Religious Extremists Hide Behind Religious Moderates

Reading a piece by Julian Baggini recently reminded me of a point that’s sometimes made by such combative atheists as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens etc.
The point is about the subject of religious extremists.
They argue (or at least one of them does: I can’t remember which) that it isn’t only religious extremists who should be blamed for oppressive and offensive religiously justified acts (such as the execution of apostates) or acts of religiously inspired terrorism. To them other more moderately religious people have to take some of the blame too, due to the fact that the extremists hide behind the structures that are erected by the moderates.
I’m very uneasy about this approach.
The same argument can be put forward to criticise any area of human opinion, and the consequences are worrying.
Most debate would plough to a halt because of the implications.
Take this example for instance. Say that I was to state the simple opinion that men and women are psychologically different (I’m hoping that this isn’t a controversial statement). Fair enough – however, this very inane, moderate opinion can be used as a foundation onto which can be built ludicrous levels of sexism and oppression (Usually male-on-female oppression, but not always).
Or image that I make the not unreasonable assertion that animals (or at least the higher ones) deserve to be treated with a degree of respect and consideration.
This approach opens the door to the idea that to kill a guinea pig is the exact equivalent of killing a human. Indeed I remember seeing an animal welfare organisation’s advert in a national newspaper directly comparing butchers (as in ordinary, high street sellers of lamb chops) with an infamous serial killer who was in the news at the time. I wrote a letter of complaint to the organisation, but strangely they failed to reply.
Practically every single opinion that can be held by a person exists on a scale that stretches from moderate to extreme. To criticise the moderates as well as the extremists is effectively a criticism of anybody who holds opinions at all.
Dislike of moderates is part of the mindset of totalitarian regimes, in which it’s used to justify the suppression of even minor descent, where even a slight deviation from the accepted path results in a spell in prison or worse. Such regimes include many of the theocratic states that Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens et al criticise (quite rightly).
I’m sure that they (Dawkins etc) are at heart liberals, and that I’m wildly overstating my case – but remember, there may be extremists hiding behind their moderate views.

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2 Comments

Filed under Religion/atheism

2 responses to “Religious Extremists Hide Behind Religious Moderates

  1. The problem with this is that it’s a formula for denying almost all truth. In a world run by this type of thinking there would be very little real research, or real education, as most any revelation about the natural world–especially those dealing with humans–can be interpreted as offensive to someone.

    It’s an intellectual brick wall, and I ask you not to pick up any speed before heading in that direction.

    Turn back. Turn toward science, and let humanism sort out the conflict between truth and compassion.

  2. Your post has a slightly tip of an iceberg type feel to it. Feels a bit like an itch that if you scratch much harder it will start to bleed.

    Moderate vs. extreme views need to be distinguished from moderate vs. extreme actions.

    Moderate vs. extreme views (eg. integrationism vs. agnostic vs. atheism) need to be distinguished from moderate vs. extreme actions (eg. writing a blog expounding your views vs. going on hunger strike vs. blowing yourself up in a crowded market square).

    It seems to me that views of any kind from moderate to extreme are not so much of a problem as actions of all sorts. This is why the buddhists recommend we should “do” as little as possible.

    Great cartoons, btw.

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