The Frontal Cortex

Religion and Reason

Today’s rumination on faith and fundamentalism by Edward Rothstein in the NY Times left me cold. In the process of reviewing Bill Moyer’s new program on “religion and reason,” Rothstein rejects the idea that fundamentalism, violence and religious faith are especially intertwined. He goes on to suggest that Colin McGinn’s “proselytizing for wind-surfing” is somehow equivalent to the fatwah against Salman Rushdie, or the zealous faith that propels suicide bombings:

After all, the fundamentalism of belief was typical of pre-Enlightenment faith, and if, like post-Enlightenment reason, it has much to answer for, it also has much to claim credit for. A different examination is needed.
It is as though some of these participants were simply affirming their own absolute form of faith, leaving material support behind. Leaping into the air, they wind-surf.

Unlike many Sciencebloggers, I’m not an ardent atheist (polite agnosticism is more my style). But I do think that our world is filled with evidence supporting a causal link between religious faith (of the fundamentalist sort) and violence. It’s naive and false to lump McGinn’s love of windsurfing in with Jerry Falwell’s faith in the second coming. McGinn isn’t blowing up mountain-bikers.

John Updike, a novelist of deep religiosity, captured my sentiments perfectly. In his novel Roger’s Faith, Updike describes an argument between a young and rabid theology professor, Dale Kohler, and his cynical elder, Roger Lambert. Although Lambert is also a theology professor, he doesn’t think much of God. In this passage, Kohler, who is also an early advocate of intelligent design, speaks first:

“The Devil is doubt. He’s what makes us reject the gifts God gives us, he makes us spurn the life we’ve been given….”
“Funny,” I [Lambert] said. “I would have said, looking at recent history and, for that matter, at some of our present-day ayatollahs and F├╝hrers, the opposite. The Devil is the absence of doubt. He’s what pushes people into suicide bombings, into setting up extermination camps. Doubt may give your dinner a funny taste, but it’s faith that goes out and kills.”