The Washington Post has a fun profile of Sam Harris. This part cracked me up:
“If the Koran were exactly the same,” he said, toward the end of the night, “and there were just one line added to it, and the line said, ‘If you see a red-haired woman on your lawn at sunset, kill her,’ I can tell you what kind of world we’d live in. We’d live in a world where red-haired women would be killed often. We’d live in a world where people like yourself” — and here Harris gestures to his opponent, Oliver McTernan — “would say, ‘That’s not the true Islam.’ Twenty women in Baghdad would have their heads cut off and someone would come forward and say, ‘This has nothing to do with Islam. Some of them were strawberry blond. Some of them were strangled.”
Later on religious scholars chide Harris for his simplistic reading of religion. The bloggers are Get Religion dismiss Harris’ arguments as shallow. If by “shallow” they mean that Harris takes religion at its word and interprets its own axioms in a straightforward and guileless manner, then shallow he is. Once I was talking to an evangelical Christian who was attempting to convince me of the power of prophecy in the New Testament. I pointed out that Jesus himself said, “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things [the wonders of the Second Coming] be fulfilled.” To this my friend responded, “Ah, but you see, generation means the Jewish people in this context! And the Jewish people remain, so of course Christ has not returned.” And there you have it, my understanding was “shallow” and superficial, a closer look at scripture and religious practice fleshes out the nuance and richness.
Of course, I don’t believe that. Like Harris I am a “shallow” thinker when it comes to religion on the most fundamental level. David Boxenhorn suggests that the problem for some atheists is that we lack the ability to perceive what others see so plainly. I tend to think this is the root of the issue, our psychological profiles aren’t modal, we don’t perceive the universe through the same God-tinted lens of most of humanity. When a believer points to a tree and notes its complexity and asserts that that manifestly is indication of God’s reality I simply laugh it off as absurd. And of course religionists themselves can laugh at the absurdity of other groups and their practices, but when it comes to their own Holy of Holies they see only the object which can sate their spiritual hunger. Roman Catholics speak with reverence of Transubstantiation, but unbelievers are revolted by the implication of cannibalism.
I don’t scoff at Harris, and I don’t scoff at Dawkins. There is an important role for those who point out the absurdity of religion. And yet there is also the reality that we unbelievers live in a world of 1 billion unrepentant cannibals, a world where 1 billion men and women draw the image of perfection around the deeds and words of a 7th century Arab merchant, warlord and prophet, a world where hundreds of millions see the face of the Godhead in this. This is our world, it is what it is.
Sophisticated (or sophistic?) believers sometimes analogize God with beauty. The problem with this analogy is that men and women do not kill for beauty, and they do not heap vitriol on others for different interpretations of beauty. Religion is not one thing, it is a complex of multiple things which fit together in such a way to synergistically unleash the greatness and evil of our species in a thousand directions. It is all things to all men at all times, it is become death, the shatterer of worlds.