All religions propagate the same message

Mahinda New one_CIFortunately, we don’t have any serious religious fundamentalism to deal with in Sri Lanka, except a nascent form of it being introduced to the country by a handful of marginal, foreign funded Christian and Muslim zealots who enjoy no popularity among the mainstream believers of the two respective faiths. Though a few similarly isolated, apparently misguided Buddhist monks seem to have started a violent, aberrational reaction against attempted fundamentalist inroads into the local Buddhist fold, while being censured by the average Buddhists themselves, have only succeeded in having the fundamentalist cap thrust on their own heads. These may be set aside as temporary misadventures.

But whatever religious faith we belong to, or whether or not we profess any such faith, we are all being imperilled by a virulent kind of global religious fundamentalism that is undermining the very foundations of human civilization. Neuroscientist Dr Sam Harris’s slim volume, New York Times bestseller, “Letter to a Christian nation” (2006) deals with what he describes as “a moral and intellectual emergency” facing  his nation (America) in the form of a potentially self-destructive and violent religious fanaticism resulting from blind faith in religious dogma. He is careful to tell us that though the book is addressed to Christians in the United States, it is intended for people of all faiths. It presents a well argued case against all forms of doctrinaire religion. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, well known for his active involvement in an educational moral campaign against irrational religious faith, writes a persuasive foreword to the book. 

Harris identifies “the respect we accord religious faith” as an impediment to any intellectually honest, rational discourse on morals, spirituality, and the problem of human suffering. These can be addressed through a rational scientific approach with relative ease, but religion stands in its way. We like to believe that all religions propagate the same message to humanity without contradiction: love your neighbour, avoid violence, live a moral life, etc. But the truth is that strict adherence to the articles of faith found in one religion often alienates individuals and whole groups from fellow human beings who happen to profess a different religion. It is traditionally claimed that ‘religious tolerance’ is an antidote to communal disharmony based on religion. The problem is that tolerance could be incompatible with being faithful to one’s own religion if it insists on being “fundamentalist” (in the sense in which the word was originally used in America around the beginning of the twentieth century). This once innocuous concept shed its original harmless associations of scriptural authenticity, purity, etc at least some forty or fifty years ago, and has now acquired very negative connotations. Today ‘fundamentalism’ is a heavily loaded word in both religious and secular contexts. Any movement that is prone to violent ideologies and practices tends to be dubbed ‘fundamentalist’. 

Yet religions are not usually accused of deliberately preaching violence even by the faithful of rival (i.e. other) religions. Silence is always maintained on this point as demanded by mutual awareness of vulnerability to the same charge and the need for feigned religious tolerance. Sectarianism in the interpretation of the dogmas of the same faith often divides its adherents, and this leads to internecine conflicts. 

Non-religionists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, who genuinely care for the future of humanity, for the survival of human civilization and general human wellbeing, have begun to speak out before it is too late. Though they are still in a minority, they are a compelling presence in the media including the Internet, and they are making an impact on the collective conscience of humanity. Their passionate call for the exercise of rationality in matters of the deepest personal concern for us must be heeded before we blindly allow ourselves to be devoured by the monster of irrationality in the guise of the sacred in religious ideology and practice.  

Sam Harris, an American born and bred in a Christian culture, is direct and blunt, as Dawkins says in his foreword. He acknowledges his Christian reader as a serious believer, and puts himself on level ground with the latter at the beginning, and challenges them to prove him wrong if that is the case, but through rational debate. Christian (and other) believers are invited to take him on and try to survive his onslaught. Considering the gravity of the situation we are facing under the global hegemony of America whose government is being dominated by a narrow, virulent type of Christian orthodoxy as Harris explains, reading the book and taking follow-up action will not be a waste of time, to put it in the form of an understatement. It must be emphasized that this is not an attack on or a rejection of the truly valuable ethical content of the central Christian text, if the ethics is based on rational grounds Sam Harris refers to the late Mother Theresa (who exemplified Christian morality) as “a perfect example of the way in which a good person, moved to help others, can have her moral institutions deranged by religious faith”. He is alluding to her absolute opposition to abortion.  Christopher Hitchens, another critic of harmful religious dogmatism, has written that “the only known cure for poverty …..  is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.” But Harris doesn’t deny that “Mother Theresa was a great force for compassion. Clearly, she was moved by the suffering of her fellow human beings, and she did much to awaken others to the reality of that suffering. The problem, however, was that her compassion was channelled within the rather steep walls of her religious dogmatism…” Harris avers that religion in fact is a biological phenomenon. It is a product of cognitive processes with deep roots in our evolutionary past. Religion probably served a useful purpose at a certain stage of our evolution by serving to create social cohesion among large groups of prehistoric humans. But it has outlived its usefulness in that sense. The normal belief among the religious is that there cannot be any morality without the existence of a law-giving God. And the believers of each particular religion are sure that no morality can exist outside their own faith. But this is a misconception according to Harris. 

There is no agreement about ethics among different religious communities, which does not make for harmonious coexistence. But the truth is that there are objective sources of moral order that do not require any divine law-giver. As morality is about problems of human happiness and suffering, there need only be better and worse ways to secure the first and eliminate the second. There are psychological laws that govern human wellbeing, and a knowledge of these, according to Harris, would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality. Though we have not arrived at anything like a final scientific understanding of human morality we are sure that killing and rape cannot be part of it; we also know that love, rather than hate, is one of the greatest sources of our own happiness, and that it involves a deep concern for the happiness and suffering of those we love. Our own quest for happiness, therefore, provides a rationale for altruism and self-denial. The important thing is that we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to lead a moral life. 
What socially concerned people like Sam Harris look forward to is a religion-less society with good morals. They acknowledge that their wish for a complete elimination of religion (religious belief based on assumptions about reality unsupported by evidence) is not likely to be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless he thinks that it is not an unrealistic hope. 

As we have seen, Sam Harris includes all religions in his criticism. He warns against the spread of a very militant form of Islam in Europe, which he finds as obnoxious as Christian fundamentalism. Addressing his compatriot Christians (and by implication, people of all faiths everywhere) he says in conclusion:
“Non-believers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we are dumb struck by you as well – by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God. This letter has been an expression of that amazement – and perhaps a little hope.” 

The establishment of a nonreligious ethical system, essentially through secular moral education, which will replace harmful, divisive, and primitive beliefs in meeting a person’s social and emotional needs will be the answer. With proper guidance and education provided by the enlightened in every community, with their differing cultures, it is possible to usher in such a society. That the ethical teachings of major religions (in a neutral sense) have much in common is a source of hope and consolation for all humanity. This is the only hope against religious fundamentalism. – See more at: