When looking to lay blame, there is an overly simplistic way to look at the connection between moderates and extremists, and that is to make the argument of causation, i.e. “Fundamentalism / extremism has to start somewhere â€“ if there were no religious moderates, there’d be no extremists.” Personally I find this wholly unsatisfactory for the simple reason that it isn’t difficult to demonstrate the absence of moderate influence in the life histories of many of today’s extremists. To borrow an evolutionary metaphor; whatever the causal chain of ancestry one proposes, compared to moderates, today’s religious extremists are a species unto themselves.
Religious moderates might take some comfort in my view because it accords with their main position of disassociation, but theyâ€™d be wrong to do so. The moderate’s responsibility for sustaining the influence of the extremist lies in the contribution they make to the discourse surrounding the important issues of the day. Despite an absence of direct causation, religious moderates do play an active role in creating a haven for extremists. Moreover, it is a role that cannot be modified to do otherwise whilst still doing the job of defending the moderate’s position.
The voice of moderate religion is never more audible than when defending the individual’s right to believe whatever he or she pleases, without fear of molestation. For such moderates, religion so conceived is benign, comforting, life enhancing and inclusive; an unalloyed good founded on the principle of tolerance. As such, any and all criticism of religious belief runs contrary to this principle and should therefore be met head-on. Coupled with this is the view that the atrocities of religious extremists merely reflect the decidedly secular base elements of human nature. The moderate will actively deny the influence of religion in this regard (and often even prescribe religion as the solution), despite what the extremist has to say about the divinity of his inspirations.
A moderate belief founded on a liberal, multilateral policy of tolerance (despite the diametric sectarian opposition between the truth claims of the various faith traditions), is held to be the prescription against religious extremism and the way forward for humanity. For the religious moderate, defence of this trumps all other considerations. As Harris puts it, religious moderates “imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others.” It is this dogma â€“ born of a desperate need to carve out a haven of immunity from criticism for their own beliefs â€“ that keeps the moderate from dealing with the extremists within their own religious traditions and constantly hamstrings all genuine secular attempts to do so.
This is a brand of political correctness that according to Harris, modern society simply cannot afford; “When religion causes violence, its root claims must be challenged.” In defending their own preferred brand of faith, religious moderates actively and enthusiastically protect those “root claims” from assault and erect defences behind which religious extremists enjoy protection. Despite agreeing that fundamentalist / extremist views are deplorable, the extent to which religious moderates can be expected to join battle with the secularist against their common enemy terminates at disavowal. At which point they then turn their attentions to disarming the secularist attack on extremism by effectively defending the extremist’s right to fallacious beliefs.
The moderate’s sustained assault on rational discourse, their desperate pleas for immunity from criticism and their dogmatic refusal to acknowledge the foundational beliefs and vested interests that they share with the extremists makes them unwitting fifth columnists in the battle against religious lunacy.
Posted: June 22nd 2007
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