Wham Bam Thank You, Sam!

Turns out, Sam Harris is not actually an atheist. You heard me, girls. Although he backpedals a bit in a new afterword, his best-selling New Atheist manifesto The End of Faith concludes: “Man is manifestly not the measure of all things. The universe is shot through with mystery.” And so on, in an eloquent plea for the existence of something the rest of us might just go ahead and call God.

Faith vs. Reason

No, the inspiration for this howl of righteous rhetoric was not atheism but rage, pure and simple: Harris started it on September 12, 2001, when he was just a philosophy student with no agent and no movement, and it appeared three years later like a spider on a piece of wedding cake.

His thesis has two parts:

  1. Religion requires belief in propositions that are irrational, and so undermines reason itself
  2. Worse, religions are all inherently binary and create a worldview of us vs. them that leads inevitably to violent conflict

These are bold, bold claims, seekers, and Harris gets ten chips for clarity. The first point cannot even been addressed without a Ph.D. in Theology, of course, although we here at The God Project Dot Net humbly make an attempt, week by rambling week, on our journey to the undiscovered country.

Most religious people are not Biblical literalists or fundamentalists; nobody was, actually, before about 1900. Origen, one of the greatest Christian theologians of the first centuries of the church, had an elaborately figurative reading of exactly those scriptural passages that most offend Harris. It takes almost total ignorance of the history of religion to think literalism is not a modern (actually American) phenomenon. To take one example Harris uses a lot, no, we ordinary Catholics do not really believe you can “eat Christ’s body in a cracker” — that would be cannibalism.

And don’t get Harris started on the Muslims. They positively derange him. He combs the Koran looking for intemperate statements, finds plenty (p117-123), and concludes: “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.” Glenn Beck could not have said it better.

Now, if Harris had read the Hebrew Bible, he would have found it even more offensive: so why aren’t the Jews called a “cult of death”? No, Harris hates Muslims, thinks they are stupid and violent; it’s really that simple.

My reaction, again, is he’s tragically disrespecting the complexity and — yes — intelligence of most believers. Scriptures are pre-modern documents; they perplexed even pre-modern people. That’s why the vast majority of the faithful have always read them non-literally, as signs or pointers to a truth beyond words. (See James Kugel‘s How to Read the Bible for an extraordinarily detailed demonstration of this point.)

Once again, an Atheist lets us down: he doesn’t help us to know whether or not there is a God, because he doesn’t care. Harris deserves more casino credit for focusing us back on the role of reason in faith, forcing us to ponder yet again, like Aquinas, how the two are compatible — a project that was largely abandoned after the Enlightenment, when faith and reason had their Great Divorce.

A couple outrageous thoughts before we overstay yet another brunch, bros:

  1. Religion doesn’t seem to cause wars anymore — none of the big conflicts of the 20th century were holy wars (the World Wars, Viet Nam, Korea, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Desert Storm, civil war in Rwanda, etc.)
  2. Patriotism is much more dangerous — patriotism or nationalism seems to me to create a far more explicit us-vs-them mentality and better rationale for armed invasion, without any hint of religion’s annoying “love your neighbor,” um, irrationality.

Until next time: keep thinking!

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