Accommodation; faith in moderation

Anyone who has been paying attention to the atheist blog-o-sphere in recent months is familiar with the issue of accommodationism.  Anyone who has been following the atheist community at all knows a little about the issue of labels;  Atheist, weak atheist/strong atheist, agnostic, humanist, etc.  Within these, and many other, issues lie a multitude of canards about atheists and issues related to the philosophy of religion that atheists commonly talk about.

One of those issues that comes up by people attempting to be reasonable has been annoying me recently, although it certainly is nothing new.  Just yesterday I was watching a documentary about one man’s search for whether God makes sense, called (appropriately) “Does God make sense?”  In it, we see interviews in which religious leaders and atheists answer questions about belief, skepticism, etc.  In the end, we get a sort of cop-out, a non-controversial moderation of opinion that will offend few and say little.

Does God makes sense? Our documentary narrator and interviewer concludes that both arguments have “circularities” and “endless regressions”; “Arguments? I love them all.  But they all falter.” And finally, “I wish I were certain.”

Ah yes, this old canard! Both the atheists and the theists think they are certain, and that reasonable people are not certain so we therefore reasonable people cannot unambiguously side with any ‘extreme’.  I’ve dealt with this before, somewhat, in talking about arrogance.  I’ve also dealt with the canard of atheist and theist being the extremes of a continuum with moderate positions (say, here and here).  But now I want to deal with another facet of this poorly cut piece of glass being passed off as a beautiful jewel.  I want to deal with the idolization of the moderate.

Shared by large swath of people in our culture, there is a sense that it is somehow laudable, and perhaps a prerequisite for being considered respectable, to eschew the extremes.  Jon Stewart’s recent Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear is a prime example of this trend occurring in our culture.  The idea is that those on the extremes are, well, extreme and therefore unreasonable.  In order to be reasonable and sane we must keep a distance from both shores and sit comfortably somewhere in the middle, safe from controversy that might start a *gasp* conversation  that may challenge others’ views.  We may lean one way or the other, but be should sit near the middle.

But, as the atheist prophet and wordsmith PZ Myers so eloquently commented:

squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshiping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.

That is, sometimes the extreme is not a position of crazy.  Sometimes the extreme position is just right.  So when I see people trying to navigate the question of religion, god, etc and they conclude that the only reasonable position to be in is somewhere between the crazy theist fundamentalists and the crazy atheists, I want to ask why the atheist position is crazy.

And when I do, I get back either a look of perplexity upon being unable to identify examples of atheist fundamentalism or a bunch of positions that no atheist I know holds.  In other words, the extreme they point to is a straw-man, if they can point to anything at all.

But hidden within this is an admittance that I find interesting.  These moderates seem to recognize that the beliefs supported by religious fundamentalism–that is, supported by what the various scriptures actually say–are crazy.  They seem to recognize that the faith that those on the side of religious belief are not-acceptable to reasonable people.  They reject literalism, yes, but they also reject rejecting some watered-down version of that same faith (erroneously labeling that rejection as an equivalent faith).  And, instead, they maintain a new kind of faith; a faith in the moderate, the in-between, the safe. They create the watered-down religiosity that they refuse to reject, in fact.  It’s why they refuse to reject it; it’s their faith.
No, this is not to say that it is really safe, at least not in any way that will stand up to intellectual scrutiny.  It has to do with the fact that it will be culturally safe because so many people accept (without evidence or question, usually) the canard that a moderate position between apparent extremes is preferable, respectable, and will not make you stand out at a party.

It’s politics, really.  It’s an attempt to not be controversial.  Again, it’s not an attempt to not actually hold a controversial opinion, just not to hold a controversial opinion around the people they hang out with; other moderates with the same faith.  They have the numbers on their side, surely, and even when they don’t they will often appear rational.  The religious crazies will at least be sated that they are not atheists (even if they are), and the atheist will be sated that they are not thanking Jesus before dinner (even if they are).  You see, moderation is not so much about the opinion itself as it is about the being quiet among people with which they might otherwise have differences.  They neither discuss or think much about such controversial issues, so they default to the position of moderation while dismissing strong opinions as non-preferable.  They accommodate in order to get along.

Politics.  Except that when the polemical politicians speak up, they simply regard them as more of the crazies, even if they are not.  (And yes, they often are)

My mother is fond of the phrase “happy medium,” implying a pseudo- Aristotelian temperance of opinion.   A very close friend is usually of a similar temperament, and tries to find some position of compromise; but being a government attorney, this is not surprising.  And these skills are often good skills to have, and I employ them myself.  But more is going on here, I think, than good practice of rationality.  In some cases, I think it’s a kind of faith in the truth of moderation itself.  I It is, I think, a cultural phenomenon that is perhaps as predictable and as common as it is, well, average.

And I, who will stand near the so-called “extreme” of opinions about theology and sexuality, look at the people trying to be moderate and see them as, well, conservative.  This is essentially how I view accommodationism; as a position of being stuck in a respectful position in regards to religion mostly for the sake of appearing reasonable to the moderates of the world.  And it is not that they are trying to be conservative; they are not intentionally trying to maintain the status quo in any way, they just simply stop progressing at some point, and became comfortable.  Whether out of discomfort, fear, disinterest, or the occasional actual intent to stay where they are because they prefer it, it creates a cultural phenomenon that to those still progressing, looks like rigidity and sterility.

I will observe that I think that the liberalism of many generations often becomes the conservative of the next.  Where sex outside of marriage was rebellious and liberal for a couple of generations ago, while I was growing up casual sex started to become normal.  And now that I look at those with whom up I grew, I see them as being conservative sexually.  You know, idealizing  monogamy and all that.  A close friend told me not so long ago that polyamory is not for adults.  I find this funny and ironic.

I see those same people not being religious (although they may retain some emotional connection to some vague “spirituality”), and they are not willing to call themselves atheists or even to consider that my position, which they don’t understand and which they assume must be as crazy as the fundamentalist warning hellfire on the street-corner (without having any idea what that would imply), is reasonable.

Why can’t the position of the gnu atheist be reasonable? Simple.  Because it is not moderate, and moderation is good.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the new faith.  It is a new faith of non-controversial, ‘let’s just live and let live’, mentality.

But it’s really always been this way, I think.  But I think they often forget that there should perhaps be moderation in everything; including moderation.

Strong opinions are not always crazy.  Sometimes they only seem extreme and strong because they reject things that really are ridiculous, and the contrast is glaring, loud, and diverting.  Perhaps it is time for great, diverting, contrast to faith of all kinds.  Perhaps it’s time for the anti-faith to arrive.  But to be anti-faith is to be loud even in a whisper.  But perhaps it’s time for more people to stop whispering and proclaim loudly that faith is not a benefit but a detriment to being reasonable.  Perhaps it’s time to call out that accommodationists are accommodating something crazy, even if they are only half-way to crazy town.

What does ‘Moderately Religious’ Mean?

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.