- By Fr. Peter
- 31 March, 2011
- Comments Off
In this next posting at Against the Atheists, I will be responding to a talk on faith and reason by Sam Harris. The talk can be found here. A high school friend, who has discovered her vocation of preaching atheism via Facebook, emailed it to me. My own vocation obliges me to respond in some fashion, at least as I understand it.
Harris asserts, “[Religion] is the most divisive and dangerous ideology that we have ever produced. What’s more, it is the only ideology that is systematically protected from criticism, both from within and from without.”
To this I have two responses, first to criticism from within: has he never bothered to read any history of theology at all? Let’s not even go over the many profound adjustments of Christian theology over the centuries, not to mention the ongoing dialogue between separated Christians, who are more or less overt in their criticisms. My Hebrew professor was fond of pointing out that modern Jews do not practice the same religion as the people of Israel and Judah did, and this didn’t just happen without anyone recognizing it; modern rabbinical Judaism is precisely an ongoing argument about proper means to serve God and observe Torah.
On criticism from without: hasn’t Mr. Harris ever heard of the phenomenon of conversion? Obviously, a great many people, given the opportunity, are willing to consider their faith critically and be persuaded to another one, even to non-belief. I suppose that he means the institutions. In this case, Mr. Harris gives evidence of a lack of sympathy for human institutions of any kind. The institutional side of a belief system, be it scientific or religious, is inherently conservative, and for good reasons. Science is built step-by-step on the achievements that can be taken for granted by newer researchers. Peer-reviewed journals and accredited universities guard against rogue beliefs by censoring that which can present itself as ‘science’. I don’t see a qualitative difference at all in the activities of bishops, rabbis or imams.
On the other hand, I really can’t think of a topic more impervious to objective, rational, dispassionate discussion (other than 9/11) than evolution. While I believe in the basic mechanism of evolution, the process of speciation by natural selection faces numerous philosophical, logical and methodological problems. Rarely will any scientist take me seriously on these questions. The responses I get are always crude appeals to authority: I’m not a biologist or paleontologist (worse: I am a man of the cloth—obviously prone to irrationality!), so-and-so wrote an article somewhere demolishing my argument, everybody who is somebody believes in it, simpletons like me can’t fathom how long a billion years is, and so on. Articles I have read supposedly debunking my arguments look like plain obfuscation to me. Needless to say, any scientist who comes out with arguments questioning evolution is risking the end of his career or at least severe marginalization. (I’m not a big supporter of William Dembski’s intelligent design modeling, though I wonder if it is really fair that his books are always relegated to the religion section).
So much for free and open debate from within and without. Harris claims that no one can get away with criticizing religion. In what country exactly does he live? People all over seem pretty free to me to criticize the Church and Islam without much repercussion at all.