A blog by Barry Edelson

On The God Debates

"Going to church on Sunday doesn't make you a religious person any more than sleeping in the garage makes you an automobile."

— Garrison Keillor

Why Harris Is Wrong
on Sam Harris' "The End of Faith"

It is difficult to dispute Harris on any particular point, and some of his barbed arguments are rather enjoyable. But he is preaching to the converted (irony intended) and that makes it altogether too easy to turn his own reasoning on its head. He writes, "If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran." By the same token, if someone is taught from birth to believe that religion is indeed the source of all human morality and goodness, then he won't discover that he's mistaken by reading Harris, Dawkins, Dennett or anyone of that stripe. (Moreover, someone who is inherently good and decent won't become a monster just because he reads the Bible and calls himself a Christian, either.) Because I happened to be raised in a religious environment that failed me in any number of complex ways, I was open to the revelation that there was another way of thinking about the world. But for every person like me, there are undoubtedly hundreds if not thousands of reasonable, open-minded, tolerant people who believe in scientific explanations of the universe but who still hew closely to the religious traditions and teachings on which they were raised — and they do this not because they are fools, but because their particular religious upbringings did NOT fail them in any meaningful way (we all know many such people).

It is easy to dismiss the devout as well-intended but delusional, as Harris does, but it seems to me that the only promising avenue for making inroads for a socially accepted norm of nonbelief is among precisely such people. Citing statistics on how many Americans never question their belief in God is deliberately provocative, not to mention suspiciously selective. The net effect is to write off the mass of human society as ignorant and backward and therefore not worthy of being listened to. It also lumps the jihadists in with the Sunday churchgoers, which is intellectually dishonest because, on any Saturday afternoon at the Museum of Natural History, any number of these supposedly delusional people who do not question the literal truth of the Bible or the existence of a divine creator will nonetheless pass by the dinosaur fossils and also not question that the earth is actually a great deal more than 6,000 years old. Harris' constant harping about the Big Bang and evolution is pointless and absurd. Any physicist who claims to really know how the universe began is nearly as "faithful" as those who believe in the God of the Old Testament or in the resurrection of Jesus. All of the evidence of the moment may point to the Big Bang, but to deride religious people for not accepting it as the literal truth (ponder that irony for a moment) is in itself a form of intolerance.

And it does no good to argue that just because science hasn't figured everything out, it doesn't prove the truth of any particular religious doctrine: this is so obvious that it doesn't bear repeating. Even reasonable religious people would concede this point. It doesn't advance the argument one iota because it ignores the fact that religious faith is rooted in a variety of complex social and psychological factors which vary from society to society and from individual to individual. Discovering the truth about the origins of the universe or the human species is only one tiny part of the equation. The Big Bang is too remote in space and time to convince any religious person of anything (or many nonbelievers, either, for that matter), and the evolution of man from "lower" primates touches upon the very heart of what it means to be human, which hits too close to home for many people to be able to contemplate it with detachment (including many nonbelievers).

In between those two extremes are vast potential areas of agreement among people, religious and nonreligious, who bother to think about these things. (If there were not, the whole of human society would erupt in a conflagration of all against all, and the species could not survive the afternoon.) Every human being's world view is cluttered with glaring contradictions that Harris conveniently overlooks. These contradictions prove little other than that a great many humans, under the pressure of daily living (even in our supposedly leisurely society) or through an absence of deep curiosity, live a largely unexamined life. Almost everyone allows others to do at least some of their thinking for them. This is both a strength and weakness in human development: we learn from one another, from those who came before and from those around us now, but the substance of what we learn ranges from profound insight to utter nonsense. If some people do indeed cling to the nonsense, they don't always do so just because they are idiots. Fools, sophists, charlatans and dreamers are distributed evenly in the human population, among believers and nonbelievers alike.

Why Hitchens Is Right
on Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great"

At first, Hitchens' central argument in "God Is Not Great" appears to be: "Hate the belief, love the believer." But that line doesn't seem to hold up for very long as we are repeatedly bulldozed by the author's unrelenting and withering dismissal of even those religious figures who are widely and highly regarded by nonbelievers. His demolition of the myth of Mother Theresa is already well known from his book, "The Missionary Position," but the Dalai Lama? For heaven's sake, one can hear the cries, the man's a Buddhist. No matter to Hitchens: all holy men must be held to account and made to defend the false claims and untested premises on which their holiness is predicated (which, he aims to demonstrate, they cannot do). The author purports to have many religious friends with whom he spends a great deal of time discussing the merits and demerits of the theological world view, but his characteristic take-no-prisoners approach to religion (and much else) makes it hard to imagine how any of these so-called friends could bear to be in the same room with him.

But underneath the vitriol it is not difficult to discern a basic human tolerance that sets him apart from other writers on the subject, mainly Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, whose recent books, lumped together with this latest Hitchens opus, are being touted by some as a kind of atheistic vanguard. What makes Hitchens' argument so much more convincing is that he is the only one of these authors who accepts that there are very good and compelling reasons why people are religious. In fact, he says at the outset that faith is too basic a component of the human character ever to be eradicated entirely, and that he would not recommend that it be abolished even if it were possible. He neither dismisses religious people as hapless dupes nor lets faith-based charlatans off the hook. (Read his article about the death of Jerry Falwell if you are worried that he's gone soft on double-dealing clerics.) In fact, these two thoughts are inextricably linked, as Hitchens suggests that most sincerely religious people are either ignorant or victims of a fraud committed by religious hypocrites.

Hitchens understands that he would cede the moral high ground if he demonstrated the same level of intolerance that is characteristic of his detractors. "I leave it to the faithful to burn each other's churches and mosques and synagogues, which they can always be relied upon to do," he writes. "When I go to the mosque, I take off my shoes. When I go to the synagogue, I cover my head." He clearly has not a shred of respect for religious belief, but, as a defender of reason, he does not adhere to a set of a priori truths of his own devising, least of all those that would justify showing no respect for the truly devout. If your starting point is that there isn't any point in talking to religious people because they are beyond the reach of reason, then there isn't much else to say on the subject and your audience will consist only of those people who already agree with you. Hitchens' method is to counter religious arguments on the faithful's own terms, to out-bible the believers at every turn. Who else but Hitchens would have the nerve to travel the country, including the evangelical strongholds of the South, challenging any religious leader who wishes to take up the challenge to debate him in public?

It seems that many of the readers of "God Is Not Great" are, in fact, believers. Unlike the other aforementioned thinkers on the subject, Hitchens has ignited a thoughtful debate across the theological divide. It makes sense that he likes talking about God with his religious friends: what fun is there in having a bunch of atheists just nod in agreement at everything you say?

November 8, 2007

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