Why Be A Religious Moderate?

Over at Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella has written a fine post in response to a query from a reader about religious zealotry. The reader’s argument was:

Given that, as most religions claim —

1) There is an afterlife of infinite duration;

2) Those who live in strict accordance with the religion’s requirements and prohibitions will be eternally rewarded in the afterlife;

3) Those who instead violate the religion’s requirements and prohibitions will be eternally punished;

4) The quality of these rewards or punishments far exceeds anything we might experience in our brief mortal lives;

— does it not follow that it is irrational not to dedicate everything in one’s earthly life to the fulfillment of one’s religious obligations, with everything else taking a distant second place?

As Bill’s reader put it:

If this ranking system is correct, it is hard to see how it could ever be rational for one to pursue any set of mortal goods—no matter how well they rank on the finite scale—when one could spend the same time and resources in the pursuit of the afterlife goods or avoiding afterlife evils, which are both endless in duration and of infinitely great quality. If extreme fasts are pleasing to God, and increase my chances of obtaining salvation by a tiny bit, then the rational thing for me to do is to live in such an ascetic state for as long as possible, unless it prevents me from doing other activities that could do even more to promote my own salvation.

The argument given, then, mitigates strongly against religious moderation as a rational approach. Here in the West, where we place paramount value on Diversity, inclusiveness, and religious pluralism, we regard religious “moderates” with far higher esteem than those we consider to be “fundamentalists” or “extremists”. But does this make sense? Given the stakes, why would any rational believer be moderate?

The discussion turns to epistemic limitations. Certainly the polyinfinite goods of the afterlife, if genuine, outweigh the transient goods of this one. But if we cannot know with certainty that the rewards of religious fidelity are real, and are guaranteed, then perhaps they don’t tip the scales against the known pleasures of the mortal world. How is one to balance the two?

As Bill acknowledges, this is a difficult question, and he doesn’t claim to have the answer. But he focuses the inquiry with his usual clarity. One thing that emerges quite clearly is that religious “moderation”, if it is to be rationally motivated, seems to necessitate doubt. Or, to put it another way: for anyone who would make no distinction between his belief and certain knowledge, religious moderation is not a rational choice.

Read the post here.


  1. Kevin Kim says

    Saw Dr. V’s post and read some of the comments. Had to wonder, though, whether there was room in this discussion for deep (perhaps fervent) commitment to some form of the middle way, e.g., Madhyamaka Buddhism, neo-Confucian Golden Mean, Aristotelian virtue-as-mean, etc. It’s just as hard to cleave to the middle as it is to remain at one or another extreme.

    Posted July 18, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Good Lord, I hadn’t even realized there were comments. There weren’t any when I first read the post, and Bill so rarely allows them these days that I didn’t think to look for them. I’ll go read them now.

    Posted July 18, 2010 at 9:20 pm | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – While the matter of epistemic limitations was raised, it is peripheral to the problem as originally posed — and it’s probably not true that there is a necessary connection between moderation and doubt or uncertainty. This is more properly understood as a question about the nature of rational behavior when presented with incommensurable values — the religious trappings serve a merely illustrative purpose.

    Posted July 18, 2010 at 9:30 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Bob, it seems reasonable enough to say that moderation only makes sense if there is doubt. If the requirements for eternal reward and punishment are established beyond doubt, and reward and punishment in the afterlife trump their mortal equivalents as the infinite exceeds the finite, isn’t the rational choice obviously to concentrate all one’s efforts on passing the entrance exam?

    Of course there may be areas of life that are soteriologically neutral, and so with regard to those we may do as we like (the drinking of beer is given as an example in the comment thread at Bill’s — which would be fine for a Christian, but not, say, for a Muslim). But it seems that strict adherence to religious guidelines, whatever they may be, would be the only rational plan. Why hedge your bets when you know the outcome of the race?

    Posted July 18, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Kevin, I think the point would be that whatever the prescribed strategy, one would rationally be motivated to follow it to the letter always and in everything. If the Golden Mean is the ticket to heaven, then one must be zealously immoderate in one’s adherence to it.

    Posted July 18, 2010 at 11:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Kevin Kim says

    Which makes for an interesting paradox: zealously immoderate moderation.

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Yes, I was thinking that also.

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink
  8. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    Your comments betray an immoderate notion of what is rational. Think ‘maximizing’. Then think ‘satisficing’. Then rethink ‘rationality’. Also, reread Aristotle on the mean.

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Bob, I’d be the last one to hold out for ideal rationality in human affairs (and I’m well familiar with “satisficing”); this has been the point of my rebuttal, for example, of C.S. Lewis’s argument against naturalism.

    Nevertheless, though, the point here is that to the extent that a religious believer attempts to implement a rational approach to living this mortal life, the pull should be away from moderation (devoting only some of one’s actions toward maximizing one’s chance of salvation), and toward “zealotry” (choosing every action in terms of this aim). The only thing that I can see that would mitigate against that in a rational analysis would be epistemic limitations, i.e. doubt.

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    As for the mean, Aristotle’s point was that it is, for every individual and every purpose, that which optimizes the result without excess or deficiency. But if one optimizes one’s chance of salvation by following the doctrine of one’s religion to the letter at all times, then what we usually think of as religious “moderation” becomes, in fact, deficiency.

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  11. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    First, I’ll caution against conflating optimization and maximization — in many contexts the latter is the enemy of the former.

    Second, if rationailty isn’t a matter of maximizing, then there is no reason why attempting to be rational should pull one away from moderation toward zealotry.

    You see, I’m quite sure that the “problem” presented over at Bill V’s is entirely due to unwarranted assumptions about what constitutes rational behavior.

    BTW, a very similar problem serves as a standard objection to classical utilitarianism. Scare quotes aren’t necessary around ‘problem’ in this context precisely because classical utilitarianism employs a straightforward maximizing rule (i.e., do whatever results in the greatest good for the greatest number).

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Right. But the question here is about a simpler issue: maximizing one’s chance of salvation. If it is clear beyond doubt that the closer you adhere to doctrine the closer you come to maximizing that chance, then the rational course is adhere as closely as you can. Limitations on rationality aren’t the point; we all agree that humans are not perfectly rational.

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  13. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I didn’t say anything about limitations on rationality or less than perfect rationality. My point is that perfect, unlimited rationality probably isn’t a maximizing game. Satisficing is not about lowering our aspirations vis a vis rationality. It’s about reconceptualizing those aspirations. And it’s a gamechanger.

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    I think we are talking past each other here, and getting bogged down in examinations of rationality itself.

    As I see the question at hand it is: if we know beyond all doubt that the rewards of the afterlife are real, and trump anything available here below, shouldn’t we do everything we can to achieve them? Shouldn’t that effort be of paramount importance? Why would we shilly-shally with a “moderate” religious life instead of sacrificing everything to the ultimate, infinite reward?

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  15. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Well, this is about what is required by rationality, isn’t it?

    And suppose “doing everything we can” to attain the rewards of the afterlife is of “paramount importance.” How does it follow that one should never do anything except pursuing those rewards?

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says

    More to the point, we are talking primarily about what a rational believer should consider to be required by religion.

    Yes, as I said above, and as commenters at Bill’s pointed out, it may well be that there are various things that are orthogonal to salvation — for example, one of the commenters pointed out that the Pope drinks beer. But when it comes to the things that are specifically spelled out in one’s religious tradition, then it makes sense to put them foremost, above everything else.

    As Spencer wrote in response to you:

    I have no problem admitting that lots of mortal goods are compatible with eternal goods. There’s no impossibility of my attaining both salvation and good beer. The problem is that decisions inevitably involve opportunity cost–I could always be praying instead of enjoying good beer, and if sincere prayer is likely to bring me a tiny bit closer to salvation in every instance of it, then I will always have an overriding reason to forgo the intrinsic good of the beer even if it is compatible with salvation.

    And as Bill wrote:

    Surely having an alcoholic beverage before dinner is compatible with being granted eternal life even though enjoying that beverage has no instrumental value when it comes to attaining eternal life (in the way that the healthy meal does have instrumental value).

    The point, however … is that if the believer REALLY believes that he has an eternal soul and that its welfare hangs in the balance, and that the value and disvalue to be realized in the afterlife is ‘infinite’ as compared to the value of goods in this life, then wouldn’t rationality demand of him that he give up the booze?

    This is the ‘logic’ that leads one to asceticism in all its forms. There is a Goal of supreme value. It alone matters. Everything else is crap in comparison. So what am I doing spending the afternoon at the racetrack?

    Or why did I waste an hour in idle talk with my neighbor? (The NT says that one day we will have to give an account of every idle word.) That hour could have been put to good use cultivating mindfulness, or praying the Jesus Prayer, etc.

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Permalink
  17. the one eyed man says

    Let us remember the words of Firesign Theater: a mighty hot dog is our Lord.

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 6:18 pm | Permalink
  18. bob koepp says

    I’ll stick to my interpretation according to which the religious trappings are merely illustrative. And since Bill’s other illustrations would seem to confirm this assessment, this really is about whether rationality requires us to set aside all goals besides those we think are of “overriding importance.”

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 6:59 pm | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    Well, only religious goals — the promise of eternal salvation or threat of eternal torment — have the particular quality of infinitely transcending worldly goods, no? But even speaking more generally, what can you mean by “overriding importance” if not trumping all other aims?

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

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