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Beliefs – Part Two

When I first read Sam Harris’s book The End of Belief, I was disturbed by his insistence that belief is the source of our problems. He even stated that religious moderates are part of the problem, by encouraging those who turn beliefs into mandates. His prime example, of course, is the suicide bomber getting on a bus in Israel and attaining Paradise by blowing everything up, including himself. As much as I agree with Harris that such unthinking (that word should probably be in quotes) violence does little to enhance life on Earth generally, it seemed to me that he was contributing to the problem by reacting to one extreme with another.

The problem is not belief—he is exhibiting just as emphatic a belief as the Islamist suicide bomber—but, as Andrew Sullivan points out in his book The Conservative Soul, the sense of certainty that one’s belief is the Answer, and that any deviation from that belief is failure of one’s whole world view. The fundamentalist’s certainty that he/she possesses the only and whole Truth does not allow one to understand, much less negotiate with, anyone else who may have a different idea. That, of course, may be beside the point for the fundamentalist. If one is certain that, for example, the End Times are upon us, there seems little point in trying to “get along” with the unbeliever.

Sullivan says that “In Protestant Christianity, especially in the U.S., the loudest voices are the most certain and uncompromising. . .” They allow little leeway for those who retain hope that humankind can work out its differences enough to survive.

What troubles me is that Sam Harris (and I’ve read enough of his other works that I think he and I don’t disagree on a lot of basic opinions) contributes to the polarization. By stating that anyone who has strong beliefs in one religious point of view or another is a threat to peace, he himself is posing just such a belief. His happens to be that other beliefs are the threat. He seems unaware that the effect of his statements is the same as those of the most recalcitrant fundamentalists: to harden the opposing points of view.

“There is, however,” Sullivan writes, “a way out. And it will come from the only place it can come from—the minds and souls of people of faith. . . The alternative to the secular-fundamentalist death spiral is something called spiritual humility and sincere religious doubt.”

Doubt is what the fundamentalists fear. It’s clear to the rest of us that these contradictory beliefs cannot all be right. So where do we go from there? That half of the polarity that Sullivan refers to as “secular-fundamentalist” that does not identify with theism does not necessarily oppose religious faith. Sam Harris may even be in the minority. Opposition to allowing faith-based values to control my world is not wishing those faiths to be gone. Secular values are legitimate in society because they allow us all to live together. That’s what “separation of church and state” was all about and that’s what it’s all about now.

And yes, it is as much a faith as Islam and Christianity. It’s a belief, founded on experience over centuries, that humankind can create a world in which individuals can believe and practice whatever their experiences have led them to—as long as they do not restrict the right of others to hold and practice different beliefs.

Sam Harris seems to see religious beliefs as a threat to a secular society. My position is that behavior, not belief, is where we ought to look for threats. The suicide bomber in the Middle East, and the abortion clinic bomber are unquestioningly threats. As much as I dislike guns, I’m willing to discuss with those who like them how we might jointly keep them from being used to harm the citizenry. Not everything in our society is the way I would like to see it. But I appreciate the system that allows each of us to believe what we will, up to the point at which the belief attempts to limit my equal right to my own.

 

October 14, 2006

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