Saturday, Sep 18, 2004
Should We Junk Religion?
By SALEM ALATON
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
By Sam Harris
Norton, 336 pages, $36
In a scene from Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Stella Kowalski relates her sister’s account of having been raped by Stella’s husband.
“I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley,” Stella tells her neighbour, Eunice.
Fiercely, the older woman responds: “Don’t ever believe it. Life has got to go on. No matter what happens, you’ve got to keep on going.”
That’s faith; and in obscuring certain things and brightening others, faith can make a normative way of living possible.
Not always benign for individuals, however, the consolations of faith can become actively destructive when codified in religious authoritarianism. In our current global predicament it is religious faith that must be abandoned if civilization is to endure, argues Sam Harris, a young U.S. academic in philosophy and neuroscience, whose debut book champions floodlit rationality.
“To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world—to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish—is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it,” Harris writes. “But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness.”
The End of Faith is unmistakably a post-9/11 book, with considerable emphasis on the delirium of Islamic fundamentalism, but Harris is more equitable than that may sound. Here, all religion represents irrationality, even madness. Through a prism of evidence-based reality, Harris sees religion’s stories as not only ludicrous but murderous, permeated with toxic intolerance for differing views.
That’s easy enough for Harris to show with a few sacred texts and a highlight marker. In passages, the Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Koran all verge amply into what we, in other contexts today, call hate literature. When not immediately calling for the sword for unbelievers, they’re stoning their co-religionists for any social infraction and brandishing Hell to dissenters on an apocalyptic Day of Judgment.
History also provides Harris’s bushel basket of destructive irrationality with much low-hanging fruit, from Christianity’s ghastly inquisitions and crusades to the Jews’ implacable fixity on a personal god who can’t hear screams or smell burning human flesh.
Religious moderation exists, but Harris insists moderation comes not from faith but everything external to it, a dilution attained through a forced infusion of modernity. Moreover, religious moderates still defend irrational belief as a guide to human behaviour, removing the means to effectively oppose fundamentalism.
“Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse—constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility and candour,” Harris writes in a characteristically stinging construction.
Dogmatic atheists—is there another kind?—will revel in the pointed polemic here, and religious moderates may feel in places justly admonished. People of great rectitude will be enraged, a state they fortunately find congenial.
Above all, secular humanists will find in The End of Faith a revisiting of Jonathan Schell’s resonant plea in The Fate of the Earth. As Schell argued in 1982 that nuclear proliferation meant we must give up nation-states, our present nightmare of radical theocracies seeking weapons of mass destruction prompts Harris’s call for a global parting from religion.
Overlook the fact that neither of these highly intelligent writers knows how such transformations can occur. The End of Faith has other important gaps, Stalin and Hitler being resident in one of them. Harris glancingly refers to communism and fascism as cults, but essentially ducks the problem of secular monstrosity.
As for the supporters of malign secular deities, nationalism has often been as effective an animating force for atrocity as religion, a point Harris never makes. Shinto and Buddhism hardly demanded Japan’s barbaric forays throughout Asia. For that matter, toxic intolerance—currently popular hereabouts as “zero tolerance”—runs left and right around the world. It plays out more dangerously in Tehran than in Toronto, but the dynamic is everywhere and religion is hardly the only cudgel.
Yet what of the virtues religions plausibly claim? Harris doesn’t deny that ethical behaviour, community support and spiritual experience can derive from religious practice, but argues that religion is unnecessary to produce these. Unexpectedly, he not only embraces the value of spiritual effort but—again raising the flag for empirical observation—believes “investigating the nature of consciousness directly, through sustained introspection, is simply another name for spiritual practice.”
All this is betting that secular humanism can safeguard those well-nurtured, ethical communities. Denmark or the Netherlands may have pulled it off, of course, but it’s no accident such countries have bit parts on the world stage.
And underpinning if not overriding the discussion is nature. Our pretensions to the contrary, animal nature continues to frame a rather large window onto human nature. Tyranny, murder and rape are all normative in the animal world, and pacifism, liberality and monogamy are exceptional. Humans have demonstrated their distinction in these regards mainly when their social structures vigorously reinforce those distinctions.
That’s where Harris gives the least credit where due. For all the wretchedness that attaches to the great monotheistic religions, there is a significant case to be made for their advancement of the ideal of better things.
Still, for a brainy bookworm, Harris does a muscular job as a warrior against religious authoritarianism. When he’s finished drafting the plan to defeat all authoritarianism, let’s give the distribution rights to Gideon.
. . . most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility. People tend to organize themselves into factions according to which of these incompatible claims they accept . . . . Each of these texts urges its readers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices. . . . All are in perverse agreement on one point of fundamental importance, however: “respect” for other faiths, or for the views of unbelievers, is not an attitude that God endorses. While all faiths have been touched . . . with the spirit of ecumenicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. Once a person believes—really believes—that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.
—From The End of Faith
Toronto writer Salem Alaton was born in the heart of the former Ottoman Empire, where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived for a time in peace.