On Sam Harris and the Problem of Religious Moderates 4

I followed a link the other day to an excerpt on beliefnet titled “The Problem of Religious Moderates”, found at: http://beliefnet.com/story/153/story_15332_1.html. The basic thesis of the atheist author is that religious moderates are doing the world a disservice by making it politically incorrect to tell the more fundamentalist believers they are ignorant fools.

I read the article (by Sam Harris), but found it to be skimming somewhat on the surface. I believe the author has overlooked some important points. For example, in the opening paragraph:

“People of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy.”

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped the author that people of little or no faith at all fall on the same continuum? Some are content to discuss ideas pleasantly in chat rooms and others would spill buckets of blood to promote their particular ideology. The worst atrocities of history have been committed in the last century or so, and they have been, almost entirely, SECULAR atrocities who purpose was to destroy large portions of mankind in the name of some kind of historical evolution or pseudo-Darwinian racial fitness. Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were not moderates, and their activities are almost enough to make one think of the Inquisition and the 100 years war as the “good old days”. Harris dismisses the idea that violence and intolerance are simply a part of human nature – religious or not – as a “myth”, but he does nothing to prove this is a myth other than simply assert it. The body count says otherwise.

Harris, in fact, sounds like he’s arguing for reviving one of the old “mottos” of the Inquisition which said “Truth has all the rights. Error has no rights”. In fact, “Truth” and “Error” are abstract principles, to which the concept of rights do not apply. PEOPLE have rights, and because of that, tolerance is, in fact, a civilizing and noble virtue. It is not simply a “capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.” Religious tolerance is a recognition that human beings, because they are expressions of the divine nature, are worthy of respect and dignity – even when we believe they are wrong.

Harris portrays most Christians, Jews and Muslims as believing everyone outside their own sect is bound for everlasting hell and seems to extend this view generally to all religious believers as the “norm”. This is perhaps because of the large percentage of fundamentalist Christians in America, and fundamentalist Muslims in the news. In fact, most Christians (worldwide) and most Jews do NOT believe this. About Islam, it seems to be a reasonably accurate statement that moderates are in the minority.

Harris believes that religious moderation gags one from criticizing fundamentalist errors. I would probably be seen as a “moderate” In Harris’ eyes, but as anyone who follows my posts would know, I don’t have any compunction against criticizing fundamentalist errors, even if I try to do it with respect for the individual. After all, aren’t these the individuals Harris hopes to convince of the error of their ways? And does he really think that this will be better accomplished once the moderates step out of the way and he can tell them in no uncertain terms what ignorant asses they all are? Does he really have so little experience in the psychology of persuasion?

It’s hard not to suspicious about what really irritates Harris. Reasonable, spiritual people don’t fit the role of “enemy” quite as nicely as he’d like. Ego needs enemies. They reinforce the boundary between “me” (or “us”) and the rest of the cosmos. They are part of the fabric of the ego’s self-definition. In fact, all the time I’ve been writing this piece, I’m aware of my ego urging me to make Harris into as big an enemy as possible. So let’s see where he’s right…

Yes, it’s quite true that the Bible and the Koran contain all sorts of things that would constitute awful advice if taken as divine instruction. People do NOT go to hell for believing in the wrong religion. Religion – ALL religion, is at it’s core a metaphor for a metaphysical reality. It is probably inevitable that people at some stage will seize upon the exoteric details as paramount. The exoteric details are DIFFERENT, and hence allow us as religious people to reinforce our collective religious ego – by regarding anyone who has different exoteric details as the enemy. But they aren’t the enemy. At the esoteric core, their religion is saying the same thing as ours is – because there is only ONE metaphysical reality. The only difference is in detail and emphasis.

And understanding that metaphysical reality is the only thing that can really save us from our egos. The article is a perfect case in point that even atheism doesn’t get around the ego and it’s need to find (and fight) enemies.

Yes, that’s basically the assertion Harris dismissed as “myth #1”. So I urge an investigation. Look at the lives and work of people thoroughly committed to tolerance, love, and the mystical path, and ask if they are not a contribution to the well-being of the planet.

Anger and intolerance are the twin enemies of correct understanding — Mahatma Gandhi

Difference of opinion is helpful in religion. – Thomas Jefferson

In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher. – The Dali Lama

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there – Rumi

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