Does Religion Poison Everything

"How Religion Poisons Everything" is the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens's new book God Is Not Great. The religion of which that author and the other new atheists speak is mostly monotheism, the strict belief by Judaism, Islam* and Christianity in one God. Other faiths are mentioned occasionally, but ir is especially the toxicity of the God religions that the new atheists arc attacking. The catalog of evils committed under the umbrella of rheisric faiths is a long one, and the writings of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris could well serve as an examination of conscience bv those of us who think of God as infinite j goodness, self-giving love, the ground of our freedom, the author of life, and our ultimate destiny Not everybody thinks of God in such terms, and it could be enlightening to find out w hy For now I %vould just say that there is no point in denying that people can be very moral without believing in God. Nor is there any point in denying that religions have been invoked in support of some of the most abysmal kinds of immorality Still the real issue, raised but not answered by Dawkins, is how to justify our moral precepts so that we are bound by them unconditionally. The rhetorical impact that Hircheuss popular book has made is due mainly to its appeal to the readers own sense of moral outrage. But in stating that religion poisons everything, that biblical monotheism is the cause of untold evils, and that God is not great, Hitchens thinks of himself as standing on a mountain higher than Sinai. Careful readers want to know how he came to occupy these heights and where the rest of us can gain the stamina to climb up there with him.

The books that have captured our attention here fairly shriek with passionate protest against the evils wrought in the name of monotheism. Rut the vehemence of such strong condemnation of wrongness can arise only from a secure sense of tightness. So what is the ground and source of the new atheists sense of Tightness? Is it simply a social, cultural, and historical consensus? If so, how do we know that this consensus is justifiable? After all Nazism and anti-Semitism draw their authority also from a social consensus,

Or is Darwinian natural selection sufficient justification for the moral absolutes that ground the atheists' sense of outrage against the evils of faith? If so, how can the amoral process of natural selection become the ultimate court of appeal for what is moral? Even if our ethical instincts evolved by natural selection, we still have to explain why we are obliged to obey them here and now, especially since they may be evolutionary mis-firings/' Moreover, our immoral instincts* such as cheating, lying, and even killing, may also be said to have been adaptive evolutionary traits. Unfortunately, experiments in social Darwinism have tried to make survival of the fittest the criterion of what is morally right, an approach that has been soundly rejected by every1 respected ethidst today. Our new atheists will not want to go down this road either.

So how can the atheist find a solid justification of ethical values? In the absence of God, as Harris conjectures, we can fall buck on reason alone to explain what our obi igations arc and why we should heed them. Yet, even apart from the historical naivete of such a proposal, this rationale simply leads us back to a more fundamental question; why should we trust our reasoning abilities either? If the human mind evolved by I )&twiluan selection in the same wray as every other trait we possess, we still have to be able to justify our trust in its cognitional capacity— its ability to put us in touch with truth—in some oilier way than through biology alone. Evolution may account tor why our minds are adaptive, but not necessarily for why they are reasonable, Harris undoubtedly places enormous confidence in his own cognitional Abilities, but a naturalistic worldview by itself cannot justify that presumption. Harris, like Dawkins, fails to explain why he can trust his own mind if its ultimate explanation is the mindless, irrational process of natural selection, if our intelligence can be ultimately understood in evolutionary terms, where and how did it acquire the assurance that leads us to crust it spontaneously?

Completely oblivious to this question, Harris still insists that the sense of tightness that backs up his moral animus against faith can be justified only by reason, not by any content originating in a faith tradition. Reason alone is the ultimate source, foundation, and justification of ethics. But his own reasoning faculties should at least have made him realize that it is a leap of faith that has led him to trust in reason- a trust that not everybody shares to the same extent that he does. He has yet to tell us what is so special about his or anybody ekes mind that we should simply entrust ourselves to it.

It there is any truth to a theological understanding of reality, on the other hand, it can elegantly justify both the trust we have in our minds and the sense o( Tightness that stands behind our moral protest, We may trust our longing for understanding since even to ask a proper question our minds already have to be immersed in realitys inherent intelligibility. In a silent way, the intelligibility that gives coherence to nature invites our inquiry and opens up our minds to do science and undertake other forms of inquiry. And we can trust our search for right understanding ultimately because our minds have already been taken under the sponsorship of religion and its institutions, This criticism is also important for highlighting the hypocrisy that keeps people of faith from acknowledging the evils of their own religions, In spite of the new atheisms scholarly narrowness, its one-sidedness, and its many exaggerations, it is not altogether without truth and value. Its importance consists primarily in reminding readers of what happens when religions take themselves too seriously, enthroning themselves in the place of the infinite mystery into which they are supposed to initiate us, Religion and theology, of all human enterprises, ate the most prone to self-absolutizing—in other words, to idolatry. As theologian Paul Tillich says, "[The] idea that the human mind is a perpetual manufacturer of idols is one of the deepest things which can be said about our thinking of God. Even orthodox theology very often is nothing other than idolatry/ Religions and theologies, therefore, are most compelling when they face up to, and express heartfelt contrition for, the damage their sins of self-absolutizing have wrought, idolatry is what makes religions go bad-

The antidote to idolatry, however, is not atheism but faith. If the Absolute is disposed of officially, as the new atheists would prefer, the idol factory known as the human heart will not auto-niaticallv shut down. Instead it will work overtime to fill the void with something more manageably including science and reason. Science and reason are important ways to truth also, but they can at times be adored so devoudy that their bright lights blind us to deeper and darker regions of reality that can be reached only through nonscientific ways ol knowing. Faith, as Harris himself comes close to recognizing at times, does indeed arise from a never-satisfied craving, a craving to be filled with something proportionate to its passion for infinity. 11 arris is also right in noticing thar this abyss at the core of our being can become clogged with almost any kind of content, including the most destructive religious fantasies or, in Dawkins's terms,

God delusions. Bur what is most objectionable is not that there is no 'evidence' for these fictions, as Harris complains, What is most

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