In Defense of Religious Moderates

Moderation seems to be under attack.

This attack is clear in the realm of politics, as each party flees to the ideological extremes, claiming that compromise with the other is a dereliction of duty and principle, and that moderation is a weak and indecisive position. A good case can also be made that the aversion to moderation was the basis for the recent financial collapse. The lure of the extremes is not a new phenomenon to be sure, but our economic and political systems have historically been self-correcting, ensuring that extremism does not take hold of us for long, and moderation usually prevails. This elasticity and natural balancing is the genius and gift of America.

The attack on moderation has also not spared religion. I've witnessed this first hand in many responses to my blogs, in which I usually attempt to portray faith in a way that is reconciled with science and reason. In response to my last blog, "Can the Existence of God Ever be Proven?" for example, one person wrote: "You religious moderates claim to stand for equality, but you really stand for nothing. At least the fundamentalists follow their actual religion and take its teachings seriously. A religious moderate makes no sense because all religions profess to contain absolute but conflicting truths. Moderates also tell us that no one can criticize their religion because, after all, it's a free choice, and none are better than the other."

This viewpoint sets up a no-win situation for religions, positing that one is either an authentic extremist or a phony moderate, while condemning religion because of its extremism. The only conclusion, then, is that religion must go. Of course, this writer's position itself is an extremist one, making no room whatsoever for compromise or moderation.

This attack on moderation is not surprising, really, because we do seem to like extremes. In them we can find clarity, strength, the sense of being right and righteous, a common community of those who agree with us and a common enemy who is absolutely wrong. Extremist positions are also attractive because they indulge our laziness; we don't need to critically examining our position or search for the higher ground that embraces and transcends both extremes. It is inevitable, then, that religious moderation would come under attack. Beyond the dangers in the rejection of moderation, though, this attack on religious moderates is factually wrong, and stems from shallow assumptions and a profound lack of knowledge about how religions actually operate. Of course there are positions in which moderation is impossible -- one can not be a moderate Nazi -- but is this really true of religion? Let's look at the popular attacks on religious moderates and examine the factual basis of each:

1. Moderates are not practicing their "true" faith.

Critics often state that religion is inherently extremist and dangerous because all religions make absolute truth claims based on the belief in literal infallible scriptures, whose texts contain blatant historical inaccuracies and demand fanatical actions -- like stoning wayward sons, burning witches and destroying the un-believer -- and that moderates either don't know or conveniently ignore these true doctrines of the faith. The truth that the critics of religion so often seem to miss is that even the most orthodox branches of religions are not (and can not) be based on the literal reading of ancient scriptures and never were, but that all religions are necessarily interpretive and layered. No Jew, for example, lives by the strict word of the Torah (and none could), but instead lives in accordance with the myriad interpretations and refinements that continue to this day. This is the process that underlies all religious understanding and practice. Religions, like all systems, evolve and expand with new insights, and to meet the changing needs of their followers. This is not a concession, but is the process itself, and stems from the investigations and debates of theology, much as technology advances through the progress of theoretical science.

As I was working on this blog I came across a very well written explanation of this process from a 1953 paper by Professor C.D. Broad (who was not a religious man) of Cambridge University. He wrote, "If the primitive witch-smeller is the spiritual progenitor of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the primitive rain-maker is equally the spiritual progenitor of the Cavendish Professor of Physics. There has obviously been a gradual refinement and purification of religious beliefs and concepts in the course of history just as there has been in the beliefs and concepts in science."

2. Moderates give "cover" to extremists by blunting the ability of outsiders to criticize their religion.

The claim here is that moderates create a smokescreen that both obscures and protects extremists. This too is not historically accurate. Religious moderates have actually been the loudest voices condemning extremism within their own religion. This began with the ancient Prophets, who railed against the empty ritualized practices of their day and urged their people instead toward compassion and charity. The critical voices of the Prophets are deliberately included in the Bible to continually remind us of this truth, and to be a moderating force against fundamentalism. For example, the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed, "Hear the word of God. What need do I have of your ritual sacrifices? I have no delight in lambs and goats that you bring before me. ... Cease to do wrong! Devote yourselves to social justice. Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan. Defend the cause of the widow." This is a direct criticism of the extremism of the day, demanding change and moderation.

All the great spiritual leaders, from Buddha to Jesus, Philo, Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Moses Mendelssohn, Karl Barth and Teilhard de Chardin, were moderates and reformers who criticized their own faiths. Instead of deflecting criticism, these moderates in fact welcomed and encouraged others to help their religion grow. Though some were condemned by the religious establishment of the day, their prophetic messages later became incorporated in to their faith.

3. Moderates are uninformed about the teachings and scriptures of their own religion.

People are often moderates because they did read the material, and know that there is a wide range of nuance and subtlety, that the core teachings of their faith are not literal, and that the deepest religious insights are in no way at odds with reason and science, or often with the deepest insights of other faiths. Although I do not have any hard statistics to back up this claim, anecdotal experience has shown me that the most informed members of a religion are not the fundamentalists, who may simply know what their fanatical or charismatic leader has told them -- who may actually discourage his followers from exploring the teachings on their own for fear they will discover that they are being misled. And, as mentioned earlier, the great religious reformers, who were the moderates of their day, were usually the most knowledgeable about their faith. (Yes, I did see the study which showed that atheists know more about religion that most religious folks. Perhaps this a topic for a future blog.)

One of the most eminent modern scholars of Judaism, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, noted, "All extremism, fanaticism and obscurantism come from a lack of security," concluding simply: "A person who is secure cannot be an extremist." Soloveitchik was deeply knowledgeable about his religion, and he was a moderate. He knew that one with a secure base of knowledge would never be an extremist and that extremism stems from incomplete or distorted information.

Like our political system, religion is also elastic and naturally balancing and seeks the middle path. Right in the very middle of the Five Books of Moses can be found this imperative: "Love your neighbor as yourself." It is not a coincidence that it is the middle, because the core teachings of all great religions is the middle path, drawing us to humility and telling us that what matters most is not how well we follow any specific doctrine or scripture but how we treat each other. Religious moderates represent this middle path between literal interpretation of scripture and arrogant or ignorant dismissal, between absolute truth claims and the dead-end of complete subjectivity, between blind adherence to tradition and uncritical adoption of transient fashion, and between the erroneous either/or choice of faith or reason. In this way, moderation is the true religious stance, and extremism, as a rejection of moderation, is a distortion.