Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Engaging The Belief Police

Two recent books on the NY Times Best Seller list share a common thesis -- that religion in general, and Christianity specifically, is not just wrong, or off-base, or a subject worth debating -- but evil, deluded, dangerous, and the righteous target of the thinking man's scorn. Sam Harris', "Letter To A Christian Nation," (# 31 on the list) and Richard Dawkins, "The God Delusion," (# 14 and on the list for 24 weeks) don't just want to appeal to their atheistic brethren, but want to question the sanity of religious belief itself and suggest that we would all be more safe if religion were forcibly banished from the public square.

This view of religion is nothing new to Dawkins who, blasting the intolerance of Creationists in his 1986 book, "The Blind Watchmaker," claimed that ...

It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).

With an incredibly ironic inability to see the intolerance of those two ideas existing in parallel, Dawkins denies any respect to those who happen to disagree with him -- and instead offers them nothing but contempt. Disgusted by the proselytizing of religious folk, he engages in a little proselytizing of his own when, on the fifth page of his most recent book he claims that, "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down."

For all the bluster these two claim about their own "healthy" and "vigorous" minds as compared to the mental midgets who oppose them, it is a little too convenient that they fail to even mention the significant input to science and philosophy that has been contributed by theists throughout history. It is a little too convenient that they make no mention of the fact that most of the greatest scientific minds -- Newton, Galileo, Pascal, Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler -- were all devout men who studied the physical universe because they believed it was ordered and a reflection of the mind of God. It is a little too convenient that they make no mention of the great philosophers throughout history -- Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, C.S. Lewis -- who were not only Christian theists, but that began as atheists and reasoned their way to faith. It is a little too convenient that they make no mention of the fact that the Bible itself challenges us to "test everything" and that the scientific revolution began with Christian scientists who did just that.

Instead they offer false dichotomies and accusations like the one Harris offered in a Newsweek column promoting his book:

Despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antiquity of the Earth, more than half the American population believes that the entire cosmos was created 6,000 years ago.

While this statistic may in fact be true, it is a complete evasion of the reality that there are differing views among those Harris is quick to lump together under the "creationist" label. I find it hard to believe he doesn't know this. It is much easier, and more convenient, to generalize that Creationist = young earth creationist. But its is a false equation. There are plenty of intellectually rigorous defenses of the notion that accepting the age of the universe to be 14 Billion years (as I assume Harris does) is perfectly compatible with the Biblical creation account. This is notable -- especially for someone who claims intellectual superiority as the high ground from which he chastises religious belief. A fair and confident debater will always take on his opponent's best argument. Harris is apparently unwilling, or unable, to do that.

Harris goes on to say that ...

... much of what people believe in the name of religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable and incompatible with genuine morality. One of the worst things about religion is that it tends to separate questions of right and wrong from the living reality of human and animal suffering.

It doesn't occur to Harris that lumping all his opponents together under a single, generalized umbrella, calling them closed-minded, stupid, deluded, and dangerous, or suggesting that they are evil for holding their beliefs -- none of that should be considered "divisive." But what is really astounding is his claim that "religion ... is incompatible with genuine morality."

I wonder how Harris goes about determining what is "genuinely" moral? On his view, there is no rational basis for morality. We (and our animal friends) are nothing but a more highly evolved outcome of an irrational, deterministic process. We, and our brains, just "are." What is, is what is. There is no basis for saying what "ought" to be. Though he would never admit it, Harris' notion of morality is vacuous -- unless he borrows it from theism. Without an objective moral standard Harris can make no claim about good or bad, right or wrong, nice or evil. As for his claim that "religion ... tends to separate questions of right and wrong from the living reality of human and animal suffering," this is just plain false.

Some religions do this. Hinduism in particular denies the existence of evil and suffering as being a simple ignorance about human separation from the divine Maya. But all religions are not created equal. In fact, Christianity is the only religion that takes this admitted problem head-on and offers an explanation for the existence, reality and solution to the problem of evil in the world. We Christian theists call it the "problem" of evil for a reason. We don't like it. We admit that the explanation we offer has difficulties that make us uncomfortable. But to say that we separate this issue from "living reality" is utter nonsense. It is a question that Christian theologians and philosophers have been conscientiously struggling with for centuries.

On this topic Harris also fails to acknowledge or account for the tens (100s?) of millions executed at the hands of the totalitarian regimes built on an the atheistic philosophy (Mao, Stalin, Pol-Pot etc.) during the twentieth century alone.

Next, Harris chastises Christians (and President Bush directly) for their narrow-minded opposition to Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) for no other reason than that "religious dogmatism impedes genuine wisdom and compassion." We Christians apparently thrive on the notion that others will suffer while we stand on our idiotic "unjustified religious belief." So what is Harris' justified argument to the contrary? He is glad to tell us:

A case in point: embryonic-stem-cell research is one of the most promising developments in the last century of medicine. It could offer therapeutic breakthroughs for every human ailment … A 3-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. The embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all.

Here Harris parrots the demagogic claims of those who prey on the hopes of the sick and dying. There is not a shred of evidence that ESCR will be successful in curing any disease, let alone the horrific ones for which Harris promises a cure. There are expense, rejection, tumor-forming, and uncontrollability issues that combine to make ESCR seem more hollow every day. At the same time, adult stem cell research has shown enormous potential for success yet Harris never mentions it at all. He never mentions that President Bush (nor any other religious zealot for that matter) has no ethical or moral objection to it. His only goal it seems, is to construct a straw man to bolster his personal case against religion.

Along the same lines, Harris informs us that a "3-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly." Perhaps Harris is not as bright as he claims. Perhaps he is uninformed. Perhaps he believes he is enlightening all the religious morons about the extent of his vocabulary regarding a blastocyst. But his regurgitation of the same old argument surrounding stem cell research is so lame and so overused it almost seems like a parody. Yes, Mr. Harris, a blastocyst is small. Yes, at three days it has fewer cells than the brain of a fly. But what does that prove?

Nothing.

In case Mr. Harris is not aware, a blastocyst is not a thing -- it is a stage in the development of a thing. And that "thing" is what he himself labeled a "human embryo." Not a fly embryo, or the embryo of a horse. A human embryo. In other words, that thing he so callously wants to destroy is a fully integrated, complex, self-replicating human person who just happens to be in the earliest stages of its development. Someone just you or me, or Mr. Harris. Surely we cannot claim that the worth of a human person is dependent on their level of development, their size, their location, or their degree of dependency. And though Harris claims that a person cannot "suffer their destruction in any way at all" I would like to know how he rationalizes the destruction of a human person as not inflicting moral harm upon their personhood.

The difference between Mr. Harris' view and the views of the religious folks he vilifies is that the religious folks value human persons for what they are intrinsically, not for what they can do. To the religious among us, ontology trumps function.

All these points stem from a central belief that Harris and Dawkins share:

Religion is the one area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give good evidence and valid arguments in defense of their strongly held beliefs.(Harris)

Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.(Dawkins)

I cannot blame either of these men for understanding faith as an "excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence." Frankly, that view is shared by many in the church. The problem with such a view where it affects Christians in particular is that it has no basis in Scripture. Nowhere is there an example of someone demonstrating faith without evidence to support it. As Greg Koukl points out, "faith is not wishing" in Biblical Christianity. The Biblical model for faith starts with evidence which leads to knowledge, which in turn leads to an active trust that is faith. Faith is always built on evidence. The Bible gives no indication that claiming faith gives us license to disengage our brains. Quite the contrary.

Though I had never noticed it before, Michael Novak, in his review of these two books, gives brilliant historical evidence that this understanding is not new and that it is demonstrated in Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel's ceiling where the "cloud behind the Creator's head is painted in the shape of the human brain. Imago Dei, yes indeed."



So while I understand the underpinning of Harris' and Dawkins' inaccurate picture of faith, I do not accept their conclusion that:

In a world brimming with increasingly destructive technology, our infatuation with religious myths now poses a tremendous danger. And it is not a danger for which more religious faith is a remedy.

History has proven that atheism poses the greatest tangible danger to humanity. The remedy is faith -- a faith that is properly understood. A faith that engages its brain before it opens its mouth. A faith that is not afraid to face any issue, whether it is scientific, philosophical, political or otherwise, because it knows that the fountainhead of faith is Truth. None of us should be afraid of the Truth. The question that faces us is whether or not we, and those like Msrs. Harris and Dawkins, have minds big enough, and open enough, to engage the Truth head on.

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