On Religious Moderates

11 05 2007

From Sam Harris’ The End of Faith:

The only reason anyone is “moderate” in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought (democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, an end to cultural and geographic isolation, etc.). The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. The moderation we see among nonfundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt. Not the least among these developments has been the emergence of our tendency to value evidence and to be convinced by a proposition to the degree that there is evidence for it. Even most fundamentalists live by the lights of reason in this regard; it is just that their minds seem to have been partitioned to accommodate the profligate truth claims of their faith. Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.

While the last two sentences of that paragraph do nothing for his argument, I do enjoy his explanation of religious moderation. Religious moderates don’t randomly pick which parts of their religions they will take seriously, rather they take seriously only those parts of their religion that have not proven incompatible with a functioning society. This is a process that has taken in some cases thousands of years, and so we should not assume that as time passes, our religions won’t continue to erode until there is nothing at all.

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