Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | September 12, 2006

Religion must not be exempt from rational criticism

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Those attacks were carried out by 19 Muslim extremists who believed they were following the will of Allah by killing ‘infidels’ who didn’t share their faith. These true believers also looked forward to a handsome reward in the afterlife for their acts of murder and martyrdom.

In the weeks leading up to the somber anniversary, I read two books written more than a half century apart: “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements,” by Eric Hoffer, published in 1951, and “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason,” by Sam Harris, published in 2004.

With a crisp, pithy writing style that reminds me of Strunk and White in “The Elements of Style,” Hoffer describes the personality traits of true believers and their leaders and the conditions that must be present for mass movements to succeed.

“All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; … all of them demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance,” Hoffer wrote more than 50 years ago. “… However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same things.”

Hoffer is careful to note in the preface that “the book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain…”

Harris takes a different tack. In “The End of Faith,” a book he began writing on Sept. 11, 2001, Harris dares to say what most people won’t in our politically correct era: By keeping religious faith exempt from the realm of rational criticism, we are unable to address what Harris calls “one of the most pervasive causes of conflict in the world.”

Harris points out something many people acknowledge: Religious fundamentalists with competing claims to possession of the one true path to God, the only key to a happy afterlife, and the sole moral world view (all inherently untestable assertions) are responsible for the religious conflicts simmering and boiling over across the world.

But Harris is also critical of religious moderates – those who preach tolerance for and the equality of all faiths – because they have made it taboo to criticize religious faith.

“On this subject, liberals and conservatives have reached a rare consensus: religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse,” Harris writes. “… Our technical advances in the art of war have finally rendered our religious differences—and hence our religious beliefs—antithetical to our survival. We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom … because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.”

The centuries-old, ongoing conflicts between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East, the horrors of the Holocaust, the atrocities of the Inquisition, the violence between Hindus and Muslims in India, honor killings, and witch hunts are a few of countless examples of the price we pay because we refuse to require that faith submit to the rigors of reason.

By making it taboo to criticize faith and by exempting it from evidentiary requirements placed on all other sectors of life, we create a climate where it is possible for billions of people to justify shunning, despising, maiming, kidnapping, torturing, and killing people based upon religious beliefs.

In comments commemorating the fifth anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, President George W. Bush talked about the lessons of that day. While I’m certain it’s not one that Bush has taken from those horrific events, here’s one I hope we learn before it’s too late: We must take religious faith off the pedestal marked “no evidence required, no criticism tolerated” upon which it is perched – the survival of the human race depends upon it.

“I pray that we may one day think clearly enough about these matters to render our children incapable of killing themselves over their books. If not our children, then I suspect it will be too late for us, because while it has never been difficult to meet your maker, in fifty years it will simply be too easy to drag everyone else along to meet him with you.” ~ Sam Harris



  1. Amen

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