Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

Best-selling atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger Andrew Sullivan debate God, faith, and fundamentalism.

Continued from page 16

We are evolutionarily programmed for faith. Hence the fact that we know of almost no civilizations without religion; and even when religion did decline - in, say, Europe in the twentieth century--pseudoreligions emerged to replace it. Those pseudoreligions, I don't need to remind you, killed many more than the actual ones. Even in post-modern America, in those places where traditional faith has evaporated, the new age is always dawning.

You could still argue that this is an inherent tragedy of human evolution and that we should still try to resist this pull of the irrational, just as we resist and constrain the evolutionary pull to disseminate our DNA as widely as possible. But in matters of ultimate truth, this isn't the only option. Let me borrow the words of one scientist of evolution, Justin Barrett, who still has faith:

"Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people. Why wouldn't God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural? Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me--should I then stop believing that she does?"

Even if science were to come up with a convincing and exhaustive non-religious explanation of the reason for our continuing to be religious as a species, it would still be unable to account for the enduring, subjective experience of that religion. Faith survives--and it is integral to the human experience. It is as integral to being human as the difficulty of believing, in any serious way, that one day, I won't exist. That is why, I think, religion is best understood, at its core, as an experiential response to the simple fact of our own death. Once a human being has asked himself, as Hamlet did, "To be or not to be?" a human being has become religious, whether he likes it or not. Death is a place from whose bourne no traveler returns, right? (Except Jesus and Lazarus, of course, but let's postpone miracles and the resurrection for another exchange, can we?)


Maybe religion is best understood not as The Answer to The Question, but as the only human response to the most pressing human fact - our own death. Oakeshott places religious life in the mode of practice, not in the mode of philosophy. I have struggled with this argument for a long time, but the older I get, the wiser it seems.

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