A recent visit by Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, has me thinking about the prospect of finding common ground with the religious. I agree with Stedman that there are urgent social problems that are best not left until we resolve our differences. I do believe, however, that the eradication of religion is a worthy goal in its own right. By religion, I mean unconditional allegiance to inherited superstition. Religion calls the ridiculous sublime and upholds an otherworldly standard that promotes perpetual disillusionment with material reality.
My view of religion is bound to seem extreme to many, but that doesn't mean that the truth is somewhere in the middle. The tyranny of the middle is the fallacy of those who make false equivalencies between religious orthodoxy and the oxymoron of freethought orthodoxy. I do believe that religion can be reformed, but it becomes less religious in the process. As it it replaces supernatural elements with the institutional ambition to survive for its own sake, religion becomes progressively more obscurantist. It becomes less of a religion and more of a shared identity that maintains a vestigial reverence for its superstitious heritage.
Religious rationalists will object that this is precisely what religion means to them, but therein lies the obscurantism. If a word has no shared meaning, it has no meaning at all. We all agree implicitly on the shared meaning of "religion" if we're intellectually honest. It's what we mean when we make an analogy between some non-supernatural doctrine and religion. It's the mindless reverence for custom that gives religion its essential nature. As religion becomes more rational, it loses the quality that makes it most objectionable, at which point insisting on calling it "religion" becomes disingenuous.
The chasm between atheist firebrands and diplomats is not as wide as we are are sometimes led to believe. Diplomacy is motivated by pragmatic concerns. Firebrands are fighting on the philosophical front. Diplomats are not necessarily unsympathetic to the ideals of their constituents, but their work requires them to translate those ideals to our adversaries. Firebrands are not necessarily indifferent to the pragmatic constraints on diplomats, but they they remind us why our cause is worthy.
Daniel Dennett suggests that an approach to religion as a "worthy alternative" rather than a "sacred cow" might serve to "keep the cloak of religious respectability from being used to shelter the lunatic excesses." It is a line in the sand that promises to bridge the gulf between atheist firebrands and diplomats, if not the one between atheists and the religious. Dennett's line in the sand gives the religious moderates who are attracted to Interfaith activism common ground with secularists. As a worthy alternative rather than a sacred cow, religion becomes a private matter and has no business inserting itself in civic matters.
Dennett's line in the sand can bring religious moderates in line with the very core of atheist activism--the fight against theonormativity. A religion that is a worthy alternative and not a sacred cow must decouple the notions of faith and virtue. To be reasonable, religionists must retire the "faith-in-faith" defense. The value of voices like Stedman's is that without them it might never occur to religious moderates that the faith-in-faith argument is inherently intolerant. Sincere evangelicals will never be able to decouple faith from virtue, but they are also too dogmatic to be attracted to Interfaith activism. As Dennett's model predicts, they will always be our adversaries.
Approaching religion as a worthy alternative makes religion a private matter. If the religious could be counted on to reject the sacred-cow approach in their homes, they would cease their program of childhood indoctrination. Sincere evangelicals will never agree to this, but even the most ardent antitheist would stop short of recommending home invasion to curb the indoctrination of children. Dennett's model takes us as far as this impasse. Our adversaries are the religious who reject Dennett's model. Perhaps he was too modest in proposing it as a partial solution.
Dennett's model of religion as a worthy alternative rather than a sacred cow has tremendous potential for predicting areas of conflict and commonality between atheists and the religious. Atheist objections stem from the protected sacred-cow status of religion. Religious objections to atheism stem from the lack of recognition of religion as a worthy alternative. Asking religionists to be more reasonable is probably less threatening than asking them to be less religious, but it is fundamentally the same appeal. The end result is the same.