral instruction inevitably do so within the framework of modern ethics. Modern ethical norms grease the wheels for the student of ancient morality, allowing the acceptance of certain doctrines that seem timeless while rejecting others that seem barbaric. Generally speaking, this is a perfectly reasonable approach to the study of ancient moral philosophy. Unfortunately, such an approach becomes unreasonable once an ancient manuscript is believed to be the product of divine authorship, applicable to all people in all ages.
As we will see, it is this belief in divine authorship and universal applicability that undermines the position of religious moderates.
Among the most popular belief systems, it is usually taught that God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and infallible. Perfect in the administration of justice and the source of morality, God does not make mistakes or lie. These characteristics of God are just a few common traditional extrapolations from scripture that are important for this discussion. Also for the sake of this discussion, we'll assume them to be accurate inasmuch as they describe God in comparison to humanity. It seems important to note, however, that the only evidence available for God's character resides in scripture.
The scripture for each of the world's Abrahamic Religions affirms the aforementioned characteristics in numerous ways, and contains explicit, self-affirming language in that each claims divine authorship. Now, if we accept scripture as authoritative because God wrote it, and we accept its description of God as true based on its authority, it follows that the scripture can contain no errors, deceptions, or immoral injunctions. Any claims to the contrary must be summarily dismissed, else the entire structure falls.
Fundamentalists tacitly acknowledge the latter statement as true. To do otherwise is to admit the possibility of error in both scripture and God, thereby endangering faith itself. Evidence has no place, or is grossly twisted to fit within the framework of belief. Every alleged scriptural contradiction is viewed through a prism formed by scripture itself, which does not allow for errors. Thus, instead of contradiction there is 'tension.' However, attentive readers will notice the circular reasoning necessary to come to this conclusion.
Moderates tend to resolve this problem by arguing for progressive revelation or some variant thereof. Acknowledging the involvement of humanity in authoring and transmitting scripture, the inerrancy doctrine is given little credence or cast in a different light that takes the historical and scientific record into account. Morally dubious passages are considered to have been an ancient peoples' understanding of God's revelation to them and aren't meant for us. Unfortunately, this resolution casts doubt on the very existence of God as described in scripture; if scripture is wrong in its claims to inerrancy and/or divine authorship then it cannot be trusted in its accuracy where God is concerned. It becomes, as many non-theists assert, merely a literary work by ancient authors with a decidedly limited understanding of the world, who at best can be credited for having occasional flashes of insight.
This secondary, and more liberal, reading of scripture results from modern acceptance of evidence. There is evidence that the Earth revolves around the sun, that illness is caused by germs rather than demons, that both animals and plants evolve (and are incapable of human speech), and that living things decay after death. There is also evidence that many ancient peoples were barbaric by our standards, and that many of them worshipped a plethora of gods or goddesses, most of whom fell out of vogue before the Roman Empire collapsed. In short, the advance of science has long since rendered scriptural science - such as it exists and can be called 'science' - obsolete. The advance of civilization has performed a similar service for scriptural philosophy and morality, though to some extent is indebted to it.
Of course, there are those who lie on a continuum between these two extremes. However, moderates uwittingly reduce the god of their scripture to a somewhat abstract concept. Names, places, and traditions are retained but the dogma is neutered (pun intended). Another way to put it is that scripture becomes a framework around which faith is structured and practiced while its authority is hobbled. Keeping in mind the explicit claims of scripture, is it not reasonable to conclude there is a contradiction implicit in any faith that relies on scriptural authority while simultaneously rendering it virtually impotent? Is it reasonable to suspend evidentiary requirements for portions of scripture rather than all of it?
To be fair, moderate religion does have the virtue of being mostly open to evidence. In that sense at least it can be considered to be a 'living faith.' And it is also very apparent that I'd much rather live with or near religious moderates as opposed to fundamentalists because the former seem less concerned with being right than simply living. As it is there are no less than a dozen churches within a mile surrounding my house. It is truly nightmarish to think of how life in this town would be if they were all fundamentalist in character. Perhaps religious moderates represent an evolutionary link between religious mysticism and scientific rationality. But I digress.
Personal dispositions and societal integration aside, religious moderates have planted themselves on shaky ground. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins observed that religious moderates 'betray faith and reason equally.' This seems accurate. As we have seen, the fundamentalist has a legitimate theological axe to grind concerning moderates' more liberal interpretation of scripture. The scriptures themselves contradict the notion of moderate faith. Yet, those who hold to reason and rationality as their modus operandi find an equally vexing problem in religious moderation - enabling fundamentalists.
The religious moderate, simply by existing, validates the faith of the fundamentalist. By failing to deny scriptural validity in the areas of science and modern moral discourse, the moderate tacitly permits the continued beliefs and activities of his fundamentalist counterparts. Moreover, the scriptures themselves describe a time when there will be those who adopt the trappings of faith without any depth of commitment. Taken literally, the moderate's existence seems a fulfillment of prophetic vision. Thus the fundamentalist feels ever more bonded to scripture, and ever more zealous for God. The moderate can denounce the actions of fundamentalists until the sun explodes and it will not prevent one intolerant or violent act. In simpler terms, moderates and fundamentalists are complicit in perpetuating the cycle of intolerance and bloodshed in spite of their differences.
Pluralism is another outgrowth of liberal faith. In common application pluralism is the idea that every religion has an equal claim to be the truth. 'All paths lead to god' is how it is commonly expressed. In this sense it might be called religious relativism. This is not to be confused with ecumenism. While it is true that in its broadest sense ecumenism seeks unity between all world religions, such a definition is superfluous since pluralism has come into common usage. Rather, ecumenism in common parlance is the practice of seeking unity among various sects or denominations within a particular faith.
At any rate, religious pluralism falls flat on its face in light of scripture or scientific fact. Scripture expressly denies the possibility of pluralism and actively discourages discourse with non-believers about matters of faith. It is permitted to proselytize, but not to associate. When considered in light of science the proposition becomes absurd. Faith teaches many concepts that simply do not accurately reflect the world we live in. In some cases faith can be downright detrimental to one's physical well-being. For example, competent medical attention has been shown to be effective in treating illness and injury whereas faith seems to almost always fail.
In Lourdes, France, scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins interviewed Father Liam Griffin as a part of series of shows titled The Root of All Evil. Father Griffin reported that out of 80,000 visitors per year for the last 100 years (about 8 million visitors total), only 66 miraculous healings and 2,000 unexplained cures had been recorded,. Even assuming that the label miracle is applicable to every one of these cases (by no means certain), that's an abyssmal .025% success rate. Dawkins also points out no one has ever miraculously re-grown a limb. I might also add that no one outside scripture has ever risen from the dead.
In summary, it seems abundantly clear that religious dogma in general is a primary cause of divisiveness, and has long since outlived its usefulness. Furthermore, moderates seeking the middle ground between faith and reason actually enable their fundamentalist counterparts and create divisions of their own. It is time to cast off faith in the unseen in favor of a dialogue that requires full accountability and evidence lest we destroy ourselves in the name of God.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)