An individual on a recent blog I follow had this to say about religious faith:
“[It leads] often to harmful advice and rules for women, gay people and society in general. Hence the need to assist [believers] to see the errors in their thinking, at every level.”
This in many ways characterizes a common perception of religious faith today: It is a social evil only doing harm and we would all be better off if it were eradicated. It reminded me of what neuroscientist and New York Times bestselling author Sam Harris had to say in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.
As the title suggests, Harris believes morality can be determined by science alone. He says, “questions about values — about meaning, morality and life’s larger purpose — are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.”
But Harris goes on to say that conservative dogmatism, not kept in check by secularism, has led to “decades lost” on stem-cell research as well as years of “political distraction” over issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. These things, Harris says “should concern us.”
Now it is possible Harris objects to religious faith simply because religious faith opposes the views he himself holds. It is possible that Harris sees religion as an evil, for example, simply because religious faith claims that abortion is killing of the innocent, whereas he may believe it is merely interruption of a biological process.
The real objection to religious faith, one gathers, is not its views per se but that it seeks to impose its views upon society.
But one gets the impression the real objection to religious faith is that it seeks to impose its views — whatever they may be — on others. That what makes religious faith so objectionable is that it claims to know what is right and wrong and then seeks to impose that right and wrong upon society. This is the real crime, one gathers, of the church in our day.
As Harris puts it, “Knowing what the Creator believes is right causes conservatives to enforces their beliefs at any cost.” This allegedly is the dangerous and unjust practice of the religious faithful.
But what Harris fails to realize is that by making this accusation and, further, by proposing a solution for the correction of this social evil, Harris is committing the same crime that religious conservatives are allegedly guilty of.
The problem with accusing religious conservatives of imposing their views upon society is those who do so are guilty of the same crime.
Newton’s third law of motion states: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The same is true for belief: For every objection to the imposition of belief, there is an equal and opposite viewpoint imposing its own belief.
Take Harris’ objection to religious interference in stem-cell research. Such an allegations is based on his conviction that stem cell research should be encouraged. He is also convinced his own belief should not remain a private matter in his mind or confined to his personal life. On the contrary, it should be acted upon, all the way to the shaping of public policy. In other words, he believes his views should be imposed upon society.
The question, then, is not whether values should be imposed upon society but rather which values are the right ones to be imposed. In our next post, we shall explore what makes one moral value better — that is, more right — than another.
Spoiler alert: It isn’t science.