Rethinking Religion and Politics - Sam Harris on NPR

Thursday, October 05, 2006

NPR's Talk of the Nation aired a program called Rethinking Religion and Politics a couple days ago (October 3, 2006) with two pastors, one liberal and the other conservative, both responding to Sam Harris' new book "Letter to a Christian Nation". You can hear the program by clicking on the link above. From there you can also surf your way to interviews with Harris and other info.

Overall I found Harris' arguments to be strawmen which in their inflammatory nature distracted from the few good points he was making. But rather than concentrate on that and get sidetracked into a "my belief is better than yours" debate, I thought I would address the one good point that Sam Harris was (rather badly) making: Since religion is in world and national politics so corrosive, we should keep it out of public discourse altogether.

The program on NPR ended up focusing on whether this means that people should leave their values and morals out of public life, which is of course absurd as the two pastors argued. I would like to raise a more subtle proposition: In a public discourse where there is diversity and disagreement an argument cannot be based on unquestioned authority (like "the Bible says so") because we do not all agree on those authority sources. Instead each proposition needs to be argued on its own merit in a public setting. This would mean not that religion does not play a role in public life, but that it is communicated in a way that is accessible to all people.

What I think Harris does not comprehend is that even Atheists have a set of values and assumptions of what is valued that they bring with them. For instance they may value human rights, or value human freedom. These are core values that they share with most of the Western world. Even if we would strip away the religious garb of all faiths and simply converse in the universal language of these values, we would still find that there are fundamental disagreements about these core values. For example the West would focus on human rights and freedom, while a fundamentalist Moslem may argue that the core value is neither of these but instead purity which is why women should be covered and thieves' hands chopped off. On a core level what we think is "self evident" about what is most important in life is in fundamental disagreement.

Removing the religious garb from this and presenting it in a "secularized" language may enable a more transparent discussion, but it will not remove the fundamental and profound disagreement that leads to wars and violence. So while I agree that it is valuable to learn to "translate" our values and beliefs into a language that is accessible to people who come from a different background, I think the "imagine there's no Heaven" approach to solving the world's problems is terribly naive because it fails to see the values of who we are and what life is about that lie at the heart of faith and instead focuses only on the superficial trappings. Abolishing religion would not solve anything because we would still have differing core beliefs and values about who we are, and about what matters in life that are at the root of all faiths (including Atheism and Secular beliefs systems). A world where no one has any values at all, would be peaceful, but it would also mean that everyone was lobotomized.

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At 6:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Slacktivist wrote a very similar piece last week that's worth reading.

Harris doesn't impress. He appears utterly blind to his own dogmatism. And the follow-up interview...good grief. Why wouldn't it occur to them to find a religious scholar to respond instead of two opposing religious partisans?

At 11:05 AM, Blogger Josh Foreman said...

Yes, these fundamental differences exist with or without the religious trappings. I'm glad I'm not a politician. I really don't know what to think about a system where compromising your core values is mandatory. I think about what God told the Israelites when they wanted a king. Inevitable corruption ensued. Then when Christianity became the state religion in Rome. Inevitable corruption ensued. It seems this pattern should tell us something about the nature of power and religion. And about modern American Christian's desire for political power.

At 7:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Forest, thanks for the link. Slack is a very good writer :)

At 7:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joshua,

I can sympathize with the wish to not be involved in politics, but I think that the cross shows us that we need to follow God into the world even if it is messy and corrupt. The question is how to be in it but not of it.

I am personally very much for political involvement as a Christian. I think we need to not juat ask "what values would Jesus be for?" (I think he would for instance be WAY more concerned with conveying compassion and love for sinners than he would about defending laws of traditional morality) but also "how would he go about bringing in this kingdom?" It seems to me that a major problem with current "Christian" politics is that their means are extremely immoral (lying... manipulating the lowest of human drives like greed, fear, and hate... torture...etc)

The means do not justify the ends, they determine it.


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