Monthly Archives: August 2006

On Sam Harris and the Problem of Religious Moderates

I followed a link the other day to an excerpt on beliefnet titled “The Problem of Religious Moderates”, found at: http://beliefnet.com/story/153/story_15332_1.html. The basic thesis of the atheist author is that religious moderates are doing the world a disservice by making it politically incorrect to tell the more fundamentalist believers they are ignorant fools.

I read the article (by Sam Harris), but found it to be skimming somewhat on the surface. I believe the author has overlooked some important points. For example, in the opening paragraph:

“People of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy.”

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped the author that people of little or no faith at all fall on the same continuum? Some are content to discuss ideas pleasantly in chat rooms and others would spill buckets of blood to promote their particular ideology. The worst atrocities of history have been committed in the last century or so, and they have been, almost entirely, SECULAR atrocities who purpose was to destroy large portions of mankind in the name of some kind of historical evolution or pseudo-Darwinian racial fitness. Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were not moderates, and their activities are almost enough to make one think of the Inquisition and the 100 years war as the “good old days”. Harris dismisses the idea that violence and intolerance are simply a part of human nature – religious or not – as a “myth”, but he does nothing to prove this is a myth other than simply assert it. The body count says otherwise.

Harris, in fact, sounds like he’s arguing for reviving one of the old “mottos” of the Inquisition which said “Truth has all the rights. Error has no rights”. In fact, “Truth” and “Error” are abstract principles, to which the concept of rights do not apply. PEOPLE have rights, and because of that, tolerance is, in fact, a civilizing and noble virtue. It is not simply a “capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.” Religious tolerance is a recognition that human beings, because they are expressions of the divine nature, are worthy of respect and dignity – even when we believe they are wrong.

Harris portrays most Christians, Jews and Muslims as believing everyone outside their own sect is bound for everlasting hell and seems to extend this view generally to all religious believers as the “norm”. This is perhaps because of the large percentage of fundamentalist Christians in America, and fundamentalist Muslims in the news. In fact, most Christians (worldwide) and most Jews do NOT believe this. About Islam, it seems to be a reasonably accurate statement that moderates are in the minority.

Harris believes that religious moderation gags one from criticizing fundamentalist errors. I would probably be seen as a “moderate” In Harris’ eyes, but as anyone who follows my posts would know, I don’t have any compunction against criticizing fundamentalist errors, even if I try to do it with respect for the individual. After all, aren’t these the individuals Harris hopes to convince of the error of their ways? And does he really think that this will be better accomplished once the moderates step out of the way and he can tell them in no uncertain terms what ignorant asses they all are? Does he really have so little experience in the psychology of persuasion?

It’s hard not to suspicious about what really irritates Harris. Reasonable, spiritual people don’t fit the role of “enemy” quite as nicely as he’d like. Ego needs enemies. They reinforce the boundary between “me” (or “us”) and the rest of the cosmos. They are part of the fabric of the ego’s self-definition. In fact, all the time I’ve been writing this piece, I’m aware of my ego urging me to make Harris into as big an enemy as possible. So let’s see where he’s right…

Yes, it’s quite true that the Bible and the Koran contain all sorts of things that would constitute awful advice if taken as divine instruction. People do NOT go to hell for believing in the wrong religion. Religion – ALL religion, is at it’s core a metaphor for a metaphysical reality. It is probably inevitable that people at some stage will seize upon the exoteric details as paramount. The exoteric details are DIFFERENT, and hence allow us as religious people to reinforce our collective religious ego – by regarding anyone who has different exoteric details as the enemy. But they aren’t the enemy. At the esoteric core, their religion is saying the same thing as ours is – because there is only ONE metaphysical reality. The only difference is in detail and emphasis.

And understanding that metaphysical reality is the only thing that can really save us from our egos. The article is a perfect case in point that even atheism doesn’t get around the ego and it’s need to find (and fight) enemies.

Yes, that’s basically the assertion Harris dismissed as “myth #1”. So I urge an investigation. Look at the lives and work of people thoroughly committed to tolerance, love, and the mystical path, and ask if they are not a contribution to the well-being of the planet.

Anger and intolerance are the twin enemies of correct understanding — Mahatma Gandhi

Difference of opinion is helpful in religion. – Thomas Jefferson

In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher. – The Dali Lama

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there – Rumi

On the State of Israel in God’s Eyes

The following message was posted on a religious discussion board I visit:

 

 >>Why are we trying to help Israel's enemies by trying to get a cease-fire and suppling Lebanon with red cross supplies and help. This is Israel's enemy. The land of Lebanon is land that was given to Israel anyway. 

>>The Lord said to Abraham in Gen. 12:3—- "I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. 


It has been felt by a number of Christians that the state of Israel is a fulfillment of God's promises; that it is established by God, and that we are under a moral obligation to support Israel no matter what Israel does. I wanted to make a few observations on this view: 

How was Israel Created

 First of all, the creation of the state of Israel was on the order of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was conceived by religious Jews, who wanted to see the prophecy fulfilled, and supported by influential Christians who also believed the prophecies applied to the Jews and wanted to see them fulfilled. Luckily, it happened to coincide with the purposes of England, which realized that a Jewish state in Palestine would further their aims in the region. 

But does this self-fulfilling and politically motivated restoration of Israel really fulfill prophecy? Let’s examine a few of these scriptural prophecies in more detail:

 

Prophecies of the Restoration of Israel

 “And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath driven thee, And shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; That then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee.” (De 30:1-3 AV) 

This is one of the earliest, from Deuteronomy. God promises to restore Israel from all the nations where they have been scattered. But notice the conditions. This only happens when all the people of Israel return to the Lord and obey his voice with their whole heart and soul.

 

Let’s take a few more prophecies.

 “And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there: And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isa 35:8-10 AV) 

Notice again, those who return to Israel are pure, clean, redeemed and come singing and praising. In fact, no wicked person can enter.

 “For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.” (Eze 36:24-28 AV) 

Once again, the return of Israel to their own land is to be accompanied directly by a total spiritual renewal.

 

There are many similar examples. In nearly every case, prophecy of the return of Israel to their land is accompanied by, or even preceded by,  a tremendous national spiritual renewal, so that all nations will know that God is blessing Israel because of their faith in him. In fact, the mechanics of the restoration of Israel were largely secular and quite violent. Much of what went on in the early days of settlement had disturbing similarities to some of the terrorist violence that occurs now (except also perpetrated by Israeli settlers).  The state of Israel is not a particularly religious nation. In fact, it's unusually NON-religious. 54% of Israelis identify themselves as secular or non-religious. 15-37% of Israelis positively identify themselves as agnostic or atheist. Israel is #19 in the list of the top atheistic countries on the planet. By contrast, less than 3% of the people in Lebanon are atheists, and less than 1% of the Middle East in general. (http://www.pitzer.edu/academics/faculty/zuckerman/atheism.html)

 

There are other aspects of the prophecies that are similarly bad fits. Most of them, for example, also predict the return of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Ephraim. But alas, the lost tribes are still lost, and show no signs of returning.

 

What, then, of the fulfillment of these prophecies?

 

The True Meaning of Israel

 

I believe we can make a strong, compelling case that the ancient prophecies regarding Israel are to be understood by Christians only as spiritual metaphors, which apply to God’s Kingdom as taught by Jesus. Each individual member of the human race is fallen and scattered until brought back and restored to the promised Kingdom of God by grace. Consider the following scriptures in that light:

 “And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I say unto you, That none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper.” (Lu 14:23-24 AV) This is generally understood as applying to the rejection of Israel in the gospel kingdom in favor of the Gentiles. “Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” (Mt 21:42-43 AV) 

Same sentiment.

 “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” (Ro 2:28-29 AV) Paul confirms that in Christianity, it is inner grace and not racial ancestry which brings one into the spiritual convenant. “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect:” (Ro 4:13-14 AV) Paul clearly states that the promises of Abraham are to those who have faith, including Gentiles – and are NOT promises to one racial group or to the Jews in general.

.

Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ …For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Ga 3:16, 27-29 AV) 

Notice Paul’s argument. The promise is not to Abraham’s SEEDS (the Jews) but to Abraham’s SEED (Jesus). We are partakers of the promise because we are make one with Jesus – and in this “putting on” Jews are at no special advantage.

 

Application to the Secular Israel

 

The creation of the state of Israel, then, is not a fulfillment of a prophecy. It is an act of politics and statecraft. Secular Israel is not specially favored by God, and there are no curses in store for us if we criticize some of Israel’s actions or send humanitarian aid to the victims of war. Israel does not have divine sanction for some kind of double-standard. It ought to be as morally bound by decency and the common standards of humanity – as expressed in international laws and agreements – as any other country.

 

It is particularly upsetting to see Christians in America giving blanket approval to Israel when its attacks kill civilians in Palestine and Lebanon – two of the areas with the highest proportion of Christians in the area. The Greek Orthodox Churches in the area have spoken strongly against Israel’s actions – and the patriarch himself has on at least one occasion been hauled off for interrogation by Israel because of his stand for the human rights of Palestinians. Christians as well as Muslims are being systematically expelled from Jerusalem through the vehicle of denying them the permits required to live there.

 

What Would Jesus REALLY Do?

 

I find it especially chilling, however, that the poster of the message above threatens us with divine wrath simply for providing medical aid. It’s time to look down at your designer WWJD jewelry and ask what Jesus would do if approached by his traditional enemies for help. How did he treat Romans, for example, or Samaritans? What did he instruct us?

 “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mt 5:38-39 AV) “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Mt 5:43-48 AV) Understand what Jesus is saying here. He clearly understands that some scriptures in the Old Testament tell people to exact stern justice and be ferocious with our enemies, and he is SPECIFICALLY CONTRADICTING that. His followers are no longer to behave like the marauding warriors and imperial conquerors of the age of the judges and the kings. We are NO LONGER TO LOOK TO THE OLD TESTAMENT as the final standard for how to treat each other. The New Covenant is upon us.  And in the New Covenant, there is neither Jew nor Greek, Israeli or Arab. There is only Christ.

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