Part I: Questions on Religions
“I have no doubt that your acceptance of Christ coincided with some very positive changes in your life. Perhaps you now love other people in a way that you never imagined possible. You may even experience feelings of bliss while praying…I would point out, however, that billions of other human beings, in every time and place, have had similar experiences – but they had them while thinking about Krishna, or Allah, or the Buddha, while making art or music, or while contemplating the beauty of the nature…There are good reasons to believe that people like Jesus and Buddha weren’t talking non sense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways.”
Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris: P.89-90
I started off with the remarks by Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, in which he accepts the importance of religion in the lives of the billions of people in this world, as a transformative factor and a force of good. Although in the above statements, Sam seems to find goodness in religions and people of faith, in his book, he overwhelmingly presents arguments against the world’s leading Abrahamic traditions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Sam’s first argument is based on the presence of multiple Abrahamic traditions and their respective scriptures, each claiming to be the holy one and the only path to salvation while rejecting the followers of competing religions as nonbelievers. Sam writes, “Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.7). He further supports his case by attacking the scriptures and their teachings as contradictory to basic human moral and civic values that each traditions attempt to propagate. In his arguments against Christianity as the “unrivaled source of human goodness” and the Bible as the “only timeless book of compassion and love”, he selects various parts of the scripture and evaluates them against modern human societal and moral codes of conduct; concluding that Abrahamic scriptures fall short of providing evidence of teachings of love and compassion and do not meet the demands of a changing human society. While quoting parts of Deuteronomy, Exodus, Proverbs, John, Matthew, Leviticus, Sam writes, “The idea that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is simply astounding, contents of the book.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.8). Citing Biblical teachings, he further writes, “We must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshipping graven images, practicing sorcery, and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.8). The author’s first argument concludes that standards of morality are objective and human society is capable of exploring and implementing on its own without any divine assistance and if one has to look for religion for such standards in structuring a better human society, Jainism provides a better roadmap of non-violence than the Bible or other Abrahamic religions. He cites the examples of many Christian saints and leaders who cherry picked the teachings of Bible in support of torture (Augustine), and killing (Aquinas) and others like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who took from the teachings of Jainism to follow the path of non-violence (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.12).
Harris’s second argument finds religion as a generator of selfish human behavior which is not only irrational but is also obsolete in the light of modern challenges to human society. He writes, “One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.25). While mentioning the epidemic of AIDS and HPV (human papillomavirus) in Africa and around the world, Sam cites the examples of selfish response of religious right against the use of contraception and vaccines. He writes, “The problem is that Christians like yourself are not principally concerned about the teen pregnancy and the spread of disease. That is, you are not worried about the suffering caused by sex; you are worried about sex.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.28). He further provides examples of religious right wing’s opposition to issues like stem-cell research, a breakthrough in science that can provide cure to human diseases and injuries by creating tissues out of embryonic stem-cells. Sam notes, “The link between religion and morality – so regularly proclaimed and so seldom demonstrated- is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.32). This religious dogma, according to Sam, taints the good efforts by the people of faith like Mother Teresa and unlike atheist social movements, personal faith of the social workers overshadows their work. Extending his argument, Sam argues that such selfish behavior, in turn, increases the crime rate and violence against minorities. “Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom are among the least religious societies on earth. According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report (2005) they are also the healthiest, as indicated by life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality rate…. Conversely, the fifty nations now ranked lowest in terms of the United Nation’s human development index are unwaveringly religious.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.43-44)
The third strongest argument made by Sam Harris is that religious teachings are far from the scientific facts that we all have come to know in our lives. His view is based on the long-standing differences between science and religion. Questions about the beginning of the universe and our world, life on the planet and mysteries of afterlife, choice between evolution and intelligent design and many other similar questions are answered differently by science and religious traditions. Underlining this gap, Sam mentions the comments by the National Academy of Science, “At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing.”(Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.62-63), whereas science finds the answers through reasoning, according to Sam, and religion invokes faith to teach the same. He believes that contrary to religious scriptures and scholars, people of science try to provide answers to the questions posed by the mankind and if such answer is not available, it admits of its failure. According to him, the concept of Intelligent Design (ID), an argument commonly used by the religious mainstream, is not proven. “The problem with ID is that it is nothing more than a program of political and religious advocacy masquerading as science. Since a belief in the biblical God finds no support in our growing scientific understanding of the world, ID theorists invariably stake their claim on the areas of scientific ignorance.” (Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation. P.71-72).
Although Sam Harris makes strong arguments against religion, as I stated in the beginning of my paper, he also tends to find its importance in human society. My paper intends to underscore the positive value of the religions in human history; the paths that brought human society together and provided a framework of life when it was absent.
Part II: Positive Value of Abrahamic Religions
The idea from the Enlightenment Period that the light of the reason and advancement of science would dispel religions is proving to be wrong as we witness the spread of not only moderate religious teachings but also gaining foothold of right wing ideologies as the mankind continues to answer the complicated questions about life and our universe in the language of science. Gavin Flood writes, “While secularization has developed in the West, this has not heralded the demise of religion. Christianity may be in decline in northern Europe but is expanding in African and the Americas. Islam is expanding in Europe and it is not inconceivable that it will be the majority religion in Europe in the course of time.” (The Importance of Religion: Meaning and Action in our Strange World Preface). Although some views of religion may sound illogical and absurd to people like Sam Harris, religions continue to thrive among the masses. For centuries, religions have been the bonding force bringing people of all races and ethnicities together under their flags, creating societies and providing them with much needed code of civil and moral conduct and in many instances stimulating the growth of arts and sciences. “What is intriguing about religion is that it has been linking people together while creating and preserving their cultures’ world views for thousands of years. Whether through institutions like Catholic Church, spiritual and social leader like the Buddha and Confucius, or the teachings of the Bible, Vedas, Koran, Torah, and I Ching, people have always felt a need to look outside themselves for the values they use to manage their lives.” (Communication Between Cultures By Larry A. Samovar, Richard E. Porter, Edwin R. McDaniel. P. 103). Although Sam Harris cherry picks biblical scripture out of its context and points out to the weak moments in human history when actions of individuals, in the name of their respective religions, brought torture and destruction to many; To objectively depict the picture of religions, in this section, I will try to bring out the aspects of Abrahamic religions without the taint of human influence and error.
Sam’s first argument that all Abrahamic religions offer competing and contradictory teachings holds no ground as all three Abrahamic religions share their central monotheistic belief while referring back to Abraham. “In the West, the oldest of the major global religions is Judaism. It is in fact the seminal tradition for he two largest existing world religions: Christianity and Islam. They all share a central belief in monotheism; all also refer back to the first Hebrew patriarch: Abraham.” (An Anthology of Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher and Lee Baily. Chapter 8. P.198). Christian teachings also encompass wide range of teachings from Hebrew Bible as the Christian Bible includes a version of Tanakh, as the Old Testament. Born into a Jewish family in Israel, Jesus kept the essence of the Torah. “Himself a Jew, he upheld he spirit of the teachings of the Torah while pointing out their abuses by religious authorities.” (An Anthology of Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher and Lee Baily. Chapter 9. P.235). Moreover, a Muslim’s faith is not complete without having complete faith in the teachings of Torah and Bible. “Special respect is given in Muslim thought and law to people of other religions who have received scripture thought to be divinely revealed – primarily Jews and Christians. These are ‘People of the Book’.” (An Anthology of Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher and Lee Baily. Chapter 10. P.283). This leads to the distinction between true and similar teachings of each of Abrahamic traditions and the human differences between the clergy of each tradition, which Sam fails to recognize and therefore dwells on his argument based on human rhetoric.
Second part of Sam’s first argument speaks volume of his incomplete knowledge of the Abrahamic scriptures and their teachings in full context. His arguments against the Biblical and Quranic messages of love and compassion are only based on his out of context understanding of the scriptures and isolated historical events wherein individual human decisions or small group’s actions were labeled as the true teachings of these leading world religions. The reality, however, stands far from Sam’s negative depiction of Abrahamic traditions. If for a moment, we believe his argument that the human society, on its own and without any divine help, was fully capable of creating and implementing the finest moral and civil code of conduct a man kind would ever know then the need of The Ten Commandments (Mary Pat Fisher. World Religions. Chapter 8. P. 248) would not have been there in the first place. If religions are the response to human conditions (Gavin Flood. The Importance of Religion: Meaning and Action in our Strange World. Preface), then human conditions, then and now, required the moral and civic code from the one who knew the conditions and the solution as well. Sam’s argument that Abrahamic traditions lack moral teachings is baseless, as a careful study of these religions would clearly show that each one of these traditions put the lesson of love and compassion on top of its teachings. “Jesus preached and lived by truly radical ethics. In contrast to the prevailing patriarchal society and extensive proscriptions against impurity, lepers, and the bleeding woman touched him and were healed. In his inclusive ‘table fellowship’, he ate with people of all sorts, including those designated as impure by Jewish law in order to preserve temple impurity.” (Mary Pat Fisher. World Religions. Chapter 9. P. 306). Mary Fisher further quotes Jesus, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (World Religions. Chapter 9. P. 308). Sam’s understanding of the scriptures in the literal way and his observation of the actions of a small group of people leads him astray from the real message which may have symbolic meaning. While discussing Islam, Sam states, “The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a fantasy, and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge.” (Sam Harris. Letter to Christian Nation. P.85). His statement clearly ignores the basic teachings of Islam and concentrates merely on the actions of extremely small group with a political agenda wrapped up in religious dogma. Islamic teachings do not condone acts of terror and suicide attack, one of the tenants of Sam’s arguments, and in fact requires Muslims to treat their enemies with mercy, ban torture, respect enemy’s dead, forbid attacking civilians and innocents as well as fellow Muslims, provide humanitarian aid to the enemy and finding war as the last resort (An Anthology of Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher and Lee Baily. Chapter 10. P.304-307). Islam, an Arabic word, means peace and life of Islamic Prophet is full of stories of compassion and love for all people. Islamic pillars of Fasting and Zakat teach self-restraint and compassion towards others as part of the faith (Mary Fisher. World Religions. Chapter 10. P. 399).
Sam’s second strongest argument against Abrahamic traditions is totally detached from the actual religion’s teachings and is completely based on human actions that claim to be associated with a certain faith. His argument that religious right does not seem interested in helping the people dying of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS may not be due to the biblical teachings as Jesus became the savior and a reformist for everyone around him regardless of their background and, according to the Bible, sacrificed himself to redeem people from their sins (Mary Fisher. World Religions. Chapter 9. P. 348). Sam also seems to ignore the efforts of the Church of England in promoting the wide-reaching of UN Millennium Project which supports the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, achievement of universal primary education, promotion of gender equality and empower women, reduction in child mortality, improvement of maternal health, combating major diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability, and development of a global partnership for development (An Anthology of Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher and Lee Baily. Chapter 9. P.254-255). His argument that secular societies of western Europe seem to do better than the United States and other places where people are more religious is misleading and forgets the fact that having better per capita and health and education standards is closely related to the Europe’s socialistic form of government and politics. West (Europe and United States) in general has separation of the Church and State; however, United States as a market-based capitalistic economy has different political and government services structure than Europe where majority of the social services are provided to the populous at no cost.
Sam’s third argument against religion finds its foundations on the divide between religion and science but forgets the fact that Islamic tradition promoted arts, culture, and sciences during the Dark Ages in Europe. Islam’s heavy stress on education is evident from the first revelations to the prophet Mohammad (Mary Fisher. World Religions Chapter 10. P. 384). “In its great cities, Islam went through a period of intense intellectual and artistic activity, absorbing, transmitting, and expanding upon the highest traditions of other cultures…The new system of nine Arabic numerals and the zero derived from Indian numbers revolutionized mathematics by liberating from the clumsiness of Roman numerals. A love of geometry and spiritual understanding of numbers, from the One to infinite divisions, provided the basis for beautifully elaborated art and architectural forms. … Muslim scholars’ research into geography, history, astronomy, literature, and medicine lifted these disciplines to unprecedented heights.” (Mary Fisher. World Religions. Chapter 10. P. 414-415). Abrahamic traditions not only provide answers of complex questions about our universe, this planet and life through faith but also encourage their followers to seek answers through research and pursuing education. Research and learning is also a central part of Jewish traditions, quoting Job 12:7-10, “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the sky, they will tell you, or speak to the earth it will teach you; the fish of the sea, they will inform you.” (An Anthology of Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher and Lee Baily. Chapter 8. P.208).
Part III: Easing Tensions
We live in a multi-cultural and ethnically diverse world with people following different religious traditions. Interestingly the ideologies that divide us also provide the very fiber that connects us to each other. In the post 9/11 era religion has come to the forefront of public discourse as more people have started associating religion with violence and extremism. Executive Director of the Boston Research Center of the 21st Century, Virginia Benson writes, “Many young people now equate the religious impulse itself with violence.” (Subverting Hatred: Preface). This turn of events has provided grounds to individuals like Sam Harris to write about religion as the main cause of violence around the world. I understand that religious differences may have provided reasons to a small number of people to express their view through extreme ways but in a rapidly dividing world, religions kept billions of people under the umbrella of their ideologies and helped create harmonized communities that share the moral and civic code.
In this religiously and culturally dividing world, I think, The Four Noble Truths (Pali ariya sacca) of Buddhist tradition offer a great resource to mankind to knit the common fiber of peace and nonviolence. “Its cardinal moral percept, to refrain from harming living beings (ahisma); the practices of loving kindness; compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (brahmaviharas); the doctrines of selflessness (anatta), interdependence (paticcasamuppada), and non-dualism (sunyata); the paradigm of enlightened beings (bodhisattvas) who employ skillful devices (upaya) to liberate others from suffering; and the image of the great “wheel-turners” (cakravartin) and moral leaders (dhammaraja) who conquers hearts and minds – not enemies and territories-by their exceptional wisdom and kindness.” (Daniel Christopher: Subverting Hatred: The Peace Wheel-Nonviolent Activism in the Buddhist Tradition. P.15). Over the centuries these teachings have successfully found its way into various global cultures including India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan that shows the tradition’s capacity to be able to bond with the people from other global cultures and knit them in the common fiber of peace. When people from the largest religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are soul searching, trying to find out the peace in a highly integrated and depressed environment in which divine religions are under attack for their track record of igniting violence, The Four Noble Truths of Buddhist tradition provide inner peace, freedom from suffering and a true understanding of our existence. However, the means to achieve these goals are provided by Buddhist Five Percepts (panca sila) which requires abstention from taking life, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech, and from the use of intoxicants (Daniel Christopher: Subverting Hatred: The Peace Wheel-Nonviolent Activism in the Buddhist Tradition. P.18). Abstinence from killing in Buddhist tradition involves killing, hurting, butchering, military service while protecting other living beings like insects and animals. Since all Abrahamic traditions teach love and compassion, as explained in the above section, integration of The Four Noble Truths of Buddhist tradition further strengthens the notion of nonviolence and compassion without taking away the basic percepts of the leading religions. By attacking the three main roots of action – hatred, greed, and delusion through loving kindness, generosity and wisdom, Buddhist tradition augments the teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam which also promote the similar values. “The Buddhist approach to nonviolence, then, is grounded in a systematic ‘attitude adjustment’ in which negative, reactive states such as hatred, greed, and delusion are transformed into positive social orientations through meditative self-training.” (Daniel Christopher: Subverting Hatred: The Peace Wheel-Nonviolent Activism in the Buddhist Tradition. P.20). These meditative practices can substantially add to the lives of people from all backgrounds without giving up on following their particular tradition. Buddhist nonviolent activism provides a practical curriculum for transforming one’s mind, which in turn can help create a society, based on selfless behavior, love, and compassion.
Although Sam Harris makes strong arguments against all religions for inciting violence in the world, he tends to ignore the fact that peace may lie right within the same dogmas. With open minds and hearts, religions can learn from each other and today’s globalized world provides a golden opportunity for learning from each other in creating a more peaceful society. It is also important to note that all Abrahamic traditions offer a path of love and compassion while teaching peace through selfless behavior; however, individual and groups’ political motives have led them spread violence and destruction in the name of religions over the centuries. Can we hold all the followers of their respective traditions hostage of the actions of the few? Of course not! And neither can we blame God or religions for the actions of the few of us. Sam may be right in showing his dissatisfaction with the current world events but he should also not ignore the fact that religions have also been the force behind peace in this world. Referring to the opening paragraph of this paper, which cited an excerpt from Sam’s Letter to the Christian Nation, people from various religious traditions have been seeking peace and salvation through their traditions and diversification of these paths for the similar goal makes this world more beautiful and colorful.