Reason & Religion: Odd Couple Redux

Reason & Religion: Odd Couple Redux

Just finished watching the debate between Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Reza Aslan (No God But God) on C-SPAN. The topic:

Does the Bible provide timeless prescriptions for our daily lives? Or does its inclusion of practices such as slavery preclude its ability to act as such a guide? Are Osama bin Laden’s grievances with the United States purely theological, or also social and political? Reza Aslan, author of “No god but God,” and Sam Harris, author of “Letter to a Christian Nation,” take up these questions in this debate at the Los Angeles Public Library. The event also includes discussion on contemporary trends in Islam– including whether or not Muslims are unique in their religious fervor– and debate over the concept of the Koran as a perfect and immutable document.

Does that sound like a perfect evening or what! Jonathan Kirsch, a bearded, soft-spoken, bear-like dude with a no-nonsense legal letter-pad, kept the men from making any sudden Tysonesque moves. Kirsch’s the author of A History Of The End Of The World. After a book like that, I guess he can handle anything.

The score? Well, Harris won. Reza circled round and round a profoundly oft-misunderstood point about profound transcendent experiences that had profoundly to do with context and interpretation sensitive to people’s transcendent experiences that profoundly need no validation external to the fact of it being a profound transcendent experience.

Okay. That’s unfair. Reza’s a smart guy. He’s articulate to a fault. He was at his best when he dealt in facts. When Harris claimed that the Israel-Palestine conflict was a religious one, it didn’t take Reza long to demonstrate Harris didn’t know what he was talking about. But for the most part, Reza tried to explain away the irrationality of religion via rational arguments. It’s the kind of contortion that’d get even B. K. S. Iyengar’s knickers in a twist.

As I see it, Reza’s main argument was that most rational questions about religion were misconstrued. He claimed that Religion wasn’t about facts, the domain of science, but about “a sacred history.” “Sacred history” is a lot like ordinary history except that true/false is replaced with significance/non-significance. For example, to ask whether Moses really parted the Red Sea or whether the god Ganpati really has an elephant’s head is to miss the point. The correct question was to ask what these stories mean for their believers, why they matter. To keep harping on truth, evidence and logic was to be unsophisticated. Profoundly unsophisticated.

I was reminded of a joke in The Recruit. Al Pacino’s explaining– hoarse voice, bloodhound visage and all– to his C.I.A. protege why he decided to betray another three letter agency, namely, the U.S.A:

There’s this parish priest, goes up to the pope, drops down on his knees, starts weeping, asking forgiveness. ‘Holy Father, Holy Father, what am I to do? What am I to do? I do not believe in God anymore. What am I to do?’ You know what the pope said? ‘Fake it.’

Perhaps Reza is in the position of that pope, asking the padre to defend something not because it was true but because it was important.

People like Reza know very well that the key claims of almost all religions are, at best, useful fictions. But by using multi-layered veils of interpretation, they can stop staring at the embarrassment of the Holy Fiction and focus instead on the prettiness of the veils, their origins, their colors, relationship to other veils and so on. Reza hinted that it was profoundly vulgar to want to see the Holy Fiction sans veil.

Harris was vulgar. He argued that if honesty was an important value, then religious claims had to be open to verification just like secular claims. Faith couldn’t be used as a magic dispensation for suspending logic, which after all, is the one faculty that distinguishes us from faithless beasts. Why should we tolerate a level of nonsense from religious people that we wouldn’t remotely permit in any other group, say, neurosurgeons? These are not new arguments, nor are believers ignorant of them. Almost 2000 years ago, St. Paul bemoaned the problem in 1 Corinthians 22–23:

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness

The striking thing about Harris though is that he’s very effective at making religious claims sound like the fantasy monologues children engage in at their make-believe tea-parties. “Now Pooh-bear, this is a very nice piece of cake, and I think you should share it with Christopher.”

Daniel Dennett has argued that the quest for an honest, secular approach to religion is a new one; if it succeeds, smart guys like Reza will stop rationalizing practices they wouldn’t practice or justifying beliefs they don’t believe. Anselm, the 11th century bishop of Canterbury, spent the last years of his life struggling to prove God’s existence. But as the philosopher Bencivenga points out in Logic And Other Nonsense, a fine and sympathetic book about that struggle, Reason is a subversive ally. The good father had no need for such a proof: what can Reason prove that Faith will reject and of what worth is a Faith that accepts what Reason rejects?



Featured image is from Vineeth Nair’s amazing artwork Kalari Payattu. You can buy his work here.

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