Monday, December 19, 2005

The End of Faith?

I know I'm late to the party and that Sam Harris's book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and Reason (sic) came out so long ago it's now in paperback, but I just happened upon C-Span's book program yesterday and caught most of his remarks from November. He was pretty compelling, causing me to stay tuned from 1:15 to 2:03 yesterday when I could have been watching the Colts finish a dismal first half.

His basic argument is that the connection between terrorism and religion is straight-forward and "rational" for people of faith who rely on the texts of their "books" for inspiration and direction. Conservatives will salute his conclusion that the West is at war with Islamic fundamentalism, and that the 9-11 terrorists were well-educated, upwardly mobile, and not driven primarily by economic frustration or the Palestinian conflict. So no Robert Pape arguments here.

But conservatives won't like what he says after that.

What he says after this is that "faith" has gotten an ill-advised pass at both the interpersonal as well as broader social level, that when someone says they hold something to be true because of their religious faith that most people don't challenge them on it, because to do so would be to commit the most offensive social taboo--don't mess with people's religious faith.

Harris also argues that contrary to what most people, and even many scientists say, faith and science are not opposite or distinct enterprises, and that both seek the same thing--to understand the world. The problem is, according to Harris, Religion does so without evidence. Or at least without good evidence.

One example he gives is that of a person who says he believes that there is a refrigerator full of diamonds buried beneath his backyard. The person may dig out there once a week with his family, rejoice in the idea that his backyard contains this refrigerator full of diamonds, but of course, not actually come up with these diamonds at any point. Nonetheless, Harris argues this is the equivalent of most religious people's evidence of their faith but that these people may say things such as (paraphrasing), "well, yes it's true I don't have the diamonds right now, but I get a lot out of digging around in the backyard there so my vision of the refrigerator full of diamonds is really a good thing..."

The problem with this kind of thinking, Harris says, is that the social taboo says we can't challenge them on it, that resorting to the statement that one believes there's a refrigerator beneath my backyard "because of my faith" is a conversation stopper. There's no evidence presented, just faith. When there's no conversation about faith, reason isn't allowed to come into play, and consequently, you get situations of where 19 Muslim guys think they're going to get 72 virgins in paradise if they fly airplanes into buildings.

Harris goes on to refute the claim that religion is needed for morality purposes, reciting statistics of how religiously conservative countries and regions rank lower on the scales of social and economic well-being (teenage birth rates in the south, for example).

And while Harris is supportive of conservative claims about the inherent violence of the Koran and Islam, Harris also takes the next logical step and looking at passages in the Christian Bible, concludes the Christian religion is as beset with these problems, backward notions of modernity and humanity, as Islam.

If the Bible is our "best book" as Harris claims many in the West believe, than the abolitionists were on the wrong side of the slavery debate, the slaveholders of the south were right, because the Bible doesn't condemn slavery, and in fact, gives instructions for its administration. Harris goes on to point out the considerable ugliness and violence of the Old Testament stories, where people are killed for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, talking back to parents, for becoming pregnant outside of marriage, and for basically not believing and worshipping as the Israelites. He specifically points to the book of Leviticus as being particularly irrelevant to any notion of a just and humane society.

But Harris doesn't reserve his criticisms for religious conservatives. Although he concedes the beliefs of religious moderates are preferrable for non-believers as they are less likely to want them to impose their beliefs on others, especially through violence, he contends religious moderates have enabled religious conservatives by keeping the taboo against questioning faith in place, and in that in their arguments, religious moderates are less credible logically and theologically. At least the conservatives, Harris says, can point to some evidence, poor as it is, from the texts they revere. Moderates are often left trying to explain away their texts.

As a religious moderate, I have struggled with everything Harris points out here.

First, the "bad Bible". Many of these stories are indeed very troubling, if one is interested in a just and humane society, not to mention, a belief in a merciful diety. I italicize these assumptions because it must be kept in mind that for many people, a repressive society and a vengeful god are desirable. This is one explanation for these stories. That is, God was meeting the people where they were, that He didn't attempt to correct everything at once, and that many of these stories, we should acknowledge, don't come with moral judgments. They are stories, not theological instructions.

There is some basis for this argument. I think the issue of bigamy is a case in point. God doesn't expressly authorize it, and the Genesis account of Laban, who was the first recorded man to take a second wife, is included in the account of how gradually the people after Adam's sin slipped away from God's ideal. Furthermore, in the New Testament writings of Paul, we see evidence that the Old Testament law was in fact given to the people because they were ignorant, to instruct them, to be an instrument leading them to God.

But there are nonetheless issues that still don't add up. For one thing, it seems odd that in the Exodus account, slavery would get a pass from God, but "breaking the Sabbath" is punished severely. If the slaves coming from Egypt are ignorant of the basics of a just society and aren't at the point of not recognizing the ills of slavery, that's one thing. But if God can overlook slavery and brutal, wanton violence against one's enemies (see the accounts in the book of Numbers) based on the people's ignorance, than why would He expect the people to be any better prepared to strictly observe a day of worship/rest.

Perhaps a far more troubling issue is that some of the most troubling passages are those in which the Bible writer is putting words into God's mouth. So the problem isn't what the people of Israel were doing, as it is what God is on record as actually having said. For instance, in Leviticus 12 God is on record as saying that a woman who bares a boy-child is to be "unclean" for 33 days, but if she bares a girl, is to be unclean for 66 days. What's this about? Is there any reason for such a command? Why does child-birth make a woman unclean, and why are the unclean rules different for boys and girls? A modernist might conclude that such passages reflect superstitition and patriarchy, not inspired words from a creator God.

And there are other passages claiming God closes women's womb so that they can't become pregnant, closes the mind of Pharoah so he'll do wrong, "kills" the sons of Judah (Genesis 38) for not marrying their brother's widow, etc.

What can we say about these stories and words of God? I'm not going to pretend I know the answer, but it seems to me that there's a pattern in the Old Testament, and throughout history as a matter of fact, that people have always tended to assume that God is behind sickness, death, natural disasters, plagues, etc. That everything has a divine cause. The findings of science have offset this somewhat. We know of course that hurricanes tend to effect places that lie beside bodies of water (so Hurricane Katrina would not necessarily be a punishment of New Orleans) and that tornadoes tend to affect states in the mid west, etc. We know the causes of many diseases, and how earthquakes are caused. Even Jesus himself in the New Testament had to correct his disciples for thinking that a man born blind was born so because of his or his parent's sin. So the linkage between events and the divine "invisible hand" has a long history. Could it be the bible writers were assuming God's intervention in events, that whatever bad happened to the people, that God was somehow behind it, even if He wasn't? I think so.

So what does that tell us about the nature of inspiration, the value of the Bible, and the options for religious moderates who want to embrace the positive progressions of modernity while maintaining a belief in the supernatural and divine, and the hope of an afterlife, void of pain and death?

I admit I still struggle with it, and I believe that Harris is in a sense right about how religious moderates are at least partially at fault for enabling religious conservatives to wall off faith from honest discussions. I'll try to do better.

But as a rationalist, humanist, and Christian, trained in both the religious and empirical sciences, I recognize that knowledge is in many ways subjective and uncertain, there are many relatives and few if any absolutes, but this uncertainty encourages rather than discourages me.

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