Thursday, April 13, 2006

Fighting extremism with extremism

My friend Matt has posted some thoughtful citings and musings about a Sam Harris interview. (Read them first here) Harris is the author of the award winning book, The End of Faith, which points to organized religion as the blame for the world's problems--problems that we are unlikely to survive should they continue.

Doomsday prophecies aside (wouldn't that be ironic if the apocalypse NOW crowd was correct in their predictions, he raises some interesting questions. Is religion really the cause of the contemporary problems?

It's not. It's merely a language that human beings have chosen to voice their conflicts through, like race, gender, class, etc. Look at our current adminstration: it is full of people who are acquainted far more closely with wealth and imperialist desires than with faith. They are happy to utilize the control that religious language affords them when it is convenient, but it is their disregard for human life and interest in the growth of their own power and wealth than drives them. That's why when religion is not a useful tool, they are happy to use racist ideology as well to prod their electoral base.

This also points to the deep causes of the problems we see in our world: antipathy, self-absorbedness and hatred for others.

As long as those exist, people will find languages to empower that hatred.

Look at Harris' arguments. Harris is speak as someone who has removed himself from religious faith, but he is cherry-picking at least as badly as those he attempts to critique.

What he describes are not two faces of Christianity, but two faces of humanity. How is his argument any different from those people who assume that you cannot be empathetic and loving without belonging to a major religion? In his implications, he has just flipped the argument--hatred, vengeance and antipathy are lurking under the surface of CHRISTIANITY.

It's no different from bigoted arguments of other strains. "Sure, there are good people from XYZ group, but an evil, destructive nature is just below the surface."

In doing so, Harris and others draw themselves out of the potential pitfalls of being human. Ultimately, we are all capable of terrible atrocities and we are all capable of beautiful empathetic love.

Harris has let his own personal agenda get in the way of a much better point: We are all responsible for valuing empathy, not only in ourselves, but growing it in others.

I just don't feel that his tone allows for that constructive interpretation. In the end, his arguments amounts to the fire-and-brimstone interpretation: "I am right, and those who disagree with me are condemned to a life of aiding evil."

The irony is that the insights that would moderate his own arguments have been discovered by billions of people worldwide, including many folks who first found them reading Jesus' words in the Bible...


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