Sam Harris v. Karen Armstrong on Religion

Near the end of last year, Karen Armstrong wrote a defense of religion for Foreign Policy in which she asked us to rethink some ideas about God:

So-called new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have denounced religious belief as not only retrograde but evil; they regard themselves as the vanguard of a campaign to expunge it from human consciousness. Religion, they claim, creates divisions, strife, and warfare; it imprisons women and brainwashes children; its doctrines are primitive, unscientific, and irrational, essentially the preserve of the unsophisticated and gullible.
These writers are wrong—not only about religion, but also about politics—because they are wrong about human nature. Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. … And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.

Now, Harris has responded, challenging her sympathetic depiction of religion:

Armstrong assures us that because religion has existed for millennia, it is here to stay. Of course, the same could be said about a preoccupation with witchcraft, which has also been a cultural universal. The belief in the curative powers of human flesh is still widespread in Africa, as it used to be in the West. It is said that “mummy paint” (a salve made from ground mummy parts) was applied to Lincoln’s wounds as he lay dying.
This is now good for a laugh. But in Kenya elderly men and women are still burned alive for casting malicious spells. In Angola, unlucky boys and girls have been blinded, injected with battery acid, and killed outright in an effort to purge them of demons. In Tanzania, there is a growing criminal trade in the body parts of albino human beings—as it is widely believed that their flesh has magical properties.
I hope that Armstrong will soon apply her capacious understanding of human nature to these phenomena. Then we will learn that though witchcraft has occasionally been entangled with political injustice, an “inadequate understanding” of demonology and sympathetic magic was really to blame.

Armstrong replies back (after Harris’ letter):

Religious traditions are highly complex and multifarious. Like art, religion is difficult to do well and is often done badly; like sex, it is often tragically abused. I hold no brief for witchcraft or the superstitious trading of body parts. Like many religious people, I do not believe in demons. I abhor violence of any kind, be it verbal or physical, religious or secular.
I have written at length about the desecration of religion in the crusades, inquisitions, and persecutions that have scarred human history. I have also pointed out that, driven by political humiliation and alienation, far too many Muslims have in recent years distorted the traditional Islamic view of jihad, which originally referred to the “effort” required to implement the will of God in a violent world.
But these abuses do not constitute the whole story. Religion is also about the quest for transcendence, the discipline of compassion, and the endless search for meaning; it was not designed to provide us with the same kind of explanations as science, but to help us to live creatively, serenely, and kindly with the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition. As such, it continues to appeal to millions of human beings across the globe. To identify religion with its worst manifestations, claim that they represent the whole, and then demolish the straw dog thus set up does not seem a rational or useful way of conducting this important debate.

Category: Debates


2 Responses

  1. V. V. Raman says:

    As often happens when two intelligent people debate both are right from their respective understandings/convictions/definitions of the issue they are debating, each impervious to the other’s perspective.

    To Sam Harris the word religion evokes witchcraft, cannibalism, superstition and such. It cannot be denied that these have been aspects of religion in the past, and still are so in many contexts.

    To Armstrong, “religion is also about the quest for transcendence, the discipline of compassion, and the endless search for meaning; … to help us to live creatively, serenely, and kindly with the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition.”

    She wisely rejects explicitly those aspects of religion which Harris emphasizes, and (I trust) the latter will be sympathetic to those features and goals of religion which Armstrong mentions.

    Then why the difference and why the debate?

    This, I contend, is because the ugly sides of religion have dominated humanity for much too long, and its finer and ennobling dimensions can be incorporated into human life and culture without the heavy doses of deadweight that still deface many religions.

    Perhaps the New Atheists and the New Religionists should be spending more of their time and energy in salvaging whatever is good and noble in our religious traditions and reject all that is anachronistic, unconscionable, and muddled in religious frameworks

    They should join hands to formulate a new pan-human religious framework which will be meaningful to the masses, which will foster caring and compassion, and which will make us aware of dimensions beyond consuming, purging, and propagating. But this will not be possible as long as those who are ardently affiliated to traditional religions refuse to acknowledge the negative and hurtful dimensions of their religions (or are unable to do so), and the awakened folks are incapable of seeing anything good in humanity’s religious heritage and sensitivity.

    V. V. Raman
    Author of:
    “Truth and Tension in Science and Religion.”

  2. Ed says:

    So, what are you saying, Raman. Armstrong and Harris should now join hands with all the mostly religious people who now agree to deny their ritual and dogma in the spirit of hope. That’s not realistic. Get religious people to tone it down a bit? Get religious people to dump their gods altogether? Get Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris to let up on the children of Abraham. Nope, again. Gawd! I can tell you for a fact that life ends at death. Nothing follows. Make the most of it while you can. There’s no such thing as Brownie points in heaven–no such thing. Your friends, family, community, nation and world need you to be thoughtful, compassionate, productive and generous. Fulfilling these needs is the reward, worth pure gold and diamonds, and more likely and possible than 70 virgins to pick from. That’s really a story.

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