“Waking Up” is a podcast by neuroscientist, author, and prominent atheist, Sam Harris. In his April 2015 episode, Harris interviews Megan Phelps-Roper, former outspoken member of the vehemently anti-gay activist Westboro Baptist Church based out of Topeka, Kansas (think picketing the funerals of dead soldiers with signs that read: “Fags Die, God Laughs”).
Megan is also the granddaughter of the Church’s founder, Fred Phelps. Without getting too into the weeds, it is my humble opinion that this may be one of the most important interviews in recent memory.
Megan’s story is not one that is subject to interpretation. It is rather a tale of interpretation itself; or in her case, an account of strict constructionism as applied to religious belief - the literal interpretation of ancient religious texts and its clear-cut application in every day life. What I drew from this discussion was not only a great deal of sympathy and respect for Megan for having the courage to leave her church, but surprisingly, an alarming sense of compassion for her former clergymen and remaining members of the Westboro faith.
Naturally, the connection between this fundamentalist Christian sect and that of other unbending religious groups was made apparent throughout. But it also shed light on the small, introspective difference between strict constructionists and those who harbor a more liberal, albeit still religious, world view - the subjective and highly susceptible human brain. This focus on the mind is important because in the end, is not the real difference between these extremists and the so-called "moderates" in every day society merely just a matter of one's own humble interpretation?
For instance, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli is known to have discovered "canali" on Mars' surface in 1888. Whether his use of the term "canali" was meant to be understood as 'canals' (a man-made phenomenon, thus implying the existence of a past civilization on Mars), or merely 'channels' or 'trenches' (a completely naturally occurring terrain) is left for each individual to surmise on their own. But both interpretations taken in isolation have far-reaching consequences about how we as a society view the cosmos. Absent an agreed upon set of clear overarching and unquestioning guidelines in which we can all base his statement, leaving everyone to their own devices means we are all imperfect arbiters of the truth.
Emphasizing the idea of subjective interpretation is not to blindly lump all Christians or Muslims into one category and classify them all as extremists. Rather, the point is that in order to have a meaningful discussion we must at least be willing to acknowledge that whether one is a fundamentalist or considers themselves to be of a more conventional faith, the foundations of that conviction are undoubtedly derived from the same source. This is particularly problematic in the absence of an agreed upon method of interpretation coming from an unquestioned source (preferably one that is based in reality or at least subject to further responsive inquiry). And by refusing, out of political correctness, to even vaguely include moderate believers in the same conversation as fundamentalists, and by continuing to afford mainstream religious believers absolute immunity for the actions of these extremists, we are left with a never-ending quandary of mis-interpretive truths.
A greater degree of responsibility from the mainstream (or more "rational") among us is more urgent now than ever. Moderates must, at least to some degree worthy of inciting action on their behalf, be held responsible for the externalities their doctrine also produces. It is incumbent upon each and every moderate believer, as a defense to this criticism, to clear the air. To provide society with not only a coherent, objective, rational justification for the accuracy and veracity of their own interpretations as opposed to those of the dissenters within, but also give a citation to the precise (and indisputably divine) authority that supports their current position:
Until moderates can explain this concept openly, honestly, and precisely, and are therefore able to better self-police the extremists among them, not only through logic but via some form of clear, uniform, and divinely inspired interpretive guidelines, it should not be such an abhorrent thing to charge the doctrine as a whole with the sins of its rotten fruit.
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