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November 9, 2005

He of little faith

Once again this week, religion is near the top of the public agenda in Louisville. The 10th annual “Festival of Faiths,” sponsored by the Cathedral Heritage Foundation, is in full swing in fulfillment of its mission: “To celebrate the diversity of our faiths, be grateful for our unity and strengthen the role of religion in society.”

Representatives of the world’s most prominent religions, as well as some of its less visible ones, are meeting for serious discussions and programs, as well as some pretty impressive show-and-tell. Many religious scholars are here, all discussing the eternally relevant but acutely critical question: “Why can’t we all get along?”

One person who will not be here this week is Samuel Harris, author of “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.” Harris, a philosopher, would not subscribe to the Festival’s mission; indeed, he would consider it dangerous.

(IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I am not endorsing Harris’ ideas. However, his book raises important issues that should not be ignored by the religious community or by any thoughtful person of faith.)

Harris at the “Festival of Faiths” would be like a gun control advocate lobbying at a gun show. He considers religions, at least most of them, potentially armed and dangerous.

“The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial — at once full of hope and full of fear — of the vastitude of human ignorance,” he writes in “The End of Faith.”

“A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous. While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence (i.e., be religious) to actualize it. Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith.”

That is how Harris ends his book, which, in what is essentially a very long essay, asks the biggest question about organized religion: Why is it necessary?

To literally billions of people, this question is somewhere between silly and outrageous, mostly because they’ve never asked it. But if we have a major event like the Festival, which implicitly admits that religion can, in some respects, be an enormous international problem, is it not appropriate that we start at the beginning?

Harris’ major complaint is that religious moderation — the notion that we should embrace and respect all faith systems — prevents an open and honest discussion of the relevance and utility of religion in today’s world. In other words, if, as the mission of the “Festival of Faiths” suggests, we should stipulate the value of religion in the world, we should also at least discuss the very real threat posed by many belief systems.

“Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds that it forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity — a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible. When foisted upon each generation anew, it renders us incapable of realizing just how much of our world has been unnecessarily ceded to a dark and barbarous past,” Harris writes.

Indeed, we now live in a world in which a virulent form of Islam has infected generations of its adherents to believe that they have a theological imperative to destroy those who do not share their beliefs. And we need not spend much time dwelling on the despicable record, ancient and recent, of religious persecution.

As Harris suggests, “Perhaps it is time we demanded that our fellow human beings had better reasons for their religious differences, if such reasons even exist. We must begin speaking freely about what is really in these holy books of ours, beyond the timid heterodoxies of modernity — the gay and lesbian ministers, the Muslim clerics who have lost their taste for public amputations, or the Sunday churchgoers who have never read their Bibles quite through. A close study of these books, and of history, demonstrates that there is no act of cruelty so appalling that it cannot be justified, or even mandated, by recourse to their pages.”

We should all be proud of the “Festival of Faiths,” because while many people may embrace Harris’ utopian vision of a world in which ethics, spirituality and social cohesion exist outside of mosques, churches and synagogues, the reality is that while his questions are valid and important, solutions to religious “problems” are much more likely to be found in the type of discussions being held this week in Louisville. See Page 32 for more info on the festival.

Contact the writer at jyarmuth@aol.com