Thursday, April 14, 2011

Is Religion the bĂȘte noir of Humanity?

I just finished a book by Sam Harris, “The End of Faith.”
A disturbing analysis of religion and theology, the book’s focus carries forth a recurring theme of the intolerance generated by all religions, and even sharply criticizes religious moderates.  Traditional thinking had always been that religious moderation is an acceptable alternative to religious extremism.  Not so, avers Harris, reasoning that religious moderation fosters a climate of acceptance of religious extremism.  The acceptance of any religion, ergo, a priori allows an implicit acceptance of the most extreme forms of faith.
In a coolly rational discourse, Harris especially derides Islam, the conversion from which carries the penalty of death. Islam also tolerates the subjugation of women, honor killings, beheadings and suicide
bombers; the idea that so sexually repressive a religion offers however many virgins in paradise as a reward for acts of grotesque terrorism speak to its ultimate abandonment of goodness.  The idea that in the 21st century such a belief system can be food for any serious rational thought befuddles him.
He is no less forgiving of Catholicism, and refers to the Lateran council of 1252 which punished the Jews by removing them from society’s grace, promulgating thousands of years of anti-Semitism, including the blood libel, exploring a gruesome litany of disembowelments, heretic-burnings, rakings,
witch-huntings and other nauseating acts of religious fervor, ultimately leading to the Holocaust.  Fortunately, he says, the church abandoned such procedures, but not until the early 18th century and not before the seeds of the whirlwind had been sown.
Jews receive little less effusive acid pen treatment.   Jewish fundamentalists cling to the anachronistic, bronze-age railings of the book of Leviticus, which Harris maintains is an exercise in the misogynistic demands of a paranoid God, who demands complete thoughtless subservience. He calls rigid adherence to primitive dietary laws and circumcision a paradigm of tribalism.  Differences among the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine/Israel are still fueled by cultural differences and religious dichotomy, with fundamentalists on both sides stirring a witch’s brew of racism, terrorism, hatred and death.
He relegates theology to a non-science and does not even accord it philosophical heft, since he views religion as an evil in the world which denies people the essence of their humanity, the understanding that people do good things because of their own ethical code, giving the example of monkeys
and other species protecting their young.  Religion is not at all needed to produce morality.   He defines love as a concern for other’s happiness and the placement of those values on a level with one’s own well being, without the necessity of priestly or clerical intercession.
This, says Harris, is the new ethic to which we should all aspire, an ethic that needs no class of priests to stand between ourselves and our reason or our humanity.  In discounting the belief of others by virtue of “faith,” we automatically discount the “faith” of others.
In my discussions with others about these undertakings, I have always encountered resistance and reluctance for the faithful to not abandon their sense of reason.  The reaction is “I am not educated enough to talk to you about this,” or “I do not wish to discuss it.”
People who are content to use reason during the week somehow feel free to abandon their sense of reason on Sunday, or Saturday.