Religious moderates

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Mar 15, 2007, 6:47:21 PM3/15/07
to The Authoritarians
Flame thrower Sam Harris has a new op-ed out:,0,671840.story?coll=la-home-commentary

His thesis is that moderate liberals provide cover for the more
radical types, but all suffer from the same unquestioning (deluded)

I raised the issue on a left wing religious blog site from the point
of view that the groups that are now claiming to revert to original
Christian values of aid for the oppressed are still dogmatic and
unwilling to discuss the basis of their belief.

Sure enough my posting was taken down as inappropriate since the
purpose of the site is to discuss the trend of the religious right
wing to try to turn the US into a theocracy. A bit of a conversation
with the proprietor confirmed my suspicion that while it is alright to
condemn the beliefs of the right it is not alright to question those
of his outlook.

So I wonder are "moderate" religious followers any less dogmatic than
their more conservative co-religionists? It's clear that the
evangelical groups are more politically active than the traditional
mainline Protestant groups, but that may just be a historical
accident. These groups were always in charge so they may have missed
the shift in political power that has occurred since Reagan. During
the slave debates the mainline churches were very politically active
with many ministers being openly abolitionist. So while they were
being complacent they lost the pattern of them always winning

Are those with good intentions motivated by religious dogma just as
much a danger to a real democratic debate of ideas as are the groups
that are getting all the attention these days?

Is it possible to be a sincere believer and not be an easily led

Bob Thompson

Mar 16, 2007, 1:31:03 PM3/16/07

Reminds me of a TV preacher I saw a long time ago. He asked a rhetorical question: "Why did Jesus refer to his followers as 'sheep'?" (lofty pause for effect) "Because sheep are the STUPIDEST animals on the planet. They cannot survive without a shepherd." I was amazed at his candor. At the same time, I didn't expect that most of his "sheep" were insulted, being, after all, sheep. I'm not sure how submission to the God of the Bible so often comes packaged with uncritical submission to human leadership, but it sure seems to.

I would consider moderate Christians' general reluctance to confront their nastier authoritarian brethren to be a greater problem, and easier to solve, than confronting the nature of their faith as the core of the problem. In attempting to do so, you're going to be speaking a language they don't understand. One thing I've noticed about the nature of faith in the context of American Christendom is that "logic" isn't spoken there. Or at the very least, Christians aren't going to apply effective critical reasoning to an examination of their faith; it's just not part of the package; in that culture, logic is applied quite selectively, or it's so twisted and fallacious it seems that they're using the Encyclopedia of Logical Fallacies as a handbook. I don't recall ever having conversed with a Christian who could follow a line of reasoning without straying way off into space. It seems their minds have actually been trained that way; but I can make the same observation of most people. So, I'm just thankful that there are Christians who have begun see the essential ugliness of the theocrats. Might be better to capitalize on this schism, rather than to attack their entire worldview. It would seem to require less effort to demonstrate how the more dangerous fundamentalist elements have turned the moral underpinnings of the religion into a grotesque and dangerous caricature of itself.

Theologically, reason has not only never been in style, it's been actively attacked since Luther, if not before. Taking perhaps a couple of verses far beyond their probable intent ("the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God" --taken to mean "thinkin' is bad" --and "God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise" --or, "smart people are bad"), anti-intellectualism has, to various degrees, been enshrined as a foundation of the faith.

We're talking about a tradition in which one of the most revered "thinkers" said this:

"But since the devil's bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she's wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil's greatest whore." -Martin Luther
Scary dude. This was a guy who drank a couple of gallons of beer and wine per day while sitting around talking to demonic voices in his head, and wrote one of the most vile anti-Semitic tomes ever. Yet millions of people still consent to attend churches named after him. So, maybe you can see why they'd be a bit slow to catch on, or be reluctant to engage a challenge to their worldview; once you start unraveling it, where do you stop? The inherent, if usually unspoken, hostility to rationality (and inability to recognize basic logical fallacies) is a very effective part of their inoculation. Even if you could succeed in convincing them that there is no rational basis for their belief, belief would likely persist; as in, Kierkegaard. Which would be a hell of an improvement.

Given the immediate nature of the threat of authoritarian takeover, it strikes me as a bit unproductive to point out to moderate Christians how stupid they are, then ask them to join forces to counter the threat. It's a matter of choosing your battles; if you'd rather fight belief per se, well, lotsa luck.


Mar 16, 2007, 5:01:37 PM3/16/07
to The Authoritarians
I momentarily misread part of your reply and saw "intoxicated" instead
of inoculation.

One thing I've observed on the occasions when I attend a public
concert at a church (which usually has many members in attendance as
well) is their attitude. They are unfailingly pleasant and spend much
time greeting one another and engaging in small talk. They seem truly
content, almost the same look and demeanor as those high on various
mood altering drugs.

William James spent a lot of time exploring this phenomena, including
trying laughing gas himself to see the effect. I think he concluded
that some religious experience is equivalent to intoxication. But he
was talking about a passing experience while what I'm describing seems
to be a state of longer (permanent?) duration.

If it is true that such a state can be induced in people by fervent
belief then why should they risk losing it by questioning their

Bob Thompson

Mar 17, 2007, 12:08:00 AM3/17/07

That's a good misread. Of course Christians are intoxicated; you're part
of an eternal community: absolute, unconditional, eternal security.
However one imagines it. And that seems to be what they fixate on a lot,
rather than how to apply the ethics to their lives, here and now. Which
is a lot more problematic, thus not very marketable.

So, that's what they're peddling: absolute, unconditional, eternal
security. And atheists are advertising what, again? Reason? Reason is
SUCH a buzzkill. At least put a shorter skirt on her.

Though the crux of the problem involves both applied ethics and flawed
reasoning skills intertwined, I'd rather present it as primarily a
problem of ethics, because everyone understands ethics, or at least
wants to be ethical...or at least wants to appear ethical. Or something.
Not everyone understands reason, nor do they like it much when they do.

Dr. Bob

Mar 17, 2007, 6:48:54 PM3/17/07
to The Authoritarians

Maybe I can add some data to this interesting discussion. When I wrote
"Atheists" I broke down the scores of a large sample of Manitoba
parents on a lot of my scales according to their present religious
activity. You'll find the data in Table 9.1, on p. 127 of that book.

The first question would be, what does one mean by a Christian
"moderate"? It sounds, from the discussion, that these are church
going folks who are not high fundamentalists/"Christian

My breakdown in "Atheists" necessarily contrasted 51 atheists with the
51 parents with the highest scores on the Religious Fundamentalism
scale. This latter group would be "VERY High Fundamentalists." Their
median score on my DOGmatism scale was 126, while that of the atheists
was 65.

Having split the very highly fundamentalists off into a pile of their
own, I then computed the scores of the other 155 parents who said they
attended services at least three times per month. Most of them would
be High fundamentalists (i.e. they scored in the upper quartile of the
distribution of Religious Fundamentalism scores in a sample of over
800). (The plain fact is that about the only Christians in my samples
who go to church weekly are fundamentalists.) These regular church
goers had a median of 91 on the DOG scale. If you throw all the top
quartile of fundamentalists into the pot, they averaged 102 on the DOG

Next comes a group of 119 parents who go to church once or twice a
month, whom I call "Moderately Active Believers." They will have few
fundamentalists among their ranks, and may be the closest thing in the
sample to "Moderate Christians." Their median score on the DOG scale
equaled 73.

If you then look at the 199 parents who said they were some sort of
Christian, but who rarely or never went to church ("Inactive
Believers"), their DOG scores averaged 69...just about the same as the

The only group I've left out are the 183 parents who said they were
agnostics who, fittingly, had the lowest DOG scores of all: 58.

I think if you look at these numbers (65-58-69-73-102), you see that
moderate Christians and Inactive Christians are pretty different from
fundamentalists when it comes to dogmatism.

Having said that, it is clear from the analysis that a definite
relationship exists between "being religious" and many other things,
such as right-wing authoritarianism (where the progression is
51-71-81-93-115), religious ethnocentrism (38-47-53-61-80) and
hostility toward homosexuals (23-32-33-40-56). It's just that high
fundamentalists are usually in a league of their own on these
measures, with a noticeable gap between themselves and the rest of the
sample/population. Many religious people are appalled by the

Of course, things might shake down differently in the USA.


Mar 17, 2007, 7:21:56 PM3/17/07
to The Authoritarians
So it seems that religious "moderates" are not a real group, but the
"liberal" Christians certainly seem to see themselves as different
from the fundamentalists. Lately they have been pushing a return to
issues of good works instead of the right's concerns of abortion,
abstinence and gay marriage.

As a confirmation that something strange is going on there is a book
out this week, "Religious Literacy" by Stephen Prothero. Here's a

He conducted some studies which showed that even "religious" people
know little about the fundamental stories of their religion. Jay Leno
did a bit on this last night, probably inspired by the book. A typical
question was "who were Jesus's parents?". One person knew Mary and the
other didn't know either name.

The author has an agenda which is to bring the teaching of religion
into the middle and high schools on the theory that people need to
know about religion in a multicultural world. I think he has a pro-
Christian agenda and is willing to allow comparative religion as the
curriculum to avoid legal issues.

So what is it that these people believe if they know little of the
dogma of their religion? One person didn't know how many commandments
there were! Is "Jesus loves me" the extent of their belief system?

If knowledge is so superficial then, perhaps, education may be a way
to broaden their outlook. How to grab them long enough so that they
learn something is a open issue.

There seems to be a change in what can be discussed. Last week's NY
Times magazine had an article on the relationship between religion and
some sort of evolutionary benefit. The basic idea that most people are
religious and thus there must be a reason was taken as a given. This
just shows the limited amount of knowledge about the world even for
"specialists". In much of western Europe religious belief is under 20%
and, of course, many areas of the world don't have any sort of god-
based religion at all. So much for an inherent trait of humans...

Bob Thompson

Mar 18, 2007, 12:26:44 PM3/18/07

Dr. Bob, I've been looking for your dogmatism scale online, without
success, other than a reference to it in Chapter 4; I'm interested in
having a look at the questions on it. Is it published on the web anywhere?

It appears that we're dealing with a situation where people believe in a
particular established dogma, without actually knowing what it is; other
than the briefest standard confessional thing, that Jesus was the son of
God, who gave himself as a sacrifice for our sins, etc.

Bob Thompson

Mar 18, 2007, 12:29:08 PM3/18/07

Looks to me that much of the ignorance associated with fundamentalism
may be, at some level, willful. I'm no expert on cognitive dissonance,
but trying to figure some of that stuff out will produce something that
might better be called "cognitive cacaphony," particularly if one
doesn't have much in the way of thinking skills, which most
fundamentalists don't. It's simply more comfortable for them to remain
ignorant, exchanging shallow, pious platitudes for mutual reinforcement,
and avoiding difficult questions.

Is it that they use heuristic trickery to sidestep or short-circuit
information that otherwise might be ingested, and start to attack their
attitudes? Trying to figure out how this works at a cognitive level. I
mean, cripes, I've seen people on TV state that Bush is a Christian, and
that's all they need to know about him to trust him. How does a mind get
to the point where it's willing to place absolute trust in someone or
something on such a flimsy basis? PLANTS are smarter than that.


Mar 18, 2007, 7:46:38 PM3/18/07
to The Authoritarians

I'm not so sure I'd be so harsh, but I think there are many people who
feel that they don't have the expertise to make decisions based upon
the facts (and even if they did, they're not in positions of power so
what difference does it make anyway).

So they chose a candidate based upon "trust" or character. Look at a
similar situation when it comes to health care. Do you want to read up
on a recommended course of treatment and then argue with the doctor
about it, or do you want to chose a doctor who you trust and then
follow his suggestions?

Even if you feel you want to be informed about the medical choices how
confident are you that you have the expertise?

I think that most voters ultimately pick a candidate based upon some
sort of emotional response even when they claim to be using other
criteria. Just look at the debates over the Dem candidates right now.
The followers of one versus another magnify what are in fact small
policy differences and quite frequently make remarks about the
character or "trustworthiness" of some one or another.

It is clear that no candidate has actually made real policy proposals
at a legislative level so how do their supporters really know what
they are going to get? They don't they just have a feeling...

I think emotion plays a much bigger role than most people will admit
to themselves, the difference is that some of us will alter our
viewpoint based upon new information while the high RWA types won't.

Bob Thompson

Mar 19, 2007, 10:59:43 AM3/19/07

You're right, that was unfairly harsh. If there's one arena where it's
not a good idea to use superficial criteria for deciding who to trust,
it's politics; politicians' careers depend on appearing trustworthy, so
if they're not, they'll surely cultivate the appearance of such.
Apparently not everyone understands this.

If I need to decide whether to trust a doctor, I start asking questions,
and evaluate the responses. I will trust a doctor who takes the time to
explain things intelligently, can construct good rational arguments, and
seems genuinely interested in doing the job right. Truly competent
people have a kind of spark about them; not some sort of superficial
"flair," but an air of genuine engagement with the world. I think it's a
reflection of how engaged they are with the task at hand, how
responsible they feel for what they do in the world. They're fully
engaged in the task at hand because they are genuinely interested in
doing the best job possible, and treating others as decently as
possible, rather than merely going through the motions to get the money.

Interesting how easy it is to jump to conclusions, to judge others.
Thanks for pointing this out, because I can see how I did just that.
Yes, I'm upset with Bush supporters, because they have aided and abetted
a cabal that's put us in a dangerous situation. But it appears I'm
judging them unfairly, imputing that their seemingly mindless decision
to support this appalling administration is deliberate on some level,
that they can or should know better, but choose not to for self-serving
reasons; it may be more due to an innate tendency to trust someone from
one's own group, because it immediately produces a comforting
resolution. This is something that occurs in the political left, as
well. Is this such an inexorable force that it overrides any other
criteria or evaluation? Do they really have a choice? Or are they
compelled by some overwhelming emotive force? I really don't know.
Sometimes I think I'm smarter than I am.

To me, trust is a multilayered, multifaceted issue. Trust whom, to do
what? I run my own business, and I trust that people will pay me, and
they do. I don't necessarily trust them to call back when they say they
will; I don't trust that everyone with a degree in medicine is
competent, or that everyone really cares enough to do the best job
possible, all the time; because the harsh truth is, a lot of people
don't. And in the arena of politics, where the stakes are so high, and
the possibility of corrupting factors so great, I trust hardly anyone.

So, I feel that this more nuanced view of trust serves me well; but it
is unfair for me to assume that someone who doesn't have this nuanced
view is blindly trusting a bunch of incompetent, corrupt snakes, because
it suits some darker purpose. It might be that they just can't help it.

The more I think about this, the more I realize that I don't know jack
shit. Is there a biological, evolutionary basis for blind loyalty? If
so, why would some people have so much, and others so little? Is this
just nature, playing the field? If there is such a basis for it, it
would seem to produce pretty destructive results in a lot of circumstances.


Mar 27, 2007, 12:49:16 PM3/27/07
to The Authoritarians
On Mar 15, 4:47 pm, "robertdfeinman" <> wrote:

> Flame thrower Sam Harris has a new op-ed out:,0,...

> His thesis is that moderate liberals provide cover for the more
> radical types, but all suffer from the same unquestioning (deluded)
> beliefs.

> ...groups that are now claiming to revert to original

> Christian values of aid for the oppressed are still dogmatic and

> unwilling to discuss the basis of their belief. <snip>

> Is it possible to be a sincere believer and not be an easily led
> follower?

Has it ever occurred to you that GENUINE followers of Jesus are
identified by values and actions, not by "beliefs"?

Many people have this notion that in order to be a Christian, a person
must "believe six impossible things before breakfast". But since when
did people believing something make it true? (Oh, yeah. "If we believe
hard enough we'll win in Iraq.")

One of the more interesting members at my local church is a genial
retired pastor who freely states that he'd never make it through
theology school with his current beliefs.

He has taught adult classes on _Generations_, on John Shelby Spong's
work, and just now has been leading a series on Celtic Christianity.

<aside>I think it's important for us to remember that Bob Altmeyer's
work does NOT focus on different styles and motivations for
leadership. There ARE other types of leaders besides those with SDO.
(Bob--can you start researching this? Humanity needs to learn how to
recognize and encourage leaders who are not SDO.)</aside>

Here are some of the key points that differentiate Celtic theology
from Mediterranean theology:

* At the deepest level, all of us are created in the image of God. Our
deepest core contains wisdom and creativity, not evil.

*Creation is not a one-time event (the world from nothing) but is
instead an ongoing process (the universe continually springing from
the essence of God).

A couple of years back, _Presbyterians Today_ ran an issue about
Celtic spirituality, and my friend borrowed heavily from it in
crafting the recent series. Here are the bullet points and one snippet
of commentary:
* All creation is alive with the presence of God
* The good creation has been corrupted by evil
* Salvation is the restoration of goodness
* All life is intertwined
* God is encountered in the ordinary
* Hospitality is essential
* The Celts were evangelists

...[Celtic] evangelism was affirming and persuasive rather than
threatening and coercive. They did not so much seek to bring Christ to
others as to help others discover the Christ that was already within
and around them and allow him to uncover their true identity as God's
The entire issue is online at <
cover.htm>; I recommend the article.

Another denomination working in this direction is the UCC. <http://> They have been doing wonderful
things with their "God is still speaking" theme.

Recently, a local UCC church (this is Minnesota, not Massachusetts!)
decided that in order to treat all people fairly, they would no longer
perform ANY state-sponsored weddings. The church would perform
blessing ceremonies for holy unions--but legal marriages would need
the signature of a judge on a piece of paper.

What I particularly like about these freshening currents within
Christianity is that they have found a way to retrieve the pearls from
the pig trough.

Scripture is respected and honored--but not followed blindly. Current
theology recognizes that parts of the Bible are historical--but the
history was carried for many years as oral tradition before finally
being written.

Many of the miracle stories are not so much lies, as they are the
predictable result of someone trying to explain something they did not
fully understand. (Consider: How might Shakespeare have described
television to his audience? A Blackberry?)

Still other parts of the Bible were created through a Jewish process
called midrash--which very few people understand today, but which was
quite legitimate at the time the Bible was written. (Look it up.)

Many students of Scripture believe that the book of Ruth was one of
the world's first novels--written to counter the contemporary Jewish
prejudice against Moab. Like much great literature, the fictional
story was simply a well-constructed wrapper for a strong and powerful

Personally, I have great difficulty "believing in" a literal Garden of
Eden--but no difficulty at all understanding the story as metaphor for
the human growth of every individual. It's a wonderful analogy about
the moral growth of children from birth to adulthood. Once you
understand the difference between good and evil, you cannot return to
the innocence of childhood.

I have difficulty with the concept of a literal, bodily resurrection,
too. But I have no difficulty accepting Spong's idea--that somehow
Jesus's life and personality had such an impact on his followers that
they continued to sense his presence after his death.

In a metaphorical sense, this new wave of Christianity is still in the
catacombs. It's "underground", and growing slowly. But it is there,
and it welcomes those who sincerely seek it out.

[Plea to Bob Altemeyer:] Bob, if you can help us work out identifiers
for the kind of leadership this new Christianity needs (and I'd
suggest that a number of secular organizations need as well)--we'd be
much obliged.


Mar 27, 2007, 5:10:44 PM3/27/07
to The Authoritarians
I think you have defined a movement that is getting some attention
these days. Let's call it "Compassionate Christians" for the sake of
argument. Some people get their motivation for good works from the
Bible, some from some sort of ethical framework, some get this
framework from the words of Jesus, but not all.

Those who think that motivations should be "pure" and not tainted by
mythology use the argument that doing the right thing for the wrong
reasons still leaves one open to being misled. I think Sam Harris is
in this camp. If you haven't read his latest book (it's short) you
should try it. I doubt you will agree with him.

For the other point of view you may be interested in the groups that
have coalesced around the blog talk2action at
. They want churches to go back to their roots and stay out of the
culture wars. They also work against the fundamentalists who try to
impose religion on public policy. In other words they support
separation of church and state.

An even more non-religious group is the Freedom from Religion
Foundation at
who also believe in separation of church and state and also work
against the control of religion *by* the state.

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