Blog Post

In Defense of Religious Moderation

The book I've been blogging occasionally about for the last year or more is now coming out in June. I've just written this op-ed piece to accompany its release:

Whether it's the US president ordering the killing of an Islamist extremist in Pakistan, a Long Island congressman scheduling hearings on the radicalization of Islam in America, or mullahs in Afghanistan exhorting mobs to violence in response to a Florida preacher burning a copy of the Koran, it's hard to avoid the impression that the west is at war with Islam.

Critics of religion have used the scenario of a great conflict between the modern, secular west and a medieval, spiritual Islam to argue that religion itself is the problem, and that even moderate religious belief cultivates extremism.

But this analysis is wrong. Moderate belief is not just a weaker, watered-down version of fundamentalist belief; it is a different way of believing that can undermine fundamentalism.

Moderates believe deeply in their religions, in their social practices, and in the truths of science. They just don't feel that those beliefs, practices, or truths represent some ultimate, immutable knowledge. Instead they recognize that different kinds of knowledge come from different sources.

As an evolutionary biologist who is also a practicing Mormon told me in an interview, "evidence about God comes from within, while my knowledge of science comes from objective information."

Fundamentalists can be religious, but they don't have to be. The only thing required to be a fundamentalist is to believe that there is only one way of knowing the world and that any other way must be wrong.

This is the kind of belief that led Terry Jones to hold a mock trial and execution of the Koran in his church in Florida, having found it "guilty of the death, rape and torture of people worldwide whose only crime is not being of the Islamic faith." It is also the kind of belief that led the mullahs in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, to respond by provoking mobs to attack a United Nations compound in that city, killing twelve people.

That is not to say that there is a moral equivalence between political speech and the murder of innocents. It is to say, however, that the beliefs animating the acts are similar and that they inflame one another.

Like the mullahs, Mr. Jones's act was motivated by the moral certainty of his own faith at the expense of the faith of others. It is not the act of criticizing another faith that is pernicious, but the belief on which it was based and the rage that belief inspired.

We saw the same fury arise over the inclusion in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of David Wojnarowicz's video "A Fire in My Belly," which features a bloody crucifix crawling with ants. While the censorship that rage led to did not amount to physical violence, there have been cases in this country too where violent rhetoric in apparent defense of Christian values has led to actual violence and murder.

Compare such reactions to those of moderate believers. As Jon O'Brien, president of the organization Catholics for Choice, wrote in an open letter to the Secretary of the Smithsonian in response to the decision to remove the Wojnarowicz video: "As Catholics, we … do not support censorship of the arts. We can only judge what we can see. We accept the possibility that we may be offended by what we see. In the spirit of promoting artistic freedom, we are happy to accept that possibility."

Contrary to what critics of religion often argue, the content of religious doctrine isn't what makes believers turn to violence. The Koran is no more violent than the Bible. Whether believers translate their practices and beliefs into a reason for committing violence against others depends on a complex series of factors from socioeconomic deprivation to individual psychopathology. While religious indoctrination can be one of those factors, the sort of tolerance emphasized by religious moderates discourages vindictive judgment and fosters instead a willingness to search for common grounds for understanding.

We should give our full support to believers and nonbelievers alike who share the tenets of moderation and toleration, and moderate believers of all denominations should reach out to one another to support universal goals of tolerance, increased prosperity, and peace.  Those who insist on identifying all religious belief as the source of the problem risk undermining our best allies in this endeavor and losing the way to a more peaceful future.

William Egginton's picture

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).