Why We Need Moderate Religion


A few days ago, Sam Harris (a neuroscientist and prolific author) posted an article bashing religious moderates.  As a member of what many term “Militant Atheists”, Harris thinks that religion is one of the great evils in the world, and it would fix most of our problems if the world would suddenly drop it.  Now on one hand I do not think that Harris is completely incorrect – there are many problems in our world from social to political that are fueled by religious beliefs – nor do I dispute his genuineness of wanting to make the world a better place.  However, I think that his critique of many moderate religious communities is misguided.

In a short paragraph Harris gives one of his key arguments against the moderate religious community.

Religious moderates invariably claim to be more “sophisticated” than religious fundamentalists (and atheists). But how does one become a sophisticated believer? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights—scientific (“You mean the world isn’t 6000 years old? Okay.”), medical (“I should take my daughter to a neurologist and not to an exorcist? Seems reasonable…”), and moral (“I can’t beat my slaves? I can’t even keep slaves? Hmm…”). There is a pattern here, and it is undeniable. Religious moderation is the direct result of taking scripture less and less seriously. So why not take it less seriously still? Why not admit that the Bible is merely a collection of imperfect books written by highly fallible human beings?

For the whole article click here

Harris’s argument is fairly simple.  If one reads their religious scripture literally, trying to follow every word and command, then it is a clear recipe for disaster.  Scripture, specifically the scriptures of the Abrahamic religions, are based off of an assumption that their way of life is the only correct way to live and everyone else is deserving of punishment.  So people who adhere to more moderate forms of religion, are those who take their scripture with a “grain of salt”, not necessarily believing or agreeing with everything it contains.  In that case, as Harris argues, the moderate religious community is made up of people who take their own religion less seriously, and they might as well admit their lack of religiosity or stop being religious altogether.

I want to say at the outset (as I have many times before) that I think that any sort of fundamentalist religion is negative.  It is unacceptable to claim that your community has a sole monopoly on the truth, and thereby view the rest of the world as wicked.  That said, the one argument against moderate religion that I do grapple with on a daily basis is the argument that members of the moderate religious community empower the fundamentalists.  It is in response to this argument that I, a moderate religious person, make sure to denounce the more extreme or fundamentalist Jewish communities as often as I defend my adherence to a more modern form of Judaism (see here for an example).  But in any case, the purpose of this article is not to point out all of the horrible aspects of fundamentalist religion, but to defend moderate religious communities.

First off, I would like to define moderate religious belief as someone who is willing to admit that his/her religious scripture is not infallible.  At the same time, this person views their scripture with respect and as a source of wisdom and knowledge that is worthy of study.  A moderate religious person will live their life based off the culture  of their religion, but they will also allow their own moral reasoning to affect the extent to which they actually follow the precise laws of their religion.

Now one can argue, as Harris does, that once a person is in this boat they may as well forget their religion altogether.  However, in my opinion, being a part of a moderate religious community is one of the most intellectually, morally, and spiritually stimulating experiences a person can have.

Most people experience some sort of difficult moral reasoning test or question on a relatively frequent basis.  At every turn of life people are confronted with complicated issues and forced to judge how they should respond.  However, the cases that the average person comes across are usually very specific and unique, due to the many details in the case.  In these situations, a person will weigh all of the factors and come up with an answer that they feel is the best for their specific scenario.

In spite of the fact that people are frequently confronted with difficult moral conundrums, very rarely is an average person forced to confront highly theoretical moral reasoning cases, before it hits them on the head.  As a result, the majority of people have not had the proper time or opportunities to consider very basic cases, to aid them in their judgement of more complex moral questions.  One of the things that I appreciate the most about being a part of a moderate religious community, is that from a young age you are forced to grapple with difficult questions.

Any elementary school student in a Jewish school has been taught classical Biblical stories and were subsequently asked to analyze them.  Stories like Abraham and Sedom, the Akeda, Yosef and his brothers, and many, many more, lead to endless debate about what is morally right and wrong in the world.  Being forced to analyze scripture – not as a fundamentalist who blindly believes every word – but as someone who is inspired, motivated, and even at times repulsed by the actions of our forefathers (whether they actually existed or not), allows individuals to grow up entertaining and grappling with difficult questions.

Being a part of a moderate religious community allows you to take thousands of years of debate and discussion into any decision that you make.  While the conclusion of your specific religious tradition may be one that you ultimately disagree with, the thought process and different views brought to the table are invaluable.

Taking this idea one step further, I would argue that Judaism itself is a religion which is partially based upon the idea of challenging scripture.  Whether they were doing this consciously or not, the Rabbis of the Talmud were radically altering the interpretation of scripture to fit their weltanschauung.  While there are many examples of this spread out throughout the Talmud, there is one example which I think epitomizes this idea.

The Torah in the middle of Deuteronomy tells over the case of a rebellious son who refuses to listen to either of his parents.  The story goes as follows:

18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town.20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.  (Deuteronomy 21)

In a very short and simple passage, the Torah commands parents to turn in their mischievous children to the leaders of the town, in order to receive a very harsh punishment.  Many children in the world today have rebelled to the extent that a strict reading of these verses would find them guilty, and yet – as radical as some groups of Jews are – I have never heard of anyone advocating for the murder of rebellious children based off of this verse.  Why is this so?

It turns out that the Rabbis of the Talmud also found these verses extremely morally troubling.  Over the course of a few different pages in the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin, the Rabbis (in classic exegetical form) read details into this case which basically erases this rule from Jewish law.  For instance, when the verse says “they shall say to the elders,” the Rabbis decide that this means that the mother and father must sound identical (interestingly enough, the Rabbis use very similar tactics to completely abolish capital punishment).  At the end of the Talmudic discussion of the laws of the rebellious child, Rabbi Shimon unequivocally states that these laws “never were and never will” (Sanhedrin 71a).  When subsequently prompted about the reason for the inclusion of this law in the Torah, he answers “To learn it and receive reward.” (Sanhedrin 71a)

Now it is possible to view this answer in one of two ways.  The first way would be to mean that this reward is some metaphysical or heavenly reward that one receives when he steeps himself in Torah.  However, I would like to suggest an alternative interpretation of the reward that one receives.  When a person or community is presented with glaring moral problems in their sacred texts they are forced to spend hours upon hours discussing, debating, and arguing about the laws, as well as the underlying philosophy behind them.

At what level should a minor be held accountable for his actions?  Should we punish people based on what they may do in the future?  Do parents have a right to physically harm their children under any circumstance of misbehavior?  The reward that one obtains from devoting hours to studying complex passages such as the rebellious child is a more refined view of difficult moral conundrums that are ubiquitous in our world.

It was clear to the Rabbis that this law should not be instituted under any circumstance, but rather this law (and others) are there to heighten our understanding about what to right and wrong in the world.  Being a part of a moderate religious community allows one to obtain this same reward.  Like the Rabbis of the Talmud, I have no desire to kill rebellious children, destroy cities of idolators, or put people to death for breaking the Sabbath.  However, through years of reading and contemplating morally difficult stories and laws within my own religion, I have been forced to constantly be thinking about and refining my views on a plethora of different questions.

I do not feel, as Sam Harris does, that because I do not view my scripture as the infallible word of god, I should toss it out.  For me, being a part of a moderate religious community does not mean that I take my religion less seriously.  Rather it means that my days are full of endless debate and discussion directly fostered by my religious tradition.  Discussions and debates that would not have existed in my life if I had not been a part of a religious community.

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