Three Cheers for Stephen Crittenden: "Defender of the Faith"!

No, I’m not being silly or sarcastic. I really mean it this time. Here is a snatch or two from Crittenden’s interview with American evangelical-atheist Sam Harris on ABC Radio National’s “Religion Report” before Christmas:

Harris: I mean either the Bible and the Qur’an are ordinary books written by human beings, or they are magic books. And if they’re magic books, they deserve to be taken very seriously, and when you take them very seriously, you don’t wind up with a moderate form of religion, you wind up with something very committed and very mediaeval, because the books themselves are essentially Iron Age philosophy, and they really are at odds with modernity and at odds with our scientific understanding of the world.

Stephen Crittenden: A great portion of the– certainly of Jews and Christians, don’t believe the Bible is a magic book in the way that you’re describing it, but they still believe the Bible should be treated seriously.

Sam Harris: Well that’s the thing that I think is in some sense dishonest. The moment you admit that it’s not a magic book, but simply a book, then the legitimacy of raising children to believe that they’re Christians or Muslims or Jews, the legitimacy of founding a tradition that is narrowly focused on this one book to the exclusion really of all other books, all of that erodes, and it makes no sense to – if the Bible is merely –

Stephen Crittenden: It’s also not an accurate picture of Rabbinical Judaism and it’s not an accurate picture of normative Christianity, it’s a kind of Tammy Faye Baker view of Christianity maybe, but Pope Benedict XVI is not someone who lives in a world where all other books except the Bible have been excluded. Jewish tradition is not limited just to the Old Testament.

And a bit later on:

Stephen Crittenden: Sam, you’re particularly, and in this interview you’ve been several times, particularly scornful of religious moderates, who you say betray both faith and reason equally. Now I’m not sure that I quite follow your argument. Explain what you mean.

Sam Harris: Well, admittedly, it’s slightly paradoxical, because to speak specifically of the Muslim world for a moment, what we really do need are more moderates. I will be the first to admit that we need Muslim moderates. We’re not going to create 1.4-billion Muslim atheists, or even secularists, necessarily.

Stephen Crittenden: But you do seem to be saying all religion is psychotic, Osama bin Laden is psychotic, therefore if I’m not behaving like Osama bin Laden, somehow I’m betraying my religion. It almost seems like you’re placing excessive demands on people to behave in a way that will fit your theory.

And later still:

Sam Harris: And so what I’m saying to moderates is, Let’s say you don’t believe any of these things, and you just think that the Bible is filled with inspiring poetry, you have to recognise that the status quo which you are supporting by your non-criticism, and by your indulgence of your tradition, the status quo in which generation after generation we raise our children to believe that there’s some important difference between them and other people on the basis of religion, on the basis of which book their ancestors worshipped as a magic book, that is perpetuating conflict in a world that is now brimming with destructive technology, and we have to just take an honest look at the ramifications of these beliefs.

Stephen Crittenden: You just mentioned the word ‘poetry’. I wonder whether the problem with some of you atheists [my emphasis – Schutz] is that you treat religion as a series of scientific facts that can be proved or disproved, when it is in fact more like poetry, that you don’t have much of a feel for the cultural aspects of religion; you’re the kind of people whose response to the tale of King Arthur is to go out and try and find the archaeological remains of Camelot?

Sam Harris: Well, see again, the reality is that every one of our great religions, great in the sense of having many subscribers, is making specific claims about the way the world is. Take Christianity. Christianity, while there’s a lot of poetry in there, and while there are things that can be read in a rather non–

Stephen Crittenden: That’s not really my point. My point is that it can’t just be whittled down to a few propositions that can be proved or disproved.

Now all that might not sound like strong stuff, but for those of us who listen to the Stephen Crittenden Show every week, that is a comparitively robust defence of faith (especially Jewish and Christian faith–note the reference to the Pope). As Stephen intimated during his interview, he was going to get a lot of reaction to Harris’ stupid suggestion that religion is about “magical” books and about whose book is the real “magic” book. Harris is nowhere near as strident as Richard Dawkins, but both share an intolerable ignorance about their chosen foe, ie. Religion. And one sometimes wonders about their own supposed field of expertise: scientific reason. Afterall, neither of them seems to have taken much time to actually study the object of their vilification.

Just so you get the picture, here is Harris’s refutation of Crittenden’s suggestion that Pope Benedict is a man of reason:

Sam Harris: …and if you’re going to invoke the Pope as a beacon of reasonableness, he is somebody who apparently at every opportunity is willing to subvert what I would call reason in the favour of religious dogmatism. He and his agents still preach the sinfulness of condom use throughout the world and even in places like sub-Saharan Africa where millions of people die each year from AIDS. I mean these are not ideologies that are responsive to a truly open-ended and non-dogmatic discussion about human interest. And so the problem I have with religious faith is not the spiritual experiences of human beings, or the ethical intuitions of human beings, the problem with faith is that it is the permission religious people, of whatever commitment, give one another to believe things strongly for bad reasons.

Unfortunately, Harris hasn’t taken the time to learn the reasons why the Church has taken this particular dogmatic stance. Apparently he thinks that the prohibition of condoms is something that is found in our “magic book”, rather than a rational “discussion about human interest”. I am beginning to think that somewhere the atheists must have their own “magic book” which they are keeping quiet about. It must be a very short book, because it only has two commandments: Commandment one: “thou shalt use contraception”, and commandment two: “thou shalt not question commandment one”. Any found breaking either commandment is summarily dealt with as irrational or hypocritical or genicidal or all three.

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One Response to Three Cheers for Stephen Crittenden: "Defender of the Faith"!

  1. LYL says:

    I am beginning to think that somewhere the atheists must have their own “magic book” which they are keeping quiet about. It must be a very short book, because it only has two commandments: Commandment one: “thou shalt use contraception”, and commandment two: “thou shalt not question commandment one”.

    You are spot on there, David! And I thought Crittenden was asking some really good questions there. Good on him!

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