“Moderate” Christianity

Sam Harris (I’ve referred to him before: he has been debating Andrew Sullivan on the question of whether God exists) places theists on a spectrum of belief. “Picture concentric circles of diminishing reasonableness”, he says:

  • “At the center, one finds the truest of true believers — the Muslim jihadis, for instance, who not only support suicidal terrorism but who are the first to turn themselves into bombs; or the Dominionist Christians, who openly call for homosexuals and blasphemers to be put to death.”
    (NB. I think this interpretation of Dominionism is a straw man; I’d like to see Harris substantiate it.)
  • Next, the ordinary fundamentalists who share the views of the maniacs but lack their zeal.
  • Further out, the pious multitudes who disagree with their deranged brethren on “small points of doctrine — of course the world is going to end in glory and Jesus will appear in the sky like a superhero, but we can’t be sure it will happen in our lifetime.”
  • Still further out, religious moderates and liberals: “people who remain supportive of the basic scheme that has balkanized our world into Christians, Muslims and Jews, but who are less willing to profess certainty about any article of faith. Is Jesus really the son of God? Will we all meet our grannies again in heaven? Moderates and liberals are none too sure.”

Harris comments, “The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism.” In other words, “moderate” Christians are enablers of fundamentalism.

Christian moderates (characterized by their “lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus”) protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals ("who aren’t sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally") deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality.

And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society.

(Hat tip, Simen)

I could probably publish a series of posts in response to Harris’s argument, and perhaps I will. But for now, let me comment on a preliminary issue: the use of the adjectives “moderate” and “liberal”. Like most labels, these adjectives are problematic.

The word liberal has at least two discrete meanings.When we use it to describe theology, a “liberal” Christian is someone who denies certain orthodox dogmas (though liberal doctrine is hardly uniform). Liberals typically deny the virgin birth, the ascension, and the expectation that Jesus will someday return to earth to destroy it. They are split on whether Jesus was resurrected bodily (most believe in at least a spiritual “resurrection”), and similarly split on the question of Jesus’ deity. Liberals accept that one can be in good standing with God without having to convert to Christianity.

Liberal has a different definition when we apply it to social and political issues. Here it may include a pro-choice stance on abortion, support for gay marriage, and support for the Palestinian cause coupled with a critical posture toward Israel. If we bear in mind that these are two separate spheres, is becomes possible to be theologically liberal but socially conservative, or vice versa.

Personally, I am consistently liberal in my theology but it’s hard to pigeonhole me on social issues. On the conservative side, I am grieved by the number of abortions carried out in the West (though I seriously doubt that criminalization is the solution), and my sympathies lie with Israel in their dispute with Palestine and the Arab world. On the liberal side, I strongly support complete equality for women — I would not hesitate to vote for a female Pope, if I were Catholic and if the papacy were an elected office — and I also support same sex marriage.

Thus the phrase liberal Christian may or may not apply to me. I tend to describe myself as a “liberal Protestant” because of my theological commitments (or lack thereof!). But I’m aware that the term may mislead people in a society like the USA, where social issues are so hotly contested. Here in Canada, social conservatives are a rather small, marginalized minority. There are no laws restricting abortion; same sex marriage is legal; and there is no political will to revisit either debate.1

I object to the phrase moderate Christian on other grounds. Whether a particular theological position is moderate surely depends on one’s vantage point. If I deny that the virgin birth was a historical event (as I do), evangelicals might characterize my position as radical.

Moreover, I object to the label because moderate would seem to imply only a half-hearted commitment to the Christian faith. Harris derides moderation:

In attempting to find a middle ground between religious dogmatism and intellectual honesty, it seems to me that religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.

Thus Harris implies that fundamentalists are the true believers. He’s entitled to his opinion, but of course I strenuously disagree. My convictions are not moderate: I hold to them strongly, in the face of criticism from atheists and conservative Christians alike.

I am a moderate only insofar as I accept that the state must be secular in its orientation. Even then, I deny that secular equals neutral: but I don’t see any practical alternative to the separation of church and state.

The best label for my position unfortunately fails to communicate much to non-theologians. An earlier generation spoke of “critical” scholarship. Critical is the most accurate description of my position: on both theological and social issues, I maintain a stance of critical detachment. And I do so with respect to both the Christian tradition and modern, Western secularism.

Hence the name of my blog — Outside the Box: defying categorization for over forty years. In my opinion, this is a radical — immoderate — position.


1Canada is less liberal than some European countries on other social issues. With respect to drugs, we have yet to decriminalize marijuana, although enforcement is limited. I’ve seen people smoke it on city streets, evidently with little fear of arrest. There’s certainly no opposition to the medical use of marijuana. Even with respect to hard drugs, there are publicly-operated safe injection sites in BC.

Assisted suicide is still illegal here. There has been some debate over the issue, but a few people have been imprisoned (the Robert Latimer case is noteworthy) with no sustained public objection.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. pastorofdisaster
    Mar 25, 2007 @ 21:46:25

    These types are becoming less relevant. Although among my fellow ministers it is fairly obvious that I am liberal, when I am on my daughter’s school playground talking to other parents these definitions have little relevence. The other day a woman that goes to an Evangelical church asked me if I could define her own church. Good post! It really conjured up some great thoughts.


  2. 49erDweet
    Mar 26, 2007 @ 20:49:57

    Yes, stephen, “moderate” – whatever that is – is absolutely in the eye of the beholder. Currently, all this seems clear as can be to Sam Harris – but then give him another 20 years or so. He will be so much smarter then that he won’t even recognize – let alone acknowledge – his ‘inspired’ words from 2007.

    It is ever thus. Man supposes and God disposes. But many men are never able to acknowledge the higher power that provides them the intellect to consider these questions – and the freedom to make choices. Plus they deny the possibility such choices could lead to unexpected results. It’s a little like yelling at a lightning bolt. The effort and noise created by the ‘yeller’ serves to release a modicum of pent-up tension, but does little to alter the ultimate path of the electrical charge.

    Sam Harris is just yelling at (and attempting to classify) lightning bolts, in my view. Pay him no serious mind.



  3. JewishAtheist
    Mar 27, 2007 @ 11:32:07

    Thus Harris implies that fundamentalists are the true believers. He’s entitled to his opinion, but of course I strenuously disagree. My convictions are not moderate: I hold to them strongly, in the face of criticism from atheists and conservative Christians alike.

    Are you sure? You may hold to your views in the face of criticism, but “fundamentalists” (in the sense of this post) hold to their views in the face of facts. Surely believing in a literal Genesis despite the fossil record is different than believing what you do. And surely by being included under the umbrella of Christianity lends support, if inadvertently, to the “fundamentalists.” Likewise, being a Christian lends support even to Muslims, from the perspective of atheism, agnosticism, polytheism, or deism.


  4. Stephen
    Mar 27, 2007 @ 12:32:54

    • PofD:
    Thanks for the comment.

    When I am on my daughter’s school playground talking to other parents these definitions have little relevence.

    It’s all about the social context, isn’t it? A liberal believer among people who think the Bible is inerrant may appear to be an unbeliever. The same person among a group of atheists is going to appear to be the odd religious duck. Like you, I live in that tension.

    • 49er:
    Pay [Harris] no serious mind.

    He doesn’t trouble me in the slightest, if that’s what you mean. I think most people can distinguish between believers who would force their religion on everyone, and believers who have strong convictions but allow others to exercise their freedom of conscience. Harris is fighting an uphill battle, arguing that the distinction between the moderates and radicals is an illusion.

    • JA:
    You may hold to your views in the face of criticism, but “fundamentalists” (in the sense of this post) hold to their views in the face of facts.

    That’s the definition of an ideologue, and has little to do with faith. Psychologically, I think many ordinary folks who subscribe to fundamentalism are deeply insecure. That is, their faith is weak: they are afraid it will be exposed as a fraud, so they surround themselves by like-minded people who keep telling them that their worldview is intact.

    Of course, there are exceptions. Anyone who straps a bomb to his body and blows himself up, expecting a reward from God — I’ll grant you, that person truly believes the message. But here I am making a distinction between one sort of fundamentalist and another. Apparently you agree with Harris that all such distinctions are artificial and invalid.

    Surely by being included under the umbrella of Christianity lends support, if inadvertently, to the “fundamentalists”.

    Americans have a regrettable tendency to polarization. I think the world is more complex than the either/or, black/white, good/evil binary compartments that people like President Bush subscribe to. And I would be surprised to hear it if you see the world that way, too.

    I remember offering comments on your blog in which I stood shoulder to shoulder with you against fundamentalism. Little did I know that I was inadvertently supporting fundamentalism all the while. Maybe I’ve been protecting terrorists inadvertently too. I hope the authorities don’t catch on, or I’ll be in deep do-do.

    The distinction between radical and moderate is real and significant; so is the distinction between believers and unbelievers. It’s all about context. To deny that moderates are distinguishable from radicals, as Harris does, is to fly in the face of the facts. Not unlike an evangelical denying that the earth is ancient.


  5. Arindam
    Mar 28, 2007 @ 11:04:30

    You say: “I maintain a stance of critical detachment. And I do so with respect to both the Christian tradition and modern, Western secularism.”.

    Do you also accord similar respect to Islam, Hinduism and other current religions?

    How about towards the mostly defunct religions like the Greek pantheon and nature worship?

    Finally, do you accord similar respect to Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (http://www.venganza.org/)?

    In other words, does your respect depend on the amount of solid evidence in favor of a religion? On its popularity (current number of adherents)? On the emotional strength with which its followers believe in it? Something else?


  6. Stephen
    Mar 28, 2007 @ 12:26:36

    • Arindam:
    There’s a certain aggressiveness to your questions, and I don’t know where you’re coming from.

    I didn’t use the word “respect”; I spoke of critical detachment. But your assumption is correct, I do respect both Christianity and modern, Western society.

    I have zero respect for the Flying Spaghetti Monster. No one believes in such an entity; it is a construct devised by atheists to mock other people’s convictions. Why would I respect a device that expresses contempt for other people?

    Re Islam and the other world religions —
    I think it’s obvious that there’s much there to respect. But, as with Christianity and Western society, my respect includes a critical detachment. In other words, I see both good and bad in all of the major world religions, and in secularism.

    What is your point of view? It is a little rude to be aggressive with someone else while keeping your own convictions carefully out of sight.


  7. Joann
    Aug 13, 2007 @ 20:52:13

    I consider myself a Moderate Christian, and here’s why:

    1. I support a woman’s right to her own body and pleasures because no one has the right to tell us what we can and cannot do or what we can and cannot enjoy. However, I do not support abortion or embryonic stem cell research because, simply put, and no matter how you choose to look at it, it is the selfish, needless, merciless destruction of human life.
    2. I support masturbation for the simple reason that it isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible. I believe that we can enjoy this pleasurable activity without resorting to pornography and lust, and that we women have the right to use it as our way of loving, caring for, getting to know, and appreciating our bodies. Children and teenagers also have the right to explore their bodies and masturbate without guilt, shame, or punishment.
    3. Since husbands do not have to submit to and obey their wives, then wives do not have to submit to and obey their husbands. I believe that in marriage, decisions are made together as a couple, and no one should have to seek anyone’s permission to do anything. Instead, you simply discuss the issue together and decide together if whatever it is someone wants to do is appropriate for them to do or not.
    4. It is wrong to convert a homosexual into a hetrosexual and force marriage and family life on someone who cannot change their orientation. A homosexual may not be “born that way,” and I couldn’t agree more, they have to be victims of traumatic sexual abuse to want to be gay, but to me, it is the lifestyle, not the person’s orientation, that is a sin punishable with death only if you do not give up your lifestyle for God. However, I do not support gay or lesbian marriages, nor do I believe in parenting rights for gays and lesbians.
    5. I do not vote because I do not trust or support our government or any of our local/national politicians, if I had kids, I would home school or send them off to Christian school rather than send them to a Godless public school system that pushes evolution, sex education, and conformity on them, and I do not support our war in Iraq. However, I do support our men and women in uniform who must leave their families behind to fight and die for our freedom, and I, too, do what I can to help those in need who are less fortunate than I am. But on another note, while I do support church Youth Groups and Children’s Ministries, I would not want my child or young adult signing up for a Youth Group sex education class because it would likely discourage masturbation and body exploration and instead impose its shame-based, fire-and-brimstone mentality on those who choose to disagree, causing my children grief and forcing them to struggle between doing what is right and learning to love themselves and their bodies in a way that God intends. Plus, future marriages would likely suffer because gaining pleasure through sex would likely cause guilt, shame, disgust, and make the poor kid feel like God will punish them for it.
    6. I do not agree with everything that I am taught to believe in church, and I feel perfectly okay with it because my desire to do what is right while maintaining an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior and King of all kings, is still intact. God loves us all just the way we are, and He would not want any of us to try and be something we’re not, so I personally don’t see why He would condemn some of us for agreeing to disagree with our church pastors and Christian friends on certain issues. However, I do believe in the virgin birth, that Jesus is our Messiah, and that he died for our sins on the cross and rose from the dead and into the right hand of His Father in heaven as a physical body, not as a spirit, and that He will return again soon to rapture us Christians into heaven, wipe out evil, and create a New Heaven and a New Earth. I do not support the thousand-year reign and the seven years of tribulation, though, because Jesus’s Second Coming will be His final visit. He will not be returning for a third and final visit.
    7. I support a terminally ill patient’s right to die if there is no obvious sign of a complete recovery, because to me, it is not very Pro-Life of us Christians to force these patients to be prisoners of their own bodies when they would rather go home to heaven to be with Jesus and end their suffering. Assisted suicide, however, is murder and should be discouraged. Instead, let’s leave our courts and the church out of this difficult situation and allow the decision be made between the patient’s family and physician, since they know the patient on a more personal level. After all, don’t we put an animal down when it suffers needless pain and agony?
    8. I do not support the death penalty or a person’s right to own and use firearms, unless you are a correction’s officer or you work in law enforcement. How can we Christians call ourselves Pro-Life if we oppose abortion and embryonic stem cell research if we support the death penalty and a person’s right to own and use firearms? Isn’t this a double standard? I mean, why save the life of one but not the other?
    9. I am all for modesty and not forcing nudity on others. However, it is not lustful, pornographic, or even sexually perverted for same-sex friends to look at each other while nude or for an individual to view nude bodies out of curiosity as long as it is all done in good taste and for educational purposes only. Why shame or condemn a person’s innocent curiosity if they are only trying to understand and appreciate their own bodies?
    10. And last but not least, a Christian woman should never have to feel shamed or condemned just because she likes short hair, hates wearing make-up, dresses, jewelery, carrying purses, and being feminine and ladylike, and she is very boyish in nature and feels more masculine than feminine as a woman. Do not condemn us, either, for refusing to get married and have children. We are not any less Christian than a woman who is opposite in nature, and we are just as respectful of other women, too. We do not hate men, either. We are simply choosing our own sense of style and mannerism because we do not believe in conformity or fitting into a certain mold because we’re female, we are not any less female than other women, and we choose not to marry and have children because we would rather fellowship with our Christian friends and serve God without the constant distractions of marriage and family life.

    I am not being legalistic or mean-spirited in any way, nor am I trying to rely on my own understanding when I should be trusting Jesus with everything I have. I do trust Jesus with everything I have, and I will always love Him more than life itself. I am simply trying to preach what I call Common-Sense Christianity, which I believe makes perfect sense and should be practiced by all who call themselves Christians. Common-Sense Christianity does not force anyone to struggle with their faith. Instead, it respects an individual’s right to think for themselves without shame, guilt, or condemnation while still maintaining righteousness and an intimate relationship with Jesus, and it allows you to speak the truth without coming across to others as a self-righteous, know-it-all idiot who fills their heads with pride and worldly love or understanding. You also see the good and bad sides to everything and everyone around you without seeming judgmental or spiritually abusive, plus, it gets others, both Christian and secular, respecting your viewpoints more without imposing anything on you or disallowing you your own viewpoints. Maybe now I won’t feel like such a know-it-all idiot anymore when I express my viewpoints to others?


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