Losing my religion: Sam Harris and The End of Faith

faith cover

On that summer Saturday afternoon when I was about 4 or 5, my grandparents, my parents, and an aunt and uncle were circled in lawn chairs under the shade of a massive sycamore tree in my grandparents’ backyard, all sipping Dr Peppers and telling stories while I played with my toys.

The bearded plastic figure in my hand was, I suppose, a frontiersman wearing fringed leather, kneeling and taking aim with his musket, maybe on the hunt for a squirrel or a deer. But, that wasn’t what I was thinking when I held up the little plastic man to them and said, “Look, God’s shooting a gun.”

They all laughed. I’m sure I smiled. I liked having an audience.

Then, after the laughter died down, my grandmother looked at me, maybe a little sternly, and said, “We shouldn’t talk about God like that.”

Probably like any kid sternly addressed by an adult, I sheepishly looked away from her. I probably glanced down at the neatly manicured St. Augustine grass at my feet, the little ounce of pride I had in making adults laugh sinking faster than the Titanic. Shame probably overtook me. Probably all sorts of questions ran through my head: Had I hurt my grandmother’s feelings? Had I hurt my parents’ feelings? Had I hurt God’s feelings? Had I sinned? Would I go to hell for saying such a thing?

One question, however, was unlikely. At no moment, then, would I have asked myself, “Why?”

Why was it wrong to compare God to a plastic toy? After all, my idea of God was just as simplistic as that toy: the wise, gray-bearded man in a robe, peering down at us from the clouds. What harm was it in saying God looked like a toy? What harm was it to question any sort of faith?

None, of course. But it’s hard for a child to see that, even when the beliefs that faith put forward are childish. As an adult, however, no one should ever limit the questioning of faith, whether it’s your own or other’s because faith, the sacred, isn’t special, no matter what the faithful say.

“[M]ost of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday,” writes Sam Harris in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.

The problem, as Harris notes, is that so many in the world sanctify the sacred to the point that it’s become dangerous not to question it.

The End of Faith sets down an extended argument in general why religion is detrimental to progress in the 21st century and beyond. It specifically addresses the detriment of faith-based religions like those of Judaism, Christianity and in particular Islam to humanity’s progress.

The book reminds me of a well-crafted series of seminars on philosophy, history, science, and relatively current events—we are certainly still reeling from 9/11 in what seems a life with perpetual war on terror in the background, a war by our current president and his churlish followers on our Constitution, and a long, drawn-out war for our hearts and minds from both left and right on science and reason.

At the time of its publication, Harris had graduated with his degree in philosophy from Stanford and was working on a doctorate in neuroscience. He has since received that doctorate and published several books on faith, reason, and science, including Letter to a Christian Nation, Lying, and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion.

He, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and others have become spokespeople for doubters, freethinkers and atheists worldwide and have been given the label, the New Atheists. Arguably, there isn’t really anything new about New Atheism — its ideas are as ancient at least as the ancient Greek philosophers — but few, except folks like philosopher Bertrand Russell, have been as vocal about it.

It wouldn’t be until I was in college that I would seriously begin to question the whys and hows and whats and ways of God, in attempt as Milton put it, to “justifie the wayes of God to men,” to justify God and his ways to myself.

Much of my delay in questioning my faith and beliefs came because I was afraid to do so, afraid, first of all, of questioning this alleged being in the sky that was only concerned, it seemed, with my well being as it regarded worship of him through a personal relationship with his alleged son.

In fact, according to his alleged infallible word I am a fool to say in my heart there is no god; I am corrupt, even filthy, and definitely hell bound.

Losing my religion, as REM or a Southerner might say, meant more than going crazy and getting a ride to the asylum. It meant eternal damnation.

Still, question I did. I moved from believer to deist—I was profoundly awakened reading Jefferson, Franklin and Paine—to agnostic and in times of crisis back to believer, until I finally came to understand I didn’t believe, and didn’t have to in order to be happy.

Yet, to this day, being a nonbeliever can cost you friends and family and even risk financial health. In some countries it literally means losing your head. In a world in which even religious moderates will look at you as if you’re the devil incarnate if you question their faith, it takes courage to be a freethinker, a skeptic, an agnostic or an atheist.

But, reading books like Harris’ The End of Faith gives nonbelievers a bit of quiet comfort, while simultaneously offering disquiet that in the 21st century reason and science are often impeded by religion.

Still, you might say, in the book, I found a friend—or rather a likeminded person—not in Jesus, but in Harris. Someone who finally articulated the ideas and thoughts and issues I’ve struggled with, mostly in silence as a closeted atheist.

In his Afterword to the paperback edition, Harris mentions that following the publication of the hardcover edition he “received a continuous correspondence from readers and nonreaders alike, expressing everything from ecstatic support to nearly homicidal condemnation.” Among those lending support were people like me, “embattled freethinkers living in ‘red state’ America.”

I’m not alone in the feeling that as an atheist, especially in the U.S., I’m alone in the world of nonbelief. As science writer Natalie Angier wrote  in the New York Times: “It’s not often that I see my florid strain of atheism expressed in any document this side of the Seine, but The End of Faith articulates the dangers and absurdities of organized religion so fiercely and so fearlessly that I felt relieved as I read it, vindicated, almost personally understood.”

—Todd

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A secular life: A review of ‘Living the Secular Life’

I wish I could say I began my secular life simply through natural logic and reason. That I was always happily secular, as I am today. But I wasn’t. I grew up in a faith-filled household, with mostly happy parents. I can, to this day, relish memories of my dad belting out hymns on Sunday mornings before church.

But in religion — I can’t say I’ve ever really had a sense of faith, at least — more often than not, I found a source of misery that brought about struggles with depression, anxiety, fear and self-loathing. In various ways, I stuck with religion, however, trying to discover faith, well into my thirties and even into my early forties. Like Jacob in the Old Testament, I wrestled with metaphoric angels, with the notion of god itself.

My matches, by the way, were with mainstream evangelical Christianity. I grew up Baptist, (I took the altar call, late, at 17) at a time in the late ’70s when the Baptist church was getting infiltrated by the “born-again” movement that seems, at least to me, to have been part of the conservative counter-counterculture movement and the neo-conservative movement that gave rise to the Religious Right so pervasive and destructive not only to our politics but to the church. Underneath it all is an you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us frame of mind, that’s dividing the U.S. daily.

At one moment, I denied any god’s existence, the next, God — the biblical God — was beating me into submission with my own fears, my sense of being lost, my whole sense of well-being. I allowed religion to beat down everything from basic self-confidence to accepting money and prosperity as good things to having decent relationships with women.

But, over the years, I’ve come to accept secularism as a way of life, having discovered for me, at least, life is much better, much happier without religion, without faith.

Many of you who grew up in the U.S. around my age or older, most likely adapted to a secular life after rejecting a religious upbringing, although, according to Phil Zuckerman’s Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, there are a growing number of us in the U.S. and worldwide.

“The percentage of Americans whom claim ‘none’ when asked their religion has grown from less than 10 percent in 1990 to some where between 20 and 30 percent today,” Zuckerman writes.

The book investigates the rise of secularism, especially in the U.S., and how various forms of humanistic practice have arisen here in the U.S., experiences as varied as our religious experience.

In his investigation, Zuckerman addresses those annoying questions believers like to pose, like “How can you be moral without God?”

Zuckerman’s answer, in short: Humanists follow the Golden Rule, a moral — and nearly universal — precept that came well before Jesus, and which Jesus taught (unfortunately there seems to be a lack of actually following Jesus in certain Christian sects these days). In greater depth, Zuckerman says,

For the nonreligious, morality isn’t about abstaining from sex or avoiding alcohol, or doing what someone in authority tells you to do, or not doing something because you fear otherworldly consequences if you do. Rather, secular morality hinges upon little else than not harming others, and helping those in need, both of which flow easily and directly from the Golden Rule’s basic, simple logic of empathetic reciprocity.

Overall, Zuckerman’s book serves as a nice introduction to humanist thought, a sort of guidebook to humanism, although I disagree with his positive view of religion in general.

In that, I tend lean toward Christopher Hitchens’ notion that “religion poisons everything.” That’s perhaps because my experience of religion was toxic or that I see its toxicity too often, as when ministers laud the massacre of gays in a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., or when even Hitchens is insulted from beyond the grave by an opportunistic evangelical writer who claims in a book the journalist and polemicist might have had a conversion experience as he lay dying of cancer.

That’s great marketing, but in it is a deviousness much more aligned with a certain fallen angel than it is with an alleged savior. It’s the kind of opportunism that makes us doubt in the first place. Thank goodness.

— Todd

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Editor’s note: If you would like to live by the Golden Rule, and help poor writers in need, please consider purchasing Zuckerman’s book from the links above.