In a post trying to explain the evolution of creationism, Amanda mentions among other things that “Oddly enough, the group that stands to lose the most members in this struggle is going to be the mainstream churches.” That’s certainly true – heated atheism/religion debates tend to crowd out the middle, which in this case consists of moderate theists.

When political scientists and commentators talk about the return of religion into world politics (see e.g. The Clash of Civilizations), they focus on the growth of religious fundamentalism, which is certainly real. But so is the growth of atheism. Harping on how religion is inconsistent with modern life tends to make people abandon one of the two. It won’t affect everyone, but it affects a significant number of people to matter politically.

The way it happens is similar to the tendency of Americans to vote Republican whenever the Democrats act Republican-lite. Moderate denominations offer tradition; extreme ones offer a return to a glorious past. Moderate denominations offer spirituality; extreme ones offer an all-encompassing supernatural ideology. In interwar Germany, masses of people voted for the Nazis, but the mainline conservative nationalists were never so popular.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Moderate religious denominations tend to apologize for the extreme ones in exactly the same way socialists would apologize for Stalin’s crimes. The people this polarization moves to the right tend to already be very conservative, only they change their focus from hating racial minorities and supporting bombing random third-world countries to hating gays and atheists and supporting theocracy.

In the West, the rise of religious fundamentalism has mostly just made implicit biases explicit; the US has a long tradition of paying lip service to separation of church and state, and Europe’s far right still concentrates more on anti-immigrant bigotry than on Christian fundamentalism.

Elsewhere, it’s more complicated – in the Middle East and India, the rise of religious fundamentalism is real – but there the polarization is not the cause of a frontal assault on religious authoritarianism. Islamism is not a reaction to social change, but to the political and economic failure of every other ideology Arab countries have tried.

All this goes to show that whining about how people like Dawkins just bolster the ranks of fundamentalists is misplaced.

7 Responses to Polarization

  1. Yoram Gat says:

    My problem with Dawkins and company is that they seem to think that religion (and even the specific idea of the belief in God) is the most destructive idea (or what Dawkins would call meme) around, rather than a relatively benign one compared with other common ideas, such as egoism, elitism, exceptionalism, militarism, and nationalism.

  2. Virgil E. Vickers says:

    Allegations that”[m]oderate religious denominations tend to apologize for the extreme ones in exactly the same way socialists would apologize for Stalin’s crimes” are belied by what can be found at http://www.talk2action.org. I smell selective attention. And references to misplaced “whining” reminds me entirely too much of some neoconservative arguments that we need not worry about antagonizing Muslims in Iraq by aggressive military actions because hostile Iraqis hate us anyway.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    The difference is in the evidence. There was plenty of evidence even before Iraq that military incursions caused widespread antagonism. The evidence right now suggests that vigorous activism only helps; American gay rights rulings have barely helped Republicans in elections, but on the other hand have swung the electorate’s views on gay rights to the left.

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