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Does tolerance disarm religious liberals?

The author of 'The End of Faith' has good news and bad news for Unitarian Universalists.
By Warren R. Ross
Fall 2006 8.15.06

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In his best-selling book, The End of Faith, Sam Harris takes a dim view of the consequences of religious belief. “As long as it is acceptable for a person to believe that he knows how God wants everyone on earth to live,” he writes, “we will continue to murder one another on account of our myths.”

If Harris had limited himself to demonstrating how the faith of some Muslims has led to suicide bombings, beheadings, and the mass murders at the World Trade Center, his thesis would not be terribly controversial in the United States. But his critique of religious faith is much broader—and hits much closer to home.

“It is time we recognized,” he writes, “that all reasonable men and women have a common enemy. It is an enemy so near to us, and so deceptive, that we keep its counsel even as it threatens to destroy the very possibility of human happiness. Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself.” Yet, he goes on, “it remains taboo to criticize religious faith in our society, or even observe that some religions are less compassionate and less tolerant than others. What is worst in us (outright delusion) has been elevated beyond the reach of criticism, while what is best (reason and intellectual honesty) must remain hidden for fear of giving offense.”

Harris points with alarm to the influence of the Christian Right in the United States. Christian Reconstructionists—one of the scarier of the radical Right religious factions, which teaches that homosexuals should be put to death—can pick up the phone and talk to Karl Rove at the White House. But the nation’s slide toward theocracy is not solely the fault of the fanatics, Harris maintains. Religious moderates, blinded by their very moderation, share in the blame. “When was the last time that someone was criticized for not ‘respecting’ another person’s unfounded beliefs about physics or history?” he asks. “The same rules should apply to ethical, spiritual, and religious beliefs as well.”

Up to this point, Unitarian Universalists reading his book might be inclined to cheer. After all, historian Earl Morse Wilbur identified reason, freedom, and tolerance as the core values of the Unitarian tradition—and we stopped citing this historic triad not because we became intolerant, but because we felt that tolerance didn’t go far enough. It smacked of condescension, it became fashionable to say: We should not just tolerate other faiths, but treat them with respect. Harris thinks that’s not only wrong, but dangerous.

Does Harris’s criticism extend to Unitarian Universalism? Since he doesn’t mention our denomination in his book, I called him to find out. His initial response was comforting. “If I could wave a magic wand and make everyone a Unitarian Universalist,” he began, “I’d be tempted to do so, because I doubt that people would then fly planes into buildings, blow up children at street corners, or bend U.S. foreign policy to conform with biblical prophecy.”

He also acknowledges that on a purely pragmatic basis our being part of what is loosely called the faith community may be a strength, since “to the extent that UUs are extending a universal respect to all of the diverse faiths, you may be able to take part in the [interfaith] dialogue.” However, he adds, “we can talk about ethics and spirituality without ever referencing our ancient faith-based traditions. We have to grow out of the religion business and talk about what is true ethically and spiritually.” To do less is “morally and intellectually suspect.”

As for the common UU notion that all faiths share an ethical core, he says: “Religious liberals tend to believe . . . that if only you consulted the holy books more closely, if you read the Qur’an or the Bible as they should be read, that you would come out with a moderate theology. They believe that people like Osama bin Laden and Pat Robertson have distorted their respective religions. I don’t think there is a shred of evidence for that.”

“Insofar as you’re reluctant to criticize irrationality and sectarianism,” he adds, “you’re not offering what wisdom and rationality you could offer. No one is winning any points for holding their tongue, and to the extent that you are reluctant to offer a religious counterpoint, you are conceding the field to the dogmatists. Your position is that all religious traditions can be seen in a universalist light, that we should emphasize the common virtues of peace and justice and fair play. But there is a limit to that kind of discourse because there are beliefs that lead people to blow themselves up in public and those that don’t, and that distinction is becoming extraordinarily relevant.”

So much for Thomas Jefferson’s culling of the New Testament for the bits he liked; so much for the common display in UU churches of the symbols of major religions in a syncretizing search for truth. Harris also rules out the “comforting notion” that the intolerance of others poses no threat. The only reason people who believe in the inerrancy of their respective holy books no longer kill heretics is that they are restrained by civil law—at least in our society: In some countries, he points out, Muslims still do. Short of killing, religious dogmatists in our society are still intent on silencing those who disagree with them.

“Certainty about the next life is incompatible with tolerance in this one,” he writes, and those of us who wish to practice tolerance have disarmed ourselves by accepting the taboo that it is impolite to criticize another person’s faith. “When your enemy has no scruples,” Harris sums up, “your own scruples become another weapon in his hand.” This is the painful challenge with which Harris confronts religious liberals: Self-censorship silences us as effectively as would government censorship.

Is Harris right? One of the proudest moments in our denominational history came in 1568 when the Hungarian Unitarian Francis Dàvid stood up at the Diet of Torda and successfully pleaded with King John Sigismund of Transylvania to proclaim religious tolerance in his kingdom. In the rest of Europe anyone professing to be a Protestant under a Catholic ruler or a Catholic under a Protestant prince was at risk of being put to death. And if you were a freethinker, as Michael Servetus found out in 1553, both sides happily cooperated in burning you at the stake.

So now, as freedom, reason, and tolerance are all under siege in our society, does self-preservation require religious liberals to abandon our commitment to religious tolerance?

The Rev. Dr. William R. Murry, a leading Unitarian Universalist minister and former president of Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago, says: “I get a little impatient with the concept that we should tolerate all religions because people are entitled to their own beliefs. If a religion is based on ignorance and irrationality and totalitarianism, there is no need to stand aside and pretend that that’s OK. What I would say about tolerance is that we cannot tolerate intolerance.” No wonder Murry considers The End of Faith in many ways a great book that should be widely read. “I hope it starts a nationwide conversation,” he says.

After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast last year, the Rev. Bruce Southworth preached a sermon to the Community Church of New York City about the challenges of tolerance. He quoted Voltaire—“If you believe in absurdities, you wind up committing atrocities”—and pointed to the shocking comments of the Rev. Bill Shanks, a New Orleans pastor, who exulted after the catastrophic storm that the city was “now both abortion-free and Mardi Gras–free.”

“It is my conviction,” Southworth said, “that we are free, each of us, to believe what we choose, you, me, Rev. Shanks . . . yet dangers lurk because I fear that there is a good measure of truth in the words of Voltaire.”

I asked Southworth about Harris’s charge that promoting religious tolerance disarms moderate and liberal religious people. Not necessarily, he replied. For example, the early Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing promoted tolerance and criticized Trinitarianism. Today, Southworth acknowledges, Channing’s criticism of “orthodoxy” might not be considered polite or acceptable; indeed, “some of us may [indulge] in a sort of wishy-washy, anything-goes tolerance.” Tolerance should extend as broadly as possible to what people believe, he suggested, but not necessarily to the actions that spring from those beliefs. “There are some beliefs that we can barely tolerate, yet need to tolerate because of the complexities of the rights of society—as long as they are not turned into action.”

The Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, disagrees with Harris. To do anything other than respect the beliefs of others, even those who challenge ours, even those who challenge our right to exist, he says, would “violate our religious principles so deeply that it’s simply not an option. We have to remain as we are as a religious people. The least helpful kind of discourse is one which tries to prove who is right theologically.”

Pointing out that we live in a highly pluralistic society with many sources of religious authority, he expresses the hope that “we can begin moving toward a way of being religious people, which doesn’t mean striving to be right, but which understands that the pluralism within which we live could enrich all of us.”

Sinkford came into office in 2001 determined that the UUA should participate more visibly in the public square. He has had some success in promoting marriage equality—a view widely shared by Unitarian Universalists—framing civil marriage rights for same-sex couples not as a political issue but as a moral one. The language he uses, he explains, is not to be in a fight with the Christian Right, but “to make sure that there’s a sufficient liberal religious voice in the debate so that the discourse can be balanced.” If we are not heard, the discourse is incomplete and the danger is that the broad population will think that the fundamentalist voice is the only religious voice. He concedes we may be partly at fault, because “clearly the voice of the religious right has been enabled by our willingness to be silent for so long.”

Sinkford’s position seems to support what Harris calls liberal religion’s advantage in challenging the media dominance of the Christian Right because we can speak from a religious perspective. But Harris also says that “to invoke God is no more rational than invoking Zeus,” and while Unitarian Universalists may have a more benign view of religious faith, ultimately, he maintains, “we have to get away from religious faith by calling a spade a spade and a myth a myth.”

The End of Faith joins the rising chorus of voices defending America’s secular and rational traditions. It also helps force us religious liberals to confront the accusation that in the name of tolerance we have permitted the militant dogmatists to dominate the religious discourse. It challenges us to consider that we may have confused tolerance with relativism and substituted sentimentality and wishful thinking for intellectual rigor.

We may not all agree on the answers to Harris’s challenge, but in the words of President Sinkford, we are firm in a commitment “to stay present to the need for our liberal voice to be heard.”


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