JR'S Free Thought Pages
The Trouble with Religion
Religion is antagonistic to science and reason, captive to the fantasies of a prior age
By Sam Harris
Most people believe that the Creator of the universe wrote (or dictated) one of their books. Unfortunately, there are many books that pretend to divine authorship, and each makes incompatible claims about how we all must live.
Despite the ecumenical efforts of many well-intentioned people, these irreconcilable religious commitments still inspire an appalling amount of human conflict.
In response to this situation, most sensible people advocate something called "religious tolerance." While religious tolerance is surely better than religious war, tolerance is not without its liabilities.
Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us incapable of criticizing ideas that are now patently absurd and increasingly maladaptive. It has also obliged us to lie to ourselves -- repeatedly and at the highest levels -- about the compatibility between religious faith and scientific rationality.
The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science.
It is time we conceded a basic fact of human discourse: either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not. When a person has good reasons, his beliefs contribute to our growing understanding of the world. We need not distinguish between "hard" and "soft" science here, or between science and other evidence-based disciplines like history.
There happen to be very good reasons to believe that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Consequently, the idea that the Egyptians did it lacks credibility.
Every sane human being recognizes that to rely merely upon "faith" to decide specific questions of historical fact would be both idiotic and grotesque -- that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the Bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad's conversation with the angel Gabriel, or to any of the other hallowed travesties that still crowd the altar of human ignorance.
Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe such propositions when reasons fail.
The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so. The distinction could not be more obvious, or more consequential, and yet it is everywhere elided, even in the ivory tower.
Religion is fast growing incompatible with the emergence of a global, civil society. Religious faith -- faith that there is a God who cares what name he is called, that one of our books is infallible, that Jesus is coming back to earth to judge the living and the dead, that Muslim martyrs go straight to Paradise, etc. -- is on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas. The difference between science and religion is the difference between a genuine openness to fruits of human inquiry in the 21st century, and a premature closure to such inquiry as a matter of principle.
I believe that the antagonism between reason and faith will only grow more pervasive and intractable in the coming years. Iron Age beliefs -- about God, the soul, sin, free will, etc. -- continue to impede medical research and distort public policy.
The possibility that we could elect a U.S. president who takes biblical prophesy seriously is real and terrifying; the likelihood that we will one day confront Islamists armed with nuclear or biological weapons is also terrifying, and it is increasing by the day. We are doing very little, at the level of our intellectual discourse, to prevent such possibilities.
In the spirit of religious tolerance, most scientists are keeping silent when they should be blasting the hideous fantasies of a prior age with all the facts at their disposal.
To win this war of ideas, scientists and other rational people will need to find new ways of talking about ethics and spiritual experience.
The distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and non-ordinary states of consciousness from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being rigorous about what is reasonable to conclude on their basis.
We must find ways of meeting our emotional needs that do not require the abject embrace of the preposterous. We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity -- birth, marriage, death, etc. -- without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality.
I am hopeful that the necessary transformation in our thinking will come about as our scientific understanding of ourselves matures.
When we find reliable ways to make human beings more loving, less fearful, and genuinely enraptured by the fact of our appearance in the cosmos, we will have no need for divisive religious myths.
Sam Harris is the author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.
No God, no Good
When it comes to intolerance, America's a match for Afghanistan
By Peter McKnight
"It does me no injury for my neighbour to say that there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
-- Thomas Jefferson
With apologies to Mohandas Gandhi, one can measure the greatness and moral progress of a nation not only by how it treats its animals, but how it treats its infidels.
If this is so, if a culture's treatment of those who reject its prevailing ideology is a barometer of its moral progress, then Afghanistan is a moral backwater indeed.
But it isn't the only one -- the persecution of infidels, it turns out, occurs in countries much closer to home.
As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the embarrassing case of Abdul Rahman appears to be over. Rahman, the Afghan who converted to Christianity 16 years ago while working for a Christian aid organization in Pakistan, was originally facing trial and a possible death sentence for forsaking Islam.
That changed quickly however, after international uproar, including pressure from the leaders of Canada, the United States, Germany and Italy, convinced Afghan President Hamid Karzai that it was better to privately bury the case than to publicly bury Rahman.
And bury it they did. Prosecutors first surmised that Rahman "could be mad" -- thereby sending the not so subtle message that you'd have to be crazy to convert to Christianity, which I suppose is true if you live in Afghanistan -- and if so, he'd have to be forgiven, since Islam is a "religion of tolerance," blah, blah, blah.
This is an odd strategy since the defence, rather than the prosecution, normally introduces evidence of insanity.
But then, everything about this case was odd -- the case was ultimately dropped not because Rahman is mad, but because prosecutors couldn't meet the time limit for bringing him to trial. Ah, the statute of limitations, the friend of defence counsel everywhere and, apparently, of prosecutors in Afghanistan.
So Karzai dodged a bullet, but Rahman's life was still on the line. Concerned by statements by some Afghan clerics and citizens that the people would "cut him into pieces," Rahman sought asylum and now is in Italy.
Rahman's freedom of religion is therefore more illusory than real, and that goes equally for anyone else who would dare to challenge Afghanistan's religion of tolerance. Even those Afghans who have always been Christian, as opposed to those who have converted, know better than to advertise their religion, preferring instead to conduct surreptitious ceremonies.
This is so despite the fact that the new Afghan Constitution, which was written and rewritten and rewritten again, guarantees that non-Muslims "are free to exercise their faith," and affirms the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which ensures the right to freedom of religion, including the "freedom to change [one's] religion."
However, the Constitution also states that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." Given that Karzai has ceded control of the judiciary to Islamic conservatives, that provision is inevitably interpreted as mandating death for apostates.
Afghanistan's freedom of religion, and with it its moral progress, is therefore in doubt. But before we get too sanctimonious about the treatment of infidels on the other side of the world, it's worth looking at the persecution of non-believers right here in North America.
People in Canada and the U.S. are free to convert to any religion they want, including some really far out ones. But unlike Afghanistan, the West only considers people infidels if they reject all religion and all belief in the supernatural. And those who do so are in for a rough ride, especially in the U.S., the country that ostensibly liberated Afghanistan.
According to a University of Minnesota survey in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, atheists are the least trusted minority in the U.S., less trusted than Muslims, recent immigrants and gays and lesbians.
The survey suggests that many Americans still associate atheism with immorality, an association motivated by the old canard that ethics necessarily depends on religion, that you can't be good without God.
This is patently false: In addition to the existence of many morally upstanding atheists, American sociologist Phil Zuckerman notes that highly atheistic societies are much more likely to support education and gender equality and less likely to be plagued by poverty and violent crime.
Nevertheless, the belief persists, and survey author Penny Edgell concludes that "today's atheists play the role that Catholics, Jews and Communists have played in the past -- they offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society."
This belief evidently permeates the highest echelon of American society given that George Bush the Elder said in 1987 that atheists shouldn't be considered patriots or citizens.
People, including presidential candidates are, of course, free to believe whatever they want. But the deep distrust of infidels in American society has resulted in atheists receiving some very unequal treatment in law.
Perhaps most egregiously, atheists (and their children) have suffered at the hands of family courts. In an essay that will appear in the May issue of the New York University Law Review, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh provides evidence that courts have discriminated against atheists in custody disputes.
Volokh, who also runs the insightful web blog The Volokh Conspiracy, documents examples of anti-atheist discrimination in 17 states (including New York, Connecticut, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and many southern states) and the District of Columbia.
In each case, the courts considered religious instruction to be in the best interests of the children, and consequently the parent providing the more religious upbringing was granted custody of the children. By that standard, atheists, who provide no religious instruction, don't stand a chance.
The laws of several U.S. states, including the home states of the last three presidents -- Arkansas and Texas -- also maintain provisions that ban atheists from holding public office. These provisions, which are more offensive than anything in the Constitution of Afghanistan, undoubtedly violate the U.S. Constitution, but they remain on the books.
Canada has, mercifully, been more accommodating toward those with no religion (according to Zuckerman, between 19 and 30 per cent of Canadians are atheist, compared with just three per cent of Americans.) But we're not entirely without anti-atheist sentiments.
Canadian family courts have also accepted that religious instruction is in the best interests of children, and high school kids who attempt to start atheist groups have faced opposition from school boards.
Atheist associations have also typically had a much harder time obtaining tax-exempt status than religious organizations, including the far-out ones. For example, the Humanist Association of Toronto, which educates people about secular humanism and also provides non-religious weddings and funeral services for members, did not receive tax-exempt status until 2004, after a lengthy battle with the federal government.
Now I'm not a big fan of granting tax-exempt status to any organization, but there's little reason to treat theistic and atheistic groups unequally.
On the contrary, by offering atheists less protection of the law, we diminish our respect for the principle of freedom of religion, or, more broadly construed, freedom of conscience.
Such freedoms exist, not just to protect institutionalized religions, but to protect individual beliefs concerning, as Douglas Adams had it, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.
Upon exercising this freedom, people will conclude that the answer is one god, or 20 gods, or no gods. Those who choose no gods might earn the wrath of a religious society, but that's all the more reason to ensure that their freedom is protected, since those whose beliefs are supported by society are in no need of protection.
Our commitment to religious freedom can therefore be measured by our willingness to guarantee protection for atheists. And given the importance of freedom of religion, without which all other rights and freedoms become meaningless, the greatness and moral progress of a nation can truly be measured by how it treats its infidels.