Religion and Radical Moderation
Humility, Compassion, and Iterative Discernment
A reader asked me to throw down some thoughts on religious belief and radical moderation, which I’m happy to do. I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time and I don’t think I’ve done a post on it yet, though these ideas are (obviously) still in development.
The Radically Moderate Problem of Religion
The problem is a pretty simple one: sincere religious belief has, rightfully, been associated with some pretty radical immoderation over the years and it’s tempting to think that the world would be a more moderate place without religious belief mucking things up.
The difficulty with that view is that it ignores the reality of religious belief for millions (maybe billions) of religious believers. For many people, religious belief provides structure and in fact helps moderate the worst of their human excesses, pulling them closer to the middle, whatever that happens to be.
This is particularly true of various people’s narratives about escaping from addiction or coping with trauma. Probable causal mechanisms (apart from, you know, God) include a deeper sense of community (with the accountability and support that goes along with that), the role spiritual practices like prayer play in creating helpful structure and rhythm, as well as the role prayer and meditation play in introspection and ongoing adjustment.
As with all things, the kind of religious belief matters. A cult headed by a narcissistic psychopath is unlikely to do any good at all and much harm, but that’s sort of beyond the scope of what I’m thinking about today. My gut thinking here is that there are a lot of things bundled up with most mainstream religious beliefs that assist moderation, or at least have capacity to do so. Humility, compassion, and community all serve radical moderation in interesting ways, though, given the variables at play in human social life, they’re no guarantee or panacea.
Radically Moderate Beliefs and Practices
As a Catholic convert, I’m well-positioned to see the moderate middle on this issue. After many years as an atheist/seeker (raised Zen Buddhist-adjacent), I converted to Catholicism in 2019.
My conversion doesn’t mean I agree with the Pope on everything (in fact, nothing in the Catholic faith requires that, contrary to popular belief) and it doesn’t mean I don’t have questions or concerns about how things in the Church are going.
But my conversion forced me to do something pretty radically moderate, which is to embrace with a radical humility the fact that I don’t always understand God’s plan. And I mean this pretty seriously: I didn’t even want to convert in the first place! But the spiritual call was so powerful that I finally gave up wondering what God was doing and just followed along. When atheists snicker at phrases like “Jesus, take the wheel!” they’re actually snickering at the fundamental human reality that we can’t control everything in life and that we’re better off recognizing that reality sooner rather than later. Religion is one way we formalize that humility, though it’s not the only way.
Being a convert has also been a moderating experience because a lot of what I found baffling (and often saccharine and infuriating) about religious believers in general and Christians in particular before my conversion made much more sense or even became obvious after my conversion.
In that sense, I became more aware of and appreciative of human spiritual diversity in all its wild and whacky forms. Atheists roll their eyes when people talk about communicating with God, but once it actually happens to you it’s not only life-altering but sensory-altering.
My previous atheist self was a little like the non-bat in Nagle’s famous essay. We can’t really know how it feels to echolocate if we’re not a bat and we can’t really know what it’s like to have God respond to us if it’s never happened before. This is true especially because communication with God is a very weird and very specific kind of consciousness that takes a mental shift (or, could we say, a conversion?) to really experience.
There are lots of other dramatic shifts too that come with conversion (thus the word itself, which comes from a Latin word meaning to turn around or change), but perhaps the most relevant for radical moderation is that religious belief often asks us to sit in a lot of discomfort and recognize that we’re wrong in a lot of predictable ways a lot of the time. This in itself is a bit unexpected because religion is so often associated with dogmatism (which it of course can also support).
Finally, and as a practical example of the last point, a lot of religious practices encourage radical moderation because they encourage introspection and internal moderation as a matter of course. The Catholic practice of confession or reconciliation, often criticized as archaic and absurd, is actually one of the most radically moderate practices in the entire Church. Confession is such a basically human practice that it baffles me how little non-Catholics understand it and how little I got it until I became Catholic.
The basic premises of confession/reconciliation are the following:
When you harm an important relationship through your actions, you should try to repair the harm done.
This requires first, recognizing that you’ve done harm in the first place (which explains the Catholic’s seemingly bizarre obsession with sin);
Second, that you go to the person you’ve harmed and openly and freely admit that you screwed up and harmed them and, by extension, the bond of trust in the relationship;
And third, that you do so in a way that makes it hard to wiggle out of, because humans need a lot of accountability (or at least this particular human does) to get better at being human.
That’s all confession is: a place of accountability where you go to God and say “I’m sorry I harmed my bond with you; help me make it right.” The priest here operates as a dual accountability mechanism and as a vector for God, increasing both the weight and meaning of the act. He’s not strictly necessary, but as I said above, the extra accountability helps.
This process is such a profound part of human (and other mammalian) social life that it’s weird we don’t recognize it as such. Confession or reconciliation is perhaps the most profound human need we have as social individuals (more on that in a later post) precisely because relationships are hard and conflict is normal. Reconciling ourselves with people we need and love requires that we moderate our internal excesses over time to pull ourselves into line with what’s acceptable to others. (As an Adam Smith scholar, this is basically the entire point of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, though his discussion is broader than reconciliation alone. But I digress…).
Ultimately, confession is a natural human desire and we do it in hundreds of different ways without realizing it every day. There are lots of other religious practices that do similar things, but confession is a nice obvious but misunderstood example.
The Radically Moderate Power of Witness
None of the above discussion ignores the fact that religious believers can and often do behave in immoderate ways. They are still human, after all. I also don’t think it’s that helpful to debate questions like whether being religious makes you more or less charitable or criminal or anything else, since what anyone does obviously depends on the kind of person they are at baseline, their childhood experiences with other human beings (childhood trauma makes for very tricky transitions to adulthood no matter what one believes about God), mental health and wellbeing, socio-economic status and precarity, and so on.
But what I do know from my own religious experience is that radical moderation and religious belief are definitely not at odds with one another and in fact can support each other in powerful ways.
One of the most important lessons radical moderation can teach religious believers in general is that the most powerful kind of religious activity is, ironically, not a dogmatic insistence on the truth of your own beliefs (which tends to not convince anyone), but instead serving as a radically moderate witness to your internal faith through act and deed in the world.
This sounds complicated, but is actually pretty simple. The most persuasive religious believers know intuitively that talk is cheap and they direct their energies to where it counts: being good human beings to those around them and working hard to maintain a strong relationship with God. That’s it!
Incidentally, my conversion was mostly achieved by God throwing tons of amazing believers into my path, all of whom, in quiet and profound ways, moved me toward conversion just by being in the world and orienting themselves and their lives toward God. But what they didn’t do was just as powerful as what they did. What they did not do: talk to me endlessly about Jesus. Shame me. Engage in political debates on hot-button issues for the sake of pissing me off. Troll me. Hypocritically engage in the same behavior that they publicly shame other people for. Shout at me. And so on.
The Problem is Extremist Behavior, Not Religious Belief Per Se
You become a religious extremist not by holding extremist views. Belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent creator God is, after all, a fairly extreme view that does not admit of much moderating. God is either omnipotent or He is not.
But you don’t become an extremist by believing in an extreme God (and I’m not sure the term “extreme” fits well when it comes to God anyway). You become a religious extremist by your behavior: trolling people on the internet; blowing up people who don’t agree with you; pushing people’s buttons in the name of power rather than in the name of truth; violating your most foundational religious commitment (in the Christian case) to love and instead becoming a hectoring bully who tries to use political power to coerce other people to live as you do. That is religious extremism, and the radical moderate wants none of that.
Religious moderation does not require moderating our beliefs or compromising with untruth. It does, however, mean moderating our behavior so that our deeply held convictions can be made compatible with the lives and beliefs of other people, who presumably also have deeply held convictions of their own, however true or false I believe those convictions to be.
Of course, a lot of whether your religion is compatible with radical moderation depends on the content of your religious beliefs. If you believe that God is the most extreme form of perfect Goodness, that leads you in a different direction than if you think God is an angry vengeful God who hates unbelievers. I don’t know what to do with that latter view of God other than to say that isn’t the God who called me to conversion and isn’t the God that I think lines up with the beauty and goodness I find in this weirdly awkward and imperfect human world.
Radically Moderate Religious Belief in Practice
This post got super long, but as always with these posts, I like to end with some practical advice. I’m still thinking this through, so expect more clarity over time, but here are some starting points…
Radically Moderate Principles for Religious Believers
Don’t proselytize to unbelievers. I realize this is a weird one, given the history of Christianity, but it should also be clear that we’ve learned a lot from 2000 years of belief about what works and what doesn’t. Forcing people to convert at the point of a gun: bad. Setting them on fire: bad. Yelling or shaming them: bad. Trolling people on social media in the name of Jesus: dumb and bad. In my own imperfect life, I try to serve as a witness, however I can, to the peace and joy that belief in God has brought to my formerly cranky atheist life (confession: I am still quite cranky). But I know, given my family and friends, that if I start carrying around a Bible and cornering them about how much Jesus loves them, I’m going to lose any trust they have in me as a person, however true Jesus’ love for them might be.
Avoid dogmatic extremes, part I. This one is also sort of funny, given the kind of religious believers who become famous, but that seems to me part of the point. The kind of religious believers who become famous are often the kind of people who are attracted to fame and attention in the first place and they’re probably not doing religion well, in that sense at least. People frequently become famous for making outlandish and extreme claims about religious things, so it’s best to be skeptical of famous religious believers at baseline.
Avoid dogmatic extremes, part II. It’s not just in public life that this matters. Religious belief requires that we take religious dictates and apply them to our own messy lives through an iterative feedback process. While I referenced “Jesus take the wheel!” above, if you literally have Jesus take the wheel on your daily commute you’re likely to end up in trouble. After all, God helps those who help themselves, so the radically moderate middle is instead a process of discernment: asking God for help, incorporating that feedback to help yourself, and trying, in each moment, to make the best decision you have with the limited information at your disposal. We’ll still get it wrong a lot of the time, but that’s what reconciliation is for!
Don’t cherry pick. The main religious traditions actually agree on a lot, but a motivated reasoner can find all sorts of narrow textual support for all sorts of pernicious activities. Be careful about what kind of conclusions you’re drawing about contentious modern social issues from a single sentence in a document written thousands of years ago. The Bible doesn’t say anything about outsourcing. But it does say a lot about compassion, charity, and care for the poor. Choose broad principles over minutiae and you’ll be much more likely to get it right.
Similarly, some advice for atheists along these same lines…
Radically Moderate Principles for Atheists:
Don’t assume religious believers are idiots or hypocrites. Some likely are, but most aren’t. As any first year logic student should know, if God hasn’t spoken to you yet that’s not proof positive that He doesn’t exist. Don’t be a dogmatic atheist not only because dogmatic people are bores but also because they’re usually wrong.
Don’t lump all religious believers together. Immoderate behavior is a function of humanity generally, not a function of religious belief per se. Religion makes some people more extreme while others less so, just like most things in life. But if atheists can focus on the parts of religious belief that do support radical moderation they’ll be better equipped to build bridges to solve pressing human problems.
Don’t proselytize to religious believers. I know, I know, we shouldn’t do it to you either. But the best way to be an atheist is also the best way to be a religious believer: be a quiet witness that your spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof) are compatible with being a good human and it’ll make it easier for all of us to live together peacefully.
Summary for everyone: don’t be a jerk!
There’s a lot more to say here, and some ideas that need developing, particularly in the relativism/dogmatism space, what to do when religion seems to demand immoderate action, and maybe even a later post on the radical moderation of Catholic social justice teachings, but this post is already too long. For now, remember that we encourage active participation here at the Radical Moderate’s Guide to Life!
Subscribe, share, comment, and let me know what I should be working on next!