Michael Phelan O’Toole

The Post-Modern World – Question 3.

Human Values, Personal Freedom, and The Arts

Professor Robert Tarutis

May 7th, 2008

In his book, The End of Faith, author Sam Harris examines religious faith and its contention in a modern world in which conscious reason and progressive thought should prevail. He points out how religious faith, however, is not nurturing of simply a greater spiritual connection with the universe, but rather, is gradually stunting greater understanding, through ritualistic repetition. While life within the universe and time are constant and gradually progressive, religious texts remain unchanging, and subsequently foster intellectual stagnation and dependency.

Harris essentially lays out a case that it is not God, acting as a grand disciplinary figure, or an other-worldly battle which will cause the proverbial or literal end the world, but rather our own closed-mindedness in pointless religious disputes and extremism. Interestingly, Harris sees those believing in moderate forms of religion as dangerous as those practicing fanaticism or fascism, as they are, selectively endorsing what, in the full sense, is an antiqued system, which not only promotes ignorance of the tangible modern world, but also violence and guilt. If there was any doubt to his stance, he questions why The Bible, the current source of moral teachings by way of mythic tale, has not yet gone the way of our depiction of Zeus, and his casting lighting bolts from the sky.

Perhaps there is something inside us that wants to believe we are part of a grander system, securely monitored by a creator and protector. This being said, it is possible to experience a feeling of spiritual freedom and connection to the world without religion. Indeed, as Harris emphasizes, religion may have developed partly due to our initially limited knowledge of a grander sense of the world, coupled with our inability to understand how we build conceptualizations in our minds. Though Harris does not disagree that aspects of organized religion provide a forum for personal growth for some and that there are certain emotionally overwhelming experiences that faith can serve greater than conscious logic, he insists that we also reevaluate the negative effects. Not only is the validity of the far out, other-worldly nature of religious scripture of concern, but more so the willful ignorance, and flock mentality that accompanies the understanding that for the majority, such a blind embrace of unverifiable text denotes the shunning of the values of reason, which operate in free form, based upon available phenomena and concrete logic. That is, it is dangerous when the acceptance of an unchanging religious routine replaces questioning and cognitive reasoning, as it allows for the active examination of our world through the open exchange of ideas, and applied progressive methods like science and philosophy. However, it should be noted that, as Harris states, “reason” alone does not shun nor void the possibility of a higher order to the universe. On the contrary, it is reason, when applied equally that allows one to confidently gain a blossoming perspective on what it means to be human.

In contrast, staunch servitude to religious faith requires something even beyond what could be called “suspension of disbelief” to those dedicated to understanding as we know it, as the practice of religion requires a certain endorsement in the fantastical, represented in centuries old text. A belief should be structured around ideas grounded to the same “logical coherence.” The concept that religious belief is designated on a separate plain than the rest of human values, is a problem. Not only do the fantastic events described in scripture evidently not cohere with the post-modern world in a literal sense, but the fact that religion is not openly held to the same level of scrutiny as our studies of history, geography, politics, or any other area of human engagement in mainstream society is a red flag.

To challenge or debate anything under the banner of religion is still considered taboo in our country. Christianity and religion as a whole have become integrated in our culture. Though one would assume that a vast yet eclectic grasp and interest in concrete and applicable human values and history would be of primary concern when electing someone for political office, more often than not the question of faith arises. Whether it is strictly rhetoric or not, certain people want to know that their political representative shares the same belief in how we came to be, and where we go when we die. It is difficult to break away from this dependency on tradition and an antiqued approach to higher understanding and spiritual experience. While many people embrace the conquest of concrete information that fits into a verifiable network of belief, they also practice in religious faith. This is contradictory to the true pursuit of knowledge and self actualization, as, as has been stated, religious faith is held separate and unaccountable for its structure and bias. To willfully co-exist with this system, littered with dangerous advocacy of closed-mindedness and even violence while our current state of growth continues, never acknowledging the flaws and contradictions of faith and scripture, leaves reason in exile. Religion is an elephant in the living room of civilization. While religious faith alone may have served us adequately in some form long ago, it is a
fostered-in tradition which, as Harris states, we need to remove from a pedestal in the same fashion the Greeks did to their ancient gods and expositional texts containing accounts of fantastic figures. Harris writes of this not to forward a personal agenda, but in addressing the grander consequences of judgmental and extreme thought processes based on faith. He sees religious belief as a structure built on a primitive people’s failure to understand our inability to separate our minds’ objective versus subjective interpretations of the world. Additionally, use of mythical stories to explain creation and teach ethical values were used in many cultures before the The Bible and recorded birth of Christ. These accounts either died with a civilization, or were decidedly categorized as developed story. To say that one particular religious text is historically accurate, let alone composed by a divinity, directly or indirectly, is impossible by today’s standards of reason. The issue mainly becomes not that someone would believe that Adam and Eve existed simply by the hand of an ominous father figure, and talked with a serpent, or that Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse, but why and how they come to believe it.

Harris addresses the concept of a non-universal experience, in that our brains form differently, and subsequently our susceptibility to formulating what surmounts to truth is subjective. He also notes the possibility of external influence, whether through emotional experience, or mind altering substance. Also, in breaking down our thoughts which make up beliefs, we have to break down our language, as we do think in language; the quality of our thoughts and ideas can only be as clear as the quality of our language. This is to say that to “believe” in something is quite different than to “know.” To know is to be able to assert existence by way of verifiable phenomena, either by physical presence, or gradual theory based on a connection to something else time tested to be identified as true. It is purely unrealistic that religion can exist unchanging, in a world that, by its very nature, is constantly in flux. While a devoted follower can argue that events told in scripture occurred as they believe, there exists that ever widening gap, in that they simply do not occur under the same banner of logical coherence and physics as we now know. Therefore, what does it say about individuals who devote their lives to ceremony based upon a world that operated on an entirely different set of standards of physical law than the one they currently live in? Do the ethical teachings remain the same? If they do, as certainly there are noted universal feelings tied to the human experience, it seems unnecessary to bound them to a world nonexistent to those that do not believe religion to be the ultimate truth, and to those that do, it is at best a fantastic world no longer visible.

Through group-think, those of religious faith have been conditioned to not question, in fear of punishment and hope of reward, or in moderate acceptance, have succumbed to the traditions of past. In the modern world, with a network of logical coherence that defines the way our universe came to be and operates, and a greater hold on spiritual and mystic experience, as well as how the human mind works, religion is a relic which will only serve to destroy us. Not only is the promotion of intolerance and judgmental behavior of concern, but in the age of weapons of mass destruction, the “war of ideas” between faith and reason has ever presently devolved into a true siege of violence.