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What does ‘Moderately Religious’ Mean? April 30, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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What does it mean to be moderately religious? What does it mean to, for example, be a Christian but to not accept the Bible as wholly and literally true? Or, perhaps more generally, what does it mean to accept a god but not all of what god is supposed to have said?

I’m wondering what it means to accept only some of the teachings of a religious tradition, some set of interpretations of scripture, and to accept them and to eschew the other interpretations. Does this not imply that the person who accepts only some of the points of their traditional theology is, in effect, a prophet themselves in some sense? Does it not imply that the scripture is secondary to the judgment of the person who accepts some of it?

One particular example would be to ask what it would mean to be Catholic and to accept the use of condoms or even abortion. Would you really still be a Catholic or would you instead automatically be a protestant of some sort?

There is a strain within many Christian communities that emphasizes the importance of the direct relationship with God. Many even argue that our sense of right and wrong are due to something that God put within us, and so it may not be a stretch, perhaps, that maybe God put within people the ability to determine what is true theology as opposed to man’s religion, right?

It is curious, however, that different people’s consciences are calibrated so differently. To be so sure, as some Christians are, that gay marriage is wrong while other Christians would disagree is a prime example of this . To agree that slavery is wrong despite the Bible’s condoning it (Lev. 25:44-46, Ex. 21.2, 7-11, etc), even in the New Testament (Ephesians 6:5, 1Tim. 6:1-2, Lk. 12:47-48), sounds like putting an awful lot of stock in the opinions of one’s self rather than scripture, to me. So what is to be done with these verses? Are they to be ignored, rationalized, or merely blindly followed?

I think there is a simpler solution to this problem. The idea of God, which seems so obvious to many people, is generally not in question. However, when people of various traditions are faced with aspects of the tradition, scripture, or faith that do not cohere with the rest of their experience, they will tend to eschew those verses that do not agree with what their experience and their own values tell them and attribute the tensions between scripture and conscience to the mistakes of man in expressing the deity’s teachings. The rejection of certain things that scripture says does not, as a result, throw out god. Instead, they throw out Biblical literalism.

But which verses are literal and which one are metaphorical, mythological, or simply wrong? The specific verses that are rejected are easy to toss out because they deal with issues which are directly related to experience. We see that stoning misbehaving children is not moral, thus people ignore the verse that tells us to do so (Deut. 21:18-21), possibly rationalizing this with some other verse or general idea that some older books are no longer valid, despite the fact that another verse invalidates this idea (Mat. 5:18).

We have every day experiences that show that, for example, the Bible’s condoning slavery is misguided, and thus likely the influence of man on God’s word and not true. And yet this one imperfection in God’s scripture is not sufficient to disqualify God existence, right? We have experiences that tell us that good people, whether they believe the right things or not, don’t deserve to be eternally tortured in Hell, but yet God is still real, right?

Doing this does not address the question of a god in general, but it does raise the question of the authority of the scriptures in general; if some of the verses are not true because they conflict with our experience, then why are the others still considered true, especially those that are taken on faith because they are in scripture? If the truth value of an idea in scripture is determined by them being in scripture, how do the other rejected verses avoid this same criterion?

The answer is what I call compartmentalization. We use certain types of standards and criteria when we evaluate the world but do not use these criteria for others. Generally, it is because there are some things, things like invisible yet ubiquitous and transcendent gods, which are necessarily beyond our direct empirical experience (yet are supposedly behind everything; we have to derive their existence using reason and logic, usually poorly).

We don’t have every day experiences, unless we search for them, that would challenge the core aspects of people’s faiths; things like the Trinity or the belief that a god exists. This is an idea that needs to be actively pursued to reject intelligently.

So, how can a person conclude atheism; the lack of belie in any gods? The simple fact is that there is no proof that gods don’t exist. But more to the point, there is no obvious experience in the world that a god is not necessary to explain anything at all, which would lead to the reasonable conclusion of not believing in any gods.

To find this to be the case you have to 1) be genuinely interested in the question to some degree, 2) have a fair understanding of the philosophical questions that are relevant, and 3) not be too emotionally attached to the idea that gods do exist.

Why #3? Because very smart people are very good at rationalizing reasons for ideas they already accept emotionally. That is, while people will not accept all ideas in their scriptures or religious traditions, they still will accept the general ideas and still associate themselves with the faith, even if they reject most of the ideas. They will find a way, mostly unconsciously, of making sense of the fact that they disagree with God’s word, but it’s still their God and it is still his word.

So what is moderate religiosity? To me it sounds like people who believe or need to believe in some god, but despite their lack of acceptance of the ideas in the books which tell them about their god, they still associate with the tradition which they largely disagree with because they are used to doing so. It is pure habit and intellectual laziness. And while many will seek out churches that share their values, this does not excuse the fact that most churches reject or simply ignore much of what their scriptures say in favor of a general idea that is supported by only some scripture.

If scripture is the true god’s words, then shouldn’t it all be considered equally true or suspect? And if they are all suspect, why accept the articles of faith that our experience with the world seems to make acceptable only through faith? After all, if their was evidence, faith would not be unnecessary. Moderate religious traditions sounds like a retreat from religious ideas while trying to hold onto the center. The problem is that the center is defined by the periphery, and so when the periphery is peeled away the onion of theology will reveal the hollow center.

Thus people are left with a vaguely defined, powerless, and useless idea of a god that no longer warrants the title. Moderate religion ultimately leads to a god that is indistinguishable from no god at all.

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