58. Thinking about Religion: 2. Stuck in the Middle With You

I have been discussing Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) [57].  Dawkins presents the argument that religion promotes ignorance and is essentially harmful. My reread of his book stems from my wondering what social benefit, if any, flows from religion.  As noted in my earlier post [56 ], active participation in religion appears to be associated with greater levels of charitable giving and volunteering.  This certainly is a social good.  Research has also demonstrated that other benefits may stem from religious belief or acceptance, such as increased longevity, decreased criminality, and positive health and psychological well-being.

If religion was a medication, you can bet your family physician would be prescribing it.

Yet Dawkins’ argument that religion may also lead to social harm is not unfair.  Religion has been used as justification for numerous acts of brutality and genocide. The message in many religions is frequently hostile — a mixture of moral directive and proscription, disparagement of apostates and other non-believers, and prophecy of pending cataclysm for those who rest outside that particular religion’s code and structure.

Therefore, it makes sense to both acknowledge the social and personal benefit that stems from religious belief while also encouraging civil tolerance between religions and the non-religious.  This perspective of tolerance and mutual respect is inherent in the idea of the middle way.

The middle way, or golden mean, is an attempt to balance extremes and find harmony in the center.  Similar to the golden rule (treating others as you wish to be treated), the theme of the golden mean has been repeated across many cultures and can be found in the texts of most religions from Confucianism to Christianity.  It is ubiquitous and universal.

Within philosophy or religion, the practice of the middle way normally focuses on reducing the tendency toward excess or poverty in one’s behavior.  The logic of moderation has also been extended to complex political collectives such as nation-states.  The middle way (or third way) within modern liberal democracies represents an attempt to balance the extremes of unrestricted capitalism and the extremes of an unlimited welfare state.

The middle way, however, is not perfect.  Some extreme positions can never be tolerated under even diluted or moderated circumstances. History has also shown that those who promote centrism are often viewed as politically weak or without conviction by aggressors.

Despite this, moderation, tolerance, and the balanced weighing of opposing views, more often than not, leads to greater potential for harmony and the strengthening of meaningful relationships between people.  Yet the rhetoric surrounding atheism, science, and religion feels anything but moderate. Instead, those who promote a tolerance between science and religion are typically viewed as anathema by modern atheists.

Dawkins makes this very clear early in his book.  His ire is directed most at those who promote tolerance or accommodation between science and religion and less at those who have strong religious faith. To Dawkins, those with strong faith at least can be excused due to their ignorance.  Those who argue for tolerance and possess sufficient knowledge of science, however, should know better and, from Dawkins’ perspective, are intellectually corrupt.

And for Dawkins and other modern atheists the lightening rod of accommodation is Stephen Jay Gould.

And that is whom I will discuss next.

  • Pirutinsky, S. (2014). Does religiousness increase self-control and reduce criminal behavior?: A longitudinal analysis of adolescent offenders. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 41, 1290-1307. [abstract]

58. Middle Way