Sunday Sermonette

February 4, 2007

Today’s sermonette comes to us from Sam Harris and his little book full of big arguments, Letter to a Christian Nation:

One wonders just how vast and gratuitous a catastrophe would have to be to shake the world’s faith. The Holocaust did not do it. Neither did the genocide in Rwanda, even with machete-wielding priests among the perpetrators. Five hundred million people died of smallpox in the twentieth century, many of them infants. God’s ways are, indeed, inscrutable. It seems that any fact, no matter how infelicitous, can be rendered compatible with religious faith.

Of course, people of all faiths regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent. This is the age-old problem of theodicy, of course, and we should consider it solved. If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. You may now be tempted to execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by human standards of morality. But we have seen that human standards of morality are precisely what you use to establish God’s goodness in the first place. And any God who could concern Himself with something as trivial as gay marriage, or the name by which he is addressed in prayer, is not as inscrutable as all that.

There is another possibility, or course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: the biblical God is a fiction, like Zeus and the thousands of other dead gods whom most sane human beings now ignore. Can you prove that Zeus does not exist? Of course not. And yet, just imagine if we lived in a society where people spent tens of billions of dollars of their personal income each year propiating the gods of Mount Olympus, where the government spent billions more in tax dollars to support institutions devoted to these gods, where untold billions more in tax subsidies were given to pagan temples, where elected officials did their best to impede medical research out of deference to The Illiad and The Odyssey, and where every debate about public policy was subverted to the whims of ancient authors who wrote well, but who didn’t know enough about the nature of reality to keep their excrement out of their food. This would be a horrific misappropriation of our material, moral, and intellectual resources. And yet that is exactly the society we are living in. This is the woefully irrational world that you and your fellow Christians are working so tirelessly to create.

Sam Harris recently started an online argument with political platypus Andrew Sullivan — gay, Catholic, conservative — on the nature of faith. You can follow the back and forth here. Personally, I find Sullivan not at all persuasive and Harris seems to be having a hard time keeping a straight face, but maybe that’s just me.


3 Responses to “Sunday Sermonette”

  1. Caveat Says:

    Must check out Sam Harris, because I have argued similarly, although not so eloquently, with others.

    I saw a bumper sticker you might like:

    ‘Who are you to question why your god doesn’t want me to believe in him?’

  2. geoff Says:

    I’ll check out Letter to a Christian Nation but thought The End of Faith was shabbily reasoned (and I’m in sympathy with what Harris is trying to do). Where he fails, and fails miserably, is in giving the West a mysterious moral high ground (though he is highly critical of Judaism and Christianity as well). Are our various fanaticisms and faith systems less of a civilizational hazard? I’m not convinced that Islam in particular is the worst offender.

    Reza Aslan pointed out huge omissions and faulty reasoning in The End of Faith during a pre-recorded debate run on CSPAN last night. Harris is correct that there are many Muslims who support the targeting of civilians as a means of defending their faith, but I’d hazard to guess there are just as many yahoos over here who don’t mind the targeting of Arab civilians a bit either in defense of ours.

  3. DBK Says:

    I gave up arguing about the existence of gods and goddesses years ago. There’s no percentage in it. It does, after a while, become difficult to keep a straight face, it’s true. One is led to religion, but I find atheists just get to atheism on their own stroll.

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