The End of Faith, two

February 4, 2007

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I have found something very useful; Harris is having an online debate with the conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan on beliefnet.com. Here is the link. Below I have cut and pasted part of one of Harris' statements, in which he clarifies his objections to religious moderation.

…I have found that whenever someone like me or Richard Dawkins criticizes Christians for believing in the imminent return of Christ, or Muslims for believing in martyrdom, religious moderates claim that we have caricatured Christianity and Islam, taken “extremists” to be representative… We are invariably told that a mature understanding of the historical and literary contexts of scripture renders faith perfectly compatible with reason, and our attack upon religion is, therefore, “simplistic,” “dogmatic,” [etc.]

[1.] …religious extremism is not rare, and it is hugely consequential. Forty-four percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. This idea is extreme in almost every sense — extremely silly, extremely dangerous, extremely worthy of denigration — but it is not extreme in the sense of being rare. The problem, as I see it, is that moderates don’t tend to know what it is like to be truly convinced that death is an illusion and that an eternity of happiness awaits the faithful beyond the grave. They have, as you say, “integrated doubt” into their faith. Another way of putting it is that they have less faith — and for good reason. The result, however, is that your fellow moderates tend to doubt that anybody ever really is motivated to sacrifice his life, or the lives of others, on the basis of his heartfelt religious beliefs…

[2.] Second, many religious moderates imagine, as you do, that there is some clear line of separation between extremist and moderate religion. But there isn't. Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur'an is not a moderate. Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac — to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, one can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love one's neighbor and turn the other cheek, but the truth is, the pickings are pretty slim, and the more fully one grants credence to these books, the more fully one will be committed to the view that infidels, heretics, and apostates are destined to be ground up in God’s loving machinery of justice.

How does one “integrate doubt” into one’s faith? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights… Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously. So why not take these books less seriously still? Why not admit that they are just books, written by fallible human beings like ourselves? They were not, as your friend the pope would have it, “written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost.” …Starting with the (utterly unjustified) premise that one of your books is an infallible guide to reality is not a particularly promising approach to inquiry—be it physical, ethical, or spiritual.

Please consider how differently we treat scientific texts and discoveries, no matter how profound: Isaac Newton spent the period between the summer of 1665 and the spring of 1667 working in isolation and dodging an outbreak of plague that was laying waste to the pious men and women of England. When he emerged from his solitude, he had invented the differential and integral calculus, established the field of optics, and discovered the laws of motion and universal gravitation. Many scientists consider this to be the most awe-inspiring display of human intelligence in the history of human intelligence. Over three hundred years have passed, and one still has to be exceptionally well-educated to fully appreciate the depth and beauty of Newton’s achievement. But no one doubts that Newton’s work was the product of merely human effort, conceived and accomplished by a mortal—and a very unpleasant mortal at that. And yet, literally billions of our neighbors deem the contents of the Bible and the Qur'an to be so profound as to rule out the possibility of terrestrial authorship. Given the breadth and depth of human achievement, this seems an almost miraculous misappropriation of awe. It took two centuries of continuous ingenuity to substantially improve upon Newton’s work. How difficult would it be to improve the Bible? It would be trivially easy, in fact. You and I could upgrade this “inerrant” text — scientifically, historically, ethically, and yes, spiritually — in this email exchange.

[3.] Of course, people of faith are right to insist that there is more to life than being reasonable — which is to say there is much more to life than merely understanding the world and getting one’s beliefs about it to cohere. But we can have ethical and spiritual lives without lying to ourselves and to others and without pretending to be certain about things we are clearly not certain about. Anyone who thinks he knows for sure that Jesus was born of virgin or that the Qur'an is the perfect word of the Creator of the universe is lying. Either he is lying to himself, or to everyone else. In neither case should such false certainties be celebrated.

Religious moderates — by refusing to question the legitimacy of raising children to believe that they are Christians, Muslims, and Jews — tacitly support the religious divisions in our world. They also perpetuate the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence in order to have an ethical and spiritual life. While religious moderates don’t fly planes into buildings, or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they refuse to deeply question the preposterous ideas of those who do. Moderates neither submit to the real demands of scripture nor draw fully honest inferences from the growing testimony of science.

While I don't want to agree with Harris, and would be happy to hear a clear rebuttal to his arguments, if I try to play the believing game I think I can understand it in my own terms.

Regarding his discussion of Scripture, for example, I can understand him very well. Scripture does not take a clear stand against the practice of slavery. So it was all too predictable that anti-abolitionist rhetoric in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would be full of appeals to Scripture. I'm well aware that folks like Wilberforce were abolitionists because of their Christian faith – but it is not at all clear that Wilberforce knew slavery was wrong because Scripture taught him so. I think, if we went back in time and tried to adjudicate the question: should we abolish slavery? based on the assumption that Scripture is our primary sourcebook for ethical understanding, the answer we would come up with would be that the abolition of slavery was not a properly Biblical goal. I think a good case could probably be made that the Enlightenment and the bracketing of Scripture in light of reason was operational in William Wilberforce becoming an abolitionist.

So we do not use Scripture as our moral touchstone. And if something else is serving as our moral touchstone, then why the hell aren't we focusing on that instead of the Bible?

I sincerely want to hear an answer to that question, or to hear a good challenge to its assumptions.

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