Saturday, May 13, 2006

Will Rationality Overcome Religion?

Sam Harris, author of the provocative book “The End of Faith,” is often called a leading atheist. But he doesn’t like to call himself that. He doesn’t understand why people who do not believe in religion have to have a label.

For example, there are those who make everyday decisions based on the pseudoscience of astrology, the belief that the position of the planets and stars can somehow affect destiny. These people read their daily horoscopes and make decisions accordingly.

But what about the more rational people who do not believe in horoscopes? Maybe they read them occasionally for entertainment only, but they would never make any decisions based on what their horoscopes say. Do the non-astrology-believing people have a label?

No, they do not. So why should people who choose not to believe in God or religion have a label? That was one of Harris’ points at the World Conference of Secular Humanism where he was a guest speaker.

But on a more pragmatic level, in his book and in his conference address, Harris isn’t so much worried about semantics as he is about theocracies and organized religion in general. His controversial position is that, when it comes to violence based on faith, religious moderates are actually part of the problem.

Harris doesn’t focus on a single religion; he believes they are all more dangerous than they are helpful. And even moderates who do not believe in violence contribute by relaxing standards of reasonableness and evidence that they would never consider doing with non-faith issues.

He has a valid point. Consider the row that developed back in the 1980s when it became public that Pres. Ronald Reagan’s wife, Nancy, relied on her and the president’s horoscopes to make certain decisions. She even had a paid astrologer to advise her.

Public backlash was harsh and quick. She became the butt of jokes for late-night comedians. Eventually, she came forward to say she did not use her astrologer’s advice to influence presidential decisions, but who really knows for sure.

The point is, when a president publicly admits that he prays to the Christian God for guidance on matters of national security, nobody reacts. That’s probably because far more people in this country are Christians than astrologers.

Either way, however, the most powerful man in the world is relying on some unproven mystical entity or influence to help him make his decisions that may affect people globally.

One of Harris’ most profound observations is that the situation where one ethnic or religious group pits itself against the others is self-perpetuating simply by the labels people choose to apply to themselves: Christian, Jew, Muslim, etc. “People have morally identified with a subset of humanity rather than with humanity as a whole,” he said at the conference.

He’s right, of course, when you consider that throughout history more people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason. Even God himself, in the Old Testament, is a wrathful creature who commands his followers to slaughter entire cities, to stone people, and to kill people who work on the Sabbath. The Koran, Islam’s holy book, is filled with violent messages of hate, but it pales in comparison to some of the books of the Old Testament.

Of course, cleansing this country of its religiosity won’t be easy. It may be impossible, at least in the short run. For example, many people in America who consider themselves patriots believe that the Founding Fathers were all religious and mostly Christian.

There are arguments on both sides of that issue. But whether it’s true or not is irrelevant. Why should it make any difference to people today what religion, if any, the founders of this nation subscribed to? Many of them believed slavery was justifiable. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. So why do we believe today that slavery is deplorable?

The answer, of course, is that rationality has taught us better. Slavery is deplorable, regardless of what our Founding Fathers thought of it.

Harris’ question, and mine, is how long will it take before rationality overcomes religion, too? With the religious right working to turn the U.S. into a theocracy, I’m not going to hold my breath.

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