God’s Slow Death: Three atheists argue for reason in the face of faith
GORGEOUS SPRING evening in Paris, cool and windy, the sky a radiant, mineral blue. I was in the throes of a personal crisis and I walked the city aimlessly, its legendary beauty as vacuous and desolate as a strip mall. Eventually I found myself standing in the square in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. Through its arched portals, studded with eroded stone reliefs of the kings of Judah and flanked by winged gargoyles, I could see that this twelfth-century monument’s interior was illuminated by thousands of long, thin, burning tapers. Inside, I pressed through the crowd to the front, and there, at the altar, were the priests, resplendent in their gold brocaded ecclesiastical vestments, performing the mass with a sombre deliberateness. The organ boomed; the candles flickered. Then the lights in the cathedral blasted on, and the priests followed the bishop with his crozier and tall red hat, and left the cathedral in slow procession. Walking back to my hotel, I felt transported, as though the world had been given substance and purpose again. But when I woke the next morning, I was mortified. At a moment of vulnerability, I had been seduced by the luxuriant spectacle of an institution whose core beliefs — the virgin birth of Jesus, Jesus having been crucified in order to redeem a sinful world, the Eucharist transubstantiating wine and bread into the blood and flesh of the Messiah — I found literally absurd, and whose history included the Crusades, the Inquisition, and savage pogroms against Jews.
Over the past few years, a number of books have attempted to answer the question: how is it possible that, nearly 150 years after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, in an era in which both the history of the earth and the natural history of human beings are known in considerable detail, religion continues to exert a powerful presence? And given the divisive and often repressive impact of religious belief — to which the events of September 11, 2001, bore witness — why do we in Western liberal democracies still tolerate religion as a legitimate part of public discourse rather than attempting to eradicate it in favour of a more rational form of humanism? These books include Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
THE TARGET of New York-based writer Sam Harris’s polemical The End Of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation is not just religious faith, but also liberal tolerance of religion. “I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance — born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God — is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss,” Harris writes. “Religious moderation, insofar as it represents an attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics, and the building of strong communities.”
Religious faith, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, is if nothing else a belief in a transcendent being that does not need to meet the same standards of reason and evidence to which we hold ordinary beliefs; faith is a form of belief with a special status. Yet to believe something, Harris points out, is to believe that it is true and to be willing to act on it. “Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn’t,” Harris writes in Letter to a Christian Nation. Parallel statements could be made about the Koran and the Torah. “Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false.” The sacred texts of the dominant religions today are of largely unknown provenance, assembled from multiple manuscripts over hundreds or even thousands of years, and they are riddled with internal contradictions. And the claims made by these texts — God parting the Red Sea, Christ raising Lazarus from the dead, Muhammad’s vision — have no more intrinsic credibility than the activities of Zeus or the events that unfold in Norse legends. In that case, according to Harris, “the truth is that religious faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern.” Unfortunately, religious faith is by no means a benign form of unjustified belief — of irrationality, of superstition. Rather, it is one that has caused an enormous amount of suffering in the world.