Opening words: from a Muslim Sufi poet, Jalal ad-Din Rumi, 1207 – 12 73
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
There is a field
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
Doesn’t make any sense.
Last week we talked about The Silver Strand – the essential ingredient that runs through the heart of all the great religions of the world, connecting us with them, and weaving them into the heart of what it means to be human.
The Silver Strand, I suggested, is what wakes us up to what we call our ‘spirituality,’ and is has to do with gratitude, and compassion, and the mystery of One-ness, as expressed by Rumi. Whitman expresses it in what he calls ‘passion, pulse and power.’
“ONE’S-SELF I sing—a simple, separate Person; Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-masse. Of Physiology from top to toe I sing; Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the muse—I say the Form complete is worthier far; The Female equally with the male I sing. Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power, Cheerful—for freest action form’d, under the laws divine, The Modern Man I sing.”
This morning I want to focus on ‘a faith to live by,’ by exploring the critique of religion offered by Sam Harris in his book, The End of Faith.
The word faith is one of those ambiguous words. It is used in several different ways – some of which are contradictory.
Faith, as Harris uses the word, issynonymous with ‘a religious system,’ or more specifically, ‘a set of beliefs,’ or, ‘the body of dogma of a particular religious system.’
When people talk about ‘my faith,’ they often mean the Catholic Church, or the fact that they are a Jew or Muslim.
Since we Unitarian Universalists don’t have a set of theological beliefs to which members must give their assent – we don’t have a dogma and we don’t have creeds, so we have some difficulty with the word ‘faith.’
Faith can also be defined as ‘Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.’ The famous Biblical definition (Hebrews 11:1) say, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things no seen.”
I think of faith as a simple sense of security about being alive and actively engaged in the process of living life as what Whitman called, “a simple, separate person.” Faith in this more basic sense requires the acceptance of the limits of human knowledge while supporting the ongoing effort to learn more. It’s about the verb of being alive rather than the noun of a particular religion or belief system.
There’s an old saying: “When I’m a Buddhist my family hates me; when I’m the Buddha they love me.” To be a Buddhist is to hold specific religious ideas; to be the Buddha is to live your life in a way that is consistent with those ideals; to be a Buddhist is to talk the talk. To be the Buddha is to walk the walk.
As Unitarian Universalist we hope to live in ways consistent with our affirmation – with ‘love as the spirit, service as the law of living, and peace as its goal, always seeking the truth, and hoping to be helpful.’
In his book, The End of Faith, Sam Harris offers an important, timely and necessary critique of the kind of dogmatic, fanatical religion that is associated with religion, or with a particular a brand of extremism or fanaticism that can crop up in any and all faith systems. He also offers a critique of liberal religion, like ours, that espouses tolerance for others’ beliefs.
Harris says, “The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were not cowards. They were men of faith—perfect faith…and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.”
He goes on to say, “My goal in writing this book has been to help close the door to a certain style of irrationality. Religious faith is the one species of human ignorance that will not admit of even the possibility of correction…it is sheltered from criticism.”
The assertion that religion is ‘sheltered from criticism’ is a strange assertion from such a sharp critic of religion — one who offers a deep, cutting criticism of all religion. It’s certainly is not sheltered from his criticism. There have been many thoughtful critics of religion: two of my favorite critics are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bertrand Russell; there are thousands of others. You, undoubtedly, are a thoughtful critic, or why would you be continuing to read these paragraphs?!
Harris’s point is well taken – it’s not polite to point out the major flaws in the beliefs of various religions; it’s sort of like flag burning — it’s unpatriotic.
Two cheers for Sam Harris. He has joined the ranks of thoughtful critics of religion through the ages. There is, I think, a growing segment of the population who are outraged at the violence and incivility perpetrated in the ‘name of religion.’ There are people who live in places ruled by gruesome religious laws who are threatened with violence if they speak out. Salman Rushdie comes to mind. Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa of 1989 sent the author into hiding.
Sam Harris gets to the heart of the matter when he talks about the long, bloody history of religiously motivated war—the wars that have been fought with a sense that ‘god is on our side,’ including wars that are being waged as we speak.
It is disheartening to hear the name of God invoked when sending troops and bombers off to Iraq: “God bless America,” with the implied assertion that God will be on our side, and against their side, allowing our victory at a cost of thousands of non-combatant lives; the euphemism is ‘collateral damage.’
Harris says, “If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us…it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith…our tribalism (must) give way to an extended moral identity, our religious beliefs can no longer be sheltered from the tides of genuine criticism. It is time we realized that to presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil.”
“The only demons we must fear are…ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil’s masterpiece.”
He uses the word faith as a synonym for fanaticism, and he calls it ‘the devil’s masterpiece.’ He paints religion with such a broad brush that it’s easy to dismiss his critique.
But we know, and perhaps need to be reminded, that the devil sneaks in the back door of all the religions when it claims a monopoly on the gods, or even when it claims to be a little bit better than the other religions.
Several years ago Arnold Diaz, the host of the ‘shame on you’ segment on ABC was attending this church. One Sunday he approached me in the foyer following the service and he said, in his ‘shame on you voice-with-a-finger,’ “Well, you did it!”
I looked at him and waited. He continued, “My wife said you would do it.”
“What did I do?” I asked, cautiously.
“You implied that Unitarians are better than other people.”
I thought for a moment about what I had said in my sermon that morning and how I had said it, and I acknowledged that I could see how he would infer that, both from what I had said, and from the enthusiasm with which I said it.
That was the last time Arnold attended a service here. Shortly after that confrontation, I sent him a letter – this was before email – and told him that his critique did not fall on deaf or defensive ears; I told him I was thinking of his criticism and working it through. He wrote back, explaining that his absence wasn’t about that – it was about his move back to Manhattan where he was attending All Souls Unitarian Church.
But I digress. Two cheers for Sam Harris for calling to an end to the kind of fanaticism that justifies suicide bombing and the killing of innocent people in order to terrorize an entire society and dragging god into their evil destruction. Calling for an end to that kind of religion is like calling for an end to the flat earth society, or the teaching of creationism and preventing the teaching of evolution in biology classes.
I bought the book when it first came out a couple of years ago, having read a review in the New York Times. I read the first half of the book and was amazed that the Times would even bother to review it. I found him arrogant and shallow with nothing new to say, and the idea of calling for an ‘end of faith,’ in the sense of all the religions folding up their tents and going home was simply over-the-top silly. He lacked credibility.
I left a bookmark on the halfway place where I stopped reading, and The End of Faith joined the accumulation of books I’ve purchased with hope (a religious hope, I might add) but was disappointed so never completely finished reading. I try to cull them from my library, but it’s as hard to let go of a book as it is to let go of the hope it represents.
The End of Faith hardly had time to gather dust when it showed up on the New York Time’s best-seller list, where it remained long enough for me to give in and go back to see what I must have missed. Several members of the congregation asked me if I’d read the book, and some suggested it was worthy of a sermon response. So I opened it, re-read the portions I’d highlighted, and finished what was on the other side of the bookmark. This summer I reviewed it for this sermon.
The main title, The End of Faith, is subtitled: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason.
He opens his case against religion like a lawyer for the prosecution, telling the story about a jihadist suicide bomber. “Call me Ishmael!”
He writes: “The young man boards the bus as it leaves the terminal. He wears an overcoat. Beneath his overcoat, he is wearing a bomb. His pockets are filled with nails, ball bearings, and rat poison.
“The bus is crowded and headed for the heart of the city. The young man takes his seat beside a middle-aged couple. He will wait for the bus to reach its next stop. The couple at his side appears to be shopping for a new refrigerator. The woman has decided on a model, but her husband worries that it will be too expensive…The bus doors swing open and new passengers have taken the last remaining seats and begun gathering in the aisle. The bus is now full. The young man smiles. With the press of a button he destroys himself, the couple at his side, and twenty others on the bus. The nails, ball bearings, and rat poison ensure further casualties on the street and in surrounding cars.”
“The young man’s parents soon learn of his fate. Although saddened to have lost a son, they feel tremendous pride at his accomplishment.”
Religion is forced to take the stand, sitting in his courtroom accused of the worst crimes and atrocities ever committed with, centuries of evidence that’s sure to convict.
As mentioned above, it’s not only the religious fanatics who become terrorists in the name of a demented idea of god, but Harris points his finger at religious moderates and liberals. He says;
“One of the central themes of this book…is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. 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.”
“Many religious moderates have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths, but in doing so they neglect to notice the irredeemably sectarian truth claims of each. As long as a Christian believes that only his baptized brethren will be saved on the Day of Judgment, he cannot possibly ‘respect’ the beliefs of others, for he knows that the flames of hell have been stoked (for them).”
“The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.”
Clearly Sam Harris has not been to a Sunday service here and in many other houses of faith where religious literalism is criticized regularly, both explicitly and by our use of poetry, which is intended to suggest that religion is all metaphor – it’s not meant to be confused with rational truth.
So he says, “…religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word ‘God’ as though we knew what we were talking about.”
He asks, rhetorically, “Why did nineteen well-educated, middle-class men trade their lives in this world for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed that they would go straight to paradise for doing so. It is rare to find the behavior of human beings so fully and satisfactorily explained. Why have we been reluctant to accept this explanation?”
I must admit that I found it difficult to hear this accusation, and to sit in his courtroom beside Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Osama bin Laden. But he doesn’t give us a pass – he lumps us all together, and has a special place in hell reserved for those of us in the interfaith community.
It would be a lot easier to take his quotes from the Koran about killing the infidel and hating those who are not believers, if I wasn’t lumped in with them. I could just say, “Hey, I’m a religious liberal, not a fanatic, not a literalist; I use poetry, for God’s sake! My sacred literature includes Whitman and Frost as well as Emerson and Thoreau, and process theologians like Henry Nelson Weiman who defines God as ‘creative interchange,’ and Buckminster Fuller who said, ‘I think I’m a verb!’
But Sam Harris is consistent. Indeed, he’s so consistent, and so certain that he’s right, that he sounds a bit like ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks.’ Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, makes this famous statement – it’s in response to the play-within-the play’s when the Queen in the play is making repetitive statements of loyalty to and love of her first husband.
Methinks Sam Harris has a dogmatic, authoritarian streak; but then, don’t we all…don’t we all!
Instead of a carefully crafted critique of the literalist, dogmatic, fundamentalist aspect of religion, and it’s source (which is at the heart of our human-ness) he displays an immaturity and arrogance that caused me to put the book aside and to dismiss him the way he dismissed all religion; but then a strange thing happened: I grew to appreciate him. He risked sounding sophomoric (which he does) to give voice to thoughts shared by every thoughtful persons in response to 9/11 and the jihadist literalist-fanatical-religious element in the terrorists of today.
He offers a long list of quotes from the Koran, “To convey the relentlessness with which unbelievers are vilified in the text of the Koran, I provide a long compilation of quotations.”
The Koran says, “God’s curse be upon the infidels! God is the enemy of unbelievers. Theirs shall be a woeful punishment. Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you. Fight against them…fighting is obligatory for you… The only true faith in God’s sight is Islam. Believers, do not make friends with any but your own people. God will not forgive those who serve other gods besides Him…those that deny our revelation we will burn in fire. He that leaves his dwelling to fight for God and His apostle and is then overtaken by death, shall be rewarded by God….The unbelievers are your inveterate enemies.”
He’s a bit condescending when he says, “Of course, like every religion, Islam has had its moments. Muslim scholars invented algebra, translated the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and made important contributions to a variety of nascent sciences at a time when European Christians were luxuriating in the most abysmal ignorance.”
Then he says, “We are at war with Islam.…even moderate approaches to Islam generally consider the Koran to be the literal and inerrant word of the one true God. The difference between fundamentalists and moderates—and certainly the difference between all ‘extremists’ and moderates—is the degree to which they see political and military action to be intrinsic to the practice of their faith.”
He talks about jihad, saying, “Literally, the term can be translated as ‘struggle’ or ‘striving,’ but it is generally rendered in English as ‘holy war,’ and this is not accident. While Muslims are quick to observe that there is an inner (or greater) jihad, which involves waging war against one’s own sinfulness, no amount of casuistry can disguise the fact that the outer (or lesser) jihad—which involves waging war against infidels and apostates—is a central feature of the faith.”
He says, “We must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it.”
But faith, by definition, does not have evidence. Scientific knowledge or information has evidence. Faith is an essential feeling about being alive, and it’s a process – it’s not a rational conclusion.
The central component to a faith system is simply the idea of belonging, of having a sense of community, which gives you an identity. This became clear to me the first time I attended a Yom Kippur service with my (then) fiance, my wife of ten years. Midway through a very long, ritualistic service she turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, “I love being Jewish.” Something ‘clicked’ for me. I’ve always thought of religion as a set of beliefs. The idea of ‘belonging to a particular religion,’ meant that you held those beliefs, and if you didn’t, you would leave. That’s a chapter out of my own life. But hers was different, and it helped me to understand the importance of that ‘sense of belonging.’ It’s deep. It’s real. It’s universal.
My daughter Susan was five years old when she got in touch with the need for this kind of identity. One day, as she was leaving the house to walk to school, she looked up at me and said, “Dad, what am I?” I didn’t ‘get it,’ right away. I fumbled around for some kind of response: “Well, umm, you’re my beautiful daughter.” She crinkled up her face and said, “Dad,” she said, with two or three syllables that translates ‘come on, get with the program!” She said, “Maria is Catholic. What am I?”
I said, “You’re a Unitarian,” and the next Sunday we enrolled her at the Unitarian Church in Wellesley, where we got involved as a family.
Sam Harris dismisses the need for a religious identity, but in his final chapter he attempts to distinguish religion, or religious faith, from spirituality. He writes, “…we need not be unreasonable to suffuse our lives with love, compassion, ecstasy, and awe; nor must we renounce all forms of spirituality or mysticism to be on good terms with reason.”
I’m glad I went back to the book, and glad to have found the Silver Strand in Sam!
I’ll close with a poem I discovered some years ago when I got to the end of a wonderful book by Huston Smith, called Beyond the Postmodern Mind. He closes the book with a masterful little piece by John Ciardi, called White Heron:
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky — then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.