Thanks to Framing Science for pointing me to a debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan about religion and religious moderation.
Shorter Sam Harris: If only religious people understood religion as well as atheists do, they’d be atheists like I am.
Honestly, Harris writes “Moderate doubt—which I agree is an improvement over fundamentalist certitude in most respects—often blinds its host to the reality and consequences of full-tilt religious lunacy.” While his own absolute rejection of faith gives him what insight into “full-tilt religious” … what, exactly?
When Andrew Sullivan, of all people, has the better of the argument, it really is time to pack it in.
For instance, we don’t even need Sully in order to address this canard:
Religious moderates—by refusing to question the legitimacy of raising children to believe that they are Christians, Muslims, and Jews—tacitly support the religious divisions in our world. They also perpetuate the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence in order to have an ethical and spiritual life.
Who’s to say that religious moderates don’t question those points? Who is to say that religious moderates, through their example of moderation and tolerance, are not actively working against the idea that those divisions are fundamental?
As for “the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence…,” I’d merely note that this ought to lead us to a state of profound agnosticism. There can be no natural evidence for God (philosophy of science and theology generally agree on this point), and neither could there be natural evidence against the supernatural. Insisting that others acknowledge the fundamental importance of one’s own answer to questions only answerable through revelation seems unwise, whatever your answer.
We do well, then, to heed the words of Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, writing on relations between Jews and Christians, but I think more widely applicable:
the logos, the word, in which the multifarious religious experience is expressed does not lend itself to standardization or universalization. The word of faith reflects the intimate, the private, the paradoxically inexpressible cravings of the individual for and his linking up with his Maker. It reflects the numinous character and the strangeness of the act of faith of a particular community which is totally incomprehensible to the man of a different faith community. Hence, it is important that the religious or theological logos should not be employed as the medium of communication between two faith communities whose modes of expression are as unique as their apocalyptic experiences. The confrontation should occur not at a theological but at a mundane human level. There, all of us speak the universal language of modern man. As a matter of fact our common interests lie in the realm of faith, but in that of the secular orders.
My emphasis. It is clear that Sam Harris agrees that people should confront (in the politest sense of the term) on the mundane human level, and address the secular issues of personal faith, morality and spirituality that divide us. The fact that Jews and Christians understand theology differently did not mean the Rabbi refused to talk with Christians, indeed he initiated a number of interfaith dialogues on issues of poverty, civil rights and morality. It is not clear to me what part of this Mr. Harris would dispute, actually. Yet he insists that Jews, among others, somehow insist on theological unity before we can reach moral agreement. While that may be true of some Jews, as it is of some Christians and some Muslims, it is not the uniform belief of any of those religions, nor of many others. It strikes me as more worth while to address the behaviors that divide us, not the thoughts.
What people like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins fail to address to my satisfaction is that it is worth arguing over unknowable questions about theology, when the issues that either divide us or unite us are usually about our behavior towards one another, not our beliefs. Perhaps Dr. Myers’ book will succeed where others have failed.
Here is an example of such a problem. Sam Harris points to riots over the Danish cartoons lampooning Muhammad as evidence of the harm theistic faith causes. It’s hardly worth noting that the same 10 Commandments which forbid graven images also forbid murder, and no one would argue that it is permissible to violate one commandment to enforce another. It is easy enough to see that it is not faith in Allah or the prophecies of Muhammad that caused the riots, but a combination of credulous acceptance of the decrees of a few religio-political leaders and seething resentment towards the West that caused people to violate the Commandments. It is also easy to see that a dehumanizing attitude towards members of communities of different ethnic, religious and political background inspired some Dane to think that publishing unfunny cartoons about the Prophet was somehow worthwhile.
Another example from Jewish law may be appropriate here. While the first commandment is “I am the Lord your God,” it is accepted in Jewish law that non-Jews are not expected to convert. Indeed, gentiles are considered moral so long as they obey certain behavioral precepts; religious beliefs are not considered to mark someone as immoral. Biblical prophets denounce nations which behave contrary to these rules, especially regarding worship of idols, but do not criticize the beliefs that might drive a person to those behaviors. “Keep it to yourself” is more the message of the prophets.
The distinction between belief and behavior is useful in modern discourse also. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” and elsewhere that “religion is a matter which lies solely between a man and his God.” This idea is foundational to this country and to other modern liberal democracies. It applies equally well to issues of political philosophy and the general principle of free speech. How an individual speaks or thinks is no account for anyone else, so long as no other is forced to listen to the speech or to adhere to the same thoughts. And if they are so forced, it is the force which is in error, not the thought.
Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins earn the title “fundamentalist” in some circles because they espouse no sort of “moderate doubt” to dilute their own certainty. The occasional flirtations their broad group sometimes has with coercive means to reduce not only harmless religious behavior, but religious thought as well, places them in close league with fundamentalism. On this basis, I’ll offer a simple definition of fundamentalism: the idea that differences in unfalsifiable beliefs are fundamental to our relationships with other humans.
No one can dispute the accuracy of that definition for the Taliban or for those who would force creationism into public schools. It is a twist on the standard derivation of the term, in which religious movements attempted to return to “fundamental principles.” I would argue that it is not the return to those fundamentals that marks the ideology, but the act of recognizing those ideas as fundamental. Sam Harris regards theistic belief as marking a fundamental division in society, just as the authors of “The Fundamentals” a century ago regarded belief in the Virgin Birth and special creation to represent fundamental divisions.
They, like Mr. Harris and Dr. Dawkins, argued against the absorption of their religious community into a society-at-large that was accepting of different and indifferent to the details of religious faith. The excellent Wikipedia entry on fundamentalism describes early protestant fundamentalists as fearing “absorption into modern, Western culture, where this absorption appears to the enclave to have made irreversible progress in the wider religious community, necessitating the assertion of a separate identity based upon the fundamental or founding principles of the religion.”
For examples of that behavior, see Richard Dawkins and his references to “the Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists,” approvingly quoted by various and sundry.