Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The End of Atheism

Religion is a problem. Not just fanatical religion, but even, perhaps especially “moderate religion.” That’s Sam Harris’ thesis in his New York Times bestseller, The End of Faith. And Sam Harris is a very angry man.

Neuroscientist Harris believes that the only legitimate reading of ancient Western religious texts (Hebrew, Christian and Muslim) is literalistic, and that since moderates don’t have a literalist hermeneutic, they are part of religious problem. Further, since moderates are open to the thought that other religious paths may contain truth, they are not just lousy theologians, but responsible for faith-based terrorism to boot. No wonder he was interviewed on Fox.

He spends a good portion of this rambling book trying to show that the Bible is full of myths, self-contradictions and justification for the killing of people whose religion differs from Judaism or Christianity. He covers the same old tired ground that every modernist scholar has plowed ad nauseum for the past two centuries. He thinks we don’t know this stuff. And don’t be fooled by the eighty-odd pages of notes that try to lend this poorly written book the weight of philosophical gravitas. His notes are as rambling as the book, and do little to support his thesis.

All Harris succeeds in doing is convincing us that Tillich was right: faith can be idolatrous. He fails to engage the most basic of questions: what exactly is wrong with a post-modernist faith? Even evangelical seminaries long ago made peace with the human nature of the Biblical text. The nature of revelatory religious faith demands the corrective lens of critical reasoning. That lens in no way renders God or faith invalid.

Harris’ book is really an excuse to justify his hatred of Muslims, by asserting that all Muslims believe in jihad as a literal war against other religions. So he spends page after page demonstrating that, like the Hebrew Scriptures that preceded it, the Koran advocates killing other people in God’s name. What he does not do is engage the universalism of Judaism, the prophetic tradition, or the radically egalitarian message of Jesus. If Harris is right, then the evolution of Jewish and Christian thought away from the notion of divinely sanctioned genocide towards a vision of justice and shalom should not have occurred. However, it did, and modern Jews and Christians do not believe that killing Muslims is morally right. Okay, moderate Jews and Christians.

But Harris does believe that genocide is morally acceptable. In fact, his “solution” to the crisis in Islam is to kill every Muslim on the face of the planet. In fact, he would extend his final solution to anyone whose doesn’t share his vision of an atheistic “moral community.” Some beliefs, he writes with a perfectly straight face, “ are so dangerous that is may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” One assumes that includes anybody who disagrees with Harris’ Atheist Inquisitors. Like me.

The only religion to escape Harris’ wrath is Jainism, whose founder, Vardhamana (a.k.a. Mahavira, "The Great Hero") was born in 550 BCE and attained enlightenment after 13 years of self-deprivation. In 420 BCE, he committed salekhana, fasting to death. Jina’s claim to have conquered love and hate, pleasure and pain, attachment and aversion, and has thereby freed their souls from the karmas obscuring knowledge, perception, truth, and ability. It sounds pretty reasonable to me, but then I’m a follower of that weird Jew-boy from Nazareth and thus no expert on what constitutes a valid religious philosophy. Maybe I need to fast myself to death.

Harris’ rant could be easily dismissed as the ravings of a publicity-starved madman, if it wasn’t that so many people were reading this book. If this is the best that atheism can do to demolish faith, then we people of faith have nothing to worry about. Save your 25 bucks and pick up a Jack Chick tract from outside the 7-Eleven. At least the cartoons will be funny.

1 comment:

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