In Defense of Religion

by Peter Gray | 11/20/06 6:00am

Religion has a burden to bear these days. Everyone from Zach Hyatt '09 ("The World, Weighed and Measured," Oct. 12) to Elton John to Sam Harris asks, "Is God worth it?" "Religion" is fingered as the root cause of three destructive forces: Islamic terrorism, bungled American foreign policy, and an exclusive vision of social morality. Islamic radicals threaten the world's social fabric; the Evangelicals lent spiritual legitimacy to short-sighted American military responses. They want gays to cast out the causal demons within them. Given this susceptibility to irrationally violent interpretations of its own objectives, the arguments call into question the whole religious sphere of life.

Some ghastly interpretations have sprouted from the tree of religion, some of which are, admittedly, rooted in sacred text. While an understandable response to this terrifying threat, it is an inaccurate and dangerous argument to broaden the indictment to all religious tradition.

While the extreme interpretations stem from the same traditions, the argument fails to take in good faith the professions of many religious communities that they are in an entirely different spiritual realm. To lose this partnership would spell an unimaginable escalation: to put those moderate voices in a state of identity paranoia, compelled to either painfully prove their "innocence," or to rush to the arms of their radical counterparts. Imagine trying to find insurgents without the help of thousands of devout Iraqis who believe that to be a good Muslim is nothing more than to raise a family well, work hard and treat others with respect. Now more than ever, those masses of believers without an aggressive political agenda need to feel represented by their governments and societies.

Religion gives more meaning to human beings than any other institution -- I am amazed at the coldness with which these commentators dismiss this fact. A majority of the nameless masses of people on this earth have their lives infused with a sense of purpose, the absence of which would dwarf any current threat to society. These commentators base their argument on a ghastly nightmare of a world where radical elements are given greater reign than they already possess. What about a world in which human beings lose their much-needed meaning or have it taken away from them? A more decadent degree of anarchic gore comes to mind.

Inherent in these invectives is a desire for intolerance to be imposed upon religious belief, something that Harris freely admits. In his case he presents this as a necessary step, but stresses that it would steer clear of legal enforcement. He presents a "conversational intolerance" as the specific brand of poison: a forcibly-engaged dialogue, starting with a clean slate and the foundations of proof.

This line of argument does not take into account the intrinsically different set of attributes and demands of the religious outlook. The mere existence of alternative viewpoints threatens religion's foundation, while science can confidently challenge a knave to a duel of evidence.

Yes, it's unfair. But the conversation isn't going to happen. A world view that has, by and large, canceled its pursuit of legitimizing proof over the last few centuries, cannot be debated in an arena that sets proof as its central currency for debate. Religion has an incredibly creative and impervious history of self-defense. What is a challenge to faith? The reaffirming response is groundless but impenetrable: a trial. In the face of conquerors, lions, and torture the faithful have found in this form of suffering a profound source of meaning: the forces of darkness are at the gate and God is watching, showering you with his love for your fealty. The one perspective rests on proof as its basic currency; the other finds its meaning where proof is completely absent. Make no mistake: radical perspectives need to be neutralized and essentially defeated. But any victories must come with strict delineation between the majority of the religionists living regular lives and those actively pursuing their agendas. Is it hard? Of course. Extreme views constantly dance behind legitimate fronts. Their inspiration is an absolute, an ultimate that those of a secular persuasion struggle to find. Any resolution will take the moderate voices of religion into partnership, celebrating common ground, real or imagined.

Some men will always be inspired by 'the holy hush of ancient sacrifice;' Let them, and perhaps try to see the strange beauty of this unique form of human expression. We must and we should.