Recently I noted that Saint Gasoline reiterated one of Sam Harris' talking points:

Clearly, religious fundamentalism and extremism is directly more harmful than more liberal religious interpretations or a vague spirituality, but both the extremists and moderates nevertheless engage in a style of thinking that makes extremism possible.  With faith, everything is permitted, and the religious moderate’s faith-based thinking legitimizes the faith-based thinking that is more extreme, whether it be the religious justifications for terrorism to religious oppression of homosexuals and women.

In response I said:

Not sure I buy the Sam Harris argument that moderates are sheltering the extremists. Especially with Christian religion, the cult think by design, yields even stronger passions when your tiny little group is the only god-fearing bunch on the planet. The extremists already typically denigrate the vast majority of “luke warm” Christianity and are skeptical that most Christians are really Christians, so they have many reasons to completely disregard whatever the compromised moderates and liberals think.


I don’t think it’s worth saving the argument (since as you point out, moderates cause immediate problems with solidarity in their own right), but you might be able to say that more people are exposed to religious thinking that tends towards extremism, by being a moderate. The God of the static Bible certainly is no moderate, so there will always be a turn over.


So what do you all think?  Can the argument be saved after all?


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Replies to This Discussion

I see both sides of the argument (I'm sure there are more than 2 sides, but I have only read the two presented), and I tend to gravitate more toward your way of thinking. I come from a family of fundies and I think there is largely a psychological reason why certain people become extremists. Some people are moderate in everything that they do, while others tend to take everything to the extreme. Then, there are those who seem moderate until religion comes along and they take that to the extreme.

In my own personal experience, I have found that the more extreme a person is in their religious beliefs, the less educated, less life-experienced, or just outright less intelligent he/she is in comparison to the rest (or, at least in comparison to those people that I respect and with whom I tend to surround myself.)

Moderate and liberal religious and spiritual folk are actually a great resource for freethinkers if we could get them to see the destructive tendencies of the extremists and actually convince them to do something. They may be better at connecting with extremists because they at least share a common belief system. Moderately religious people can present another problem, however: moderation.... in life.... or, ahem.... laziness. Getting them to speak up and act for positive change may be more difficult than just confronting the crazy fundies head on.
In my own personal experience, I have found that the more extreme a person is in their religious beliefs, the less educated, less life-experienced, or just outright less intelligent he/she is in comparison to the rest (or, at least in comparison to those people that I respect and with whom I tend to surround myself.)

That may be your experience, however many Islamic extremists come from wealthy, college-educated families, as do the Religious Christian Right. Many right-wing politicians who want to turn the US into a theocracy, politicians in general, are lawyers or completed graduate or postgraduate studies.

I'm definately not saying that a college education means a person is intelligent.
Yeah, the panty-bomber certainly didn't fit the profile at all, did he?
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has a degree in mechanical engineering from the University College London with a with a 2.2 grade point average. His father is one of the richest men in Africa.

Children of wealthy Muslim families become terrorists and children of wealthy American families end up in rehab. lmfao
Yeah, I was definitely agreeing with you.
>>>>>2.2 grade point average

Even I who didn't get the best of grades don't find that 2.2 inspires confidence for intelligence.
You're arguing that moderates don't provide cover because the extremists don't care what the moderates think. Can you see the logical fallacy there?

Regardless of whether the extremists care what the moderates think, the moderates can still be providing cover by defending the idea of faith and that you should not criticize anyone's religion. That's why Harris titled his book The End of Faith.

Personally, I have seen and experienced plenty of evidence that many 'moderates' do in fact attempt to enforce a taboo against criticizing faith and religion. Harris' argument accords with reality, in my experience.
If I could see the supposed fallacy, then I wouldn't have asked the question, now would I?

The "taboo" can be hosted in the minds of moderates and extremists altogether separately. Obviously if the mind of one using the same argument doesn't care about the mind of the other even if incidentally they happen to agree on one point or another, then what does it matter?

I've argued the extremists become more extreme when even less of the world agrees with them and this cultic mentality seems to have a long "prestigious" religious history behind it. In all likelihood if Harris could persuade the entire moderate camp to turn against the extremists (which won't happen anyway), that would get the crazies off even more for the L0rd. They would likely consider this cutting the chaff from the ranks of the elect.

Harris' argument is that of free association. We can direct our criticism towards both groups respectively on their own terms and not pretend like one really has that overwhelmingly much to do with the other. Perhaps there is some limited merit, but just not much to shake a stick at, not to mention it is offensive to moderate sensibilities to blame them for the "bad religion." Just not a rabbit hole worth going down, imo.

Ben
I think you're missing the gist.
The stance that moderates provide cover for extremists is not linked to either's views.

The argument is thus: it isn't any group's specific degree or flavor of irrationality that matters, it's that ANY group, by popularizing the idea that faith ALONE can be correct, opens the door for all others groups under the same aegis.

To which:
If I don't have to prove my nice moderate gay-marriage-loving cute kitten god exists (who after all is quite nice, kind, and harmless), neither do YOU have to prove that your "god hates fags kill everyone that's not me" god exists. If faith alone is ok for mine, it's ok for yours too. If mine stands, then so does yours. Then a decision of whether something is really there or not rests on nothing but groundless opinion and personal fancy.

If any one thing can be considered "ok" to accept without ANY evidence then all other things that don't have an evidentiary foundation can use the same rubber stamp. It back-doors logic and rationality.

He wasn't arguing to persuade the moderates to "turn against" the extremists.
He was urging people as a whole, society, to turn against ANY belief system, no matter how superficially fluffy it may be, that isn't grounded on solid reason. To introduce that as the litmus test for validity, not how they act or what they sanction/endorse. The same fatal flaw is there and moderates help to mask that internal cancer from the bulk of the population by painting a pretty, harmless face on it.

It's not that the moderates cause harm but they allow the cancer to grow which while benign in their incarnation is far farrrr from it in others faiths.
"...by popularizing the idea that faith ALONE can be correct, opens the door for all others groups under the same aegis."

And I'm arguing that's basically a meaningless abstraction that can't be used to blame one group of people for another group's intellectual sins.

Harris was arguing that moderates were somehow preventing us from engaging the radicals and that's just simply not true. The radicals are preventing us from engaging the radicals.

You can attempt to pull that punch for Harris and make it a general anti-faith lesson (which is fine), but that's not what Harris was doing with that lesson. Do I have to produce some genuine Harris quotes to prove he was going too far?

Ben
"And I'm arguing that's basically a meaningless abstraction that can't be used to blame one group of people for another group's intellectual sins."

He's not blaming moderates for the sins of extremists. He's blaming moderates for something the moderates do: Provide cover for the extremists.

"You can attempt to pull that punch for Harris and make it a general anti-faith lesson (which is fine), but that's not what Harris was doing with that lesson."

Umm, yes it was. That's why the book was *titled* The End of Faith. That was *precisely* his thesis. The defense of faith and religion in general provides cover for extreme versions of faith and religion.

"Do I have to produce some genuine Harris quotes to prove he was going too far?"

At this point, yes I do believe you should. You're going to have a hard time of it. Every time I've seen Harris quoted by someone trying to make points like you're trying to make, they invariably either misinterpret what he said or took him out of context (i.e. quote mining). I'd be surprised if you can do better than they did.

I mean, seriously, have you *never* heard the defense of the religion of terrorists that "Oh, no, they're not doing it because of their religion. You're silly for even thinking that! Their doing it for political and economic reasons. Never mind their video tapes explaining their reasons. Never mind their cries of 'Allahu akbar'. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." You've never heard anyone making that kind of defense of religion?

You don't even have to go that far. Just go as far as the 2004 election, or Proposition 8, and people defending those as unconnected to religion. Go as far as defenses of the Catholic abuse of children. "Oh no, it has nothing to do with faith or religion. It's bad people giving faith and religion a bad name. But faith is good. Religion is good."

People defending religion's role in female genital mutilation and general oppression of women and children as merely 'cultural'.

How about 'moderates' like Karen Armstrong defending faith and religion and how none of the atrocities in the past could possibly have been motivated by true faith in 'god'. No, in fact they were triggered by scientific progress! Yes, indeed!

I think you're in over your head on this one. The evidence of moderates defending religion and faith from any sort of criticism is overwhelming. Maybe you're just not aware of it.
If the topic is Sam Harris' argument that moderates provide cover for extremists, then Caine has given a pretty reasonable summation.

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