How Aspects of “moderate” religion morph into dangerous politics

August 11, 2015

Religious leaders are routinely invited to participate in the running of the state, and to enter public discourse on matters about which they haven’t a clue. Their ideas are often totally absurd and transparently self-interested, yet it is widely considered impolite to remark on the worthlessness of their contributions.

Curiously, it is not just religious types who enforce this blanket of politeness. It is often non-believers (especially those inhabiting the “liberal left“) who are quick to tell critics of religion to shut up. “Religion”, they feel, must not be treated as a single category. We must distinguish, they say, between religious “moderates” (who can be indulged as harmless or as potential allies), and extremists (about whom it is frequently asserted are not even religious at all).

Society gains little or nothing from this meek politeness. But worse,  extremists — whether “truly religious” or not — use this welcoming and non-judgmental climate, as a context for gaining access to the hearts and minds of the young.

Below, I outline numerous elements of “moderate” religion that are routinely indulged by democratic societies. These elements themselves may be more or less harmless, but refusing to contest their obvious (if at times trivial) flaws, we are effectively abandoning our first line of defense against extremists.

Problematic Aspects of “Moderate” Religion


While religion does build communities, it also inevitably creates outsiders and heretics. Due to the arbitrary nature of religious beliefs and practices, there is no way to engage rationally with others about doctrinal matters. Agreeing to disagree is the only peaceful option. But there can be no resolution. The differences will remain, ticking away like a time bomb for generations. They can at any time be invoked as a means to divide people for political ends. (Mussolini cited the monophysite heresy of the Abyssinians, dating back to the 5th Century, as a justification for his invasion of Ethiopia in 1936!)

Ownership and Personal Identity

Religious people identify deeply with their religion or sect. This is no doubt partly a consequence of human nature, but it also involves a calculated strategy on the part of religions to effectively own people. A child is declared to “belong” to some strain of belief, before they can even speak or run away.

To illustrate the extent of this “moderate” presumptuousness, allow me to share that the Church Tax Office in Germany (where I live) is currently checking the records of the Catholic Church in Australia (where I was born) to see if I was baptized. Were they to find my name I would be legally forced to pay an 8% tax on my income for the last 15 years. 

Despite having failed to realize that Nazism is unethical, the Church in Germany is still taken seriously enough to be granted legal access to people’s earnings — on the grounds that they know the mind of God and represent His financial interests.

St Bernhard Hitler Gruß St Bernhard still gives the Nazi salute from a 1936 church tower in Berlin (author photo)

Special Status for the Priesthood

In a healthy society, any special status a person might be granted is attached to the special role that person plays, not to the person themselves. A police officer is only allowed to boss people around under strictly defined circumstances when on duty. Otherwise they have no special rights. Priests, however, claim that they are themselves special — that they belong to an elite class with divinely ordained privileges. 

Obviously, when religious fanatics start recruiting, or when crooks have seized government, this special status immediately gives them swift access to people’s private lives and instinctive submissive impulses. The hierarchical nature of this power structure conditions people, whether they are religious or not, to accept political and religious overlords as a fact of life. (Christopher Hitchens makes this point cogently in the latter chapters of God is Not Great.)

Reward and Punishment

Closely related to this is the fact that priests promise their subjects that god will reward temporal obedience with eternal life in paradise. Priestly authority is built squarely on this foundation — and they don’t have to lift a finger to reward anyone. 

They also invented hell of course, (the most repellent and immoral idea ever formulated). But while they entrust God with rewarding people, they have always happily accepted the burden of punishing sinners themselves. For some reason they don’t want to leave sinners in peace and trust God to deal with them later.

False Ideals and Denial of Human Nature

By creating impossible ideals, religions set people up for guilt, failure, and fear of punishment. It is also psychologically unhealthy to believe that some people (saints, prophets and priests) are holy and have no shadow.


This pernicious nonsense is damaging even at its most moderate, yet it is routinely tolerated. In the hands of religious fanatics with power, it becomes perhaps the most invidious tool of oppression and misery. With barely a stricture needing to be altered, it can form an ostensibly credible basis for arbitrary persecution.

The Surrender of Reason

To steal a few lines from Christopher Hitchens, religion — moderate or extreme — involves deciding that the deepest questions about the nature of reality and of our personal existence are to be decided without recourse to rational inquiry. There is of course a long religious tradition debating the role of reason in relation to revelation, but reason has always come out second best.

How can the young be expected to see through the ravings of a religious extremist, when they have never seriously encountered the idea that God does not exist in the first place? As Al Razi pointed out in the Tenth Century, the revelations of the prophets are contradictory, irrational and divisive; but reason is equally accessible to all. (Had he said that today in Iran, he would certainly be persecuted. In the West he would no doubt be called intolerant by the left, or an Islamophobe!)

Closing Thoughts

Religious freedom is a civil and human right. In a secular society people must be free to practice their religion and identify themselves as a member of any peaceful religious group without fear of persecution or discrimination. Strangely, (or maybe not so strangely) many religious people don’t like this idea at all. Ensuring the religious freedom of others necessarily involves curtailing one’s own proselytizing ambitions. This potential loss of power is, no doubt, what religious leaders find so threatening. Public criticism of religion doesn’t “upset the moderates” as much as liberals claim, as open debate should hold no danger for sincere and sensible believers. It does however, undermine the status and influence of a privileged and useless elite.

Let us stop meekly and politely pretending that the elements listed above are useful or necessary for a productive or creative life. They are the accumulated mistakes of history, kept alive for oppressive and parasitic purposes. We need to see them for what they are, and to allow the young access to an antidote for their poisons.

Posted by Yakaru



  1. A great description of dangers and lingering irrational features of religion’s effect on people. A recent post on the ‘Atheist Oasis’ speaks of this. The long (seemingly infinite) tentacles of religion reaching into the modern day, how the in-group support and out-group hate are still reflected often quite plainly in our world.
    The unconscious group reaction to criticism of religion is still a shocked ‘how dare you!’ reaction.
    An Atheist or even just a free-thinker speaking openly and rationally still runs into popular blocking walls of disapproval. You’re correct, there is still a feeling of being a part of the old, correct and decent folk in regard to religion, regardless of the other shifts in societal group thinking and general advance.

    All the best,

  2. Thanks a lot, Woody — much appreciated.

    Yes — I assume that people who don’t want their beliefs criticized, they are smart enough to know that all they need do is keep them private.

  3. I wonder how we can navigate the problem of religious freedom as a “civil and human right” and at the same time call for less religious tolerance. For instance I would argue that children should not to be indoctrinated with empirically indefensible nonsense, yet it is also arguably a central part of many religions that children must be treated to exactly that. To the religious person, it is sharing something that gives their life meaning and sustains them in all manner of ways. It’s hard to find a way through that without curtailing somebody’s rights. But maybe one idea would be to put atheism on the school curriculum.

    I am thankful that the English state education system is based on secularism, but I don’t think it’s doing its job too well. It teaches primary-school children about all the major religions (and to be tolerant of each other’s), but I don’t know if it pays any attention to atheism. It probably doesn’t mention critical thinking or scepticism before secondary school – in fact, you’d probably have to be at university doing philosophy. And subliminally, the tolerance teaches kids not to question – I don’t think teachers would criticise the religious ideas; indeed they are being celebrated and their irrationality normalised.

    Secularism is currently the silence in between people talking about God. It’s the wallpaper, and popular culture is projecting endless supernatural fantasies on it anyway.

  4. I would argue that it is really only possible to criticise religious ideas in a climate where religious people are strongly protected from discrimination.

    The important thing, I think, is for people to start getting used to the distinction between religious ideas and religious people. Religious power-mongers, as well as many liberals tend to see all religious criticism as a personal attack on believers themselves, or an attempt to somehow take people’s religion away from them or ban it. It isn’t. In fact it’s in everyone’s interests to disarm religious divisiveness.

    Regarding parents, I agree that they have the right/responsibility to raise their children how ever they feel best. A secular govt would by definition not interfere in that.

    Schools should, I think, treat religion as part of cultural & social studies. There should be no “religious” instruction at all. Parents can send their kids to church if they want, but schools (at least state schools) have no business pronouncing of the nature and wishes of god. But like the UK, German universities often have a theology department — so I’m not expecting any changes to the religious friendly default setting any time soon.

  5. Thanks Yakaru. You said, “Regarding parents, I agree that they have the right/responsibility to raise their children how ever they feel best. A secular govt would by definition not interfere in that.” But surely there are limits to that? I’m fairly sure you don’t mean it literally, so it’s not a very useful point unless you consider what is acceptable and what isn’t. At present, female genital mutilation is illegal in Britain, for instance, but not making your kid sit rocking back and forth hypnotically reciting ancient nonsense, or making them go to church to be tempted by charming superstitions.

    I’m not sure what exactly you’re calling “moderate religion” in this piece, which you say “morphs into dangerous politics”. And how does it morph?

    And I’m not sure what you mean by “sincere and sensible believers” either, for whom open debate holds no danger. Do you just mean believers who are open-minded, or people with sincere and sensible religious beliefs?

  6. There are some rather nebulous thoughts behind all this, and I probably should have done more to indicate the context. I did provide two links but offered no hint as to what I was implying.

    The first link in the post goes to an article by Andrew Brown who writes trollish pieces in the Guardian. It’s an example of how a left/social justice type who is in fact a non-believer, tells other non-believers to shut up — casting any criticism of religion as “trying to extirpate religion in others”, and saying it is nasty. “moderate” religion, he often argues, is harmless, quaint, and above criticism.

    A link near the end goes to an article by Maajid Nawaz,
    who regularly gets called an Islamophobe for criticising “moderate” Islam(despite being a Muslim himself) by leftists, especially in the Guardian. Again, a version of religion deemed “moderate” by the left is seen as above criticism, and attempts are made to quash debate, and smear critics.

    It is also extremely common for the left to say that what ISIS practices is not even Islam — so “moderate” Islam of the majority of Muslims should not be criticised.

    Like you, I smell a rat with this idea of “moderate religion” — I’ve only heard non-religious leftists use the term. I’ve never heard any religious person say “My God is above all a moderate fellow, and I believe it all moderately.” And what I was attempting to argue in the post is that this supposedly “moderate” religion should indeed be criticised, regardless of whether the people to whom it is ascribed are terrorists or not.

    I assume the left has good intentions — they want to avoid bigotry, so they say “give moderate religion a pass and only criticise fundamentalists if you must.”

    I share that concern, but I think that rather than hanging various labels on people’s religion and saying “We’re not criticising you guys”, we should be affirming religious freedom and saying “We are criticisng you guys, but only if you start blabbing about your religion in public or impinging on the rights of others.”

    I argue that what the left calls “moderate” religion does in fact spread pernicious ideas and social structures. People are free to do that if they wish, but by not allowing criticism of these, we are blunting people’s sensitivity to how useless and potentially dangerous these are.

    Regarding childraising, yes, there should be limits. I secular govt would have no business passing judgment on whether or not God exists or whether or not He should save the Queen. But it would also prevent religious child abuse. I notice that debates on FGM are often hindered by leftists insisting that it has nothing to do with Islam. We should be doing whatever we can to stop it, not apologising and bowing and scraping.

    Does any of that make sense?

    Thanks for asking for clarification. I try to keep these posts as short as possible, but I think I err too much on the side of brevity sometimes.

    [Added an hour later:]
    The title is a bit clumsy. I ddin’t mean to imly that “moderate” religious *people* morph into dangerous people, rather that things associated with “moderate” religion (listed as subtitles through the post) easily morph into dangerous practices/ideas that can be used by extremists without changing much at all on them — priestly authority, divisiveness, etc. (and the use of a holy text that all must obey — that’s an element I forgot to include!)

  7. Hi Yakaru, yeah that’s a big help, thanks, and I was probably being a bit slow on the uptake – indeed, you put “moderate” in quotes. Such issues are complicated, and words and statements are slippery customers. I understand your wish for brevity, but I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I relish your writings and would be very happy to read articles twice as long from you. I’m glad to see as ever we agree on most things.

    I read/watched all the linked things. I often find it difficult to work out what anyone really means on these subjects – probably partly my comprehension problems, no doubt!

    After mentioning FGM, I realised I didn’t immediately think about infant male circumcision, and what I’m reading on that is a powerful reminder of the dangerous politics of religion. It is generally considered legal in Britain, and from my brief research I’m getting the impression that the religious membership of the parents is a major factor in courts’ decisions when it is contested. This is utterly unacceptable. If something is considered illegal mutilation, there should be no exceptions based on conditions such as the irrational beliefs of the parents. We’re such a primitive bunch. As Hitchens used to say, half a chromosome away from chimps, and it shows.

  8. Thanks, John, very much appreciated!

    I should have mentioned the way misogyny is not just permitted but celebrated — simply because people have become so used to the idea that the Pope has to be a man because that’s God wants.

  9. @Lettersquash,
    I’ve altered the title a bit to make it clearer that I’m not referring to people — How *Aspects of* “moderate” religion morph into dangerous politics

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