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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Terrorists in the Homeland

Crazy evangelist and all around man-of-god Pat Robertson advocates assassinating Hugo Chavez. Once again, the almighty gives me a perfect segue to blog about Sam Harris' book, _The End of Faith_.

The book is a serious and thorough indictment of religion in most of its guises. Harris deftly employs reason alongside with the numerous internal contradictions in Christianity, Judiasm and Islam to indict religion not only as the illogical and constricting social institution that it is, but also makes a strong case for religion being directly responsible for a good portion of deadly conflicts in both history and contemporary times. More frightening, he persuasively argues that without humanity moving beyond the primitive spirituality practiced in the big three religions based on texts and evidence from 2 millennia passed, we are doomed to nuclear annihilation.

I don't agree with some of his points, especially the argument for legitimizing torture, but I liked a lot of it. As a person increasingly frustrated by the stupidity foisted upon the world by people who willfully disengage their capacity for reason in order to propagate mythic stories about eternal paradise and hierarchies in which, not coincidently, they end up on top, this book articulated the case against religion far better than I can.

Below are some of the quotes I underlined. I actually had more, but Ciela pulled out a number of my post-it notes:

Harris, Sam The End of Faith: Religion, terror and the Future of Reason. New York: WW Norton, 2004.

17 “Some 46 percent of Americans take a literalist view of creation...This means that 120 million of us place the big bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer.”

26 “give people divergent, irreconcilable, and untestable notions about what happens after death, and the oblige them to live together with limited resources. The result is just what we see: an unending cycle of murder and cease-fire.”

78 Quoting Bertrand Russell:
The Spaniards in Mexico and Peru used to baptize Indian infants and then immediately dash their brains out: by this means they secured these infants went to Heaven. No orthodox Christian can find any logical reason for condemning their action, although all nowadays do so. In countless ways the doctrine of personal immortality in its Christian form has had disastrous effects upon morals.

99 On the doctrine of transubstantiation and the Fourth Lateran Council:
Henceforth, it was an indisputable fact of this world that the communion host is actually transformed at the Mass into the living body of Jesus Christ. After this incredible dogma had been established, by mere reiteration, to the satisfaction of everyone, Christians began to worry that these living wafers might be subjected to all manner of mistreatment, and even physical torture, at the hands of heretics and Jews. (One might wonder why eating the body of Jesus would be any less of a torment to him.)

173 Surely there must come a time when we will acknowledge the obvious: theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings.

204 at the core of every religion lies an undeniable claim about the human condition: it is possible to have one’s experience of the world radically transformed....The problem with religion is that it blends this truth so thoroughly with the venom of unreason.

225 Nothing is more sacred than the facts. No one, therefore, should win any points in our discourse for deluding himself. The litmus test for reasonableness should be obvious: anyone who wants to know how the world is, whether in physical or spiritual terms, will be open to new evidence.

285n The New Age has offered little progress in this regard, because it has made spiritual life seem generally synonymous with the forfeiture of brain cells.


At 7:41 AM, Blogger Dr.K said...

The only thing I wonder about is if your boy, Sam, makes a distinction between religion and spirituality, which are two entirely different things as they have shaken out in the world. Even so, Pat Robertson, a high-profile idiot, who for some incomprehensible reason chooses to speak what passes for his mind, speaks to the very worst of what religion has offered us in the past, but religion has also been a calming, stabilizing, uplifting force as well. Martin Luther King was a minister and based his work in his ministry, the writings of Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk, are profound, wise and peaceful, Mother Theresa did incredibly humane, important work in India in the name of her religion, and the list that follows is as long or longer than the opposing list of outrages--except that it is more quiet and less remarkable. One can easily argue that as much good has come from religion as bad, and the teachings of religions tend to be humane. In short, religion is a human enterprise, with the human capacity for a full range of intent and effect. The tone of Sam Harris strikes me as shrill, and I worry that it also implicitly criticizes spirituality itself, without which the world and life are reduced to a meaningless shell, and which opens the way to all manner of abuse and violence, because why the hell not? Harris would be arguing against himself then, if that's where he's coming from, because he's then fighting the abuses of religion from a spiritually void standpoint that maily offers the possibilitie more abuse--which we can see, because he's criticising something, and really getting into it, apparently, and the whole enterprize spirals downwards into a vortex of blech. Welcome to the postmodern world!

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Not Scott said...


He does, indeed, make a distinction between spirituality and religion. In fact, he is a long practicing Buddhist. And of course, lots of good work has been done in the name of religion. But Harris's argument is far more complex and precise than what I've written here. But briefly....

One can argue that religion has brought lots of good to the world, but Harris argues that we might see these things done not because of religion, but in spite of religion. Just to take the big three of Judiasm, Xtianity and Islam, these are all rooted in violent and self-contradictory texts. Being very familiar with the Bible, I can verify that this book is crazily violent and provides justification for acts among our fellow humans. The reason that Xtianity in the contemporary world is not filled with stonings, lynchings, trails for heresy and blasphemy can be attributed to Enlightenment thinking, not the evidence provided by the so-called word of God. Indeed, expanding Christian teachings beyond the Bible itself, we find a great deal of theology designed to mitigate and reason away the violent, vengeful aspects of the Bible. Yet if the Bible is indeed the word of God, believers in the faith would be poor followers to pick and choose just which parts of God's words they should follow. Rather, theology relies upon, wait for it, intrinsic reason and humanity to chart a more _humane_ course.

Slice it how you will, religion is a worm eating through our ability to reason and come to logical and sensible conclusions.

I'd say Harris is far from a postmodern relativist or anarchist. What he's against is the blind faith of religions that essentially turn off their ability to evaluate the evidence before them.

And I'd certainly quibble with your notion that it is easy to argue more good than bad has come from religion. Explore the 20th Century: the holocaust-- Xtian anti-semitism at its peak; MLK reacting against pernicious racism fostered and indulged by the church (call it a draw, but religion started it); the contemporary attacks from Islamic terrorists--what else but the promise of paradise and martyrdom could fuel suicide attacks. These are off the top of my head, but with a bit of thinking, I could do a lot more.

At 12:43 PM, Blogger Dr.K said...

My faith in reason is a whole nother issue, but no need to go there. But, the Holocaust a Christian enterprise? Pernicious American racism rooted in Christianity? Middle Eastern terrorists as truly representative of Islam? I don't think so. Every case you mention has religion misused as a justification for deeper hatreds and exploitation. Religion carries some blame, but it's not the cause, it's the mask and the apology.

At 1:32 PM, Blogger Not Scott said...

Ah, but there you are wrong.

The texts in question--Bible, Koran--clearly state what needs to be done to infidels, blasphemers and the sons of Ham. Certainly there are other passages in that might contradict that, but the dictates are there. Call it misuse, but whose to say which words of God and which interpretations are correct? And here's my (Harris') point: there is no evidence either way. It is blind arbitrary interpretation.

One man's misuse is another man's sacrilege.

At 10:40 AM, Blogger Dr.K said...

Well, OK, but the only reason I started this is because you've been a friend up till now, and I'm concerned about the inevitable damnation of your wicked black soul. Repent or go to hell!


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