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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The end of faith, part one

Last week, in response to the infernal book meme, I mentioned that I had recently finished reading Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, which I called a “delightful and infuriating book.” Some of you have been curious about this remark, and so, as a public service to all three of you, today I’ll excerpt from the book one of the many passages I admire.

Harris is a scathing critic of Islamic fundamentalism, but unlike many scathing critics of Islamic fundamentalism, he is scathing critic of all forms of religious fundamentalism.  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Eric Rudolph, George W. Bush – this one’s for you:

Out of deference to some rather poorly specified tenets of Christian doctrine (after all, nothing in the Bible suggests that killing human embryos, or even human fetuses, is the equivalent of killing a human being), the U.S. House of Representatives voted effectively to ban embryonic stem-cell research on February 27, 2003.

No rational approach to ethics would have led us to such an impasse. Our present policy on human stem cells has been shaped by beliefs that are divorced from every reasonable intuition we might form about the possible experience of living systems.  In neurological terms, we surely visit more suffering upon this earth by killing a fly than by killing a human blastocyst, to say nothing of a human zygote (flies, after all, have 100,000 cells in their brains alone).  Of course, the point at which we fully acquire our humanity, and our capacity to suffer, remains an open question.  But anyone who would dogmatically insist that these traits must arise coincident with the moment of conception has nothing to contribute, apart from his ignorance, to this debate.  Those opposed to therapeutic stem-cell research on religious grounds constitute the biological and ethical equivalent of a flat-earth society.  Our discourse on the subject should reflect this.  In this area of public policy alone, the accommodations that we have made to faith will do nothing but enshrine a perfect immensity of human suffering for decades to come.

But the tendrils of unreason creep further.  President Bush recently decided to cut off funding to any overseas family-planning group that provides information on abortion.  According to the New York Times, this “has effectively stopped condom provision to 16 countries and reduced it in 13 others, including some with the world’s highest rates of AIDS infection.” Under the influence of Christian notions of the sinfulness of sex outside of marriage, the U.S. government has required that one-third of its AIDS prevention funds allocated to Africa be squandered on teaching abstinence rather than condom use.  It is no exaggeration to say that millions could die as a direct result of this single efflorescence of religious dogmatism.  As Nicholas Kristof points out, “sex kills, and so does this kind of blushing prudishness.”

And yet, even those who see the problem in all its horror find it impossible to criticize faith itself.  Take Kristof as an example: in the very act of exposing the medievalism that prevails in the U.S. government, and its likely consequences abroad, he goes on to chastise anyone who would demand that the faithful be held fully accountable for their beliefs:

I tend to disagree with evangelicals on almost everything, and I see no problem with aggressively pointing out the dismal consequences of this increasing religious influence.  For example, evangelicals’ discomfort with condoms and sex education has led the administration to policies that are likely to lead to more people dying of AIDS at home and abroad, not to mention more pregnancies and abortions.

But liberal critiques sometimes seem not just filled with outrage at evangelical-backed policies, which is fair, but also to have a sneering tone about conservative Christianity itself.  Such mockery of religious faith is inexcusable.  And liberals sometimes show more intellectual curiosity about the religion of Afghanistan than that of Alabama, and more interest in reading the Upanishads than in reading the Book of Revelation.

This is reason in ruins.  Kristof condemns the “dismal consequences” of faith while honoring their cause.  It is true that the rules of civil discourse currently demand that Reason wear a veil whenever she ventures out in public.  But the rules of civil discourse must change.

Faith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering.  Where certain actions cause no suffering at all, religious dogmatists still maintain that they are evil and worthy of punishment (sodomy, marijuana use, homosexuality, the killing of blastocysts, etc.).  And yet, where suffering and death are found in abundance their causes are often deemed to be good (withholding funds for family planning in the third world, prosecuting nonviolent drug offenders, preventing stem-cell research, etc.).  This inversion of priorities not only victimizes innocent people and squanders scarce resources; it completely falsifies our ethics.  It is time we found a more reasonable approach to answering questions of right and wrong.

I don’t love every last word of this – for instance, the “open question” of when we “fully acquire our humanity” is too important to be relegated to an aside, and the implicit link between “full humanity” and “capacity to suffer” involves a form of question-begging.  But I resonate in sympathy to most of these words on the so-called “culture of life,” and you’ve gotta love the righteous rebuke to Kristof at one of his most odiously Kristoffian moments, chastising us liberals for not being more interested in Revelation (and, one presumes, the Left Behind series as well).

I’ll be back tomorrow with a critique of the one aspect of Mr. Harris’s argument that is (strange but true) not secular enough.  In the meantime, I hope I haven’t exceeded the “fair use” of his book here.  So, as they say in U.S. Code Title 17 §107, go and read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael on 04/19 at 07:31 AM
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