Sam Harris, philosopher and doctoral student in the field of neuroscience, has written a devastating book about faith–devastating, that is, to faith.
The title, The End of Faith, is also his agenda. Harris believes its time for human beings to give up what he calls irrational pursuits and live in the world using reason as our guide. Harris blames religion, all religion, for most of the ills and suffering that takes place in the world.
As a person of faith, my gut reaction is to disagree with him. But his attacks are relentless and eloquent. Harris details instance after instance, from history and from the present, how belief in God has led directly to the slaughter of innocents.
And he leaves no religion unscathed, though he saves most of his venom for Christianity and Islam.
He is not calling for a reform of these faiths, as we get from Charles Kimball in his book When Religion Becomes Evil. Harris argues that even the most moderate minded of any of the world’s religions operate in the realm of the irrational. God does not exist for Harris, and for those who believe otherwise, they need to wake up.
With that said, I hope people of faith will read the book. Not to gain information about how to refute his claims, but rather to see the effects of the way we do faith. The way Christians conduct themselves in the world has an impact on the way people view our faith, even how they view God. Gandhi is reported to have said that he would have become a Christian had it not been for Christians.
Our actions have consequences. What sort of image of God do we present to the world when in the name of God we allow other human beings to be tortured for our benefit? How do people see our God when in God’s name we promote bombing campaigns that kill innocent women and children? We can try to hide behind euphemisms like “collateral damage,” but those are people in that rubble, or at least they were.
And what does it say about God when we live our lives as if we were the only people on the planet. America represents about 6 percent of the world’s population yet we consume nearly half of the world’s resources. Do we really expect people to believe that the Golden Rule and the Great Commandment mean something to us as the world starves around us?
Unlike Harris I am not calling for an end to faith, but I do think that believers need to reclaim an authentic understanding of the purpose of faith. Faith in God is not a way to attain status and privilege in this world, followed by an eternity of bliss in the next. Faith is not a tool by which we gain political power in order to advance an economic or social agenda. Faith, at least the way I understand Jesus, is a way for us to be truly human in a community of justice.
Sam Harris has done all faith traditions a great service in calling us out. Rather than attack him, as will inevitably occur, why not learn from him. Through his words we can learn what we are doing to a world we hoped we might help. If our greed, our commitment to violence, and our intolerance, convinces thoughtful people that faith is a dangerous thing, well maybe we should hear that as a wake up call.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.