Take two groups of people, one with religious beliefs, and one with spiritual beliefs, and track their belief on a semi-circle, and an odd thing happens.
Let’s start with religion:
On the religious semi-circle, you start with the moderates at the ‘base’ of the shape. These are your average people who have faith in a deity (or deities), believe that it helps them lead a better life, and try to balance the tenants of their religion with the current morals and mores of society.
The further you travel around the semi-circle though – the harder and the harsher the religious beliefs get – the more extremist you get. At the absolute extremes, you have the people who believe all non-believers should die, or that medicine isn’t necessary because either prayer will spark divine intervention or it was meant to happen, and who insist that all others should be made to follow their belief system.
On the other side of the coin, you have all the new age people – and in that, I’ll lump in all spirtualists, wiccans, pagans, etc. – i.e., all non-deity based spiritual belief systems:
Again, starting at the bottom of the shape, you effectively have the people who believe in things like Gaia, Karma, etc. The people who want to be good because they believe good things come to those who do good, etc. But the further you travel around the semi-circle, the more extreme the belief system gets. At the most extreme, you’ve got the people who actively try to practice malicious magic, the people who believe in naturopathic medicine to the point that they’d let their kids die rather than seek “conventional” treatment that would save their lives, etc., and who insist that all others should be made to follow their belief system.
My vicious wedge theory is a simple one: all belief systems actually sit on the same circle when it comes to a sliding scale between moderation and extremism:
Now, the vast majority of people who have a belief system will fall into two primary categories on the belief circle:
- Moderate – people who have their personal belief systems but do not feel they should judge others based on that belief system, etc.
- Core believers – people who may be a little more “out there”, but at the end of the day still just want everyone to be happy and fulfilled. They may want to preach a bit, or encourage others to think along their line of belief, but they’re happy so long as they’re allowed to think what they want to think.
At the top of the circle though we have the vicious wedge. Regardless of whether their beliefs have a traditional deist background or a spiritual background, these are the people who want to mould society to their beliefs. They’re the nutjobs like Westboro Baptist church, the suicide bombers, the people who think “honour killings” are perfectly acceptable, the people who let their kids die when there’s effective treatment for them outside their religion, and the ones who insist it’s their way or the highway – and so on.
Disclaimer: As an atheist, it could be argued that I too sit on a “belief” circle – that my choice not to believe is also a belief. I don’t see it this way; a lack of belief does not sit on a belief scale. But I will fully admit that there are different levels of atheists and agnostics, and these people might be tracked on a “skeptic’s circle”. I describe myself (on my Facebook “info” page) as “Pugnaciously atheist” … I’ll argue my atheism against a religious or spiritualists’ beliefs with the best of them. But I’m not an extremist; I don’t hold that all people should be forced into atheism – so long as we equally don’t try to force people into religious or spiritual moulds.
It’s up to everyone in society to be aware of those who belong to the vicious wedge. Regardless of whether we’re atheists, agnostics, spiritual core believers, religious core believers, spiritual moderates or religious moderates, we have a moral obligation to society to temper and counter the loonies that comprise the vicious wedge.
Voltaire’s thinking undoubtedly contributed towards the notion of Freedom of Speech so cherished by the United States, when he said:
“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
In many ways, I’m of the belief that freedom of speech is important, but think that freedom must stop at the point where it’s used to justify hate speech or a denial of rights. Westboro Baptist church are a classic example. They picket funerals with spiteful signs such as “God hate fags”, which seems to be protected by free speech laws. Replace “fags” with “niggers” though, and what would happen? Now tell me the difference between the two words: they’re both used as extremely negative terms against people who were born a particular way. One disparages people based on sexual orientation, and one disparages people based on race.
Our goal in society, regardless of whether we’re religious, spiritual, atheist or agnostic should be a simple one: to shutdown the vicious wedge. I think there’ll continue to be levels of belief and unbelief for some time to come – it’s very much a fundamental part of human nature; the difference between those inside the vicious wedge and those outside is a very simple one though – one rejects our humanity and our freedoms, and one embraces it. The differences could not be more profound – or more important.