Faith Won’t Heal a Divided World
By Sam Harris
Most Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God and, therefore, divine; Muslims, however, believe that Jesus was not divine and that anyone who thinks otherwise will suffer the torments of hell (Koran 5:71-75; 19:30-38). This difference of opinion offers about as much room for compromise as a coin toss.
If there is common ground to be found through interfaith dialogue, it will only be found by people who are willing to keep their eyes averted from the chasm that divides their faith from all others. It is time we began to wonder whether such a strategy of politeness and denial will ever heal the divisions in our world.
True dialogue requires a willingness to have one’s beliefs about reality modified through conversation. Such an openness to criticism and inquiry is the very antithesis of dogmatism. It is worth observing that religion is the one area of our lives where faith in dogma—that is, belief without sufficient evidence—is considered a virtue. If such faith is a virtue, it is a virtue that is completely unknown to scientific discourse. Science is, in fact, the one domain in which a person can win considerable prestige for proving himself wrong. In science, honesty is all. In religion, faith is all. This is about as invidious as comparisons get.
Whenever human beings make an honest effort to get at the truth, they reliably transcend the accidents of their birth and upbringing. It would, of course, be absurd to speak of “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra.” And there is no such thing as Iraqi or Japanese—as distinct from American—science. Reasonable people really do have a monopoly on the truth. And while they might not agree about everything in the near term, common ground surrounds them on all sides. Consequently, there is no significant impediments within scientific discourse: It isn’t always pretty, but the conversation continues without appeals to force or deference to dogma. There are scientific dogmas, of course, but wherever they are found, they are set upon with hammer blows. In science, it is a cardinal sin to pretend to know something that you do not know. Such pretense is the very essence of religious faith.
It is not an accident that scientific discourse has produced an extraordinary convergence of opinion and remarkable results. What has interfaith dialogue produced? Meetings between representatives of the world’s major religions yield little more than platitudinous calls for peace and a willingness to ignore what many participants strongly believe—that every other party to the conversation will probably spend eternity in hell for his misconceptions about God. The differences between scientific and religious discourse should tell us something about where to place our hopes for an undivided world.
November 14, 2006