Are moderates the real obstacles to social justice and religious freedom?

By | June 2, 2010

“A man on a mission has no time for moderation or for moderates.”

Regardless of the cause (political, religious, anti-religious, racial justice), people dedicated to the fight and willing to put themselves on the line tend to be critical of the moderates, who often advise patience, compromise, and negotiation. I was reminded of this when my study group chose to read and discuss Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” (This was an open letter written on April 16, 1963.) In that letter, while defending the acts of civil disobedience by himself and his organization, King expresses some surprisingly harsh criticism of religious and political moderates. His criticism of moderates reminded me of a similar type of strong criticism of the moderates by the so-called neo-atheistic writers, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. In their recent best-sellers, Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett call on atheists and non-religious folk to show courage in asserting their atheism in the face of the strong theistic, religious culture in the US.

Why do these activists and “crusaders” direct so much criticism against the person of moderation, since many of us hold that moderation is a virtue. Recall Aristotle’s ethics and the ethics of the Stoics which advocate a life of balance and moderation in all things. Isn’t moderation usually a good thing?

Of course it stands to reason that activists, missionaries, and crusaders-for-a-cause tend to dismiss the moderate as little more than an obstacle in their struggle. However, most people will admit that in some situations moderation is a good thing, as when passion and greed dispose people to do stupid and destructive things. However, when the context is one of fighting for social justice or religious freedom for secular-minded people, calls for moderation are heard as obstacles rather than assets to the cause. At least, this is what Martin Luther King held with regard to the struggle for civil rights and what the neo-atheistic activists seem to believe in their effort to bring about equal rights of secular-minded people.

Let’s consider some specific points of this rejection of moderation. First, consider some of what Martin Luther King wrote:

….over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice

King’s problem with the moderates is that they counsel patience and advise the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season,” when in fact the time of waiting has ended and action is demanded. As he saw things, the moderate may say that he agrees with the goal of racial justice, but he “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” In other words, moderates are quite willing to counsel patience when it is another people’s freedom that is at stake. King expresses his growing frustration with the moderates:

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

He was so frustrated and bewildered by the moderates’ failure to understand the gravity of the situation for the Negro that he was tempted to express preference for the outright rejection and opposition from the segregationists. Furthermore, King implied that white moderates do not understand that

“law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

In other words, the white moderates did not understand that the movement for social justice requires that those tensions that lie hidden in respectable society be exposed, and that this cannot be done without the pressure and tension created by active defiance of unjust laws.

King implied that the moderate preferred that everything be done quietly and peacefully; but years of trying to do things quietly and peacefully had produced nothing but a continuation of segregation and racial injustice. Because the moderate did not understand this or lacked the courage to acknowledge this, he was as great an obstacle to the fight for justice and civil rights as the racists and segregationists. We can almost imagine Dr. King asserting that moderates lacked the understanding and courage required for reliable allies in the fight for justice. Either they should recognize the urgency of the situation and join in the fight, or get out of the way; because, as moderates they were not helping at all.

Now let us look at what neo-atheistic authors have to say about moderates. Generally, the argument is that that people of moderate religious faith, by their acceptance of a scripture containing barbaric ‘morality’ (which endorses all kinds of violence and injustice), enable the fanatics of that faith to carry out their violence and extremism. To my knowledge it was Sam Harris, writing in his book, The End of Faith (W W Norton & Co. – New York, NY, 2004, “Religion, Terror, and The Future of Reason” who initiated the current discussion of the ‘responsibility’ that moderates bear for the actions of the extremists. On page 45 of that book Harris writes as follows:

“We will see that the greatest problem confronting civilization is not merely religious extremism; rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflicts in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.”

(Ibid., page 45)

It is Harris’s style in this book to exaggerate things. Moderates may share responsibility for the actions of their more extreme brethren, but it surely overstates things to refer to this as the / greatest problem confronting civilization.” It doesn’t take much imagination to find much greater problems that confront civilization. But first let’s look at what the others have to say.

The evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion, includes a section with the heading: “How moderation in faith fosters extremism.” (Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, 2006, page 301) In this section, Dawkins does not offer any argument for the claim that moderation fosters extremism. He seems to assume that any kind of religious faith, because it does not require rational justification, encourages fanaticism. As he states it,

“.. even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.”

(Ibid. page 302)

The third neo-atheistic writer, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, tends to be more careful in his remarks; but even Dennett, in his book, Breaking the Spell, states the case against religious moderates:

“Every religion … has a healthy population of ecumenical-minded people who are eager to reach out to people of other faiths, or no faith at all, and consider the moral quandaries of the world on a rational basis. . . . …but these well-intentioned and energetic people are singularly ineffective in dealing with the more radical members of their own faiths. In many instances, they are, rightly, terrified of them. Moderate Muslims have so far been utterly unable to turn the tide of Islamic opinion against Wahhabists and other extremists, but moderate Christians and Jews and Hindus have been equally feckless in countering the outrageous demands and acts of their own radical elements.”

(Breaking the Spell, Viking Penguin, 2006, New York, NY, page 297-298)

Dennett tells us that moderates are not only ineffective in shutting down the extremist elements in their religion, but that “the moderates in all religions are being used by the fanatics and should not only resent this; they should take whatever steps they can find to curtail it in their own tradition.” (Ibid. page 300)

So we see, Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett claim that moderate people of faith (Christians, Jews, and especially Muslims) do not do enough (even do not do anything) to shut down the fanatics in their ranks. Those fanatics are pretty much unopposed when they resort to violence in the name of religion. Our neo-atheists even claim that because moderates fail to condemn and rein in the extremists, they (the moderates) are complicit in the violence carried out by the fanatics.

In my view, this is too harsh a criticism of the moderates of the Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Many of them in their own way criticize and work against excesses of the extremists among them. Among these we could include such people as Barry Lynn (Americans United for Separation of Church and State), Cesar Chavez, Bill Moyers, President Jimmy Carter, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Buber, some of the Hebrew Prophets, and Jewish Talmudic scholars. We can even include Martin Luther King in this grouping. These people have actively opposed the advocates of scriptural literalism that justifies violence against those of other faiths or no religious faith at all; these people have actively fought for social justice and against all forms of chauvinism, including religious chauvinism. They are representative of many religious moderates and do not at all resemble the “allies of fanatics” that Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett describe.

But my main point was to compare the frustration with moderates expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King and by the neo-atheists. King held that religious moderates, presumably white moderates but probably black moderates as well, were obstacles to the mission of the civil rights movement. He went as far as to express a preference for the outright opposition of the segregationist to the lukewarm, ineffective ‘support’ of the moderates. Likewise, the frustration of the neo-atheists with religious moderates often was expressed in exaggerated terms: religious moderates do not just tolerate the violent religious extremists but often are so ineffective and cowardly that they’re seen as giving moral support to extremist acts.

Since I see King’s mission as a clear case of a fight for social and racial justice, I’m more inclined to sympathize with his criticism of the moderates. Clearly black people had waited long enough for racial justice and were more than justified in acting, even if that action was disobedience of law and resulted in violence.

The case of the atheists, while being a fight for religious freedom, is not so clearly a mission for social justice. Atheists surely do not enjoy political equality with believers in our society; the media and the general public hold false and very distorted notions about atheists. In the past this has resulted in a lay-low attitude by many atheists; they don’t go around touting their atheism. Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris are correct in calling for a better deal for atheists; but the plight of atheists does not at all compare with the plight of black people leading up to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Atheists do not suffer anything close to the social and political injustice imposed on black people.

On the issue of the role of moderates, we can easily understand Dr King’s frustration with moderates who urged that blacks show more patience and wait for society to change and accept them as full-fledged citizens. They had waited long enough and segregated society in the South showed few signs of any progress toward racial equality. But the claim that religious moderates are similar obstacles to the rights of atheists is not at all a clear one and convincing one. As anyone who has followed the debate in the secular community can attest, many atheists, agnostics, humanists, and assorted non-believers do not agree with the claims of Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett on this specific issue. For many of us, religious moderates are effective allies in the fight for religious freedom, not ‘obstacles’ in any sense of the term.

2 thoughts on “Are moderates the real obstacles to social justice and religious freedom?

  1. Guest

    I enjoyed your argument that MLK had a justified complaint with moderates, but atheists do not have similar qualms. However, I would like to go through some counter-examples that may undermine your argument.
    Firstly, although there has been a first black President, does there seem to be any hope for an openly atheistic President of the United States in the near future? Judging by the public questioning of the current president's religious status, even though the evidence seems convincing he is a Christian, shows even Christian Presidents must over-emphasise their religious bona fides. Secondly, what about senators or congress people, are there any currently serving atheists in either chamber today? Thirdly, what about less exalted positions in American society, such as such as bank managers or school principals, is it acceptable to be an atheist as well? Even to get married, how easy is it really for the non-religious to marry into the majority religious America? The moderates may argue, "… just give it time." Finally, in the army, I would suggest having an atheistic view would not bring peace and harmony to a soldier's life. It is a pity you did not consider that other more famous quote from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”
    Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

    1. philosophylnge

      Guest, you're right. I did not say everything that could be said on the issue of moderates vis-a-vis such people as atheists and secularists working for an even break in our society. I aware (being a secularist myself) that atheists, humanists, and non-believers in the prevailing theism have plenty of grievances against the greater society. But I'm still not sure that the blame falls largely on so-called religious moderates and liberals, as the 'new atheists' (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins) sometimes assume. Yet, I'm willing to concede that when religious moderates and religious liberals ignore the extent to which there is political, military and social bias against secularists and atheists, they (moderates) are impediments to progress.


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