Thursday, September 07, 2006

Against Religion

We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common, we call them "religious"; otherwise, they are like to be called "mad," "psychotic" or "delusional" is difficult to imagine a set of beliefs more suggestive of mental illness than those that lie at the heart of many of our religious traditions.

Not since Madalyn Murray O'Hair has an atheist raised the flag of non-belief as high as has Sam Harris. Harris, who writes essays for Arianna Huffington's blog and for the Truthdig web site, has attacked religion and its followers in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, and in the soon-to-be-released Letter to a Christian Nation. What got my attention, however, was the interview with him in this month's issue of The Sun magazine: "The Temple of Reason: Sam Harris on How Religion Puts the World at Risk." I found Harris to be an articulate exponent of the rationalist secular position toward reality. The questions raised by his criticism of religion deserve to be considered by anyone who thinks of themself as religious.

Harris trots out the usual suspects in his writings: the persecution of the Cathars and the Spanish Inquisition, witch hunts, and the long history of anti-Semitism that led to the Nazis. His main target, however, is fundamentalism of any stripe which is -- fundamentally -- irrational, a belief without proof and proud of it. Fundamentalism, he believes, leads to 9-11.
The evil that has finally reached our shores is not merely the evil of terrorism. It is the evil of religious faith at the moment of its political ascendancy...The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 of faith -- perfect faith, as it turns out -- and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.

While his big guns are trained on Islam, a faith whose beliefs "belong on the same shelf with Batman," Harris is equally dismissive of Christianity's treasured tenets, like the virgin birth and the belief that "Jesus Christ can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well." But he is also dismissive of moderation and tolerance toward the irrational and unproveable "truths" of religion because it allows the extremists to flourish. "By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally."
Criticizing a person's faith is currently taboo in every corner of our culture...religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse. Criticizing a person's ideas about God and the afterlife is thought to be impolitic in a way that criticizing his ideas about physics or history is not.

Harris, who studied philosophy at Stanford and is currently a working on a doctorate in neuroscience, would like that to change. But unlike many critics of religion in general, Harris leaves space for mysticism, contemplation and meditation. In his youth he studied Buddhism and Hinduism and made several trips to India and Nepal. "Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not," he writes, and he calls spirituality "a natural propensity of the human mind." He believes that meditation practices, when divested of their mythology, offer measurable insights, which can be studied with the tools of neuroscience, that can provide support for ethics.
With Buddhism, you don't have to believe anything on faith to get the process started...I think Buddhists have to get out of the religion business altogether and talk about what the human mind is like.

I find Harris's critique of religion refreshing. It's healthy to reexamine the faith-filled motivations for our actions in the world. There is a reason why increasing numbers of people are identifying themselves as "spiritual, not religious." Religion has come to stand for division, your god against my god, your church against my temple. And it is religious identity that is at the root of Harris's critique. "The problem with religion is that it is the only type of us/them thinking in which we posit a transcendental difference between the in-group and the out-group." Religious identities are divisive and these differences are the source of wars which are increasingly dangerous because of modern weaponry.
I think the human urge to identify with a subset of the population is something that we should be skeptical of in all its forms. Nationalism and tribal affiliations are divisive, too, and therefore dangerous. Even being a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan has its liabilities, if pushed too far.
No religion is immune. In Sri Lanka, Buddhists and Hindus are slaughtering each other again after a twenty-year truce. Muslims in the Middle East are killing each other as well as trying to kill Jews and the Christians who get in the way. It's not a pretty picture.

But is this the whole story? I was captured by the Gospel message of Jesus to help the poor and feed the hungry, no matter who they are. I don't believe Jesus intended to start a new religion. In fact, if Br. Martin at Shantivanam in India is correct in his theology, Jesus explicitly criticized the religion of his time and warned against its excesses. People started churches and formed religious hierarchies to help strengthen and guide them in determining the "will of God": how to live unselfishly in the world. But these religious props and supports took on a life of their own, and came to justify themselves mythologically.

Harris is particularly critical of "divisive mythology," and he wants to replace it with reason and science. He views religion as "failed science, insofar as it makes false claims about the world." He calls for "secular rituals...a kind of scientific liturgy" because he sees there is "a power to ritual that is not understood in scientific terms." Harris even suggests, perhaps with tongue in cheek, that "it would be thrilling if we had a temple of reason that presented through ritual our growing scientific understanding of ourselves in the cosmos." This sounds like the work that Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme have done on coming up with a new creation story based on current scientific ideas.

I don't think all mythology is divisive. If we substitute poetic for mythological we might begin to understand the language of religion in a new way. The writers of most religious texts were not trying to present scientific truth, and we commit the sin of anachronism for seeing religious dogma as failed science. The Gospels (and the Bhagavad Gita, etc.) present the truths of reality poetically. And the message I hear when I read sacred texts is not one of division but unity. It's human beings, and the religious hierarchies they often use to manipulate and control followers, that divide.

Harris, of course, writes much more than I can report in this brief analysis based on reviews of his work and a recent interview. I want to read his new book which has been called "a bold attack on the heart of Christian belief." There is nothing to be feared from serious questions. My faith was partially formed from reading and appreciating Nietzsche. A faith that relies on stale formulas from the past is dead. A faith that seeks undestanding is ever new.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense; it can be lethally dangerous nonsense: Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others: Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labeled only by a difference of inherited tradition: And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!" –Richard Dawkins