I’m only 40 pages into Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, but I’m already in love.
The trick he seems to have pulled off here is arguing against faith-based religions without sounding like a crackpot zealot himself. I’ve written before about how I’m sympathetic to people genuinely exploring questions of faith, even if I disagree with their conclusions; I don’t have much patience for atheists who are as certain and strident about their beliefs as the thumpingest bible-thumper. I had one friend in Toronto, an incredibly well-educated and usually thoughtful woman, who would put paid to any conversation about religion with, “HOW CAN ANYONE BE SO FUCKING STUPID?” Her basic point wasn’t unreasonable–you could, in fact, boil Harris’s argument down to just that, though you’d be leaving out a lot–but her refusal to entertain any sincere questions about why other people, even some she’d have to admit are intelligent, do believe, betrayed the irrationality of her own conviction. I once described a religion convo with her to a friend who was raised Pentecostal, a true believer into his twenties, but eventually found his way out of that and toward Buddhism (via art school–heh). “Oh,” he said, after hearing about her for less than a minute. “She’s a fundamentalist.” Exactly.
Not surprisingly, then, Harris says some of the worst criticism he’s gotten for a book that shits all over theistic faith has actually come from atheists. Because he acknowledges the existence of experiences we term “mystical” or “spiritual”–while pointing out that neuroscience can almost certainly explain such experiences, even if it hasn’t fully yet–and is apparently a fan of some eastern religious traditions, fundamentalist atheists are pissed off that he doesn’t properly validate their beliefs. Which is the kind of thing that makes me want to scream, “HOW CAN ANYONE BE SO FUCKING STUPID?”
Here’s a guy asking risky, important questions, refreshingly promoting the genuine triumph of intellect over political correctness (as opposed to using that stated goal as a mask for racism) and yet people who agree with the most significant points of his argument don’t support him, because he’s not completely in line with their belief system. And that’s not blinkered fanaticism… how? Sigh.
What I find to be most interesting about Harris’s thinking (so far) is that he blames religious moderates–a category I’ve belonged to as an adult, and whose principle of “tolerance” I still subscribe to–for how bad things have gotten, because we won’t call bullshit when we see it. Even if we denounce fundamentalism, we maintain that the religions of Abraham are all essentially good things–merely perverted by the crazies–and Harris makes it clear that that’s manifestly untrue.
“Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance,” he writes–and I am forced to admit that hit home pretty fucking hard. Insofar as I’m willing to defend Christianity, it’s because I’ve known a lot of kind-hearted, intelligent people who identify themselves as Christians, and because I’ve felt a pull toward that identity myself at times; that’s secular knowledge, not to mention the lazy substitution of sentiment for intellectual rigor. Do I know jack about what’s actually in the Bible? Not so much. And the people who do know? Are the crazies, generally speaking.
I can accuse them of warping Christ’s real message all I want–but would I tolerate someone telling me I misunderstand a work of literature that I’ve read all the way through and he hasn’t? What are the chances that he’d have a fuller understanding of it than I would, even if he were more basically intelligent than I? (I’ll thank you to ignore that I took on some of Harris’s critics up there without having finished the book yet. Shut up.)
So I guess the first thing Harris challenges me to do is call bullshit on myself. Sure, any given religion has its good and its bad, its crusaders for social justice and compassion and its just plain crusaders. There’s not necessarily any proving which side represents the true soul of the faith. But framing things in those terms sidesteps a key question: Can I say the Apostle’s Creed with a straight face? No. I do not truly believe in the nuts and bolts. At all. So why the fuck would I walk around defending people’s right to base their lives around a belief system I, personally, perceive to be bullshit in my heart of hearts?
And that goes quadruple for Islam and Judaism, neither of which I’ve been exposed to beyond the scope of a World Religions 101 class, mostly because I’ve never felt the slightest tug toward further intellectual inquiry into either of those traditions, which is because I also perceive them to be bullshit and just feel no cultural imperative to explore that perception.
Bottom line, there are zillions of perfectly lovely Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the world–but I say that from a secular, not a religious, perspective. I categorize people as lovely or unlovely by purely humanistic standards. I “respect” religious beliefs I disagree with only because, in my daily life, those beliefs do not usually cause the people I encounter to behave in antisocial ways. Which means it’s really not a matter of respect, or even tolerance, so much as selective understanding of another human being; I don’t give a rat’s ass what a nice person’s religious beliefs are, the same way I don’t give a rat’s ass if a nice person’s house happens to be roach-infested–as long as I never have to witness that part of her life. At the point where it affects me, I start to give a rat’s ass. I don’t want to be evangelized–let alone killed or imprisoned in the name of someone else’s religion–any more than I want to eat in somebody’s roachy kitchen.
Harris’s point is that it really is all connected, as much as we’d like to separate fundamentalism from moderate religious faith. And it’s disingenuous to act as if my nice Muslim neighbor’s beliefs make any more sense to me than a suicide bomber’s, when they just don’t. I’m perfectly comfortable saying privately that neither of those people believes the truth–but why will I only say it publicly about the latter? Why am I still especially “tolerant” of Christianity (the history of which I have at least studied more deeply), when both scholarly inquiry and life experience have done nothing but lead me away from it? My reasons for that are entirely secular, yet largely anti-intellectual. That’s a winning combination.
What all fundamentalists–Christians, Muslims, atheists–have in common is a willingness to judge other people as categorically wrong, based on scant or no evidence for their own beliefs. Those of us who do attempt to apply reason to questions of faith can never share that absolute certainty, because reason dictates that there are too many unanswerable questions. Fair enough. Yet, reason gives us a pretty good idea about the objective answers to questions such as, “Was Jesus born of a virgin?” and many of us still lump those in with the unanswerables, more out of politeness and sentiment than logic.
That’s a problem, as Harris makes clear. It’s equally a problem, however, to dismiss genuine “mystical” experiences, the natural desire to explain death to ourselves, and the simple fact that there’s a fuckload we don’t, maybe can’t, know about the universe, as horseshit not worth exploring intellectually. The fact that Harris acknowledges both problems, and attempts to elucidate both using the purest reason he can muster, is what totally makes him my new boyfriend, even if I haven’t read the whole book yet. Unlike the Bible, I’m actually going to finish this one.