Friday, October 27, 2006

Dangerous Myths

As I continue to ponder the words of Sam Harris, I find his closing words disconcerting, but worth pondering.

"Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well -- by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your
attachment to an imaginary God. This letter has been an expression of that amazement -- and perhaps, of a little hope." (Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 91)

I think this needs to be heard. We like to think of ourselves, we "Christians" and see ourselves as somehow different from other religious folk. Our religion is better, more humane, divinely authorized I suppose. But to the non-religious person there is no difference. We are seen as simply irrational, believing in nonsensical myths and attached to imaginary deities. Sam Harris has hope that things will change. That change will come, I think he believes, when religions have disappeared. But reality doesn't seem to support the opposing hope. Admittedly religion has its dark side, my religion included. It does no good to distinguish between religion and faith, as if what I believe and practice isn't religious. It does no good to distinguish between religion and spirituality. One might ask where does this spirituality come from, how do we understand it? At some point religion enters the picture. Oh, well, that's enough of that.

I found this comment by British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on another blog concerning Richard Dawkins' book God Delusion. I've not yet read it, but I think Sacks' point here goes for both works, the one I've read and the one I've not.

Richard Dawkins is one of the great atheists of our time, and his latest book, The God Delusion, is his angriest. Imagine, he says, a world with no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian Partition, no Bosnian massacres, no religious persecution of the Jews, no Northern Ireland troubles, and so on. No religion, therefore no evil in the name of God.
This is good, honest, challenging atheism. I only wish I had as much faith as the learned professor. It would be nice to believe that if you cured people of believing in God, you would thereby have cured them of hate, violence, anger, injustice, cruelty and the urge to control, exploit, dominate and oppress.
Nothing in history suggests such a thing. On the contrary, if people do not commit evil in the name of God they have never been short of other reasons to do so: race, the war of classes, the political system, the march of progress, the Darwinian struggle to survive.
In the perennial battle between our lowest and highest instincts, which is the human condition whether we are atheist or believer, people usually robe their most brutal acts in the mantle of high ideals. In this respect the history of religion, like the history of substitutes for religion, is all too human.
There is, though, another thought-experiment worth performing. Imagine a world with no Book of Psalms, no Isaiah, no Ten Commandments, none of Michelangelo’s religious art or Bach’s devotional music, no Dante, no Milton, no medieval cathedrals, no prayer. Imagine one with no narrative like the Exodus to give hope to the oppressed and enslaved. And that really is the point.
It took an even greater atheist, Nietzsche, to see the truth with fearless clarity. He called Judaism and Christianity “the slave revolt in morals”. It was, he believed, the ethic of the underdog, the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless. It generated an entirely new set of virtues: “Pity, the kind and helping hand, the warm heart, patience, industriousness, humility, friendliness.”

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