Faith and Reason

Awhile back, CBC Radio interviewed Sam Harris on his book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. I was actually shocked at how neutral the interviewer was: not once did he speak as though he assumed Mr Harris’ views had any validity whatsoever. All the same, I found myself finding bits and pieces of Harris’ message that were actually valuable.

Okay, the guy’s an atheist and therefore dogmatically antireligious. He claims “religious faith is a conversation stopper” and demands that society censure anyone who uses religious terminology in conversation.

He makes some excellent points that few are willing to make in our present “politically correct” environment.

Islamic fundamentalism is only a problem for us because the fundamentals of Islam are a problem for us. There is a pervasive piece of wishful thinking circulating among religious moderates, and it could get a lot of us killed. The idea is that all religions, at their core, teach the same thing. This is myth. The principal tenet of Jainism is non-harming. Observant Jains will literally not harm a fly. Fundamentalist Jainism and fundamentalist Islam do not have the same consequences, neither logically nor behaviorally. Read the Koran. Osama bin Laden is playing it more or less by the book. Anyone who says that there is no basis for his worldview in the doctrine of Islam is either dangerously ignorant or just dangerous. —Q&A with Sam Harris

Few are willing to publicly state that Islam is dangerous to the entire world. Deeply dangerous. “The fundamentals of Islam are a problem for us.”

Let me contrast a little between this dangerous religion and Christianity, which Harris paints with the same brush. The problem isn’t “does God exist” or “is the Bible (or Koran) true”. The problem is “what are the basic tenets of the religions in question”?

A basic tenet of Islam is “submit to Islam or die”. The basic tenets of Christianity are “Love God and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.” It takes a great deal of mental aerobics to translate “love your neighbour” into “kill your neighbour” for any reason.

Furthermore, Harris claims that religion directly and inevitably leads to violence.

If you truly believe that your neighbor is going to hell for his unbelief, and you believe that his ideas about the world are putting the souls of your children in peril, it is quite sensible to drive him from your community, or kill him. Religion, by promising an eternity of supernatural rewards and punishments, raises the stakes enormously. Which is worse, a child molester or a heretic? If you really believe that the heretic can endanger your child for all time, there’s simply no contest. —Q&A with Sam Harris

Has religion led to violence? Yes. Do the tenets of some religions directly lead to violence? Yes. Does a clear and Biblical understanding of Christianity lead, directly and inevitably, to violence? Absolutely not.

Let’s look at evangelical Christianity, what most folks think of when they think “fundamentalist”. Evangelical Christianity claims that True Believers will go to Heaven forever when they die, and that unbelievers will go to Hell forever. Therefore, if a Christian dies, hey, we’re sad and miss them, but our separation is only temporary. But if an unbeliever dies, it is a deep and shocking tragedy. There is no room whatsoever in this worldview for “kill your neighbour” for any reason.

Let’s couple this Heaven-and-Hell belief with the Anabaptist belief that “religious convictions should be uncoerced”[1]. Anabaptist thought is a precursor to many groups, including modern-day Baptists and Pentecostals — definitely those that most would think of as “fundamentalist”. So Christian “fundamentalists” would, if honest to their religious convictions, believe something like this: “An unbeliever will go to Hell for all eternity, but someone who is coerced into religion is no safer.”

Therefore the only rational choice for a “fundamentalist” Christian is to earnestly engage his neighbours in whatever language or style they can best accept, and try to convince them to voluntarily become Christians. There’s a terribly fine line here, because if the “sales job” is too enthusiastic, people will generally get turned off and feel more antipathy towards Christianity, not less. So the “fundamentalist” must be gentle, kind, loving, and sensitive, lest he undo his own work.

What atheists and thinking Christians ought to do if they want to combat religious violence is rather than condemning all religion as “dangerous”, instead encourage “fundamentalist” evangelical Christians to follow the tenets of their own religion. But of course Harris’ goal isn’t reducing violence, it’s eliminating religion.

People who invoke God in public discourse are either speaking in empty platitudes or making some very suspect claims about the nature of the world, or about the character of their own experience. We should demand that they start making sense, and if they fail to make sense, we should stop listening to them. — interview

What Harris doesn’t realise—or ignores, more likely—is that faith and reason are neither mutually exclusive nor polar opposites. The works of C.S. Lewis and (much more so) Francis Schaeffer are not only deliberately and passionately rational, but geared precisely towards someone like Harris. Unreasonable, blind, dogmatic “faith” is not what faith actually is—at least not in Christianity. Faith in Christianity is, arguably, always based on evidence.

The original Christian church was built on a group of men who claimed to have been eyewitnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection—a claim that they maintained through torture and execution. Their “faith” was based on the evidence of what they saw and experienced, and also rational arguments made to them by their Teacher. This was no “shut up and believe” religion. This was entirely based on eyewitness accounts and rational arguments. That the Christian “church” has often in history been afraid of rational arguments is a mark of its divergence from actual Christianity, not an indictment against Christianity itself.

Christianity didn’t suffer when Galileo argued that the Earth wasn’t the centre of the universe. Christian theology didn’t suffer. Some “church” leaders who were afraid of Truth felt threatened, but there’s nothing in the Bible that demands a geocentric universe.

The foundations of what we today call “science” were laid by Christians (or at least deists) who believed firmly in a God, a Creator, and absolute, verifiable Truth that would stand up to rational questioning and argument. Yes, there have always been people in all sorts of worldviews that are afraid to have their worldviews questioned—Harris may feel that way about his atheism. But Truth can handle questioning. If it couldn’t, it wouldn’t be true.

Therefore Harris’ call for a public willingness to question religious dogma, to poke at it and see if it still holds water, should be welcomed gladly by thinking Christians. If Truth exists, then It can stand a little—actually, a lot of questioning. Not mindless, blind, hate-filled, agenda-seeking attacks, which is arguably what Harris would like to offer, but real, honest, rational discourse desiring the same goal—finding Truth, or at least a little more of it.

The danger is when people fail to filter out the extreme intolerance—and Harris firmly believes in institutional intolerance against religious people—and close their minds to the possibility that their antireligious dogma might be wrong, just as religious dogma can be wrong. Then we have the historical realities of Russian freethinkers sent to the Communist gulag, and current violent persecution against Christians in China and other countries.

Banning or censuring religion is not the solution to global violence. Eastern mysticism is not the solution to global violence—there is documented evidence of Buddhist attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka as well as dogmatic atheist violence against religious people.

What is the solution? I’m not sure. But I have some ideas on that front.