The critical bias to faith
by Noel Rooney
[ bookreviews ]
Faith is and has always been prevalent, and dominant over reason. This is hardly contentious, whether or not you think the bias to faith has been good for humanity. And, whether you consider it good or bad, there is no doubt that it is the absolute basis of the political and cultural systems we all inhabit, and which many of us would die defending, apparently. Reason would struggle to make such a claim.
Faith is simply unreasoning belief (this is a loose but workable definition). As such, it is not limited to the realms of religion, despite some pseudo-rationalist attempts to corral it there. Nor is it the defining element of any single religion, or religion in general; secular societies are glued together by faith no less than religious ones. And the particular beliefs that help a culture cohere are often, frankly, daft, whether religious or otherwise.
Eliding these obvious points, liberal humanists make regular, specious attempts to blame our cultureís absurdities on religion. Religious faith is somehow different; it is transcendental, or anachronistic, or downright irrational. Whatever its particular stigmata (particular to the critic usually), religionís difference is assumed, and is assumed to be responsible for the state weíre in.
This yah-boo stigmatising usually happens when the culture is perceived to be in crisis. At this point, those who see themselves as shapers of culture, unwilling to admit responsibility for the fruits of their own creation, look about for a scapegoat. Again, this is a familiar pattern in all cultures; and the justification for stigmatising is more often than not spurious, if not downright silly.
It is equally obvious that, when a culture is in crisis, its people will look to other belief systems to sustain them. Inasmuch as choosing between faiths can be said to be rational, this is a rational thing to do; after all, the official myth is clearly not doing its job. So here is a beautifully modulated coincidence, or merely a cyclical occurrence; in either case, both a propinquitous and completely spurious scapegoat.
The proponents of reason, when they attack religion, tend to labour under the invisible burden of their own faith; liberal humanism, for instance, is as transcendental as the next religion, but refuses to see this about itself. The daft logic which supports this denying ordinance goes something like this: religion is different, and wrong - our way of thinking is unique, and it's right.
The logic is never stated; it is implicit in the hegemonic hubris of its proponents. It assumes an identifiable inferiority in religious thought, as opposed to secular; and makes the further assumption that believers in religion are more credulous than believers in other ideologies. But believers are credulous by definition, not by category; die-hard neo-cons are no more rational than radical Ccatholics.
Sam Harris follows the well-trodden path of religion bashers, blaming our cultureís irrationality on religious belief, and assuming religion is somehow different from other irrational beliefs, but he makes more category errors than just this one. And he compresses his polemic into a very definite space of contention; a kind of metonymy in reverse. Religion is reduced, in the main, to Islam.
Thus the reader could be forgiven for thinking that The End of Faith is a badly concealed case of closet islamophobia. The book starts with a description of a suicide bomber committing an atrocity, and the bomber is described physically in such a way as to leave the reader in no doubt of his identity. But in case you were in the slightest doubt, Harris hammers the point home for you.
The heavy-handed analogy is both topical and inaccurate; and, sadly, its unquestioning acceptance by a western audience is assured. Suicide bombing was in fact the invention of revolutionary communists (a species of humanist fundamentalism, perhaps?) and is still part of their arsenal. I have never read a communist eschatology, but I doubt if it would include a supply of renewable virgins. This leads me to assume that heaven is not the only trigger for suicide bombing, any more than Moslems are the only people capable of it.
This slant continues for the bulk of the book, and as a result, Harris fails to isolate the crux of his own argument. His analysis of Moslem support for Saddam Hussein is a good example. Despite the fact the Moslems tell us they are expressing solidarity with the Iraqi people (something to do with a foreign power trying to bomb them back into the Stone Age), Harris is sure that they are expressing irrational support for a tyrant. He knows this, even though most Moslems also tell us they have no love or loyalty for Saddam.
Certainty which survives evidence to the contrary is not a product of rational thought or discourse. But then, Harris is rationalist rather than rational; he espouses a discourse he cannot attain, to justify a prejudice he cannot conceal (or to put it another way, a leap of faith which yearns for a rational approach is still a leap of faith). This position is not unique; most rationalist critiques of religion fall into the same trap, of assuming that the criticís beliefs are knowledge, and that the targetís knowledge is a species of belief.
Thereís the religious rub. The three western religions have grown up in an atmosphere of tension between the rationalising discourse of the powerful, and the blind faith they impose on the powerless. The religions and their texts are reflections of this uneasy relationship between knowledge and belief. That is to say, they are products of the same matrix of confusion which animates Harris; an environment where reason is constantly invoked, and consistently assumed, but rarely deployed. We live in a culture which fails to distinguish between knowledge and belief when it most matters.
To emphasise the point, the religions Harris and others are most intolerant of are those religions which are most intimate with the rationalist miasma liberalism inhabits. In the same way that the three religions hate each other more than they hate anyone else, western rationalism hates its own religions most of all. This might be considered avoidance of contagion, but is more likely an elision of contagious guilt.
A religion which arises in a rationalist culture might be different in kind from a religion which arose elsewhere. I have never read a theological treatise which explores this idea, but I suspect that the main difference is likely to stem from the rationalist branch of the family; the conquest of abundance (Feyerabendís brilliant characterisation of the Greek achievement) leads to a species of evasive emphasis, rather than the transcendental certainty of pure theology.
Many of the criticisms levelled at religions in general, and Islam in particular, do apply to a particular category of believers, but not the group Harris and his ilk tend to point at. It is not a specific religion or practice, but a specific attitude to faith, which produces the dangerous intolerance which makes liberals both afraid for their own cultural survival, and intolerant of other belief systems.
We are talking about textual literalism here - the idea that a specific text, or body of texts, is the only true arbiter of human ethics; that there is a right way to interpret the text, and all other interpretations are wrong; that the historical narrative is literally true, and is - mystically - the history of the reader; and that only a specific group of people are entitled to lead the interpretation, which must be accepted by the mass of the faithful. The last point is crucial.
So is this bad practice checklist peculiar to religion? It is patently not universal in religion. Most readers will have identified the three western religions, or at least their fundamentalist wings, as qualifying. How many will have included convinced communists, or free market mavens? And what about liberal humanists themselves?
Since the inception of the city-state, we have lived in a culture where a small elite have told the rest of the population what to believe. They have justified their position on the basis of texts which embody the authority of the beliefs they espouse. God has been a regular, but not necessary, component of this system. Post-enlightenment Europe has developed several secular versions, all of which attempt to exempt themselves on the grounds that they are rationally based.
But no ideology is based on reason, or principally on reason. When people claim that their beliefs have a rational basis, they are gilding a tenuous and ironic lily, committing the category error that haunts all western discourse. We believe in reason, and the self-evident irony of that belief defeats our reason.
This elitist strategy has been relatively successful, so elites have kept to it. Sacred or secular, societies have tended to operate on the grounds that a small group knows and a larger group believes; the irony is apparently dissipated in the hierarchical interstices. Post-enlightenment thinkers adopted the strategy without blinking; it confirmed their innate superiority without the irritation of self-analysis.
So how do we characterise a discourse which critiques the system it inhabits, and advances that critique by ignoring the systemís centre, the locus of its power, and concentrating its fire on the mass of people whose cultural obligation is to believe what they are told? It seems to me that, conscious or not, Harris, and others like him, are merely advancing a lopsided status quo. Refusing to investigate the collateral of their certainty, reasonís defenders are free to mock the masses for believing what they are meant to believe.
We cannot free ourselves from religious belief (this is Harrisís ambition, not mine) until we free ourselves from our superstitious dependence on its imaginary opposite. And neither liberation is possible while we acquiesce, physically and intellectually, to a system where disingenuous betters peddle credulity to sincere and compliant subordinates. As long as it goes without saying that those who know donít need to believe, and those who believe donít need to know, we are unlikely to emerge from the impasse.
The final McGuffin in Harrisís celluloid polemic is his appeal to mysticism as an alternative to institutional religion. A rational mysticism of course. One might read this as a plea for self-determination, an independent island between the elite and the masses, but there is no evidence in the book that Harris recognises the need for it. Rather it is religion for the upper echelons of me-culture; a sensible relationship with a non-existent god as an ironic counterweight to a nonsensical relationship with a real one.