Thursday, January 07, 2010

Is Religion Bad for the Universe -- a Reposted Essay

I may not have time the next few days to post as I'd like, so I'd like to repost the following, which was originally published in the Lompoc Record on December 17, 2006.  The person I was interacting with, Sam Harris, has faded back into the limelight, but the argument continues to be made.

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.

We religious people want to believe that our religion is good, and we/re not always sure about anyone else/s. Maybe this is why I find Sam Harris's bestseller 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.




10 comments:

John said...

I feel strongly that religion has played a critical and very positive role in the evolution of human society. The fact that it has been abused at times by those in power or by those seeking power does not vitiate the enormous boon which religion has been for humanity.

I also think it problematic to distinguish certain belief systems (Fred Phelps, Osama bin Laden, Fundamentalists, etc.) as meriting the label of "bad religion." It is the people who misuse religion who are bad religionists, not the belief systems themselves. Thus Phelps and Osama merit the label but not Fundamentalists.

While it is true that some belief systems and their adherents are prone to abuse, the belief system itself is not per se "bad". Each system fills a spiritual need in its adherents. Chrisitan Fundamentalists are not going to satiate their spiritual needs in a mainline church. For example, their needs for clarity and authoritative guidance would be unmet in a typical liberal DOC church. Their need for clear and authoritative expressions of doctrine are valid and authentic expressions of spirituality, and religions which are designed to address those needs are not bad religion - their just not for you and me. If we were to take away all Fundamentalist religions (as if that were even possible) those who would be religious fundamentalists would find another way to meet their spiritual needs. There is no guarantee that they would not be ensnared on a spiritual level by an equally abusive secular leaders, such as Hitler, Mao, Lenin, Stalin, etc.

When religious things go bad is when people abuse religions for personal power. And perhaps religious fundamentalists of all faith traditions in their need for clear expressions of authority are especially prone to be misled by the abusive leaders. The solution is not to attack the belief system, but to address the problematic leadership.

John

Anonymous said...

Some day a disaster will likely srike which will put us years behind. I suppose new religions would then form. I'd like to think they would find a shred of our best efforts in the ashes to build on, rather than starting from scratch.

Would you mind etching your post in stone for our descendants to find? David Mc

Anonymous said...

I just finished Tim Keller's Reason for God and I think he takes on this issue pretty well. John is right on.. one only has to look to Hitler as an example of how man is just as evil, if not more so, outside of religion than within. I would argue Christianity has a very good plum line that keeps us from going too far one way or another. Will there be fringes? Of course.. but we don't don't kill the whole thing b/c of one area.
If I wanted to by coy... I would continue his argument saying "as long as there is an NAACP there can't be togetherness.. we can't raise people white or black, etc. In fact.. let wipe out nations, countries, regions, any way we "divide" ourselves.. and on and on we go
Chuck

Anonymous said...

Chuck, are you being facetious?

"as long as there is an NAACP there can't be togetherness.. "

Are you saying it causes and preserves divide? By the way, do you think the 2010 US Census forms should have "negro" as a check-off box as it does?

"In fact.. let wipe out nations, countries, regions, any way we "divide" ourselves.. and on and on we go" Are you a New World Order guy?

Anyway, we don't need to let the baby go out with the bathwater. David Mc

Anonymous said...

How separate will we be in 10 years, and from whom? Once we zero in on several of these with our new tools, we're likely to see signs or other civilized worlds. Are you betting men? David Mc

http://www.theoaklandpress.com/articles/2010/01/07/news/doc4b465c9a4a9f2673388398.txt

“The fundamental question is: Are we alone? For the first time, there’s an optimism that sometime in our lifetimes we’re going to get to the bottom of that,” said Simon “Pete” Worden, an astronomer who heads NASA’s Ames Research Center. “If I were a betting man, which I am, I would bet we’re not alone — there is a lot of life.”

Anonymous said...

As John Lennon said, I'm not the only one- and in good company.

http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/node/1298

David Mc

John said...

I think what Chuck was "coyly" inferring is that the argument of the original writer to whom Bob was referring to, leads down a very slippery slope, towards ultimate conformity; and ironically, religion, in its diversity, provides a degree of protection from that result.

John

Anonymous said...

Ding ding ding.. yes John got it.
If you do think about it.. NAACP is for the "advancement of colored people", in once sense its stated goal is targeted toward one group vs the whole.. or a "non encompassing" world view. It could be seen as similar to the goal of "promoting Jesus" over other religions.

Chuck

Anonymous said...

Well, give me credit too Chuck!

Are you saying it causes and preserves divide? By the way, do you think the 2010 US Census forms should have "negro" as a check-off box as it does?

The second point, do you suggest this, or was this facetious?

"In fact.. let wipe out nations, countries, regions, any way we "divide" ourselves.. and on and on we go"

David Mc

Anonymous said...

i object to the negro check box.. it is a truly outdated word and frankly shows how outdated our government can be... the census by itself is a highly politicized tool. Even Jesus was a victim of it..lol.

As for the NAACP.. like every institution, it is does very good things and very bad things. (bad meaning often fire in a combustable situations) Should we abolish it? The same argument is used for religion.. and we come full circle.

Chuck