The only thing as annoying as mindless religious fundamentalism is mindless atheistic fundamentalism. The current specimen comes from an essay by Sam Harris featured at Arianna Huffington’s site, The Huffington Post. “Science Must Destroy Religion” probably takes the cake as the most arrogant title ever (although to be fair, some other blogger—Harris’s anti-matter equivalent—probably posted one somewhere entitled “Religion Must Destroy Science”). But my focus here is on the contents.
Like most such screeds, Harris’s equates religion with literalistic, triumphalist fundamentalism; to wit, his definition of religious faith: “faith that there is a God who cares what name he is called, that one of our books is infallible, that Jesus is coming back to earth to judge the living and the dead, that Muslim martyrs go straight to Paradise, etc.” He leans heavily on the principle of having a sound basis in fact for one’s views, but characterizing religious faith in this way is about as fact-based as Rush Limbaugh’s characterization of feminists as “feminazis.”
Harris should know that huge numbers of the liberal-minded practice some sort of religious faith. Check out the United Religions Initiative, the founding principles of which include respect for “the sacred wisdom of each religion, spiritual expression and indigenous tradition.” Or read about the 2004 Parliament of the Word’s Religions. These are just two of many efforts to bring people of religious faith together in mutual respect and cooperation toward healing our world. This includes non-theistic religions like Buddhism, which recognizes no deity at all, as well as other individuals and communities aligned with Gandhi’s words that, “My religion enables me, obliges me to imbibe all that is good in all the great religions of the earth.”
Harris is mistaken when he writes that
The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so….The difference between science and religion is the difference between a genuine openness to fruits of human inquiry in the 21st century, and a premature closure to such inquiry as a matter of principle.
In fact, what he has put his finger on is the difference between absolute true-believer conviction, whether secular or religious, and an open mind. Harris notices that “irreconcilable religious commitments still inspire an appalling amount of human conflict,” but he forbears to mention the scale of human conflict undertaken out of secular conviction. The purges and gulags of the Soviet Union, the final solution of the Nazis, the bloodletting of the Chinese cultural revolution—none of these was inspired by religion. And as far as I can see, our appalling human conflict in Iraq was undertaken in aid of an economic and political agenda, perhaps dovetailing with the President’s muscular religion, but obviously not advancing its supremacy (or does Harris think the war is Bush’s way of recruiting Christians in Iraq?).
In terms of political values, Harris and I are likely to be in substantial agreement; we want peace, democracy, equality. But I’d like my allies to be clear-thinking and open to considering all the evidence, qualities Harris’s essay does not demonstrate. As Martin Luther King’s birthday approaches, I’m reminded of that man of faith’s frustrated words: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”