Moderation and Tolerance.

So, I just picked up Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith”, which means that I have “The God Delusion”, “Breaking the Spell” and “The End of Faith”, and have read two and will read the third. I still refuse to read Hitchens on the grounds that in everything I’ve read and heard about him I don’t think he has much of interest to say.

Anyway, I started reading “The End of Faith” over lunch, and Harris starts right in with his attacks on moderate religion and, to an extent, the value of tolerance. This, however, has to immediately be seen as problematic, especially in light of his throwaway example of how non-Western countries act in terms of tolerance, especially towards science that might conflict with religion. Which is to say that while in the West you can do science that conflicts with religion, in those countries you generally can’t. Those countries are not tolerant of anything outside of their religious principles (says Harris).

So, here’s the problem: the reason that you can have this relatively peaceful co-existence of science and religion in Western nations (and some others) — and it is relatively peaceful when compared to the nations Harris uses as his example — is because of moderates — especially religious moderates — accepting the whole notion of tolerance and applying it. And being the majority. So the majority say “Look, let’s stop fighting over religion (or non-religion). You go your way, we go ours, and maybe we’ll go bowling on Saturday.” The secularization of Europe that Gnu or New Atheists so crow about? It was not forged through being intolerant of religion, but of religion and non-religion accepting the principle of value and tolerance and acting upon it. Sweden, for example, still has an official state religion, and yet is supposedly a paragon of secular values. You don’t get a secular state with a state religion without the adherents of the religion valuing tolerance.

But Sam Harris doesn’t want that. And he argues against it not just based an argument that moderate religion is just as wrong as fundamentalist, or just that it gives something for fundamentalist religion to hide being. No, he argues against it on the basis that it’s theologically wrong, and that moderate religious people simply do not understand their own religion or religious texts properly. Which leads to two thoughts:

The first and most immediate is to wonder where Harris gets off telling religious people that they’re interpreting their own religion wrong, especially since he has no use for religion and no respect for religion himself. It’s like someone saying this:

I really hate baseball. It’s the most boring game in the world, and I’ve only watched a couple of games and heard some people talk about it a bit. Oh, and BTW, I think that using the designated hitter rule means that you aren’t really playing baseball anymore.

See how condescending that is? Compare it with this:

I love hockey. It’s my favourite sport in the world. I watch it all the time and know all the rules, and I’ve seen some of the best games of all time. And, BTW, I think that if you settle playoff games with a shootout that’s not really hockey anymore, because you change it from benefiting the team to benefiting the team with the most superstars. It’s okay for the Olympics or an All-Star Game where all sides have about the same number of superstars, but for anything else it breaks the team aspect that’s so important to hockey.

Harris, with respect to religion, is like the former; the moderates are like the latter.

The second point is that it is this sort of attitude that probably scares the accommodationists so much … mostly because they’re deathly afraid that moderate religious people might take him up on that. Harris presents a forced choice to religious moderates: either become atheists or become fundamentalists. By his lights, their religion and the modern world forces that choice. They disagree. But if they are pushed into agreeing, then they will drop tolerance from their beliefs. If they drop tolerance and become atheists, that’s bad enough. If they drop tolerance and become fundamentalists that’s even worse. Harris, then, would eliminate the tolerant society that allows science and religion to mostly live in relative harmony and allows the religious and non-religious to not feel the need to go around killing each other … and the society that lets him publish his books and turn them into successes.

As Londo Mollari might say: “Good job!”.

Is that what Harris really wants, or is he just unaware of what he’s really advocating?


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