Gentle “Miranda Warning” cards for religious moderates

April 15, 2007 | By | 28 Replies More

 At this site we have often debated the extent to which non-Believers are harmed by the beliefs of religious moderates.  The main idea is that moderates are serving as human shields for whacked-out literalist fundamentalists.  Society would be hammering fundamentalists with enough widespread ridicule to make them political untouchables, except that religious moderates continue clinging to “lite” versions of fundamentalist beliefs.

This concern has been well-articulated by Sam Harris:

Religious moderates are giving cover to fundamentalists because of the respect that moderates demand of faith-based talk. Religious moderation doesn’t allow us to say the really critical things we must say about the abject stupidity of religious fundamentalism.

This issue raises a serious question: Should non-Believers actively challenge the ubiquitous “mild,” religious pronouncements made by religious moderates? Until recently, I usually remained silent when my kind and decent relatives, acquaintances and neighbors, uttered things like this:

  • At least I know that my dead aunt is now in heaven; or
  • I prayed that my son would get that new job and God answered my prayer; or
  • Jesus loves us. 

Assertions like this don’t imminently threaten me.  The religious moderates who utter such things are not power-mongerers who dream of taking the reins of government to impose literalist versions of their sacred literature on people like me.  These assertions certainly don’t pack the poisonous wallop of the commonly uttered fundamentalist accusations that non-Believers like me are morally unfit to participate in society.  Rather, statements of faith uttered by religious moderates are usually nothing more than harmless self-comforting poetry uttered by gentle, tax-paying, yard-pruning and otherwise admirable people.

In my experience, most religious moderates maintain warm and mutually beneficial relationships with non-believers and with people of other faiths.  Sometimes, they even admit to having doubts about their own religious beliefs.  Given these circumstances, why in the world would non-believers ever want to challenge the innocuous-seeming assertions of religious moderates? 

Is there really a problem, then, when I fail to speak up when religious moderates publicly make their “mild” proclamations of faith in mixed company (believers and non-believers)? 

I’m not advocating for dramatic or harsh confrontations with religious moderates.  Such straightforward conflict would lead to hard feelings and a quick end to any dialogue.  In fact, it risks tipping religious moderates (many of them fence-sitters) into fundamentalism. 

Then again, the cumulative effect of failing to point out our differences when religious moderates make unsupportable religious claims might lead them to think, incorrectly, that my silence constitutes my agreement with their fantastic claims regarding Gods and spirits.  I’m not alone in my general reluctance to cause a scene when religious moderates say such things.  I would go so far as to conclude that the aggregate implied acquiescence by non-Believers over the years has encouraged ever-more public God talk (much of it by government officials), much of it in mixed company.

There are several serious problems with this public God-talk.  It is hopelessly vague, it has been honed in the “factory” of thoughtless repetition and it is used (albeit unconsciously) to coerce non-believers into a polite silence that looks like (but isn’t) acquiescence or even encouragement.  Here’s another serious problem: Isn’t honesty the best policy? 

To address these commonly encountered situations where religious moderates publicly blurt out their mild proclamations of faith, I am hereby inviting non-believers to carry around printed Miranda-style warning cards. The Mirada warning is a method of succinctly boiling down a complex set of legal concerns into a few statements–police officers often carry around little cards listing the elements of the Miranda warning. 

My proposed Religious Warning Card boils down a complex set of epistemological/religious concerns into a few gentle reminders.  I’m attaching a word processing file here, in case you really want to print a set of your own.  Miranda style warning for religious moderates – Cards.doc  These cards are designed to be handed to friendly acquaintances whenever they lapse into making factually unsupportable religious claims:

–Gentle Reminder to a Theist Acquaintance–

You have publicly made a religious claim that is vague or has no trustworthy basis in fact. If I had remained silent, you might have erroneously assumed that I agreed with you. Because I value our relationship, though, I am hereby taking this moment to advise you of my disagreement.  I am handing you this card to remind you of my beliefs:

  • There are no invisible sentient beings such as Gods, spirits and ghosts.
  • When people die, they are completely dead. They don’t “go” anywhere.
  • The ancient religious scripture on which you rely is untrustworthy because it is vague, self-contradictory and historically unsupported.
  • To best understand life one should employ a naturalistic worldview free of supernatural elements.
  • There are many important things about life that humans simply don’t know and it is important to acknowledge our ignorance.
  • I judge morality entirely on whether people demonstrate kindness to one another, not on religious beliefs.

This Warning Card shouldn’t be shoved in anyone’s face, of course.  It should only be used as a gentle reminder that those who hand it out don’t believe in imaginary supernatural beings. There is no need to use this card unless a believer utters a religious claim to which your own silence suggests that you agree. This card needn’t be handed to people who make religious statements that don’t put non-believers on the spot.  This card needn’t be used, for example, with those people who believe in an Einsteinian God, because they are actually closet agnostics.  Of course, this card can also be handed out to fundamentalists, though it is unlikely to be effective because fundamentalists take pride in ignoring evidence that conflicts with their cherished beliefs—they are intellectual cowards.

Back to religious moderates, though.  Some people would urge that we continue to remain silent when religious moderates say things that make no sense to us, because they aren’t consciously inflicting their own image and likeness on the rest of us (as are fundamentalists).  To that concern, I respond that it’s just not good mental hygiene to believe in things that are baseless.  It is not a foundation for a healthy world view or for efficient collaboration among humans.  There’s also a more personal angle: friends don’t sit silently while their friends slide into unsupported or self-contradictory beliefs.

Certainly, religious moderates themselves don’t silently tolerate the obviously unsubstantiated views of others.  Just listen to religious moderates speak up when they hear others publicly espousing beliefs in such things as Bigfoot, the existence of ESP or astrology.  Imagine a public official talking about his use of astrology at a press conference.  Can you imagine an audience of religious moderates staying politely silent, thereby broadcasting the false idea that there was nothing inappropriate about the official’s belief in astrology? 

It encourages continued bad mental hygiene to fail to speak up when others make claims that aren’t based in fact.  Failing to speak up harms society in yet another important way. Allowing each other to utter baseless things without protest degrades the quality of relationships.  It erodes our trust in each other.

Consider this true-life example.  Many years ago, an acquaintance I’ll call Karen had a tumultuous break-up with Joe, her boyfriend.  She was deeply hurt by Joe’s refusal to see her anymore. For several years after that break-up, Karen repeatedly told me that Joe hadn’t really broken up with her. She held to this bizarre conclusion despite the fact that Joe completely stopped calling her and never tried to see Karen again.  She held to her bizarre opinion despite the fact that when Karen took the initiative and called Joe, he repeatedly told her such things as “I don’t ever want to see you again” and “I’m dating someone else now” and “I’ll call the police if you don’t leave me alone.”   She admitted all of this to me.

Despite the plain meaning of Joe’s words and actions, Karen continued to believe that Joe still loved her deeply.  She claimed that Joe would call her and let her phone ring once then hang up (this is before caller ID), but she “knew” it was Joe.  She claimed that Joe would sometimes sneak out to her house in the early morning to move Karen’s newspaper from her lawn up to her porch.  She never saw him do that, but she “knew” Joe did it. He did these things, Karen said, because he was trying hard to subtlely communicate to her that he still loved her and he wanted to be with her.  He just couldn’t get up the nerve to deal with this “difficult issue” face to face, she said.  He was shy and introverted and confused, she said.

Karen was highly successful in her challenging profession, arguably brilliant.  In our conversations, though, she periodically brought up Joe, and tried to get me to agree with her claim that Joe still loved her.  I listened patiently at first, thinking that I was missing something, then I started expressing doubts, which caused Karen to become dramatically frustrated with me that I didn’t “get it.” She desperately clung to her belief that Joe still loved her and was still wooing her in these bizarre ways.  No evidence would have convinced her otherwise. Outside of that single strange issue of Joe, Karen and I continued to have a fruitful (yet strained) friendship based upon intellectual ideas we shared.

It became apparent that I couldn’t easily convince Karen that Joe didn’t love her.  Yet I continued to gently make my disagreement with Karen known to her.  I owed that honesty to her. To push my viewpoint too hard would have driven her back ever more firmly to her totally unsupported belief (this happened several times).  Therefore, whenever Karen raised the topic of Joe, I gently yet firmly told her that I disagreed with her and I took some heat for my honesty.

As a friend, it was my duty to let Karen know that her beliefs about Joe made no sense in light of the evidence.  For several years, she intensely craved for me to agree with her or at least remain silent when she spoke of Joe’s continuing love for her.  It annoyed her immensely whenever I refused to tell her the comforting things she wanted to hear.

It was my job, though, to help Karen identify her poor mental hygiene regarding Joe, even though her belief system caused her pain to bear that thought.  Here’s why I had to speak up: as long as Karen made claims that Joe (long-gone Joe) still loved her, Karen was not fully able to be my friend, because I couldn’t fully trust her judgment. 

Karen’s beliefs regarding Joe’s continuing and undying love for her eventually faded, but it took years.  Eventually, she stopped discussing Joe, I was once again able to fully trust Karen’s judgment. 

I hope that the parallels to religious belief are obvious.  Moderate believers need to hear from freethinkers for the same reason that freethinkers need to hear from each other.  Moderate religious believers need freethinkers to remind them to question outlandish propositions that they have been trained to say (through a lifetime of mostly thoughtless repetition) for the purpose of assuring each other and comforting themselves. 

Moderate religious believers need to be reminded that claims of virgin birth and dead people coming alive are as absurd as claims that there are two suns in the sky or that giants live in huge castles on the top of clouds.  They need to be reminded that it makes no sense to say that dead humans are sentient, because there is no evidence of this.

All suspicious claims deserve real scrutiny. That many Christian religious claims are based on the Bible should cause thinking moderate Christians to scurry to study the origin of the Epistles and Gospels.  If they bothered to study what is known about these early Christian writings, they would be shocked.  But the great majority of Christians, including most moderate Christians, don’t want to know about the gaps, errors and self-contradictions in the writings on which they base most of their religious beliefs.   With very few exceptions, moderate (and fundamentalist) Christians consciously refuse to consider the extremely shaky basis of their extraordinary religious claims, yet they continue to proclaim their articles of faith as though they were supported by as much evidence the assertion that there is only one sun.  Something is obviously wrong with this type of thought process.  People who give a damn about their friends don’t sit in silence when their friends engage in such talk.

Why do Christians need freethinkers?  For the same reason that each of us needs each other:  To remind each other when we have strayed beyond the evidence. To hold each other to the facts.  To make sure that when we say vague things, silly things or unsubstantiated things, we are reminded that at least someone cares enough to listen closely and to question those highly questionable assertions.  People who really care about each other take the time to discuss occasions when one of them fails to distinguish between the things that are real versus the things that are merely hopes, dreams, fears or fantasies. 

When we fail to speak up when our friends fail to make sense, we have ceased to fully trust each other.  At that point, we only have a degraded friendship, a friendship in form rather than substance. 

Genuine, real-world relationships are built on good mental hygiene.  Good mental hygiene is anchored by such things as A=A, and 2+2=4, and virgins don’t get pregnant.  Good mental hygiene unwaveringly recognizes that dead people remain dead, and that invisible creatures don’t tell us how to live our lives. 

Gently reminding each other to jettison dysfunctional mental habits is the least we can do for those human beings about whom we care.  Only by periodically nudging each other back onto the path of evidence-based reality can we really see eye-to-eye with our fellow humans.  Only when we do this (sometimes awkward) work can we efficiently collaborate to build a functional society, one where people mean what they say and say what they mean.

You don’t really need to use the “Miranda” warning cards to get the job done—the card is just a crutch, a gimmick you might not want or need.  Instead of using the card, try speaking up next time a friend blurts out something cryptic or unsubstantiated, for instance, when he or she claims that the Bible is “simply a book about God’s love” (see here and here and here and here). Based on my experience, you’ll be amazed at how friendships can actually flourish when fertilized with honest communication.


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Category: Good and Evil, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (28)

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  1. ALSO: Do not IMPOSE your beliefs on any other person.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Jack: If "live and let live" really were in effect, It never would have occured to me to write this post. When others stop trying to make me believe in their ungrounded fantasies, I'll stop reminding them to cut it out.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Jack makes a great point, but one that falls on deaf ears when evangelicals are involved. They believe that everyone who does not share their beliefs will spend eternity in hell, so, in their minds, proselytizing is a moral imperative — to save non-believers from themselves. This is a hard thing for non-believers to comprehend. I've seen evangelicals reduced to sobbing over the thought that one of their family members might not have accepted Jesus as his or her personal savior. When a person is so passionate about his delusion, normal rules about 'live and let live' go straight out the window.

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