New Atheism – led by scientists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and others – is deeply critical of religious teaching and practice. Harris says in support of his book The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2011), “Religious ideas about good and evil tend to focus on how to achieve well-being in the next life, and this makes them terrible guides to securing it in this one.” He and others posit science as a better way to determine worthy human morals and values.
Harris is right to criticize religious understandings that place oversized emphases on an afterlife at the expense of present day concerns – consider the 9/11 terrorists and the supposed promise of virgins awaiting them in paradise, a tragic blend of hate and misogyny inspiring them to act in this world. Harris is also right to look to science to determine better ways for humans to know, think, and interact – making the world a better place now and in the future.
But, before we get too excited about its promoted versatility: science will never solve all of our problems. The human family yet needs good religion. Getting rid of religion, as advocated by Harris and Dawkins, would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Additionally, it increases the risk of making science something it is not – a religion.
Consider, for example, forgiveness. Science can teach us about the benefits of forgiveness, but it can’t teach us how to put it into practice. That’s what religion does. Furthermore, religion and science working together help define and categorize different types of forgiveness, a mutual enhancement that makes the world a better place. People who practice forgiveness tend to have lower blood pressure, live with less stress and anxiety, and understand thou shalt not kill as a good guide to navigate relationships with other human beings in this present world. Forgiveness incorporated rejects the option of vengeance. All of these are enhancements to the health and well-being of the whole human family.
The word religion, from the Latin religio, means to fasten, bind, or reconnect. There is no question that religions are human constructions, and consequently not perfect. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, forgiveness is central to their religious understandings for life in this world. Forgiveness – ritualistically part of all three systems – reconnects adherents with the Divine and binds adherents to one another in this life. Human beings created religions, in part, to help forge community ties. Forgiveness enhances and binds those relational ties, from birth to death.
The story of Joseph, son of Jacob, is shared by the three monotheistic religions. Dreamer of stars and moons, Joseph, the younger offspring and favorite of his father, is sold into slavery by his jealous and envious older brothers. Only later, when the brothers and their families are suffering from hunger and famine, do they unknowingly face their long lost brother Joseph. They are in a most desperate situation, physically and emotionally. Joseph, now powerful and holding in his hands the fate of his brothers and “their little ones,” has the option to choose vengeance upon his brothers for having sold him into slavery so many years earlier. He instead chooses forgiveness – and family reunion.
Of course, religion has been misused through the ages. It has caused great and painful suffering, even to our present day. But it has also taught humans to love one another, to accept one another, and to forgive one another. Religion, like anything else worthy of human attention and endeavor, needs to be continually reformed in order to be better. The old story of Joseph and his brothers has the unique ability to instruct and reform the current and future human family; forgiveness is an essential element for the very survival of humanity.
British writer Bryan Appleyard critiques thinkers who endow science with the ability to give a “final and full account of the world.” Harris and Dawkins have legitimate critiques of religion and some of its practices, but ultimately they advocate science as the one and only true way – essentially, a new religion. This type of thinking is categorically fundamentalist – a type of thinking that usually is not beneficial to the health and well-being of the human family. Atheism is a belief system just as much as any religion can be. True wisdom understands the world to be a big place, large enough for the scientific theories that explain the essence of stars and moons and large enough for the religious systems that bind us together as people who practice virtues like forgiveness.
These blog posts are representative of my work in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. The book is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.