Even worse, it's also difficult to get them to denounce absurd and superstitious religion when it appears. What good is their "intelligent" religion if they are going to stand idly by and allow the more superstitious and absurd forms of their faith to continue without comment? What good is their "reasonable" religion if they are going to object when atheists step forward to criticize superstition?
Matthew Paris writes:
A nun has apparently been cured of Parkinson’s disease through writing the name of John Paul II on a piece of paper. Ecclesiastical authorities in the Roman Catholic Church have been investigating the alleged miracle, interviewing neurologists, graphologists, psychiatrists and medical experts. The diocese of Aix-en-Provence is now satisfied that it has a putative supernatural intervention on its hands, and this week submitted its dossier to Pope Benedict XVI, who may declare an official miracle and begin procedures for making the late Pope a saint.
Meanwhile, Gerard Baker (“‘Israel right or wrong’ is not a grown-up debate”, March 30) writes that one determinant of US foreign policy towards Israel is the belief, widely held on the Religious Right, that before the prophecy of the Second Coming and the end of the world can be fulfilled, the Israelites must be given their Biblical lands of Judaea and Samaria.
Where are you, intelligent Christians? Where is your voice, your righteous anger? Where is your honest contempt for this nonsense? Take that claimed recent miracle, for instance. I know lots of nice, clever Catholics — friends, thoughtful men and women, people of depth and subtlety, people of some delicacy, people who would surely cringe at the excesses of Lourdes. Do they believe that John Paul II may have cured this nun from beyond the grave?
Where are the shouts of self-respecting bishops and cardinal-archbishops, raised against the woeful confusion of faith with superstition? I have a theory about their reticence. I think they know this stuff is the petrol on which the motor of a great Church runs; that without these delusions to feed on, the unthinking masses would falter. And they may be right. But what a melancholy conclusion: that the thinking parts of a religion should be almost extraneous to what moves it; far from the core; just a little fastidious shudder; a wink exchanged between the occupants of the reserved pews.
Paris received many negative reactions to the above. Some people claimed that it is "possible" that such miracles could occur, so it's unfair for Paris to rule them out so definitively. Well, in a sense almost anything is "possible" if we want to define the concept broadly, but not everything that is "possible" is likely enough to take seriously. It's "possible" that I'm the king of England, but anyone who sincerely believed and based their life around it should be deemed mentally ill.
Many others said that if Paris didn't believe in miracles, he should just shut up and stop being a nuisance to those who do believe. This is a standard tactic employed by people opposed to atheists: if they cannot directly challenge or address our arguments, they choose instead to insist that we stop offering any arguments or critiques at all. I would go so far as to say that if they did have any substantive, rational response to atheists, they would offer it — the fact that they demand atheists shut up is thus a sign that they have nothing to offer.
The problem being identified by Matthew Paris above, although he doesn't make it explicit, is that so many self-professed liberal and moderate believers want to have it both ways. On the one hand, they want to insist that their religion isn't superstitious and is reasonable — so atheists' critiques of religion apparently don't touch upon their beliefs. On the other hand, though, they also don’t want to speak out against cases of superstitious, irrational, and unreasonable religion when they do occur.
This is why Sam Harris argues that liberals and moderates "inadvertently provide cover" for those further along the spectrum of "fanaticism." Of course, in situations like this it's difficult to credit liberals and moderates with providing cover only "inadvertently." Perhaps "providing cover" really isn't their goal, but they are deliberately refusing to criticize fellow believers they are deliberately objecting when atheists step in to offer their own critiques.