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Secularism and tolerance after 9/11

Sam Harris and Daniel C. Dennett get liberal religion wrong; Reza Aslan sees a Muslim Reformation.
By Doug Muder
Fall 2006 8.15.06

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Less than half a century ago, secularization seemed unstoppable. The gears of history were grinding in its favor; religion was doomed, whether secularists took any particular action or not. Harvard theologian Harvey Cox began his 1965 classic The Secular City with these words:

The rise of urban civilization and the collapse of traditional religion are the two main hallmarks of our era. . . . It will do no good to cling to our religious and metaphysical versions of Christianity in the hope that one day religion or metaphysics will once again be back. They are disappearing forever.

Today the envisioned Secular City—like New York’s twin towers—lies in ruins. In The End of Faith, secular humanist Sam Harris sounds an alarm against complacency:

We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation, or any of the other fantastical notions that have lurked in the minds of the faithful for millennia—because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that these developments mark the terminal phase of our credulity. Words like “God” and “Allah” must go the way of “Apollo” and “Baal,” or they will unmake our world.

Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is less shrill, but the basic viewpoint is the same: Religion is not going away on its own, and secularists can no longer ignore it.

It is high time that we subject religion as a global phenomenon to the most intensive multidisciplinary research we can muster, calling on the best minds on the planet. Why? Because religion is too important for us to remain ignorant about.

Once the true nature of religion is made clear, Dennett hopes, its “spell” may be broken. Perhaps Cox’s inevitable historical process is just bogged down. With a big push, science and education might eradicate traditional religion—just a little behind schedule.

To promote that push, Breaking the Spell collects and popularizes recent scientific and anthropological theories about the evolution of religion. Dennett’s telling of the first stage in religion’s story, animism, comes from Scot Atran’s In Gods We Trust. Atran believes that evolution caused our ancestors to see the wind and rain as intelligent agents (and us to hear imaginary footsteps in a creaking old house) because the cost of failing to perceive real agents (i.e., real footsteps) is much higher than the cost of a false alarm. When it comes to perceiving agency—willful beings all around us—better safe than sorry.

Subsequent stages are similarly accidental. Here Dennett runs into difficulty. He wants to show religion evolving naturally, from a belief in ghosts right on up to the Holy Trinity, but he doesn’t believe that religious claims are true and he thinks religion has evolved without conferring a survival advantage on the human species. (If religion, like language, worked to our advantage, why break its spell?) In the later stages of his account, Dennett solves this problem by making religion (not humanity) the evolving entity: Religions mutate, diversify, and are selected according to their ability to propagate.

He draws numerous comparisons between religions and parasites. Tiny lancet flukes cause ants to climb stalks of grass and be eaten by livestock; this behavior benefits not ants but flukes, which can reproduce only in an animal’s digestive tract. Analogously, a belief in martyrdom may enhance the evolutionary fitness of a religion (the fluke) at the expense of its believers (the ants).

Dennett readily acknowledges that his “proto–theory” is not the only possible account and needs further research. Conceivably religion is beneficial, a symbiote rather than a parasite. But he repeatedly goads the believers in his audience not to believe this blindly: Support the research. Dare to discover the truth.


Sam Harris needs no further research to see religion’s negative impact. He interprets recent history so that religion is responsible not only for almost every contemporary conflict, but for all the horrors of the twentieth century as well: Christian anti–Semitism (not secular pseudo–sciences like eugenics) produced the Holocaust, and Communism is “a political religion” rather than an example of atheism.

Unsurprisingly, this self–serving category shuffle leads Harris astray. Having dissociated his own beliefs from all past evils, he seems blissfully unaware of the slippery slope he stands on or where it may lead. He confidently asserts: “Genocidal projects tend not to reflect the rationality of their perpetrators simply because there are no good reasons to kill peaceful people indiscriminately.” But a threat to “unmake our world” may be just such a reason. Harris soon starts sliding in that direction:

Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. . . . There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self–defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

And then slips a little farther:

We are now living in a world that can no longer tolerate well–armed, malevolent regimes. Without perfect weapons, collateral damage—the maiming and killing of innocent people—is unavoidable.

And winds up here:

Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible but necessary.

Harris attributes his unease at this conclusion to “an ethical illusion” that is perhaps an artifact of the way human intuitions evolved. But we might wonder what tactics will come next if war and torture prove inadequate. A preemptive nuclear strike on Iran? Perhaps our distaste for genocide will also turn out to be an ethical illusion.

Harris’ treatment of Eastern meditation (which he views as consciousness research that may soon become scientific) shows that he is not blind to the charms of the spirit. Dennett similarly commends the Eastern goal of overcoming ego. But neither author comprehends liberal religion in the West. Dennett opines:

If what you hold sacred is not any kind of Person you could pray to, or consider to be an appropriate recipient of gratitude (or anger, when a loved one is senselessly killed), you’re an atheist in my book.

Harvey Cox is an atheist by these standards. So, arguably, are Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, Rabbi Harold Kushner, and hosts of other ministers and theologians.

Avoiding the term “liberal religion” altogether, Harris recognizes only fundamentalists and moderates. The moderates do not have a leg to stand on:

Religious moderation is the result of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism.

Dennett attributes three possible motives to religious people who advocate tolerance: They are temporizing until they can get the upper hand; they think all religions are basically interchangeable; or their religion is merely a cultural legacy. Harris portrays “moderates” as insincere compromisers, torn between their sentimental attachment to ancient religion and their modern knowledge of humanist truth.

In short, both authors uncritically allow fundamentalists to define Western religion. Unsurprisingly, liberalism’s inauthenticity follows quickly from these fundamentalist premises.

Let me propose a less biased characterization of religious liberals and conservatives: Conservatives hold that the core of their religion is a divine (and therefore flawless) construction, communicated more–or–less directly to humanity by God. Religious liberals see their religion as a human product, constructed in response to intuitions of a divinity beyond human description. Seen in this light, the charges against liberalism melt away. In no sense is it a compromise between fundamentalism and humanism. And liberal tolerance is not a strategy; it simply recognizes the incompleteness of all human religions, including one’s own.

Harris’s charge of “scriptural ignorance” is particularly bizarre. Liberalism in the West began with a more rigorous reading of the Bible, leading to the “higher criticism” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In one mainstream denomination after another, the liberal path was blazed by those who knew the Bible best: scholars and theologians. To attribute the contradictions, inaccuracies, and anachronisms of the Bible to God, they realized, was a kind of blasphemy.

But Harris’s attack on “moderates” is not accidental. They turn out to be the real villains of his book:

[R]eligious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us towards the abyss.

Dennett’s language is less inflammatory, but he mentions Harris’ assessment of moderates approvingly.


Unitarian Universalists who want to keep all three of our core values—freedom, reason, and tolerance—can take heart from No god but God by the Iranian–American Muslim Reza Aslan. He writes:

The tragic events of September 11, 2001, may have fueled the clash–of–monotheisms mentality among those Muslims, Christians, and Jews who seem so often to mistake religion for faith and scripture for God. But it also initiated a vibrant discourse among Muslims about the meaning and message of Islam in the twenty–first century.

Aslan holds that Islam is experiencing a reformation: As in the Christian Reformation, the traditional hierarchy is losing its interpretive monopoly. The new diversity includes both liberalizing and reactionary Muslim voices and inspires a wide range of responses, many of them violent. Aslan believes that if the West can resist imposing its own version of democracy on Muslims, the Islamic Reformation will run its course, producing pluralistic democracy on an authentically Islamic foundation.

To make this claim credible, Aslan retells the history of Islam from a liberal perspective.

When fifteen centuries ago Muhammad launched a revolution in Mecca to replace the archaic, rigid, and inequitable strictures of tribal society with a radically new vision of divine morality and social egalitarianism, he tore apart the fabric of traditional Arab society.

Aslan describes the historical process that gave birth to the Qur’an, the hadith (semi–scriptural stories of the life of Muhammad), and the sharia (a code of Islamic justice created centuries after Muhammad). He relates the origins of the various sects of Islam, each with its own claim to authenticity. “God may be One,” Aslan asserts, “but Islam most definitely is not.” Bin Laden–style extremism arises only very late in the story, following Nasser’s pan–Arab socialism as the most recent in a series of attempts to throw off Western imperialism.

Taken together, Dennett, Harris, and Aslan could inspire a healthy debate about the meaning and desirability of tolerance in the post–9/11 world. The kind of tolerance that simply averts its eyes to avoid conflict is indeed as unworthy of our veneration as Dennett and Harris assert. But conflict–aversion is not the essence of liberal tolerance, and it is not what Aslan is seeking from the West. The challenge of liberal tolerance is to remain in loving dialogue even with the unpopular, the unappealing, and the apparently wrong–headed. Authentic liberal tolerance calls on us to restrain our arrogance by remembering the human fallibility of our own beliefs, and not to forget the humanity of our adversaries, even if they seem to have forgotten ours.

Ultimately, the faith we need may not be in God, but in the worthiness of democracy and human rights. If those values are truly universal, perhaps we can let other traditions find them by their own paths.


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