by Kenneth W. Krause.
Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer. Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“As long as it is acceptable for a person to believe that he knows how God wants everyone on earth to live, we will continue to murder one another on account of our myths.” Sam Harris, philosopher and neuroscientist, minces no words for the sake of others alleging tender religious sensibilities. In The End of Faith, he identifies the destructive nature of faith and beseeches all readers, atheists and religious moderates alike, to retire their rhetorical kid gloves in favor of something more akin to brass knuckles.
Faith, according to Hebrews 11:1, is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” “Faith,” according to Harris, “is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse—constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor.” Religion “preaches the truth of propositions for which it has no evidence,” and, in fact, “the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable.”
From the sublime to the ridiculous: 35 percent of Americans think that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of their god. Nearly 230 million among us believe that an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity authored a book inconsistent in both content and style. 120 million Americans date the Big Bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians learned to brew beer. These “epistemological black holes,” Harris moans, “are fast draining the light from our world.”
But shouldn’t we allow people think as they choose? “‘Freedom of belief,’ is a myth,” answers Harris. “We are no more free to believe whatever we want about God than we are free to adopt unjustified beliefs about science or history.” If evidence doesn’t choose one’s beliefs, after all, some other mechanism surely will. Should we be surprised if such mechanisms prove inconsistent, incoherent and unpredictable? So long as the faithful insist on making pervasive claims about worldly truths, their rational counterparts are morally obliged to subject such claims to both logic and empirical evidence.
But why should we care what our neighbors think? “As man believes,” replies Harris, “so will he act.” At best, “faith leaves otherwise well-intentioned people incapable of thinking rationally.” At worst, “it is a continuous source of human violence.” That being the case, “it is time we realized that to presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil. Wherever conviction grows in inverse proportion to its justification, we have lost the very basis of human cooperation.” Where we abandon reason, “we have lost both our connection to the world and to one another.”
“All pretensions to theological knowledge,” the author demands, “should now be seen from the perspective of a man who was just beginning his day on the one hundredth floor of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001.” As for the devout perpetrators, they “were certainly no ‘cowards,’ as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith—perfect faith, as it turns out—and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.”
On what empirical bases can Harris defend this radical indictment? First, consider the sacred texts from which the very idea of faith flows. Koran 9:73 and 9:123, for example, command the faithful to “make war on the unbelievers.” In Deuteronomy 13:6 et. seq., God orders his followers to murder without pity any neighbor, friend, or family member who questions his authority. And in John 15:6, Jesus suggests that the faithless deserve incineration. Such references, of course, are anything but obscure or isolated.
Consider next the pages of history. In so doing, Harris finds that “ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion.”
The author tenders a convincing case, beginning with a vivid description of various techniques of torture made famous by the pious priests of the Spanish Inquisition. Such carnage, by the way, continued well into the nineteenth century, until the last auto-da-fe was executed in Mexico in 1850. Self-styled Protestant ‘reformers,’ to be sure, were no less committed to faith, and consequently, no less brutal. “Heretics were still reduced to ash, scholars were tortured and killed for impertinent displays of reason, and fornicators were murdered without qualm.”
Such brutality only intensified as technology and time progressed. Harris cites several recent and religiously inspired wars around the world, from Sri Lanka to Northern Ireland, Indonesia to Palestine, Nigeria to the Balkans, involving atrocities perpetrated by Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and others. “If history reveals any categorical truth,” he concludes, “it is that an insufficient taste for evidence regularly brings out the worst in us. Add weapons of mass destruction to this diabolical clockwork, and you have found a recipe for the fall of civilization.”
Religious moderates, of course, will argue that it is not faith, but rather man’s baser instincts that inspire such violence. But could even the most obsequious religious devotee contend that the witch-hunts or the Crusades would have occurred and persisted in the absence of their mythical foundations? “Ordinary people,” Harris replies, “cannot be moved to burn genial old scholars alive for blaspheming the Koran, or to celebrate the violent deaths of their children, unless they believe some improbable things about the nature of the universe.”
Is there any mystery as to the means by which Jesus’ principal message of loving one’s neighbor and turning the other cheek has morphed into a doctrine of slaughter? Perhaps biblical ambiguity and irregularity are partially responsible. But the real culprit, according to Harris, is the principle of faith itself. Once a person eschews reason, she abandons all hope of meaningful communication with others; the conversation, if it ever began, is now finished.
Nor should one underestimate faith’s pernicious effect on our daily lives. “Even the most docile forms of Christianity,” Harris writes, “currently present insuperable obstacles to AIDS prevention and family planning in the developing world, to medical research, and to the development of a rational drug policy.”
The author urges us to reconsider, for example, the political debate over human embryonic stem cells:
Here is what we know. . . . [R]esearch on embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of human embryos at the 150-cell stage. There is not the slightest reason to believe, however, that such embryos have the capacity to sense pain, to suffer, or to experience the loss of life in any way at all. What is indisputable is that there are millions of human beings who do have these capacities, and who currently suffer from traumatic injuries to the brain and spinal cord. Millions more suffer from traumatic injuries to the brain and spinal cord . . ., from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases . . ., from stroke and heart disease, from burns, from diabetes, from rheumatoid arthritis, form Purkinje cell degeneration, form Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and from vision and hearing loss. We know that embryonic stem cells promise to be a renewable source of tissues and organs that might alleviate such suffering in the not too distant future. . . . . Out of deference to some rather poorly specified tenets of Christian doctrine (after all, nothing in the Bible suggests that killing human embryos, or even human fetuses, is the equivalent of killing a human being), the U.S. House of Representatives voted effectively to ban embryonic stem-cell research on February 27, 2003. No rational approach to ethics would have led us to such an impasse. Our present policy on human stem cells has been shaped by beliefs that are divorced from every reasonable intuition we might form about the possible experience of living systems. . . . Those opposed to therapeutic stem-cell research on religious grounds constitute the biological and ethical equivalent of a flat-earth society. . . . Faith will do nothing but enshrine a perfect immensity of human suffering for decades to come.
“In our next presidential election,” Harris observes, “an actor who reads his Bible would almost certainly defeat a rocket scientist who does not.” According to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the death penalty is justified because, “for the believing Christian, death is no big deal.” And Tom DeLay appears supremely committed to blind faith, even as an exclusive means of government. In the House Majority Leader’s opinion, “Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world. Only Christianity.”
“This,” writes Harris, “is reason in ruins. . . . The rules of civil discourse currently demand that Reason wear a veil whenever she ventures out in public. But the rules of civil discourse must change.”
Religious moderates often attempt to shirk their share of culpability for this wretched state of affairs, shifting it to their fundamentalist collaborators. These moderates are infamous for wanting it both ways—pretending to enjoy both rationality and the psychological consolation of self-deception.
But “religious moderation,” Harris advises, “is the product of . . . scriptural ignorance.” For all their dreadful shortcomings, some fundamentalists at least accept the original intent behind the less pleasant verses in their Bible or Koran. The paradoxical liberal Christian hermeneutic, by contrast, seems to imply an immutable god that evolves, or an omniscient god that was somehow so dramatically less inspiring in Deuteronomy than in Matthew that contemporary Christians are completely justified in ignoring the former and exalting the latter. “By failing to live by the letter of these texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.”
And, unfortunately for the community of reason, moderates are betrayed by at least two additional myths: First, that theism offers benefits that cannot be found elsewhere, and second, that individual tolerance of unjustified beliefs is compassionate. Exactly what moderates deem compassionate about the cultivation of recurrent persecutions and massacres is beyond comprehension. Such myths, according to the author, only “foster religious extremism” and comprise “the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.”
Liberal monotheism, as a monolithic force, is perhaps the greatest remaining obstruction between reason and the popular psyche. “Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.”
Harris’ arguments are both intrepid and appropriate. He neglects, however, to illuminate two critical distinctions.
First, for all his judicious insistence that belief be based on evidence, the author never recognizes the linguistic foundation for that idea. Before confronting monotheistic dogma, the community of reason must commit to and demand from others communicative clarity and consistency. ‘Belief’ and ‘faith’ are not interchangeable terms, as even Harris too often employs them in his book.
American theists in particular have grown too comfortable with their convenient abuse of the English language. ‘Belief’ is not so elastic a term that it can be stretched to any length necessary to legitimize a person’s perceived relationship to his subject, in this context a god. In order to ‘believe’ in something, regardless of what that something is, one must first have concluded that a preponderance of the available evidence suggests its existence. ‘Faith,’ on the other hand, if it even exists, is based on substantially less evidence, or quite often, no evidence at all (which, of course, begs the appropriate and crucial question as to its actual basis).
People of faith should be held responsible for this distinction from the beginning. Language is a compelling tool, as any political strategist knows. Given the nature of Harris’ argument, it was reckless of him to ignore this point and to concede language’s potential to the minions of the dangerously irrational.
Second, Harris fails to make the necessary distinction between the pernicious potential of religion generally and Abrahamic monotheism in particular. Theoretically, non-theistic religions are no more inherently violent than any given philosophy. Abrahamic monotheisms, on the other hand, with their jealous, exclusive gods and their emphases on heavenly rewards for some and infernal punishments for others, naturally inspire popular narcissism and, consequently, an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ cultural attitude. Because this distinction illuminates the source of much if not most of the world’s history of violence, the author was remiss in ignoring it.
Even so, Sam Harris’ principal contentions are both timely and true: “Before you can get to the end of this paragraph, another person will probably die because of what someone else believes [sic] about God. Perhaps it is time we demanded that our fellow human beings had better reasons for maintaining their religious differences, if such reasons even exist.” Now that’s legitimate compassion—minus fashionable cowardice.