Saturday, July 25, 2009

One Last Time, With Feeling

In many ways, taking up the discussion concerning religion and our public life is a good thing, because the whole discussion a couple years ago became clouded by the fact that the most vocal opponents of something they invented and called "religion" were really crackpots. It is an important discussion to have. The recently departed Bush Administration was in many ways the most sectarian of American Presidential Administrations, perhaps since hyper-Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson occupied the White House. Both exhibited the calm assurance of faith; both practiced executive hubris that led to the utter failure of their most important policy initiatives, and in the more recent case the near-destruction of our economic infrastructure. A better argument for keeping one's religious beliefs out of the practice of governance could not be constructed.

Yet, the discussion seems to be returning to the whole issue of whether or not supporting religious beliefs is even legitimate. This is a weird argument to be having, actually. After all, there are as many varieties of religious belief and practice as there are human communities. Even Christianity is a divided house, with eastern and western branches, Protestant and Catholic, various minority sects such as the Coptic Church, the Marionite Christians of Lebanon, Mennonites and Amish, Seventh Day Baptists and even Messianic Jews. The split between the Reformed and Lutheran Churches, between Anglican and Methodists, even between, say Methodists and Wesleyan churches should be enough to convince even a casual observer that variety is part and parcel of religious practice. Yet, there are those who persist in writing about "religion" without even acknowledging this humdrum reality.

One of the fun things about taking up this topic is exposing the ignorance of those who berate Christians for being ignorant dupes. While in and of itself not a counter-argument, it does at least have the advantage of making the case that not every doofus believes in God. A secular doofus is just as stupid.
Harris's case for torture is this: since "we" are OK with horrific collateral damage, "we" should have no qualms against waterboarding, the lesser evil. "It's better than death." Better, in other words, than bombing innocents.

Then again, Sam Harris is not devoting his time in the media to call for an end to bombing civilians. Attacking the sacred cow of airstrikes might have been a real heresy, true to his Quaker roots but ensuring himself exile from cable news. Instead the logic he lays out -- that Islam itself is our enemy -- invites the reader to feel comfort at the deaths of its believers. He writes: "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them."

This snippet from a two-and-a-half year old interview with Sam Harris on makes a case far more clearly than any reasoned discussion I can imagine that Harris is not someone to be taken seriously. I see little moral or intellectual distance between the position Harris is taking here - torture is OK, killing people because they have religious beliefs is fine (I thought we prosecuted a bunch of Germans for doing that . . .) - and one offered by, say, an anti-abortion fanatic who refuses to condemn the murder of an abortion doctor, and spouts off falsely on all the "proven" dangers of abortion and calls a fetus "the preborn". The latter is a fanatic, pure and simple. So is Harris. Just as ignorant, just as willing to dehumanize the alleged opposition to all things bright and beautiful, just as willing to kill to create their perfect world.

Turning to Richard Dawkins, I can only say that his own strident claim that religion is an active danger to the physical and intellectual health of the human species is undermined by his own ignorance, hubris, and blindness.

In plain English, the "debate" over "religion" is, for the most part, truly stupid. Religion is a human social phenomenon wondrous in its variety, capable of inducing both heroism and atrocities. No less so than any other human phenomenon. I want no part of it. It is a waste of time. While discussing the relative merits of religious belief and practice and its role in public dialogue and even public policy is certainly important, invoking these small-minded, ignorant blowhards does nothing but turn me off. It is far more important to take for granted that religion will continue to exist, in whatever forms it may take, and ask how it can become a force for the public good, rather than insist it should be eradicated from human life entirely. The latter stems from ignorant fanaticism, the desires of utopian fantasies that can only lead to violence. The former is far more important, and realistic.

That's the discussion I will enter. That's the discussion we need to have. Anything else is just nonsense.

Virtual Tin Cup

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