God’s Incompatible Warriors

I’ve just finished watching the three installments of Christiane Amanpour’s CNN series “God’s Warriors,” and although I appreciated the information and the varied perspectives the series offered us, I ended up frustrated (though not surprised) that the most important question of all was never asked (or at least never aired), namely, “What makes you so sure that you are right in your beliefs and the guys in the other episodes are wrong?” Over and over her interviewees proclaimed their absolute conviction about what God wants of them, but they can’t all be right (and this applies not only across the three monotheisms that were her main topics but internally as well, as she met with Jews, Christians and Muslims who profess widely divergent views of the obligations and teachings of their own religions as well). Of course, the problem is that at bottom, their answers could only be of these three kinds:

  1. I’m absolutely sure I’m right because I have faith/belief; I feel it in my heart/soul.
  2. I’m absolutely sure I’m right because I was raised in these beliefs.
  3. I’m absolutely sure I’m right because I have read the infallible word of God in [fill in title of book here].

The first position gives us no way to distinguish the religious believer from someone who believes, say, that she is the reincarnation of Joan of Arc: the latter may be equally convinced on internal ‘evidence’ and strong feeling, but nonetheless we don’t hesitate to call her delusional. The second is really an admission that the person might well have believed something else altogether if raised in another family, parish, or country (as in fact we know to be the case, since religious beliefs vary widely according to geography). And the third simply returns us to the original problem–there’s more than one book that purports to be the definitive word of God, and they can’t all be it. How do you know that yours is the right one and your neighbour’s (or enemy’s) is not? Here we have people prepared to sacrifice their own lives, take the lives of others, engage in time-consuming, sometimes self-destructive, often expensive rituals, influence the outcome of elections, subvert the teaching of science, put their children at risk of STDs by denying them sex education…and on what solid basis? None at all. Overall, the series was very depressing. I ended up feeling a lot of sympathy for Richard Dawkins‘s provocative notion that religious education is a form of child abuse. We intervene to ensure medical treatment for children when their parents’ beliefs would deny it to them; why not consider it equally unacceptable for children to be raised to idealize martyrdom, or raised in dangerously controversial settlements in occupied Palestine, or denied the benefits of a modern scientific education because their parents cling to superstitious, magical ideas about the world and their role in it? There’s no question that, historically, religious belief has contributed to what George Eliot calls “the growing good of the world” as well as to its cruelties, irrationalities, and evils, but we can see now that the foundations of modern faiths are no stronger, no more defensible, than, say, the Greek or Roman beliefs in their deities (as Sam Harris likes to point out, we’re all atheists now with respect to Zeus and Poseidon). So why should we accept them as guides for living–or killing, or dying?

I hope Amanpour’s planning a follow-up series on “Reason’s Warriors.”

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