Sam Harris writes about “The Problem with Religious Moderates.”
He sets things up as follows:
People of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused. However, religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance-born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God-is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.
Note that while Harris admits of a continuum, he focuses solely on the two extreme ends of the continuum. At one end, we have the “religious extremist” – someone who is willing to destroy the planet if it helps imposes his/her religious belief. At the other end, we have the “religious moderate” – someone who adheres to the dogma of tolerance and diversity to the point where they think we all need to respect unjustified belief, including, I suppose, the apocalyptic views of the extremist who would “burn earth to cinders.”
What becomes immediately obvious is that this population of religious extremists + religious moderates represents a tiny percent of “people of faith.” That is, Sam Harris’s descriptions fail to accurately capture of the beliefs and positions of the majority of religious people. No one here, for example, would qualify as an example of Harris’s two categories.
If Harris’s argument is intended as some type of critique of religious people or religion, it is a textbook example of a straw man argument – a logical fallacy. The rational thing to do is thus dismiss Harris’s argument. Try again.
Harris’s argument actually has a second fatal flaw – he misuses the word “moderate.”
According to Wiki:
In politics and religion, a moderate is an individual who is not extreme, partisan, nor radical.
That’s how most of us would define moderate, which is why his whole argument comes across as confused. What Harris describes as a “religious moderate” is actually an extremist – someone who’s commitment to diversity and tolerance is so extreme that they oppose criticism of any unjustified beliefs, including the belief that we should burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy.
In other words, Harris’s “The Problem with Religious Moderates” fails to even discuss religious moderates. Couple that with the straw man nature of the whole argument and you have an embarrassingly bad argument.
But it gets worse. Harris also writes:
Many religious moderates have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths, but in doing so they neglect to notice the irredeemably sectarian truth claims of each.
Just as an extreme devotion to tolerance and diversity at all costs is not a defining feature of religious moderates, neither is the belief that all faiths are equally valid. This belief sounds more like something from an extreme religious liberal. Or perhaps an omnist. It is simply misleading to represent a “religious moderate” as such.
Finally we get this:
The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.
The desire to censor sounds more at home on university campuses saturated and marinated in political correctness.
Okay, I think we are now in a position to reemphasize the two fatal flaws in Harris’s position.
- Whoever, these “religious moderates” are, they represent a teeny tiny percent of religious people. For these are a fringe element that a) believes all religions are equally valid; b) commit so strongly to tolerance and diversity that they c) attempt to censor any criticism of religion, no matter how extreme the position. Who are these people?
- The features of these “religious moderates” are much better represented by extreme leftists. That’s why he ends his essay with “But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness.” Political correctness, expressed as the extreme devotion to diversity/tolerance/relativism, coupled with censorship, is something that defines the Extreme Left.
Harris is able to smuggle these fallacies into his argument because he also fails to cite any examples of these religious moderates. No names. No quotes. No sources. Nothing more than vague generalities and clever little phrasing. Why is that? Without names, quotes, and sources, it’s a little harder to determine that he is mislabeling leftist extremists as “religious moderates.” It’s harder to determine that he is talking about tiny, fringe populations.
In the end, we are left wondering how anyone can write and promote such a bad argument? If we replace “religious extremist” with “radical Islamic fundamentalist” and “religious moderate” with “the Extreme Left” (or Regressive Left), his thinking seems less confused. Harris criticizes Radical Islam, as he sees it as something that will “burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy,” but when he does, the Far Left tries to shut him down (“it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism”) with accusations of Islamophobia (political correctness).
But where Harris errs, and errs gloriously, is when he tries to extrapolate his dilemma as some type of generalized, universal problem caused by “people of faith.” To get there, his extrapolation must be purchased with straw man fallacies, an abuse of the English language, and a total avoidance of supporting empirical evidence. Essentially, Harris took an argument in his head (born of his personal experiences) and tried to impose it on reality with nothing more than the sheer force of his rhetoric.
It’s not surprising that Harris’s fans would lap this up, as they willingly embrace any argument as long as it serves to bash religion. But those of us who value reason and critical thinking can only shake our heads that a guy actually wrote and promoted an argument against religious moderates without ever addressing the religious moderate views that exist in reality. The guy didn’t just miss the bullseye. His arrow landed three miles from the target.
And his fans cheered.