Friday, August 12, 2005

Beyond Belief? (Theofascism, revisited)

Last Friday, I made mention of the Sam Harris book, The End of Faith, and described how the book is an attack on extremism in religious beliefs. In particular, I construed it as a critique of the major monotheisms of the world (hence my clever and not so charitable little word "theofascism.")

I had some pangs of remorse and/or guilt about that post as I thought further on the Buddhist Precepts, especially the sixth of the "10 Grave Precepts" as formulated by the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism:

"See the perfection; do not speak of others' errors and faults"

So really, I should not be criticizing the perceived errors of my neighbors, right? My perceptions might not be on the money, nor may Harris's. My apologies to anyone who I may have offended.

That said, I was nonetheless interested to see that Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei, MRO, a teacher in the Mountains and Rivers Order mentioned above, makes extensive use of Harris in an article that appears in the Spring Mountain Record, titled "Beyond Belief."

Shugen Sensei uses Harris with quite a bit more finesse than myself. (He's obviously actually read the book -- or significant parts of it -- whereas I have not!) Shugen connects what Harris has to say about belief to ideas about karma -- how we are responsible for the effects of thought, word and deed in the world. I quote "Beyond Belief" here:

"[Harris] says that belief, based on ideas, 'distinguishes itself from other states of mind, like hope, because it's a representation of the world that we accept as true. This is why beliefs are not merely private, because how we think the world is can't help but influence our behavior. If you really think it is true, down to your toes, that you can get to paradise by dying under the right circumstances, then you will be predisposed to die under those circumstances' -- even if it means killing others, and yourself in the process. This is the power of an idea, the power of belief." (emphasis added.)

Shugen Sensei brings to light the idea that beliefs are not private. This is a rather startling, even subversive, idea in our highly subjectivist, relativistic culture. Beliefs affect behavior, behavior affects others as well as oneself, and to the extent beliefs affect others, they are not private property. In other words, they are open to public critique. Yikes!

Shugen Sensei continues:

"When a belief is taken up with conviction and is not challenged, it has the potential to become a very dangerous idea. Harris shows how religious beliefs are held to a different standard -- a lesser standard -- than other, everyday kinds of beliefs."

This is the nub of Harris' argument, I think. Shugen Sensei suggests then that we should subject our religious and spiritual beliefs to higher standards of proof. This is by no means easy for any faith tradition. Beliefs about what happens after death are pretty thoroughly impervious to scientific verification. There is definitely a sort of pragmatism (yes, of the American variety) at work here, suggesting that we judge beliefs on their efficacy. But efficacy to do what?

We have not escaped from have some sort of basis for evaluating the effectiveness of beliefs. Let's say we value peace, the general happiness and well-being of people, non-violence and so forth. If we start with the belief that these sorts of things are good and desirable (a very reasonable place to start), then various other beliefs -- metaphysical beliefs, etc. -- can be judged on how well they promote this good.

Blanket condemnations of entire faith traditions are out of order, yet we still must be brave enough to criticize particular beliefs, or particular interpretations of religious tenets. In the wake of the London bombings, there is quite a bit more of this happening, and the tension between free speech and protecting the public is growing.

What do you think? Should a religious leader or clerical figure be allowed to preach ideas or beliefs that foster murderous activity? Intolerance? Prejudice?

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