The mail

On atheism: readers take up the challenge

Ron Netsky's interview with author and atheist Sam Harris hit a nerve with many readers. Here's a representative selection from your comments.

It's refreshing to see rational thought regarding religion in City. Too bad it doesn't happen more often.

The "Rapture Right" likes to describe liberals with words like "secular progressives," "Godless," and "anti-Christian." That's ironic, considering that most liberals consider it a virtue to vigorously respect all religious faiths. But it shouldn't be surprising; the vast majority of liberals (in this country, at least) are some flavor of Christian. They've already accepted religious irrationality as a guiding principle on which to structure their lives. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that most liberals bend over backwards to "respect" religion; they suffer from it themselves.

I do, however, disagree with Sam Harris on one point. He says there is no value in liberals continuing to harp on the false predicates for the war in Iraq. While he's right that we have to deal with the current reality of Iraq as a center for terrorism, it is also crucial that we understand how we got here. It's both a matter of holding people accountable for their actions and a matter of learning from past mistakes.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Remember those words while you read this week's Cost of War column, and then tell me we shouldn't "harp" on the lies, agendas, and generic stupidity that got us here.

John Passaniti, Elmwood Avenue, Brighton

Thank you and congratulations for your courageous interview with Sam Harris. It's astounding how much deference is given to the 2000-year-old derivative myths that predominate modern-day Christianity and Islam. Our culture needs to give serious public consideration to alternatives based on rational thinking.

Reasonable people, though drawn naturally to religious fantasy, can "break the spell" (see Daniel Dennett's new book), and move forward from the 19th-century backwoods philosophy which seems to monopolize current American discourse. The marketing based news media organizations, like Fox and others, have exacerbated the problem, but thanks to solid journalism like yours, there's a chance to make progress.

Jonathan Hunt, Newtown, Pennsylvania

Ron Netsky's interview with Sam Harris comes across as a total fluff piece. Harris accurately describes some of the problems involving fundamentalist religious conviction, or what Andrew Sullivan might describe as a religion free from doubt. But he fails to find fault with his own prescriptions for these problems, which are fueled by his own fundamentalist beliefs.

He states, perhaps accurately, that people should not believe that for which they have no reasonable evidence. The issue with belief or disbelief in a god or gods is that usually, by their definition, they can neither be proven nor disproven. Simply because there is no evidence for a given proposition does not, ipso facto, make that proposition false. Thus Harris is making the same mistake he criticizes others for: believing that there is no god, despite the fact that there is no reasonable evidence to support that belief.

He is right to criticize fundamentalist doctrines concerning private life when they enter the public or political sphere, but his categorical dismissal of one form of absolutism for another makes him a singularly unpersuasive voice presenting singularly unreasonable solutions to very real and deep problems.

It would have been nice to see his feet held to the coals in slightly stronger terms.

Zachary Smith, Rochester

I am the last person to argue with Sam Harris about the dangers and negative impact of organized religion for a post-Enlightenment, post-Scientific Revolution world. But religion is one thing. God (transcendent reality) is quite another.

Mr. Harris and fellow atheistic, rigid scientific materialists can be guilty of the same dubious logic and closed-mindedness that they condemn in the blindly religious. To say that God does not exist because all of the major religions suffer from serious problems is no different than a Creationist rejecting evolution because of gaps in the fossil record. For an atheist to proclaim that there is no God because there is no scientific evidence is no different from people in a pre-Einstein world insisting that there are no subatomic particles because we haven't seen them yet.

I am not familiar with a religion that I believe is even close to having everything right in terms of its conception of the Divine or the ultimate nature of reality. But I can't quite wrap myself around the arrogance of someone like Mr. Harris, who must believe that great spiritual teachers, poets, artists, composers, and people of remarkable altrusism throughout history have been delusional. Either the likes of William Blake, Rumi, Bach, the Baal Shem Tov, Jesus of Nazareth, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), Mohandas Gandhi, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King Jr., and Albert Einstein himself have been out to lunch or "there is something else going on."

The problem with religions is their tendency to mistake an aspect of the Divine for Divine Reality itself. Just because the religions of the world haven't gotten it right yet doesn't prove that they aren't on to something.

Bill Glasner, Modock Road, Victor

Though Sam Harris has an intellectual revulsion for God, his real beef seems to be with religious groups that are eager to force others to think as they do, often through violent tactics. But all-embracing and tolerant religions are also no good, he informs us, for they fail to "call a spade a spade." They refuse to condemn their belligerent religious cousins.

This fall, Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide have been distributing a tract which chronicles the history of injury perpetrated in the name of God. It does call a spade a spade, and yet words are the group's only weapons. They do not seek to force their views on others through political means, and they don't fly airplanes into buildings. So I start to imagine that, just maybe, they have found a niche that even Mr. Harris would be able to stomach.

But probably not.

Tom Hartlieb, Erie Station Road, Rush (Hartlieb is a member of Jehovah's Witnesses.)

In the first paragraph of his interview, Sam Harris gives away the game:

"If you want to understand the human mind, you have to know something about the brain. There is no question that religion emerges from deeply ingrained cognitive traits: a desire to understand our circumstance, a desire to predict the future and to have our belief order our experience in a way that is useful and confers emotional, behavioral, and ultimately adaptive advantages for the species."

What Mr. Harris touts as a definitive understanding of religion (vide "no question"), Tibetan Buddhists would regard as "deceptive (or apparent) reality." Deceptive reality --- all that can be revealed by science --- is not the entire story. And clinging to deceptive reality (as Mr. Harris does) as all that can be known is delusion --- the source of suffering.

Buddha claimed that his teaching elucidated a "Middle Way" between the extremes of eternalism (we are eternal souls not subject to cause and effect) and nihilism (we are blobs of protoplasm mindlessly mutating.) Importantly, the Middle Way is not a belief system but a path that must be walked. The testimony and experience of many great minds in diverse cultures has been that the Middle Way leads to Wisdom and thereby to peace, happiness, and the beneficial transformation of individuals, societies, and civilizations.

In one of Leo Tolstoy's stories, he tells the tale of Ivan Illych. Illych is a retired high court judge who had lived a successful life, but towards the end is suddenly confronted by a troubling thought: "What if my conscious life were not the real thing?"

Without rejecting science, Buddhists share this sentiment. Mr. Harris does not. Which system --- the Buddhist or Mr. Harris's --- has produced more benefit?

Frank Howard, Knolltop Drive, Brighton

"You should only be able to believe things because you have reason to believe that they're true. Usefulness and truth are quite distinct."

"Real moral concerns have to be focused on questions of the suffering of conscious beings. The moment you focus on suffering, you see that many of the moral concerns religious people press have nothing to do with morality."

"There are deeper principles of human psychology and our potential to transform our experience that we have to talk about rationally, in the spirit of science. If it's done in that spirit, there will be disagreements but always with respect to evidence and argument. The conversation remains open."

"This is really where my criticism is focused; this solidarity born of religious ideology is intrinsically divisive and causing conflict that would not otherwise occur."

"When you look back on our recent history of racism, it seems impossible that we could be racist in quite that way again, given popular culture. I think religion is up for the same transformation as racism. I also think nationalism is going to have to go in pretty short order."


Solomon Blaylock, Argyle Street, Rochester

Ron Netsky should have played a little hardball. What fault does Harris find in Judaism, which teaches goodness and charity? What fault does he find in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the only perfect man to ever walk the earth? Would the world be a peaceful paradise if everyone strove to live by the teachings of Jesus? Clearly, the problems of the world are not due to religion but to its adherents who go astray.

An example is the doctrine of Preemptive Strike decreed by our rules in Washington, who pretend to be Christian. The new mainstay of American foreign policy says, "Do unto others before they do unto you," the exact opposite of what our Lord Jesus pronounced.

What would happen to mankind if the religion of Rationalism that Mr. Harris preaches held sway? We know what happened to 9 million Ukrainians when the Soviet Rationalists took over, the 3 million Cambodians at the hands of the Khmer Rouge Rationalists, and 55 million Chinese landlords at the hands of the Maoist Rationalists.

A more careful reading of Scripture by Mr. Harris might reveal that the original scribes of the Bible knew the earth was round. They referred to "the circle of the earth." God often uses poetic terms to that only the sincere and wise understand. Can any atheist point to one item in the Bible that has been scientifically proven false?

True Christians pray that our Heavenly Father finds some redeeming quality in His antagonist and that Jim Harris, like Saul, sees the light on the road to Damascus.

Clarence Carman, Calkins Road, Pittsford

It must be satisfying to be the only person in all of history who has the real truth about the world. Anyone who wants a well-reasoned response to Sam Harris's arguments should read Marilynne Robinson's essay in November's Harper's magazine. Her points are too much to summarize here, but a couple of comments seem appropriate.

First, you cannot compare the worst of something to the best of something else. Have there been religious people and communities that promoted violence? Have there been otherwise reputable scientists who have engaged in horrors like eugenics? Yes. It's worth noting that the nuclear bombs and chemical weapons that Harris so much fears were created by scientists who, since he presumes scientists to be atheists, were not motivated by religion. Harris easily dismisses these arguments as anomalies, yet refuses to accept religious extremism in the same category.

Second, Harris has apparently made it all this way in academia without ever learning about literary criticism or the arguments of post-modernism. He argues that "moderate religionists" are not being intellectually honest because they do not subscribe to a literal reading of the text of the Bible. The Bible is not a science textbook and cannot be read as such. It is full of story, poetry, and apocalyptic, all of which require understanding how literature works.

Third, the hysterical nature of his arguments, his inflammatory name-calling, and his hysterical polemics raise a real question about the supposed rational, common-sense origin of his ideas. The charges against Islam and its practitioners in your interview, if not racist, are at least the kind of language that promotes the violence that Harris so much abhors.

The Rev. Dr. Eugene Roberts, Brighton Reformed Church, Blossom Road, Rochester

Yawn. How I tire of Sam Harris and his ilk. With tedious predictability, people like him churn out single-issue books of this nature. He is obsessed with the idea that all human infamy has religious origins. This much I know is true: with or without religion, there will always be violence and irrationality. And faith and reason are not mutually exclusive.

In the worst violence in this century alone, there is no pattern or single cause: Genocide between the Hutu and Tutsi clans in Rwanda. The ongoing genocide in the Darfur region, fueled primarily by a government-supported militia.Bosnia's Sloboda Milosevic. Mao Zedong.

You can find man's inhumanity to man just about anywhere. People of all colors are represented among both the slaughterers and the slaughtered. Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, and atheists butcher one another. It is the epitome of simplistic reasoning to lay all of the world's ills at the doorstep of religion, which is what Harris has done. And by doing so, he has furthered conflict and divisiveness.

I found the tone of his book, "The End of Faith," to be as stridently dogmatic as the religious fundamentalists he decries. If readers would like to engage in a truly intelligent and scholarly discourse on fundamentalism, I would recommend Karen Armstrong's "The Battle for God."

Lindsay Jonasse, Rosedale Street, Rochester(Jonasse is a Master of Divinity student at ColgateRochesterDivinitySchool.)

Sam Harris is quite reasonable and a foil for the un-educated. Just the fact that he recognized there are throngs of people in turbans and flowing robes who are a lot more dangerous than Dick Cheney endeared him, in a manner of speaking, to me. He also avoided, by and large, the tone of smug condescension towards religious people that is quite common in the columns of this paper. We are not, apparently, all illiterate yahoos!

But he is wrong! And so is, of course, sympathetic interviewer Ron Netsky.

Let me take issue with some of his salient points. The eye-popping stopper came on his answer to the third question. "Christians think there's something about the Christian tradition and the contents of the Bible that puts the God of Abraham on a completely different footing epistemologically."

Good Heavens! Mr. Harris doesn't think so?

He's talking about the gods of Greece and Rome (Poseidon in particular, apparently) and the God of Judeo-Christianity as though they were on the same level. When did Poseidon, or any other Greco-Roman god, enjoin me to obey a moral code, rather than just sacrifice a goat or, better yet, a human being to his altar for his own glorification?

And then with the next question, he fell into the "why does God allow this or fail to prevent that" argument. Ever read Primo Levi on Auschwitz?

Natural disasters and accidents are the results of impersonal mechanical forces. Where we are (under the roof of a collapsing building) or what we do (Auschwitz) is the result of what we chose in the exercise of that sublime quality God endowed us with: free will. It is that which makes us in His image, it is that which is witness to his love for us, and it is that which makes me see God in Mr. Harris: he freely chose to be an atheist. Pity!

As for "moderate" religious people covering for "fundamentalists," I ask Mr. Harris not to patronize me. Inasmuch as I believe in an ethical God, I am a fundamentalist. Inasmuch as I believe anyone is free to believe in that God or not, I am a moderate. I do not "cover" for fundamentalists and their extremism, and I understand perfectly well why some people fly airplanes into buildings.

And finally, the issue of "usefulness" and "truth." They are quite distinct; Mr. Harris says. Are they? Neither is at the base of religion if devoid of a moral content. Allow me an example. If I knew Mr. Harris to have $10,000 in his pocket, would it not be "useful" for me to rob him at gunpoint? And would it not also be "true" that my condition would improve? Wouldn't that be an all-around improvement in an "evolutionary" sense? You know, for my evolution, eh?

But then morality intrudes. Robbing Mr. Harris at gunpoint would be wrong. Where do I get that notion? From evolution?

I am not against science! I believe evolution to be a quite reasonable explanation for the way the world (human, animal, vegetable, and mineral) looks. I also believe that my moral sense is the gift of a divine agency. Otherwise, and Mr. Harris cannot escape this conclusion, life would be just an accident and devoid of intrinsic value. And if the Big Bang is a reasonable explanation for how the cosmos started --- no, I don't believe it was created some five or six thousand years ago ---it cries out for a divine explanation! Unless Mr. Harris believes matter created itself.

And it is because I assign intrinsic value to life that, as a Roman Catholic, I question indiscriminate stem cell research. It is useful and true that cures could be found by creating and destroying human embryos, but how would that be different from the practices of Nazi doctors?

And don't give me the utilitarian argument that lots of human embryos are destroyed every day, and why not put them to good use? Why don't we put murder victims to good use? In fact, why don't we do away with laws that forbid murdering people? After all, people get murdered every day, anyway!

And don't give me that canard about only religion holding that human life starts at conception, and why do we want to impose that view on others? Pick up any scientific embryology textbook and it will tell you that human life starts when the male sperm cell fertilizes the female egg. In that embryo, there is all that a human being will be. We were all embryos once!

Finally, religion and war. This is where Mr. Harris has me at a disadvantage. Christians killed Muslims in the name of God, Muslims killed (and are killing) Christians and Jews in the name of Allah, Jews killed Philistines in the name of Jahweh, Romans threw Christians to the lions because they wouldn't burn incense to the emperor, and Catholics and Protestants killed each other in earnest in the name of the same God. Pretty depressing! And yet, the religious spirit has given us Michelangelo's Last Judgment, the soaring high German of Luther's translation of the Bible, Gothic cathedrals, and the Judeo-Christian ethics underlying the Constitution of the United States.

I think an atheist world would be quite dull, and even more threatening than the one I live in now. Does Mr. Harris want to throw out, in a manner of speaking, the baby with the bathwater? And does he think that atheists have in them the fortitude to defeat the Islamo-fascists? Because ultimately, it will take strong Christians to keep the current crop of fanatics in the Fertile Crescent from imposing burkas and turbans on us.

ItaloSavella, FernwoodPark, Rochester


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