Thursday, November 16, 2006

the uncomfortable implications of belief

A good friend of mine sent me a link to an article by Sam Harris on MSNBC titled "A Dissent: The Case Against Faith." My friend quoted a passage from the article:

We are living in a world in which millions of Christians hope to soon be raptured into the stratosphere by Jesus so that they can safely enjoy a sacred genocide that will inaugurate the end of human history.

Not being a theist myself, I see little reason to defend Christianity from the slings and arrows of caricature, but the remark-- especially that pungent phrase "sacred genocide"-- is nevertheless a good starting point for a discussion of the discomfiting implications of faith and doctrine (especially doctrine). Is a thought-system ethical if it leads to sacred genocide?

The problem for "the open-minded" in interreligious dialogue, or in science-religion dialogue, is that fundamental truth claims in any given thought-system are almost inevitably hegemonic. I've blogged about this on several occasions, but this point came to mind again as I was listening to Dr. V.V. Raman on a National Public Radio podcast devoted to Hinduism and science (see here-- with thanks to Mike). In the podcast, Dr. Raman claims, as a scientist who is also a devout Hindu, that truth is one, but its names are many. He gives an example from music: there is music in general, the numerically singular phenomenon, but you cannot listen to "music in general": to learn about music, you have to listen to specific genres, specific artists, specific songs, specific notes. Each specific encounter is a pathway to the One of music. There are many pathways to this One, many manifestations of the One Music. Dr. Raman notes that we should accept that there are different paths and, he adds, we should not attempt to impose our own views on other people.

That latter point is precisely where the danger appears when we talk dialogue and practice: tolerance is a virtue, but it's a specific virtue. If Raman seriously means what he's saying, then he's making a hegemonic truth claim, namely: people with exclusivistic outlooks are doing the wrong thing.

If supposedly open-minded people like Dr. Raman are in fact "committing hegemony," if I may coin a goofy phrase, how much worse, then, are those thought-systems that come to the table with thick sheafs of highly specific doctrines, each representing equally universal claims? Can we all truly be inhabiting a universe in which there both is and isn't a fundamental self? A universe in which there both is and isn't an Abrahamic creator God?

It's not comforting to think about where our doctrines lead us. A pedestrian example, rightly cited by Sam Harris, is this problem of "sacred genocide." If you're a biblical literalist, you probably have to accept that what the scriptures reveal is what will literally happen-- namely, that humanity will experience cataclysmic losses during a period of divinely orchestrated apocalyptic conflict culminating in an eschaton that sanctifies the righteous. Sacred genocide, though, doesn't have to mean the actual killing of the infidel: it may be enough simply to convert him.

This is, on a grand scale, what we see happening among many of the world's major religious traditions today. The planet has become a small place, and all the traditions are competing in essentially the same market. The battle of the religious memeplexes is, at bottom, about survival and propagation. We see this in the Christian scriptures when we look at the Great Commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew (Mt. 28:19): "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." See also Philippians 2:9-11: "Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

It's scary, when you think about it. If certain religious doctrines are taken seriously, if we truly follow their implications, we can conclude with some assurance that the hegemonic character of central religious truth claims will lead to hegemonic behavior. We see a constant stream of evidence of this on the news these days.

Hinduism's pluralism seems to rely on the respect of paradox to get the adherent through the day without clubbing a rival religious adherent over the head. I waver on this issue; I think the appreciation of paradox may have a place in religious thinking, but I'm also chastened by the words of Robert Aitken roshi, who noted that there are no paradoxes in nature. His point is that paradox is something that arises in the mind; it's often just a function of how we draw our maps of reality. Paradox is an irrelevancy, an appendix that adds little to daily practice. Aitken has a point: we do tend to over-complicate matters.

Sam Harris's article seems to be arguing that religion in general is freighted with so many harmful (and ridiculous) beliefs and doctrines that it would be better to jettison the entire enterprise. I seriously doubt that that's going to happen. As long as human beings have brains equipped with pattern-finding ability, we will always inhabit worlds alive with meaning, discovered or invented. But Harris is right to challenge believers to tease out the implications of what they believe, and perhaps to see in what way their beliefs are connected to their actions.


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