For my Topics in the Philosophy of Religion (Philosophy 441) class, we have to write an informal, one page, reaction paper for each of the reading assignments.
Here is my first reaction paper for you to read and critique!
Sam Harris, in his New York Times Bestseller The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, argues that all faith-based religions “are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another.” In fact, Peter Singer, author of The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush –and who is notorious for his infanticidal beliefs—praised Harris’ book saying:
At last we have a book that focuses on the common thread that links Islamic terrorism with the irrationality of all religious faith. The End of Faith will challenge not only Muslims but Hindus, Jews, and Christians as well.
Well, while I do not doubt that Mr. Harris will launch direct attacks on Catholicism in the later chapters of his book, I still have not been challenged by his general attacks on religion, nor have I seen how Islamic terrorism and the Catholic Faith share a common thread that necessarily makes them irrational and violent in nature. It seems, however, that the “common thread” of which Mr. Singer speaks is nothing other than the so-called extreme religious faith. To be sure, both Muslims and Catholic Christians hold that faith is an integral part of their lives, but does faith necessarily make both of them violent and irrational as Harris seems to suggest? I think not! In fact, I think that one counterexample will suffice to demonstrate that religious faith –and even extreme religious faith—does not necessarily engender violence.
Let us take Mother Teresa of Calcutta as the counterexample. It seems to me that she fulfilled the sole requirement set forth by Mr. Harris to be considered a “religious extremist.” She had faith, extreme faith; according to the Vatican she was “small of stature, rocklike in faith.” She firmly believed in things that Mr. Harris would describe as “dangerous,” “foolish,” “unnecessary,” and “fantastical”; namely, she believed in such things as the one God, Jesus’ coming down from heaven and taking human flesh, and in Jesus’ eschatological parousia to judge the living and the dead. The germane question, then, is: did these beliefs make Mother Teresa a violent person? Or, was her rocklike faith an irrational threat to human survival? If we are impartial and honest with ourselves the answer is “certainly not.” Now, it is clear that Mother Teresa is one of the best examples who testify against Harris’ charge on religious faith, but she is by no means the only example. One need only do a simple Google search and read about the lives of 20th century men and women of faith like Maximilian Mary Kolbe (1894-1941), Dorothy Day (1897-1980), and Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901-1925), to find out just how much Harris errs in his general characterization of deeply religious people.
To finish up, it seems to me that Mr. Harris would have done a much better job if he dedicated the first three chapters of his book to at least some constructive criticism of “faith-based religion” rather than attacking it; unfortunately this seems very unlikely because he is firm in his irrational belief that “faith-based religion must . . . slide into obsolescence.”