Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Another day, another carrot

Wow, just finished reading Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation, probably the most eloquent expression of why I am hostile to organized religion. Short and packs a punch. there is also, it turns out, a free podcast of a discussion between the author and Reza Aslan, who takes a different point of view, which was hosted at the Taper Forum at the LA Public Library; open iTunes Store, search for "Sam Harris", and look for "KCET Podcast: ALOUD at the Central Library" (hint: sort by price, since the podcast is free). the material is not necessarily for everybody, but it's an important read that takes less than an hour. (feel free to forward this to anyone who might appreciate it.) if i had to summarize the principal argument he formulates, it would be this: - either the Bible (or Koran, or Torah, or whatever) is the product of more-than-human authorship, and therefore to be taken as the moral compass, or it is not. - if it is not, then the fundamental dogmatic premise of [pick your favorite organized religions] is simply false. (for this discussion, "dogma" can be defined as "belief without evidence" or "belief despite conflicting evidence". among the religious, this is called "faith", but operationally amounts to the same thing.) - if it is, then slavery is OK, it is appropriate to treat wives as property, stoning adulterers is OK, and it is obligatory to kill those who you perceive to be straying from the faith. all these things are mentioned not once but mulitple times. - BUT you cannot have it both ways. you cannot decide, e.g., that the Bible's teachings on "love thy neighbor", the Beatitudes, etc. are to be followed as a supreme moral compass, while those on slavery etc. are to be discounted because of the "cultural context" in which the Bible arose. to do this kind of "cherry picking" is to make *your own* (human-directed) moral judgment about what parts of the text are morally binding and what parts are not. but if you're doing that, then you have demonstrated, a fortiori, that the Bible does not serve any necessary moral purpose, since you have not only reached a moral conclusion on your own, but have done so in a way that sometimes *contradicts* a legitimate reading of the Bible. (indeed, the Inquisition is permissible under a theologically defensible reading of the bible, yet even the catholic church has - as of a few years ago - officially apologized for it.) - similarly, you cannot on the one hand claim that "the earth was created in six days" (or "...so-and-so begat so-and-so...") is simply a metaphor, while on the other hand claiming that other specific material is correct as reported. once again, in so doing, you are making your own judgment about the validity of the book's contents. if the book is the product of human authorship, this is fine, and makes the premise of the book necesarily false. if the book is the product of divine authorship, then by definition it is not appropriate for anyone non-divine to be making judgments about what is accurate and what is not. the book is not simple religion-bashing; it's about all of the legitimate, real world problems that are caused by our inability to admit the above honestly to ourselves, even among moderate liberals who take a conciliatory "i'm OK, you're OK" attitude towards the very religious. it's great stuff. be warned, though, that the conclusion doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room if you want to stay on the rational side of the argument: you can either commit to what amounts to a fundamentalist/literal reading of scriptural text (acknowledging that it's divine and wields a higher moral authority), or commit to a purely literary reading (acknowleding that it's written by humans and therefore on balance is no better or worse than other books that espouse a worldview), but anything in between is intellectually dishonest.

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