Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Faith and Fanaticism

Doc Searls Web Log brings to our attention a piece by Arthur C. Clarke in Forbes titled "The View from 2500 A.D." in which the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey writes as though looking back at our time from a few centuries hence:

One outcome of this--the greatest psychological survey in the whole of history--was to demonstrate conclusively that the chief danger to civilization was not merely religious extremism but religions themselves.. Billions of words of pious garbage spoken by statesmen, clerics and politicians down the ages were either hypocritical nonsense or, if sincere, the babbling of lunatics.
Commenting about this on Doc's blog, James Robertson asserts:

"...the problem is less religion than it is fanaticism. Secular fanatics - fascists and communists, for instance - have killed far more efficiently than the religious fanatics have..."

Doc concurs, as do I -- and as history confirms.

But a fanatic is defined as somebody who has extreme and sometimes irrational beliefs, especially in religion or politics. And that would make just about any believer in any major religion something of a fanatic, because the fundamental precepts of religious faith are hardly "rational." God wrote a book? God gives a hoot about what women wear? Jesus in a cracker? But I have to agree with the sentiment in Clarke's piece, which reflects something Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith:

"(T)heology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings."
With any luck people will one day wake up about that.

Back to Mr. Robertson's assertion, though: It seems to me that religious extremism is enabled by -- to quote Harris again...

"the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflicts in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed."
It's dangerous for religious moderates to stand back in a politically correct posture and say, "Well, now, I don't believe what you believe but it's perfectly okay by me for you to believe whatever nonsense it is you want to believe so long as you don't hurt anybody."

"What's wrong with that?" you ask. Well, what's wrong is the implication that religious beliefs are and should remain beyond rational criticism. And that leads to the persistence of clearly antiquated and objectively discredited practices -- to the detriment of individuals and whole cultures. This brand of religious tolerance justifies the lazy habit we have of accepting patently absurd ideas "on faith" -- rather than questioning the things we think we know. ("It ain't what you don't know that hurts you; it's what you do know that just ain't so.") To cite Harris again,

"While religious faith is one species of human ignorance that will not admit of even the possibility of correction, it is still sheltered from criticism in every corner of our culture."

To practice the seemingly noble custom of religious tolerance is to enable fanaticism. To admit faith to the arena of human discourse, on equal standing with reason, is to ensure the continuation of discord, hostility and, ultimately, violence. Where do you draw the lines of the "don't hurt anybody" boundary? The suicide bomber fervently believes his martyrdom and murder are for the greater good; it says so right there in the holy book that God wrote. But we can't tell him that some of what's in that book is a lot of hooey, because that would be intolerant.

Tolerance seems, on the surface of it, to be a fine idea. And I sure don't want you to think I believe we ought to go to war to make people come to their senses. But I go along with Sam Harris in thinking we ought not give "faith" a free pass, and with Arthur C. Clarke in the conclusion that religions themselves may be the chief danger to civilization.

In Clarke's fictional account, civilization came to its senses. But I don't have much faith that it ever will.