Harris vs. The Unitarians: an end of faith or merely a new self-deception?

Thanks to angliss for calling my attention to a sermon entitled “The End of Faith”, delivered by Peter Morales, Senior Minister at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado, on January 7.

Brian and I have been talking lately about Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith. Brian hasn’t read it yet, and I’m doing a sub-par job of effectively summarizing the thesis of the book. I’m not proselytizing for Harris, exactly, but it is a book that makes a compelling argument. While I have issues with some of his reasoning, he nonetheless forced me to confront some of the games I have been playing in my own head with the concepts of faith and religion in the world today. I’m still trying to sort some things out, but in the meantime I think it’s a book a lot of people should read. I make no predictions or prescriptions here – believe what you will, but read the book, and do so in good faith. (Of course, Harris begins cultivating resistance in the first few syllables, so it’s not surprise that a lot of people begin arguing with him – and me – before they actually take in the full measure of what they’re arguing with.)

So, to the sermon. Morales understandably feels both compelled and challenged by Harris’ thesis, and in this sermon he sets about rebutting (and discrediting) Harris. Frankly, it’s an odd read. Specifically, it’s the sort of odd read you get when somebody is wrestling with the issue inside but resolving the cognitive dissonance outwardly. At least I think that’s what it is.

Let’s examine, shall we?

The sermon is absolutely fascinating in a lot of ways. For starters, I think Harris would agree with about 90% of the set-up. (Let me apologize in advance if I’m speaking for Harris too much. But I read the book, have thought a lot about it, and Harris isn’t here to defend himself. If anybody else has read the book and would like to adjust my take, feel free.) And Morales – whether he admits it or not – agrees with a good 99% of what Harris is saying.

But that other 1% creates a lot of artificial difficulty. The problem is that Morales seems to feel obligated to argue, and in doing so takes some liberties with Harris’ premise. For instance:

The trouble with Harris and with people like him is that the distinction between “bad” faith and “good” reason is hardly objective. “Faith” tends to include those beliefs that Harris finds objectionable and “reason” are beliefs with which he agrees.

This is almost Rovian in its duplicity. Harris wanders into some terrain he’d be better off avoiding later on in the book, to be sure, but in his analysis of the tenets of faith and their impact on the world there’s nothing remotely fuzzy about what gets characterized where. Morales was doing pretty well until he got here, and at this point I begin to see the strain that Harris puts on the reader – what you know to be factually true and what you feel a need to cling to begin coming into conflict in uneasy ways, and cognitive dissonance insists that you resolve it somehow. Sadly, we tend to make the wrong call more often than not.

The trouble is, “reasonable” beliefs (like scientific propositions) that can be empirically tested don’t help us much with life’s big issues. Harris believes that science can answer the fundamental human questions of good, evil and spirituality. He devotes an entire chapter to the science of good and evil. It is, in my opinion, a pitiful, poorly argued and meandering essay that comes perilously close to saying that what makes us happy is good. Big whoop. This is not very helpful or very profound. And what do we do when what makes me happy makes you unhappy?

Again, duplicity. What Harris actually says – and what Morales mischaracterizes – is that we need to cultivate a more scientifically sound ethics for our culture. He imports learning from neurology and wanders informally through some posits about how we get from here to there. He does not advance this think piece as a fully baked pie, as the minister suggests. He fully understands that he does not have the thesis nailed, and argues that we should be pursuing this path instead of wasting time on the failed and dysfunctional ethics we derive from Judeo-Christianity. In other words, he’s suggesting what the starting point of the journey might look like.

It’s a fairly grave rhetorical offense to pretend that a guy’s speculative question is actually a final prouncement (although it can certainly be an effective tactic if you get away with it). I don’t know whether Morales simply didn’t get it (and what I read makes me imagine that the cognitive dissonance is making it hard on him; I understand how this happens, although it doesn’t excuse the mistake on the part of an educated man) or whether he’s engaging in a more active propaganda contest. Since I don’t know Morales and have no reason to think him dishonest, I’m assuming it’s the former. But if it turned out to be the latter, he’d guilty of a sort of intellectual dishonesty that would destroy his credibility in the eyes of any honest seeker of truth. Which would be a shame, given how well this piece started.

For anyone to believe that science and reason are going to create an intellectually compelling and emotionally satisfying vision of what in life is good is a leap of faith just as delusional as believing that the rapture is coming next week. Science and reason are not going to tell us the meaning of life.

Straw man. Once you read the section in question, you might not agree with Harris, but you’ll be disappointed in the two-step Morales is doing with his congregation.

On the other hand, we have those who see the evils inherent in such beliefs and call for and end of faith. But what do they give us in its place? They give us a vision of reason and happiness that is too cold, too erudite, too elitist, too individualistic and too hedonistic.

And here he’s almost back on track. Almost, but not quite. I imagine Harris would agree with this completely, especially since he never for a freakin’ second comes down in favor of anything remotely hedonistic. On the contrary, his whole posit emphasizes the need to act out of social concern and connectedness – in other words, the very opposite of hedonism.

Interesting, then, that if you haven’t read the book and have only heard the sermon you now believe Harris is advocating godless hedonism as a fair alternative to faith.

We need a better way. We need both an end of faith and the rebirth of faith. We need an end of faith that thinks that religion is about believing in the supernatural and in a god who directs one group of people to kill another group. We need an end of faith that advocates violence and nurtures ignorance. We need an end of faith that asks people to sacrifice in this life in order to be rewarded in the next one. We desperately need the end of this kind of faith.

Yet we just as desperately need the birth of a new kind of faith. We need a new alternative for people who seek depth, spirituality, meaning and purpose in their lives.

I imagine Harris would be fine with this in principle. But he argues – I think compellingly – that we’re dominated by a faith that by design makes this impossible. Earlier on Morales dismisses Harris for presenting us with a proposition that’s simply not going to happen – establishing plausibility as an important tool for evaluating propositions – and now he presents a vision that’s…simply not going to happen. Charming.

We need a faith that is both new and old. We need beliefs and a spiritual orientation that build on all the best things religious traditions have given humanity. We need a faith that builds upon the great teachings about compassion, community and commitment that lie at the core of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. We need also to retain the wisdom all these traditions contain about the power of religious practice. Every tradition emphasizes the value of reflection, whether it takes the form of prayer or meditation. Every tradition teaches the importance of new awareness and the power of love. Any faith we would make our own has to draw upon the past. To simply dismiss all of the past is to be both blind and arrogant.

A paragraph Harris could have written himself. He acknowledges the wisdom of these religions throughout and likewise acknowledges that tremendous good has been done by their adherents.

Sadly, Morales sidesteps an important point here – that nothing positive that has ever been done in the name of religion required religion for its execution. That is, whatever good you can do in the name of whatever god you worship you can also do without that religious impulse (a fact that’s borne out by all the good that’s been done for reasons other than faith).

I’d encourage everybody in that congregation to read the book. What Morales is advocating is just fine – while he and Harris would disagree on a few points here and there, the major, core issues about what’s wrong and where we need to arrive they’d agree on pretty significantly. And the reason is a bit ironic – Morales’ destination is a place of faith, but it is not a place of Christian, Jewish or Islamic faith. It’s a faith that falls necessarily outside any vision of those traditions that’s remotely in line with their holy texts.

But the mandates that come with the established faiths represent absolute barriers to the sort of faith that the minister is calling for. He owes it to himself and to his congregation to come clean about the confounds Harris articulates. Until he does, he’s doing little more than providing ammunition for what Harris has to say about religious moderates.



3 thoughts on “Harris vs. The Unitarians: an end of faith or merely a new self-deception?

  1. YaKnow, I think we have Harris’ book around here someplace. You’re making me actually half-interested in reading it to see what he has to say.
    Me, I don’t bother with religion. I’ve found that all of the justifications for religion either, (A) Assume that all humans are, inherently, sociopaths, and need religion to keep them in line; or (B) Are a way to force people to be self-reflective because they’r either too stupid or chicken-s**t to do it on their own.
    Now, I’ve had my share of “experiences” that tell me that there’s more goin’ on that what can be repeatably observed. However, I stand by my earlier statements, above.

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