I always enjoy getting a message from my favorite (and, really, only) regular Christian correspondent, Steve. He sent a thoughtful response to my post, “Reason unites, faith divides.” I’ll include it in its entirety as a continuation to this post. Steve is so reasonable, I certainly don’t include him in my category of Closed-Minded Religious Faithful—they who ignore unmistakable immediate reality in favor of unproven faith in what may lie beyond what is known now.
I agree with Steve that “science is but a limited tool,” so long as it “doesn’t deal with things outside the natural, physical realm.” This was one of the central themes of my first book, “God’s Whisper, Creation’s Thunder.” Since science doesn’t know whether the essence of ultimate reality is material (physical) or non-material (spiritual), it needs to be open to any and all possibilities about what lies at the root of manifest existence.
So if “religion” means embracing really real reality, sign me up. But I don’t want any substitutes for the Real Thing. Give me the truth about the cosmos, or give me nothing. And this is what faith is, compared to truth: nothing. It’s a hope, theory, hypothesis, conjecture, wish, desire—whatever you want to call it. Whatever, it isn’t the real deal: something directly experienced.
Last Sunday I gave a talk to our local Radha Soami Satsang Beas group on this very subject. I heartily agreed with a statement by Lekh Raj Puri in his book Radha Swami Teachings: “True faith is that which is based on one’s inner transcendent spiritual realization. In that faith there is no scope for doubt; it is faith in true transcendent knowledge; it is real and reliable faith.”
But this definition of faith is far distant from what people usually mean by the term. Puri’s “faith” is precisely what I call “reality,” something directly and truly experienced. By contrast, the criticism which Sam Harris has of faith, which I echo here in the Church of the Churchless, is that shaky beliefs are mistaken for rock-solid truth. Worse, most people of faith (but not Steve) expect that other people should think and act like they do.
Steve correctly notes that “Science is not immune to folly or arrogance.” However, scientists don’t try to force their beliefs on other people, and scientists also have to offer solid evidence for the correctness of their beliefs (theories). Without such evidence, no one is expected to give those beliefs any credibility. Many religious faithful, though, expect that their unfounded beliefs about creationism, homosexuality, stem cell research, and so on will be treated seriously by society.
Sam Harris writes:
Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the 14th century. He would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know everything there is to know about God. We could explain this in two ways: Either we perfected our religious understanding a millennium ago—while our knowledge on other fronts was still hopelessly inchoate—or religion, being the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress. The fact is, with each passing year religious dogma conserves less of the data of human experience. By this measure the entire project of religion seems perfectly backward.
By and large, I agree. Yet I encourage you to read Steve’s message, which presents religion and faith in a more favorable light. Each to his own.
Message from Steve:
Haven't been to your site since I read your blog about 'The End of Faith'. I haven't read the book yet but have seen a presentation that Sam Harris gave about it on BookTV and also read the transcript of a radio talk show interview.
I hope to put these thoughts in a more complete and structured way but wanted to pass them along to you while still fresh.
First and foremost, science is but a limited tool; albeit a powerful and useful one, and will remain limited as long as it remains true to its own definition. Was it Wittgenstein who said (something along the lines of) 'whereof one does not know, one must be silent'? If science doesn't deal with things outside the natural, physical realm, it shouldn't be expected to speak intelligently about matters of the spirit. Granted, one day, science may grow and mature to encompass a lot more natural phenomena, there is still a lot it has yet to explain within its own stated domain. I apologize because I feel I'm not addressing the issue as succinctly as I had hoped.
For instance, the other night I had an incredible dream. I was in an old deserted cabin that had colorless, weathered siding. A storm was brewing in the distance and the wind was beginning to pick up. The wind produced the most beautiful and mesmerizing effects as it moved through tall, dried grasses and gave life to the old lace curtains in the cabin. As the wind surged and rounded the corners of the cabin, it became visible for just a few moments - just like it will when passing over the wing of an aircraft. What struck me was the bleak beauty of the dream and all at once realized the power and preciousness of words. Although I've done a poor job here, a poet could more ably convey the specific beauty and serenity and let the reader not only witness the scene but even share in the experience. Such art is beyond the scope of science. Science is not all we as humans have to talk about.
Back to Sam Harris. I can grant that I've experienced conversation stopping believers. But this is not restricted to faith. It can happen just as easily in politics, gender or in race. Even small matters like issues in the elementary school PTO can cause division amongst normally well-behaved, law respecting citizens. If you read the reviews this book received on amazon.com, you'll see that this book has become a new reason for division: religion is the source of all our social ills. A new fundamentalist of sorts is embracing this book as their call to arms to purge mankind from religion and bring about a new era of a secular utopia. Isn't the irony in this apparent? I would posit that Mr. Harris would have been more realistic and insightful if he pursued 'The End of Weapons'.
Sam Harris himself puts and end to the conversation by stating he will not enter dialog with the faithful. Who now is doing the dividing and is being intolerant? My personal take on the book is that Mr. Harris is being intentionally controversial - not unlike Dan Brown with his DaVinci Code - for celebrity and financial gain. He states that he has no expectations nor real hope for the book and wrote it for his mother. If that were truly the case, she and he would be the only ones with a manuscript and the book would never have seen ink. I'm sure you can attest to the fact that books don't just happen. Another claim he makes is that it is taboo to point out that there are differences between the faiths and that he's breaking new ground by stating bluntly that they're not the same. I have quite a few books in my library that do precisely that - list and explain in detail the various points of contention between religions.
A lot of what Mr. Harris says has a sound of plausibility but the outlook is doubtful. Assuming his best scenario, should faith-based religions be eradicated, we're still stuck with all the human flaws and scientists, like all other humans, are equally susceptible. Science is not immune to folly or arrogance.
I am a person of faith but I don't claim to have all the answers. I would welcome the opportunity to sit down some evening with you and discuss your viewpoints; I feel I could learn a lot from such an exchange. Not all people of faith are as blind and closed-minded as Mr. Harris would have us believe. After all, modern science was born from the efforts of believing scientists - men of faith who believed the Creator was rational and the laws behind reality reflected this. Mr. Harris acknowledges this fact.
Reason is indeed useful, but it's not all there is. There are people of faith who embrace it along with their scriptures and still remain open minded. One can embrace truths and still entertain other viewpoints. I see this capability and the spirit of love along with living charitably as the real hope for the future.
Thanks for your consideration.