The Psychology of Belief, Part 1: Is religion too dangerous to be allowed to exist?

Religion scares me.

Although I've found my own religious beliefs to be a vitally important factor in continually calling me to be a humane and compassionate person, I'm deeply ambivalent about being a "religious" person. Why? Because such an admission aligns me with a force that, currently and historically, has been, in certain manifestations, horribly destructive.

This ambivalence was made more acute after reading Sam Harris' New York Times Bestselling book, THE END OF FAITH: RELIGION, TERROR, AND THE FUTURE OF REASON. Harris' book is a frontal assault against religious belief. As a consequence, most religious readers have discounted the book. Me? I'm disturbed by the book because I find a lot of it dead on. I feel caught in Harris' cross-hairs.

So, this series on The Psychology of Belief is going to explore the good and ill of religious faith. I'll initially discuss Harris' critique and follow it with discussions of "toxic" tendencies in religious belief, how faith becomes "poisonous." I hope to conclude the series with some positive insights and how we might find some "antidotes."

Today, I want to simply outline some of Harris' argument.

Harris' first point is that beliefs are the most powerful motivators of human behavior: "A belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost anything" (p. 12). And, once we believe something, our beliefs "become part of the very apparatus of [our] mind, determining [our] desires, fears, expectations, and subsequent behavior" (p. 12).

The trouble with this situation is this:

"Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim to its infallibility. People tend to organize themselves into factions according to which of these incompatible claims they accept...Each of these texts urges its readers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices, some of which are benign, many of which are not. All are in perverse agreement on one point of fundamental importance, however: 'respect' for other faiths, or for the views of unbelievers, is not an attitude that God endorses. While all faiths have been touched, here and there, by the spirit of ecumenicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error, or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. Once a person believes--really believes--that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one." (p. 13).

"We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man's inhumanity to man." (p. 15).

Now, most of us would quickly claim, "Not me! I'm not a religious fanatic!" Harris' has this critique for us rational religious moderates and liberals:

"Many religious moderates have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths, but in doing so they neglect to notice the irredeemable sectarian truth claims of each. As long as a Christian believes that only his baptized brethren will be saved on the Day of Judgment, he cannot possibly 'respect' the beliefs of others, for he knows that the flames of hell have been stoked by these very ideas and await their adherents even now..." (p. 20).

"While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. He is, in all likelihood, going to wind up in hell with the rest of the unbelievers. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief...All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don't like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us...The texts themselves are unequivocal: they are perfect in all their parts. By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God's law. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question--i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us--religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness." (p. 20-21).

Summarizing this critique of moderates:

"Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word 'God' as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who REALLY believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world--to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish--is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance." (p. 22-23).

Harris' critique is pretty strong stuff and very extreme. Any thoughtful believer will find many points to quibble with.

But I don't want to quibble with Harris. Not yet at least. I'm very skeptical about quickly dismissing or dismantling the argument from an educated critic of religion. Quick dismissals are probably intended to make me feel better then about truly "refuting" the critique. These kinds of "refutations" are more about us COPING with the argument than truly CONFRONTING it. That is, we'll quickly work through enough counter-arguments to Harris until we reach a point (different for each of us) where we convince ourselves that we are right and Harris is wrong.

So, today, I want to sit with Harris a little bit. What I find very impressive about his argument is his attack on religious moderates (i.e., me). It would be TOO EASY to attack fundamentalists and extremists. We all know they are crazy. But Harris' question is more interesting: AM I, AS A MODERATE, SUPPORTING A CLIMATE WHERE RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM CAN EMERGE? That, to me, is an interesting question. A hard question. Is religion too dangerous to be allowed to exist?

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5 thoughts on “The Psychology of Belief, Part 1: Is religion too dangerous to be allowed to exist?”

  1. Dr. Beck,
    Hello, I am a student at ACU (actually currently finishing up the semester in Oxford) who also shares an interest in Sam Harris' recent critique of religion. I almost feel relieved that there is somone else at ACU who has at least heard of this book! Although I am a History major, I enjoy scoping out the science and religion dialogue/debate/debacle/slugfest and I hear that Harris' work has a few insights into that area (although from a blatantly materialist perspective). I'm definitley interested in hearing what it is that you have to post on this book. I haven't seen too many apologists tackle this one yet (although I'm not saying that there is an apologetic purpose in your posts on it). Thanks for bringing up the issue. I've hoped that I would get to hear what others more worthy of critiquing it than I have to say.

  2. I think he understands the dangers of hyperliteral fundamentalism, but he does not understand moderate and liberal religion at all. Quite a few Christians, Buddhists and Jews, etc don't have any big problem with each other. They figure all religions have a different set of blessings and problems they might bring to the table. It is not a matter of "we are right and they are wrong". It is a matter of finding when each each religion's ideas and approaches work and when it is that they don't. Harris has a simplistic view of religion. His view of moderate religion is a straw man. Probably he is like many atheists who disbelieve in the grandaddy-Santa-Claus in the sky type of God of Western Protestant Christianity. But that is not the only conception of God.

  3. Brent,
    Thanks for the encouragement. Students are part of the reason I started the blog. I don't know how many are reading, but you've let me know my efforts haven't been totally for naught. Thanks.

    I agree with you and I'm eventually going to disagree with Harris. I'm using him as a starting point to provide some contrast. But I do kinda admire Harris' attack on moderates. As a moderate I've always patted myself on the back thinking "Who could have a beef with me?" Well, Harris apparently does. Like Kant said of Hume, Harris stirred me out of my "dogmatic slumbers." For that, at least, I'm grateful to him. He made me think through some things I never thought through before because they seemed so "obvious" to me.

    BTW, thanks for being, my only regular commenter. I appreciate and think through all your comments.

  4. Great post. I will have to dig out the book before I can comment specifically.

    Meanwhile, I am a fundamentalist - my fundamental is the person of Jesus as God incarnate. A huge a ludicrous fundamental claim that seems to dethrone reason. According to Colossians 2:1-5, it will look ludicrous to everyone else for as long as there's enmity and lovelessness within the community of his followers. Seen any Christian lovelessness lately?!

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