Monday, September 29, 2014

Faith and Reason in the Secular Age

The End of Faith by Sam Harris (2004) presents a brand of atheism that is quite radical in terms of attitude and its hatred for God. This is understandable, considering that it emerged out of the secular age and the vast advances brought about by science which render faith in God dispensable and intellectually superfluous. In this paper, I will summarily dismiss the contentions of Harris by presenting the unity of faith and reason in the secular age.

Ethics and Religion

Harris claims that religious faith distorts our view of the world, although he also suggests that the influence of religion in the West is benign. He criticizes as ridiculous the suggestion of Tom DeLay that the Columbine HS shooting is due to the teaching of evolution in schools. He also accuses US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as an advocate for theocracy for saying that the government derives its moral authority from God.

Harris says that religion infringes upon the rights of men to be happy. He cites the example of marijuana. He says that the drug should be legalized, as it is wrong, he claims, to punish freedom loving men for their private pleasure. He also criticizes the position of conservatives on stem cell research, saying that embryos don’t feel any harm. He finds as absurd that the embryo is accorded all the protections of a fully developed human being.[1]

Harris dismisses all the claims of religion and their relevance to the ethical life of man. For Harris, the pervasive idea that religion is somehow the source of our deepest ethical intuitions is absurd.[2] He says that concern for others was not an invention of any prophet.[3] He rejects theology is a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, he says, it is ignorance with wings.[4] Citing Richard Dawkins, he agrees with the idea that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.[5]

Ethics for Harris is based on moral concern. He writes: “How is it, after all, that a Nazi guard could return each day from his labor at the crematoria and be a loving father to his children? The answer is straightforward: the Jews he spent the day torturing and killing were not objects of his moral concern.”[6] He rejects moral relativism, suggesting that suicide bombing is wrong in the absolute sense. The omitted premise in this contention by Harris is that for him all suicide bombers are Muslims. He must have missed the story of the Japanese Kamikazes who flew their planes to suicide bombing missions in honor of their emperor during the last world war. It goes without saying that suicide bombing is wrong because it is a violation of human rights. Harris’s claim that only Muslims can be suicide bombers is more of a popular prejudice and is unfair to other Muslims who work peacefully in society.

Harris rejects relativism on the basis of religious tolerance. For example, the stoning to death of an adulterous woman or the honor killing of a girl is unacceptable. Given the requisite belief about honor, Harris says that a man will be desperate to kill his own daughter upon learning that she was raped.[7] Harris says that we are all in agreement regarding this, for “to say that we can never agree on any question of ethics is like saying we can never agree on any question of physics.”[8] If there are some unsettled moral issues, Harris tells us that respect for diversity is nothing but an intellectual holding pattern.[9] For him, for ethics to matter, the happiness or suffering of others must matter to the individual.[10]

Religion and Spirituality

For Harris, the alternative of spirituality exists. According to him, some experiments in consciousness support the idea that meditation is a source of happiness. He argues that consciousness is the sole basis of our judgments. The contents of consciousness, including the self, for him, are mental acts of representation. He cites that the wisdom of the East, its mysticism, supports the unity between reason, spirituality and ethics. As against the above view, Harris notes that religions are hostile to one another. Thus, he says that “the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.”[11] Harris ends the book by saying:

No personal God need be worshipped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation. No tribal fictions need to be researched for us to realize, one fine day, that we do, in fact, love our neighbors, that our happiness is inextricable from their own, and that our interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish. The days of our religious identities are clearly numbered. Whether the days of civilization itself are numbered would seem to depend, rather too much, on how soon we realize this.[12]

Science, Religion and Morality

Harris intends to show, firstly, that religious faith is dangerous, for our belief in a transcendent lawgiver may lead us to kill one another. Secondly, he argues that religious faith is unfounded or without basis in reality. Harris tries to prove the first argument by citing the 9/11 attacks as a product of Islam, suggesting that Muslims around the world are against non-Muslims. He explains the second argument by comparing religious faith to science, the latter being founded on empirical evidence and logical consistency. However, Ravi Zacharias quotes:

         Proverbs 18:17: “The first to speak in court sounds right – until the cross examination.”

Zacharias in The End of Reason writes that “Harris’s biggest complaint against God is that so much suffering is experienced by humanity in the name of God’s sovereignty and goodness; yet in his own little world he would, I suspect, turn a blind eyes to any incidental pain in order to freely proclaim liberation from falsehood.”[13] In addition, I think that a world without God being promoted by Harris is cold, uncompassionate and arrogant. Zacharias, who responds to Harris from a Christian perspective, says that “eventually, belief in a world birthed by accident, a life that has no purpose, morality without a point of reference except for those absolutes that have been smuggled in – well hidden behind the mask of relativism – and death that ends in oblivion made me prefer the possibility of this oblivion to the sheer weight of the emptiness of a God-less world.[14] Albert Einstein (1984) writes that “the desire for guidance, love and support prompts men to form the social and moral conception of God.”[15]

Harris has not given sufficient explanation as to the origin of the universe or if he has an alternative. If he wants to dismiss the claims of religion as false, then Zacharias believes that Harris must account for the beginning of a God-less universe. Zacharias notes that “Big Bang cosmology, along with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, implies that there is indeed an ‘in the beginning.’ We know quite well that this singularity is not really a point; it is the whole three-dimensional space compressed to zero size.”[16] He adds, convincingly, that Bertrand Russell’s suggestion that the universe is just there is clearly not a scientific explanation.[17] Science, in this regard, has no incontrovertible proof against God’s existence.[18]

Zacharias emphasizes the idea that nothing that exists (or that is) can explain its own existence.[19] In order to argue that a random universe or a universe that emerges out of nowhere is impossible, he mentions Donald Page of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Page, according to Zacharias, has calculated the odds against our universe randomly taking a form suitable for life as one out of 10,000,000,000124 - a number that exceeds all imagination.[20]

Thus, Zacharias is saying that “one would have to conclude that the chance of the random ordering of organic molecules is not essentially different from a big fat zero. Perhaps that’s why they call it singularity, because it is without definition or empirical explanation. That is the zero to which Sam Harris gives credit for everything; that’s his explanation for why we are here.”[21] Below, Zacharias strongly asserts:

“If life is random, then the inescapable consequence, first and foremost, is that there can be no ultimate meaning and purpose to existence. As individuals and collectively as cultures, we humans long for meaning. But if life is random, we have climbed the evolutionary ladder only to find nothing at the top.”[22]

Now, while Harris puts all the blame on religion with regard to the greatest evils in the world, it is wrong to suggest that a religion-less world is a better alternative and will guarantee human well-being. As Zacharias points out, “atheists can’t have it both ways. If the murder of innocents is wrong, it is wrong not because science tells us it is wrong but because every life has intrinsic worth – a postulate that atheism simply cannot deduce.”[23] The arrogance of Harris is reflective of today’s contemporary nihilism, of a man who is self-confident that values and everything else depends upon human choice. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly have described this attitude in All Things Shining (2011):

The man of confidence is often a compelling figure. Driven and focused, he is committed to bringing the world into line with his vision of how it should be. He may believe that his vision for the world is a good one, that the world will be a better place if he can shape it to his will for the better. But there is danger to this attitude as well. Too often it turns out that the blustery self-confidence of such a person hides its own darker origins: it is really just arrogance combined with ambition, or worse yet a kind of self-delusion.[24]

Harris, like Peter Singer, being a consequentialist, does not recognize the inherent value of human life. Harris advocates the use of torture to extract information from suspected terrorists in order to save people, so he is no different from those who tortured people in the medieval period in their witch hunts. But what if this person is innocent? Harris blames all Christians for the Holy Inquisition. Harris blames all Muslims for 9/11. So what has happened to individual accountability? What has happened to the capacity of each to make valid moral judgments? Should we blame all Germans, without exception, during the time of Hitler, including Oskar Schindler, for the Nazi atrocities?

While from a purely humanist point of view, people can be good though they might not believe in any deity, still as noted by Zacharias, there is no logical explanation for how the intuition toward morality could develop from sheer matter and chemistry.[25] Belief in God, following this point, does not make us evil as suggested by Harris, for the existence of a God who is a law-giver does not contradict our judgments on good and evil. Zacharias writes that "when you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver – the source of the moral law."[26]

The Distinction between Faith and Reason

Let us proceed to the second question, what is the distinction between belief and faith? According to Msgr. Dennis Villarojo, “Harris does not make a clear distinction between belief and faith. He lumps belief together with faith,” and that faith for Harris means “adherence to a particular truth-claim without the backing of evidence.”[27] Msgr. Villarojo adds that for Harris, “faith is a form of belief whose specific object is the existence of God,” and that “since the existence of God is unverifiable, he considers such belief as unjustified.”[28]

Msgr. Villarojo explains that since Harris requires scientific evidence for all-truth claims, he is a realist in this regard, one who believes in objective reality.[29] Msgr. Villarojo explains the incongruence in this kind of logic, for while “science is verifiable by its own method, why would faith be verified by science?”[30] Harris is suggesting that the only acceptable standard is scientific verifiability, which means that the existence of God should also pass empirical or scientific verifiability. Msgr. Villarojo further explains that Harris “accepts scientific intuition but rejects metaphysical intuition,” for instance, that there is “order in nature”, an order that points to a Creator which evolutionists, according to Msgr. Villarojo, “simply replaced with chance and randomness.”[31]

For Harris, all religious claims, including the immaculate conception of Christ, the resurrection and trans-substantiation, are bereft of any evidence and must therefore be rejected. For him, since there is no empirical proof for the existence of God, faith in God must be dismissed. In addition, what Harris suggests in his book is that religion is squarely to blame on all these atrocities committed by terrorists, and culture, politics and even economic hegemony have nothing to do with all the ills in the world. Harris simply missed the redeeming aspect of faith – faith is ultimately about persons.
Our Christian faith has taught us that many people have sacrificed themselves for the sake of others, for instance, we can cite the case of the young Jesuit scholastic Ritchie Fernando who died shielding young children from a grenade blast. In contrast, a world without God is dangerous for humanity. A world without God is dangerous to defenseless unborn children. Maybe, Harris has forgotten that a God-less Hitler has caused the extermination of six million Jews, a God-less Stalin has killed a million Ukrainians through forced famine when they refused his farm collectivization program and that a God-less Pol Pot has massacred more than two million Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime. Zacharias writes:  

Harris is using the same kind of bizarre logic used by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. On the Senate Floor, in support of embryonic stem cell research, he took out a pad paper, put a dot on it and said, “What I’ve just put on that piece of paper is a dot, a little dot. That is the size of the embryos that we’re taking the stem cells from.” Does Senator Harkin remember that a dot is all he was when he started off? Should he therefore be flung onto the garbage heap if he becomes brain-dead someday? No, because the past tense of his life demands that we respect the future of his mortal remains. The past tense of every human being is that dot.[32]

Religious Pluralism and Tolerance

There are plausible reasons for human solidarity even in the plurality of religions. Sam Harris does not seem to understand religious pluralism. He does not understand the idea of ‘freedom of conscience’ which characterizes the liberal attitude of freedom-loving people in many democratic states. Harris disrespects the belief of people and ergo, he is dismissing the rights of people to practice their religion.

Harris is intolerant of the belief of others while not recognizing his own arrogance and his apparent hatred for a group of people whom he accuses of crimes on the basis of their religion. Harris must understand that innocent Muslims too have suffered, for instance during the Kosovo war where the men of Milosevic massacred 8,000 innocent Muslim men and children, their dead bodies run over by tanks, on the basis that they were Muslims and nothing else.

The End of Faith has shown nothing that promotes peace. It has too much belief in secularism without recognizing the value of our faith in God even in this post-modern age. Faith and reason can have a unique relationship that fosters solidarity. There is nothing unreasonable in the idea of inter-religious dialogue as a way to promote a culture of peace among diverse peoples. What Harris does is he foments hatred and prejudice against a group of people who are born, by natural lottery, a Muslim. He fails to recognize that while we may worship different deities, there exists an absolute in us – our humanity and the capacity to recognize the inherent moral worth of each.

It is in the recognition of our inherent humanity and the respect for basic human rights where inter-religious dialogue can take place. The idea of compassion and love for humanity promote peace and not our hatred for others. Thus, Zacharias is correct in saying that “the disrespectful way in which Sam Harris has addressed Muslims makes me wonder whether, if he were to make these same statements publicly in a Muslim country, he would leave unscathed. His prejudice is recognizable a mile away, and the mutual antipathy is literally a dead end.”[33]

[1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith, (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2004), 166.
[2] Ibid., 171
[3] Ibid., 172
[4] Ibid., 173
[5] Ibid., 176
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 188
[8] Ibid., 182
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 185
[11] Ibid., 226
[12] Ibid., 227
[13] Ravi Zacharias, The End of Reason, (Michigan: Zondervan, 2008), 15.
[14] Ibid., 26
[15] Albert Einstein, As I see it, (New York: Citadel Press Books, 1984), 26
[16] Zacharias, The End of Reason, 31
[17] Ibid., 32
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 35
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid., 39
[23] Ibid., 51-52
[24] Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining, (New York: Free Press, 2011), 5.
[25] Zacharias, The End of Reason, 55
[26] Ibid.
[27] Msgr. Dennis Villarojo, “The Dialectics of Faith and Reason,” in PHAVISMINDA Journal 8:2009, 106.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid., 106
[30] Ibid., 107
[31] Ibid., 106
[32] Zacharias, The End of Reason, 109-110
[33] Ibid., 77