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Bravo!-- Donald R. Burleson, Ph.D.
on January 21, 2006
Author Sam Harris has a problem with the world's major organized religions. His thesis, in particular, is that while the foibles of religious fundamentalism (of various brands, though always essentially bespeaking the same mentality) may appear to be more or less harmless, they are in fact a gravely dangerous phenomenon that threatens humankind itself with extinction.
The problem is that with the more rabid varieties of religious fundamentalism we are no longer looking just at the ravings of those halfwit television evangelists who run the credit card icons across the bottom of the screen for the ensnaring of the gullible. Now, on the contrary, we have entered an age- nothing similar to which has been seen since the Spanish Inquisition- in which whole hordes of religious zealots view themselves as being commanded by the "will of God" (whatever in the world that means) to torture, multilate, and brutally kill the rest of us. It is this unreasoning willingness to commit acts of atrocity for "God" (under whatever name), based upon belief systems that are not only of undemonstrated validity but of absolutely undemonstrable validity, that bothers Sam Harris, and he does a truly eloquent job of explaining why, in terms of radical Islam, Christianity, and other belief systems.
While Mr. Harris takes on Islam with considerable fervor, he certainly does not neglect the sordid side of religion in the West. He argues, with regard to both the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, that it is only by selectively ignoring parts of the so-called sacred texts that many people, eschewing the more radical views of these belief systems, can function even as religious "moderates." He points out, for example, that in the Bible's book of Deuteronomy, one is compelled to murder anyone who "serves other gods"-specifically, "You must stone him to death" (Deut. 13:7-11). (In what circumstances, one may ask, is one "serving other gods"? There was a time when Protestants and Catholics turned this principle upon each other, as in fact they still sometimes do in Northern Ireland.) Likewise Harris points out places in scripture where the death penalty, in no uncertain terms, is prescribed for such offenses as "taking the Lord's name in vain" (Leviticus 24:16), working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15), cursing one's father or mother (Exodus 21:17), and adultery (Leviticus 20:10). It is not that most people subscribing to this belief system would actually kill anyone for, say, working the Sunday shift at Burger King- but in order to refrain from doing so, such "believers" must selectively tune out the textual command to do so.
In the West, we have largely (thank God, one is tempted to say) separated religion out of public life. The Founding Fathers were careful, in the Constitution, to disallow establishment of a national religion, even though certain modern Presidents have trampled upon this founding wisdom to the extent of using such lunatics as Pat Robertson as advisors on matters of international relations and nuclear proliferation. (How's that for scary?) But in Islamic countries, no such separation of church and state has ever taken place. One can make a fairly long list of countries in which the clergy and the police are the same people. And here again, the willingness to kill whole populations of people failing to share one's own religious beliefs is founded upon systems of "thought"(the desire to fulfil the will of Allah) for which there is no proof of validity. Sam Harris devotes several pages to quotations from the Koran that demand that the believer murder the unbeliever. And of course the terrible thing nowadays is that this phenomenon is the mindset of whole cultures, bent upon subjugating or destroying the rest of the world "on account," as Harris puts it, "of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher's stone, and unicorns." Harris minces no words: "We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so." He points out that the purveyors of this world-view are so narrow as to have no reasoning ability left to them. Like the Nazis (Hitler, after all, having been a devout Christian who saw himself as obeying "God's will," as Mein Kampt makes abundantly clear), the radical Islamists have no basis for rational comparison or judgment. Harris points out: "Spain translates as many books into Spanish every year as the entire Arab world has translated into Arabic since the ninth century." Needless to say, this situation is appalling- and dangerous, in a world in which those deranged enough to think that some "god" is whispering murderous instructions to them can command nuclear arsenals capable of ending all life on the planet. We can't afford this any more.
"As long as it is acceptable," Harris says, "for a person to believe that he knows how God wants everyone on earth to live, we will continue to murder one another on account of our myths." In the past sixty seconds, someone has no doubt died this way.
Harris makes it clear that he is by no means opposed to the individual human urge toward spirituality- toward a sense of wanting to relate oneself to the universe- and makes it equally clear that he accepts the reality of the essential difference between right and wrong, in a primal sense not dependent upon undemonstrable religious belief systems. Morality and ethics, he says, can be developed as a science. And must be. "No tribal fictions need be rehearsed for us to realize, one fine day, that we do in fact love our neighbors, that our happiness is inextricable from their own, and that our interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish." In short, we must learn to be good to each other because we want to, not because of religious dogma. For this reviewer's money, he is absolutely right. Humankind must outgrow the barbarisms of an ignorant and stultifying past and move on toward a vision of harmony inspired not by meanness of spirit but by clear and courageous thinking. Bravo, Mr. Harris!