Bob Cornwall/Faith in the Public Square
I consider myself to be a pretty decent person. As for my religious proclivities, I can't find anything in my life and theology that's particularly dangerous. As a pastor of a Mainline Protestant church I try to present to the world a faith that is welcoming, generous, gracious, and that seeks the transformation of the world.
When I think of bad religion I usually have someone like Osama Bin Laden and Fred Phelps in mind; on the other hand, I expect that they might say the same thing about me. So, maybe it's really a matter of perspective.
Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006) so disconcerting. Harris is, if you don't know already, a very vocal atheist. In his mind religion may have had some evolutionary value, but whatever benefit human evolution may have gained from it is outweighed by its downside. In his words:
That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization. Yes, our continued insistence on raising our children to be Christians, Muslims, or Jewish, needs to be recognized as the ludicrous obscenity that it is.
Now, as I read this brief, even breezy, diatribe against religion, one that places special emphasis on the dangers posed by Christianity and Islam, I didn't recognize myself. That shouldn't surprise me, says Harris, because he's not talking to me. His conversation partner is the "true Christian," the fundamentalist who takes every word of Scripture with absolute literalness. I could take comfort in the fact that I don't recognize myself in his depiction of Christianity, except that he has effectively excommunicated moderate and liberal Christians like me from the Christian community.
Harris's problem with religious moderates and liberals is that they, in his estimation, give cover for "true believers." These are religious folks who are so convinced they're right in their beliefs that they'll choose violence, if necessary, to further their aims. Of course, he has plenty of historical ammunition: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, among others to choose from. Since religion is essentially irredeemable, Harris concludes that the only solution is the eradication of religion. Whatever redeeming qualities religion might possess are far outweighed by the damage it does to human society.
If I'm honest, I must grant him the dark side of religious history, but is religion all bad? I'd suggest that one could easily argue the other side and demonstrate that people of faith have been a blessing to society. They've given more to it than they've taken from it. Hospitals, schools, orphanages, homes for the elderly, builders of homes for the poor, and more, are provided by religious communities. Though one needn't be religious to engage in such actions on behalf of society, religious people have generally been in the forefront of efforts at social change. Besides, one could easily point to Maoist and Stalinist attempts at creating a religionless society as counter examples.
Although I don/t find Harris' arguments compelling enough to consider abandoning my faith, his challenge is worth looking at. That this book, as well as that of biologist Richard Dawkins, is a bestseller should warn us not to take too much comfort in the extraordinary number of Americans who supposedly believe in God. Obviously, there are great numbers of people out there who are disenchanted with the existing religious options. Additionally, he's within his rights to challenge the anti-intellectualism that can be found in many religious communities.
Sometimes we need to pay close attention to our harshest critics, because in their challenge we may find words of wisdom, even if they're unintended. Harris finds hope in the possibility that religion might be eradicated. The resurgence of religion in China, Russia, and other formerly communist nations suggest that religion isn't headed to the dustbin of history just yet. But peace in the world does require a moderate tone and a commitment to respectful conversation between people of every religion. Then, perhaps, the negatives of religion will be far outweighed by the positives.