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Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?

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

First, on my frustration with religious moderates, to which you alluded: It is true that your colleagues in the religious middle have taught me to appreciate the candor and the one-note coherence of religious fanatics. I have found that whenever someone like me or Richard Dawkins criticizes Christians for believing in the imminent return of Christ, or Muslims for believing in martyrdom, religious moderates claim that we have caricatured Christianity and Islam, taken "extremists" to be representative of these "great" faiths, or otherwise overlooked a shimmering ocean of nuance. We are invariably told that a mature understanding of the historical and literary contexts of scripture renders faith perfectly compatible with reason, and our attack upon religion is, therefore, "simplistic," "dogmatic," or even "fundamentalist." As a frequent target of such profundities, I can attest that they generally come moistened to a sickening pablum by great sighs of condescension. Present company excluded.

But there are several problems with such a defense of moderate religion. First, many moderates assume that religious "extremism" is rare and therefore not all that consequential. Happily, you are not in this camp, but I would venture that you are in a minority among religious moderates. As you and I both know, religious extremism is not rare, and it is hugely consequential. Forty-four percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. This idea is extreme in almost every sense-extremely silly, extremely dangerous, extremely worthy of denigration-but it is not extreme in the sense of being rare. The problem, as I see it, is that moderates don't tend to know what it is like to be truly convinced that death is an illusion and that an eternity of happiness awaits the faithful beyond the grave. They have, as you say, "integrated doubt" into their faith. Another way of putting it is that they have less faith-and for good reason. The result, however, is that your fellow moderates tend to doubt that anybody ever really is motivated to sacrifice his life, or the lives of others, on the basis his heartfelt religious beliefs. Moderate doubt-which I agree is an improvement over fundamentalist certitude in most respects-often blinds its host to the reality and consequences of full-tilt religious lunacy. Such blindness is now particularly unhelpful, given the hideous collision with Islamic certainty that is unfolding all around us.

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