Friday, March 16, 2007

Hurray for Pete Stark! Boo for Sam Harris.

Sam Harris has written an Op-Ed in the LA Times which, while opening on the premise of congratulating Rep. Pete Stark (shown left), the congressman who recently came out as "not a theist" (i.e., an atheist), quickly went into lambasting moderate and liberal religious people as guards of fundamentalists:

God's dupes
"Moderate believers give cover to religious fanatics -- and are every bit as delusional.",0,671840.story?coll=la-home-commentary

"Those on this spectrum view the people further toward the center as too rigid, dogmatic and hostile to doubt, and they generally view those outside as corrupted by sin, weak-willed or unchurched.
The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism."

I'm afraid I must, tongue-in-cheek, prove Harris' thesis, for, being an agnostic and a non-secular Humanist, I would defend liberal and humanistic religionists from militant atheists such as himself. I would ask--what is he trying to accomplish by alienating moderate and liberal religious people who don't share the views of fundamentalists by insisting that somewhere in their minds, or by default in some way, they do share them? Contrary to sensationalist polemics, I don't believe moderate and liberal religious people are "hampering" science. In fact, a large proportion of scientists in the country are moderately or liberally religious. So why make them into enemies? As moral philosopher Mary Midgley has argued many times, quite persuasively, religious systems have truth insofar as they offer an ethical framework that promotes values of human life, happiness, inquiry, etc. (after all, many of them have a practical basis in such values, and evolve along with science). I've watched ideologues like Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali debate cooler and much more informed heads like Reza Aslan on the subject of religioius moderation vs. fundamentalism. I can confidently say that the former take their objections to unfounded and (dare I say?) irrational extremes. They know more about their own caricatures than they do about people.

I am not, of course, arguing that people should not write books, articles, or speeches on when religion gets it wrong when it makes statements in the magisteria of science. And, like Harris, I am personally against "faith"-based beliefs and revealed religion. What I'm arguing against is this rabid treatment of religion itself by mischaracterizing what it is, what it does, where it's useful and where it's not, and how its adherents are to be treated or "tolerated." There's a difference between understanding, and persuasion through understanding, and polemics. One makes bridges, the other breaks them. Science needs more friends, not more enemies.

One last note: Pete Stark has said that he is a Universalist Unitarian, which is a religious form of Humanism. I point this out because even we big-H Humanists (!) have become subject to virulent accusations of delusion and irrationality by adamant secular-non-pluralists like Paul Kurtz, Sam Harris, or Richard Dawkins.

As a pluralist: Hurray for Pete Stark! Boo Sam Harris.


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