"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

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Sunday, 26 June 2011

The End of Faith?

In his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris calls in the epilogue for the abolition of religion. This is not a hopeless dream, he believes, and says that an “utter revolution in our thinking” could be achieved in a generation if parents and teachers simply gave honest answers to the questions of children. Really?!
I think Harris may be conveniently forgetting that the rules and customs of ancestral religions still give meaning, purpose and spiritual nourishment to most of the seven billion people on the Earth today. 84% of the world’s population have a faith or religion, often with deeply held convictions, and of the remaining 16% one half claim to be theistic even if not religious. And only a tiny minority are involved in illegal acts in the name of religion. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has reminded us that in spite of what Harris and other angry atheists say, humankind does not need religion to perpetrate ghastly crimes against its own kith and kin. And it is also widely accepted that spiritual nourishment is necessary for human flourishing, within or without a religious faith.
So with these facts and statistics how could religion possibly be abolished?
Today Christian men, women and children throughout the world will be going to church. The UK media love to say that churchgoers are declining in numbers but overall this is simply not true. Since the turn of the millennium across 42 Church of England cathedrals in the UK, numbers attending services have steadily grown by a total of 37%, around 4% on average each year, and 7% just in the last year. Perhaps it is just unfortunate that the secular materialism of the West has the cultural initiative.

Nevertheless it is true that total congregations today, even though on the increase, are still a shadow of the numbers flocking to church even 100 years ago. And this causes a problem with moral values. Religion and ethics were once closely intertwined, but since the influence of religion has declined in so many lives, there is, warns the Dalai Lama, ‘mounting confusion with respect to the problem of how best we are to conduct ourselves in life…morality becomes a matter of individual preference.’(1) Nietzsche called this an impending ‘total eclipse of all values.’

(2) Atheist as he himself was, his observation, he claimed, was entirely objective: we need a God and the moral codes inherent in that belief to curb our otherwise unpleasant behavioral traits.
Is that right?

And there is another issue – that of so-called “progress.” ‘As at the beginning of the Christian era, so again today,’ wrote Carl Jung (3) in 1957, ‘we are faced with the problem of the general moral backwardness which has failed to keep pace with our scientific, technical and social progress.’ Martin Luther King called this our moral and spiritual ‘lag’. He observed that ‘the richer we have become materially the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.’ We live, he said, in two realms:

“The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.”

He warned that we would put ourselves in peril if the former, the internal, does not grow apace of the external material realm. ‘When the ‘without’ of man’s nature subjugates the ‘within’, dark storm clouds begin to form in the world.’ The result, he cautioned, is racial injustice, poverty and war, that will only be alleviated if we balance our moral progress with our scientific progress and learn the practical art of living in harmony in a ‘worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation.’ (4)
And how do we achieve that?
A question I will continue to explore in the weeks and months ahead. All (constructive and polite) comments welcome.

1. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, 2000, Ancient Wisdom Modern World: Ethics for the New Millennium (London: Abacus, Time Warner Books UK, 2000), p. 11.
2. Friedrich Nietzsche, used a few times through his literature, for example spoken by the madman in The Gay Science (Philosophical Classics) Friedrich Nietzsche with Thomas Common (Translator)(New York: Dover Publications, 2006).
3. From The Collected Works of C G Jung, 1970 pp304-305 as quoted in Claire Dunn: Carl Jung: Wounded Healer of the Soul An Illustrated Biography, London: Continuum, 2000, pp. 149, 199.
4. Martin Luther King, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture December 11 1964

1 comment:

Ceska said...

In this hotly controversial book, author Sam Harris faults religion for being illogical, for inciting societies to violence and for not reconciling faith and reason. Many classic thinkers and theologians struggled with this question, including Maimonides and Aquinas, who are absent from the index. Such omissions lead one to acknowledge the author¿s passionate writing perhaps more than his scholarship, which is also open to some challenge as he explains the tenets of various faiths. Harris, who has a compelling narrative style, provokes readers to confront their own philosophies as he asks another ancient question: why does a good God permit evil? Harris¿s anti-religious discourse promotes reason as a panacea and asserts that spiritual living does not require religious practice. He particularly examines the role of extremist religious belief in its most violent manifestations, such as Jihad. He asks why polite society cannot criticize religion if it motivates suicide bombers and terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, however, Harris follows the Pied Piper of rationalism off the cliff by articulating a dispiriting, dangerous message against tolerating religious tolerance itself. If you want to provoke some spirited conversations, or reconsider venerable philosophical issues in the light of difficult modern times, we believe this may intrigue you.

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