Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter meditation: contra Sam Harris

Sam Harris is on a mission.

Harris's basic message is that the time has come to speak openly and honestly about religion, because that has not occurred in his opinion. He feels that the survival of civilization is in danger because of a taboo against questioning religious beliefs. While highlighting what he regards as a particular problem posed by Islam at this moment with respect to international terrorism, Harris makes a direct criticism of religion of all styles and persuasions. He sees religion as an impediment to progress toward what he considers more enlightened approaches to spirituality and ethics. Harris has written that "shamanism, Gnosticism, Kabbalah, Hermetism and its magical Renaissance spawn (Hermeticism) and all the other Byzantine paths whereby man has sought the Other in every guise of its conception" are constructive forces, and that spiritual experiences can "uncover genuine facts about the world".

While an atheist by definition, Harris asserts that the term is not necessary. His position is that "atheism" is not a worldview or a philosophy, but the "destruction of bad ideas". He claims that religion is especially rife with bad ideas, calling it "one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised". He compares modern-day religious beliefs to the myths of the Ancient Greeks, which were once accepted as fact, but are obsolete today. In a January 2007 interview with PBS, Harris noted that: "We don't have a word for not believing in Zeus, which is to say we are all atheists in respect to Zeus. And we don't have a word for not being an astrologer". He goes on to say that the term will be retired only when "we all just achieve a level of intellectual honesty where we are no longer going to pretend to be certain about things we are not certain about".

In 2004, Harris's book, The End of Faith, was published. I haven't read the book, but I did find an excerpt from it that hit me where I live. The excerpt comes from a chapter that deals with people like me: self-proclaimed religious moderates, religious pluralists, and the like.* Harris finds much that is blameworthy in our stance, and if I read him rightly, he is essentially suggesting that moderates and pluralists are analogous to "enablers" in a dysfunctional relationship:

The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don't like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.

Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question-- i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us-- religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.

The benignity of most religious moderates does not suggest that religious faith is anything more sublime than a desperate marriage of hope and ignorance, nor does it guarantee that there is not a terrible price to be paid for limiting the scope of reason in our dealings with other human beings. Religious moderation, insofar as it represents an attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics, and the building of strong communities.

Harris seems to think that moderates and pluralists are purposely or inadvertently protecting their more rabid coreligionists, but I think the assertion in Harris's first sentence is wrong. Contrary to Harris's claim, I would contend that religious moderation and pluralism are often critical responses to fundamentalism, scriptural literalism, and similar orientations.

I am also unsure how Harris can justify calling moderation and pluralism "an attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion." Theologians like John Hick or the far more radical John Shelby Spong would probably style their project as one of deconstruction: both Hick and Spong are willing to go so far as to throw out the resurrection-- the very cornerstone of Christian faith-- in their radical recasting of the Christian message. What Harris is talking about is more reminiscent of the humorous stereotypes one hears about the Catholic Church: every announced revision in Roman dogma begins, "As we have always contended..."**

In speaking this way about religion, Harris mischaracterizes the phenomenon as non-evolving, which is ludicrous even from a non-religious standpoint. I would agree that religious traditions are highly, highly resistant to change; as my former pastor used to say, "If you want to find a group of people more unwilling to change than any other, go to a church." There's truth to this. But Harris should know better than to view religions as static phenomena. They do indeed change, the doctrines within them change, and one of the ways they evolve is by interacting with scientists, the non-religious, and yes, with other religious traditions.

Now more than ever, deep and meaningful interreligious interaction at multiple levels has become possible. These days, we have transcontinental chats with friends of different faiths; researchers in remote areas can compare notes on the religions they're studying; traditional religious claims can be challenged and debated by scholars and clergy; anyone can talk to anyone about any religious issue. The advent of all this technology has meant the breaking down of many cultural barriers and the freer exchange of religious ideas. While religious diversity has been the norm throughout human history, we truly feel it now, and I sense that interreligious interactions can and will lead to real-- possibly speedy-- evolution in the future.***

Perhaps one of the most frustrating parts of the Harris excerpt is this:

Religious moderates seem to believe that what we need is not radical insight and innovation in these areas but a mere dilution of Iron Age philosophy. Rather than bring the full force of our creativity and rationality to bear on the problems of ethics, social cohesion, and even spiritual experience, moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world. [italics added]

I have the impression that Harris, in his eagerness to tear down the "bad ideas" of religion, hasn't actually bothered to speak with (m)any religious moderates or pluralists, for the above-italicized text describes exactly what we moderates and pluralists do. Far from aiding and abetting what we, along with Harris, would agree is ridiculous and antiquated thinking, we work from within our traditions to bring about greater and greater change. We do this in different ways, of course, and the overall picture is admittedly messy, but I bristle at Harris's implication what we strive only for "a mere dilution of Iron Age philosophy." That's not it at all.

Please don't get me wrong. I like and respect Sam Harris, and I certainly admire his guts. I think he's giving religion in general exactly the kick in the ass it needs, and it couldn't come at a better time. I hope that young people-- those most likely to bring about major changes in the future-- will take heed of what Harris says. But the man has to take a closer look at the phenomenon he's critiquing before passing too swift a judgment on it. His arguments about religious moderates and pluralists miss the mark entirely. Religious change does happen; it's happening right now. Sam Harris himself is part of that change, and he should take comfort in the fact that he has friends and sympathizers in some surprising places.

*Harris is guilty of a conflation here: a religious moderate is not the same thing as a religious pluralist. Ask any religious conservative whether they believe pluralists to be moderate. Perhaps this doesn't matter from Harris's point of view, but a hasty conflation hints at sloppy thinking, in this case caused by an over-eager willingness to look at the whole religious tangle and say, "Bleh... it's all the same."

**I had a Catholic classmate at CUA who gave me a dark look when I uttered that line in our interreligious dialogue class. Nice girl, but convinced the world was out to destroy her church.

***I'm not a wide-eyed optimist about this, of course, and I certainly don't see all religions converging into a single global religion. But religious splits and fusions are as much a part of human history as diversity itself is; it's not out of the question that something new will emerge from the current cacophony.


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