Monday, February 07, 2005

Confronting the Faithful

The Guardian reviews The End of Faith, by Sam Harris:

Harris, whose background is in philosophy and neuroscience, giving him an unusually comprehensive overview of the human mind, blames the current surge of religious extremism on the fact that nominally secular societies have continued to treat certain religions as if the tenets of their faith were established fact, rather than subjective beliefs bolstered by the weight of tradition, and to allow them public platforms as long as they don't overstep the mark.

In a radical attack on the most sacred of liberal precepts - the notion of tolerance - Harris blames religious moderates for perpetuating a climate of acceptance that nurtures extremism. It is not good enough, he argues, for moderates, or even liberal atheists, to insist that governments should accommodate freedom of personal belief, because beliefs are directly responsible for actions. 'Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word "God" as if we knew what we were talking about.' Moderates, in any case, only arrive at their position by editing out the more unpalatable elements of their respective texts and assimiliating modern cultural developments.

He also points out that we in the West only have the luxury of indulging those who claim to have absolute knowledge about the afterlife because we have been fortunate enough to live in a society that separates church and state. Those, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould, who have encouraged a 'loving concordat' between faith and reason could not afford to do so if the church had real political influence, as is increasingly the case in Bush's America.


Yet his central argument in The End of Faith is sound: religion is the only area of human knowledge in which it is still acceptable to hold beliefs dating from antiquity and a modern society should subject those beliefs to the same principles that govern scientific, medical or geographical inquiry - particularly if they are inherently hostile to those with different ideas. It's easy to laugh at the man who believes aliens are sending him messages through his hairdryer, but we don't let him run schools or make public broadcasts as if his view were anything other than a delusion. It's less amusing that international policy is decided by men who believe that the book beside their bed was written by an invisible deity and is above doubt or questioning.

This book has been on my wishlist for a while. Looks Like I definitely need to check it out as it presents an interesting conundrum I've been wrestling with for a while.

For some reason, many atheists and agnostics feel that we must counter the lack of tolerance on the part of the Fundamentalists by being all inclusive, even of the batshit lunatics trying to stuff the Bible down our throats. The problem is only made worse by moderate and open minded Theists, who have been dodging a big shiny bullet for centuries: by refusing to confront the fundamentalists in their own ranks, they've made us do the dirty work, facing off with 31 flavors of regressive wackos while they pick lilies in the field, while still playing True Believer on Sunday Mornings. But as long as the moderate and progressive Mullahs on both sides continue to ignore and thus, silently give consent to the reign of the fundies, they are just as much to blame for the war on Culture and should be held acountable by those of us who have a vested interest in preserving Civilisation from the Religious, namely anyone who with two brain cells to rub together.


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