September 24, 2006

Everyone Can't Be Right

Posts by and about writer named Sam Harris have suddenly popped up here and there on the blogosphere.

Sam Harris is a convinced atheist, and rather than nattering about "theocracy" or "Christianism" seeks to persuade his readers that religon is just wrong. In his new book, Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris follows up on his earleir book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Harris takes the view that science is good, relgion is bad, and the world would be a better place if religious faith disappeared.

Baptist seminary president and blogger Dr. Al Mohler cites Harris for his criticism of "liberal" Christianity:
One interesting facet of Harris's approach is his specific rejection of theological liberalism and moderating positions. He does see these for what they are -- thinly disguised forms of unbelief.
I have written elsewhere about the problems I see with religious liberalism and religious moderation. Here, we need only observe that the issue is both simpler and more urgent than the liberals and moderates generally admit. Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't. Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ was an ordinary man, the history of Christian theology is the story of bookish men parsing a collective delusion. If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself. You understand this. At least half of the American population understands this. So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.
Orthodoxy Today links to an LA Times piece by Harris wherein he takes liberals to task for not understanding that jihad is embedded in a Muslim theology that millions believe:
A cult of death is forming in the Muslim world — for reasons that are perfectly explicable in terms of the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. The truth is that we are not fighting a "war on terror." We are fighting a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise.

This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims. But we are absolutely at war with those who believe that death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy.

Unfortunately, such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope. Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities.

Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb — and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise. And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.
In other words, although freedom of religion and religious tolerance may be the compromises that the Founding Fathers adopted to keep the peace in a relgiously diverse society, and may be good means of damping down religious conflict, relgious freedom and tolerance do not exhaust the issues. There's still the question of who's wrong and who's right.

Writer and talk-show host Dennis Prager argues in favor of Jewish and Christian religion primarily, it seems, because on average religious belief makes people behave better. The argument is common enough, and indeed, I've made the argument that our secularizing society lives of the moral capital accumulated in our more believing past.

Except perhaps for some sort of extreme pragmatist, this is not an argument for the truth of religion, just for its utility. A belief in Santa Claus may induce children to behave better in the runup to Christmas, but that doesn't mean you'll find him if you overfly the North Pole.

The fact that we don't use the police and the courts to enforce religious belief and observance, and there's a public understanding that we won't run around loudly denouncing one another's religions or lack of same, doesn't mean the question of the truth of faith should be ignored.

Is there a God? If so, is God a Trinity with an internal dynamic of love, who became incarnate? Or is God a radical unity, and totally transcendent? Does God simply dictate an arbitrary code of conduct, and authorize His followers to impose it by force?

These propositions cannot all be true, and if any of the monotheistic relgiions exist, it is a critical question for every human being which ones are true and which false. As Andrew G. Bostom points out:
Recently, at the close of a compelling, thoroughly documented address (delivered April 2, 2006, at The Legatus Summit, Naples, Florida) entitled, "Islam and Western Democracies," Cardinal George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, posed four salient questions for his erstwhile Muslim interlocutors wishing to engage in meaningful interfaith dialogue:

  • Do they believe that the peaceful suras of the Koran are abrogated by the verses of the sword?)

  • Is the program of military expansion (100 years after Muhammad's death Muslim armies reached Spain and India ) to be resumed when possible?

  • Do they believe that democratic majorities of Muslims in Europe would impose Shari'a (Islamic religious) law?

  • Can we discuss Islamic history -- even the hermeneutical problems around the origins of the Koran -- without threats of violence?
Dr. Habib Malik, in an eloquent address delivered February 3, 2003 at the at the 27th annual Council for Christian Colleges and Universities Presidents Conference decried the platitudinous "least common denominators" paradigm which dominates what he aptly termed the contemporary "dialogue industry":
We're all three Abrahamic religions, we're the three Middle Eastern monotheisms, the Isa of the Koran is really the same as the Jesus of the New Testament . . . This is politicized dialogue. This is dialogue for the sake of dialogue. Philosophically speaking, this is what Kierkegaard called idle talk, snakke in Danish; what Heidegger called Gerede; what Sartre called bavardage. In other words, if this is dialogue, it's pathetic . . . it needs to be transcended, and specifically to concentrate, to focus on the common ethical foundation for most religions can also be very misleading. Because when you get into the nitty-gritty, you find that even in what you supposed were common ethical foundations, there are vast differences, incompatibilities. Suicide bombers is one recent example. Condoned by major authoritative Muslim voices; completely unacceptable by Christianity.
Cardinal Pell's unanswered questions highlight the predictable failure of the feckless "We're all three Abrahamic religions", "dialogue for the sake of dialogue" approach to both Muslim-Christian, and Muslim-Jewish dialogue.
In short, although we should, in pluralist societies, accept and live with one another as people, regardless of belief and reject conversion by force, we can't all be right about these important questions.

NOTE: Links were deleted from Archbishop Pell's quotation within a quotation. Here's a link to the complete original talk.

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