Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The End of Faith

I recently completed a book of some note by Sam Harris, titled "The End of Faith." It is an interesting work because it doesn't take a stance against the standard, pin-headed fundamentalist versions of religion, but against moderates within religion also. Essentially, Harris feels that the moderates in religion perpetuate and increase the (now unacceptable) risk of fundamentalists arising in society. Here's a typically ascerbic quote:
  • “By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. . . . "
He's probably right that it's easier to make simplistic, moronic followers than to make nuanced, broad-minded believers. Still, there are some worries here. To give an analogy, although it's easier to hit a person than hit a baseball, that doesn't mean ballbats are thus the problem. To apply the analogy, although it's easier to make fundamentalists than moderates, that doesn't mean religion is thus the problem.

Or, of you don't like analogies --And I certainly don't-- I am aware of no empirical studies (much less a majority of said studies) which show that moderates in religion must create fundamentalists; thus, unlike Harris, I don't see any a priori reason to hold moderates as problematic (i.e. more risky) for greater society.

He also makes a move which I often see in people who wish science were the full and final authority in running human society:
  • “To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world--to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish--is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness.”
Again, there are some worries here. First, as anyone who takes the humanities seriously can attest, we learn from past cultures by picking out their insights, not by picking on their mistakes. As an example, just because Pythagoras or Aristotle thought the heavenly spheres made beautiful sounds as they whirled around the Earth, doesn't mean their literature has nothing to offer. Indeed, in reading literature, one must pick and choose insights that are still applicable today, and do so by integrating those insights into our greater systems of contemporary understanding. Second, as a general method, drawing selectively is indeed how one reads historical pieces in poetry and literature responsibly. It is also tantamount to what "moderates" are doing with the various holy books in the world religions. Naturally, those who are less informed (or clueless) about the sciences will make mistakes, but there are people [example 1; example 2] who are far more informed about the sciences than even Harris himself and who still think religious texts have much to offer.

Usually the more devastating arguments take standards of justification that both parties hold, such as Richard Carrier does in his hard-hitting expose of anti-faith. Of course, in this case most people are not in a position to evaluate evidentiary claims for or against any kind of scientific position. How much the less, therefore, can they evaluate a postion that finds wanting a whole philosophy (or religion) of life. When it comes right down to it, in a well-fed, stable, entertainment-oriented society, people are rarely forced to reason in order to find (what they take to be) a meaningful life. Technically, they confuse an "adequate" life with a "meaningful" one.


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