Are Religious Moderates the Intellectual Enemy of Rational Atheists?

Is the intellectual enemy of my intellectual enemy my friend? Or is this sort of alliance prone to dishonesty and paternalism that fundamentally undermines the entire affair? I ask these questions in light of a rather engaging conversation Steven and I had a few weeks back in which he argued that religious moderates were actually farther away from atheists and agnostics than their more strictly practicing religious brethren in terms of logical consistency. While the nuances contained within our discussion proved to be very important, I think that he is on to something here. To be more precise, Steven was saying that those that pick and choose the aspects of their religion to which they will choose to ascent – i.e., particular traditions, religious texts, doctrinal beliefs, etc. – are being inconsistent in their beliefs. As we both hope to believe that those of a skeptical bent, of which I think the atheist and agnostic belief systems are naturally a part, advocate logical consistency, our casual acceptance of inconsistency from religious moderates seem disingenuous. If we truly believe that logical consistency is worth advocating for and that our intellectual adversaries are guilty of holding inconsistent beliefs, are we not obligated to press them on this issue? I think that we have to or we may be guilty of a form of rational paternalism.

Before we continue, I should point out why consistency matters. In first-order logic, which is usually considered the foundational logical system upon which most higher-order systems are based - such as proposition logic, modal logic, etc. - any contradiction allows one to logically prove any subsequent hypothesis. So, if one allows for the propositions and ~A (read as not-A) in any logical argument, you can prove anything else you want to posit. This is why logical arguments are often put down into a sentences and laid out in such a way as to preclude the possibility of a contradiction. If these arguments are to be meaningful, they have to be able to limit the possible outcomes to those that are strictly true or false. Allowing for both gets us in no way closer to any sort of truth.

Seriously. You can prove anything at all you'd like. 

Although we may see these logical inconsistencies throughout the beliefs many religious moderates hold, I think the blind eye we turn towards religious moderates is due to their seemingly innocuous nature. When you have people like those of the Westboro Baptist Church picketing military funerals or religious extremists killing dissidents, the guy down the street who believes gay people are great does not register as much of a threat. I do not mean to imply that a religious person who is generally loving and accepting should be viewed with the same intellectual suspicion as jihadists and their ilk. I genuinely believe that most people who hold religious beliefs are good people; I just happen to also believe that these people hold a worldview that is fundamentally flawed and based on beliefs that are inherently problematic and potentially dangerous.

I want to believe that most people are capable of understanding a well-argued point and accepting the conclusion of that argument for what it is worth. I believe that assuming as much, at least until proven otherwise, is a basic form of respect any two participants in a debate must hold for one another if there is any chance of progress to be made regarding the object of discussion. In this particular debate, we have people who are advocating a worldview that is based on a religious tradition. This tradition, if it is of the Abrahamic line that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam lay claim to, will be based on a series of religious texts that form the backbone of that religion (though other religions seem to generally be similarly justified) and may be backed up by supplemental literature such as the Talmud (Judaism) or Hadith (Islam).

The Abrahamic traditions are alike in their belief that God has revealed fundamental truths through these texts. These words are generally held to be inerrant, infallible, immutable and absolute in their authority. If this is the case, how can someone who claims to be of one of these traditions pick and choose the bits they will choose to believe? Steven sees this as a serious problem and I think I understand where he is coming from. His argument is simple, and I hope to convey it properly here: unless you are claiming to know better than the creator to which you claim to be subservient, you do not have the privilege of cobbling together your religious worldview. It was provided to you by the creator of the universe – who are you to question the bits that make you a bit uncomfortable or are hard to live by?

A commonly cited contemporary example is Leviticus 18:22; I quote here from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible: “'You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” This seems to be a clear-cut prohibition on homosexual relations. If those who hold these texts dear believe these translations are faithful representations of God’s word, then it seems that God’s opinion of gay sexual relations is settled. How, then, can so many practicing Christians and Jews claim that their faith does not condemn sexually active gay men?

"Unless you are claiming to know better than the creator to which you claim to be subservient, you do not have the privilege of cobbling together your religious worldview."

Steven argued that this sort of inconsistency was something that rationalists of any stripe should be against. We claim to hold our fellow rational thinkers to a basic standard of logical consistency, so we have no reason not to hold other people to the same standards. I do not wish to get sidetracked by the example given above right now, though I will touch on the matter of interpretation of religious texts and their answer to such questions later on; for now, I want to focus on the following problem highlighted by that example: if you believe that the holy books are accurate and binding on the adherents of that religion, then anyone who strives for logical consistency must approach those texts in such a way that their beliefs will be consistent with the truths held within their holy literature. You cannot, in short, believe that:

(a)    God’s word is law and morally binding on me;

(b)   morality stems from God’s world as revealed through the relevant religious texts;

(c)    God’s word is faithfully and comprehensively revealed in the religious texts of my tradition;

(d)   understanding these texts is important for me to be faithful to my tradition, and;

(e)   I can forgo the rules or judgments that make me uncomfortable.

If you believe (a) through (d), then it seems you cannot also believe (e) without being forced into a logical contradiction. You are effectively claiming to be bound to God’s teachings and yet not bound by them at the same time. While I think many rejections of religious tradition are done one moral grounds (and kudos for that), I think most of the proscriptions people ignore are those that are inconvenient to perform. After all, having to avoid direct and indirect physical contact with people (if possible) every time you menstruate would be very obnoxious and pragmatically untenable for most people, yet Orthodox and Conservative Judaism both hold that the attempt should be made in accordance with the Law (see Leviticus, Chapter 15). However, while the moral rejection is understandable, intellectual laziness seems pretty indefensible. Just because something is annoying does not give one a right to avoid it in most spheres of life and religion seems like an odd place to try and assert such a right.

I am sure many would claim that atheists and agnostics should leave well-enough alone and not pick fights with those who are, in practice, harmless to us and others. Going back to the idea that we must respect the intellectual integrity of our peers, I think it is incumbent on us to force the issue. If someone is having problems squaring their personal beliefs with the dictates of their religion, then some has to give in order to break the cognitive dissonance from which that person is suffering. Holding two contradictory beliefs is untenable long-term as they are bound to come in to conflict with one another whenever the relevant issue comes up.

This dissonance has both personal and public consequences and is, as such, of importance to society at large. If someone truly holds these contradictory beliefs as morally binding, this incoherence is bound to lead to personal strife, second guessing, and a lack of confidence in one’s worldview. In the public sphere, this can translate into actions or inactions that directly or indirectly affect others. Going back to the example above, consider someone who believes personally that gays are moral equals but who also believes God’s condemnation of their actions is morally binding. When the issue of gay rights comes up at the ballot box during a referendum, how is this person going to vote? The lives of significant portion of the population hangs on decisions like these.

"Holding two contradictory beliefs is untenable long-term as they are bound to come in to conflict with one another whenever the relevant issue comes up."

If we respect our peers are intellectual equals, and we believe their state of inconsistency is intellectually problematic, then I believe we are obligated to press the issue. Open discussion of these topics can be beneficial to us all by clarifying the beliefs that will ultimately come to affect public life. I think moderates are generally closer to agnostics than religious hardliners. Their moral qualms with their religious tradition are, I believe, evidence of the weaknesses of that tradition. I am sure that many ‘converted’ agnostics and atheists began to question their religious beliefs in light of these (and similar) issues and I think we should not let religious moderates off the hook when they confront these same issues. A good friend should be willing to push a loved one towards the best course of action, even if this means short-term conflict. If we think an intervention to stop someone from taking drugs is worthwhile, why should we view a “cognitive intervention” any differently?

The obvious answer religious proponents put forward to the problem of cognitive dissonance is that of the ability to personally interpret the texts and traditions. The numerous (and problematic) contradictions within religious texts aside, many people claim that their interpretation gives them the room needed to side-step troublesome passages or tenets. Within Christianity, many claim that Jesus has fulfilled the law of the Old Testament through the blood sacrifice that was his crucifixion, raising the laws of the New Testament in its place. The issue is that this freedom of interpretation cuts both ways, as the very same passage that is at the core of the previous argument (Matt. 5:17-19) seems to say the opposite. In light of these interpretations, does God still condemn homosexual relations? While there are certainly interpretations that can be argued for more effectively than others, it is difficult to see how one can ever claim to have the truth of the matter definitively settled. How, then, can religious moderates hope to eliminate the inconsistencies that plague them, if interpretation cannot get them demonstrably closer to the truth?

"A good friend should be willing to push a loved one towards the best course of action, even if this means short-term conflict."

Falling back on the ability to interpret the texts to suit their beliefs does not help. In fact, I think the need to fall back on such interpretations demonstrates the untenable position many, if not most, religious moderates hold. Those who try to adhere to their religious traditions and texts as closely as possible with the least amount of finagling are far less likely to fall into the logical trap laid out above in premises (a) through (e) because they believe that (e) must be false. Despite the difficulties in adhering to their religions precepts, they are at least consistent in their adherence to them. As rationalists, this seems like a valid position when compared to that of religious moderates, even if we believe the beliefs to which these people cling are ultimately false.

Practically speaking, I think this means that we should engage with religious moderates in a way that respects their intelligence but that is also true to our agnostic/atheist beliefs. Playing nice simply because moderates are not actively bothering you is not an excuse for leaving them on intellectually indefensible ground. No one holds perfectly consistent beliefs, but that does not mean we cannot strive to weed out inconsistency wherever we happen to find it. If we believe we are obligated to do this for ourselves, then how can we not want our peers to be committed to the same task? I think a discerning look by a religious moderate at their beliefs is likely to push them away from the religion that plagues them with troublesome beliefs. We should be willing to help them on their intellectual journey by demonstrating the incoherence of their current worldview and pushing them to commit to a logically consistent framework. If we hold our criticisms of religion and evidence for agnosticism and atheism to be sound, then we can hope that their journey will end where it has for us.


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