The beginning of spring

A blog about my work, where international development meets tech, and my life, where food, books, design, dogs, and friends (and the occasional pig) make appearances.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Why I find it hard to read The End of Faith

I’ve just started reading this book The End of Faith, by Sam Harris. I haven’t gotten far into the book at all, but there’s a story around that. Some very good friends gave Dennis the book for his birthday some months ago, and recommended it highly. These are people whose opinions I really respect, so I fully intended to start the book when Dennis finished it, which he did pretty quickly. But I found actually that the book was a hard one for me to embark on, because I found its main thesis hard to take—that the major religions have been the cause of most of the world’s ills from persecution to war, and that the fault lay as much with religious moderates as with fundamentalists because the moderates had, through their tolerance for inter-religious differences, in fact made it possible for the fundamentalists to prevail.

The story of why I found it a hard book to even begin reading, starts with my growing up with no religious faith of my own. Not that I was born into an atheist household, but Japanese religious faith is really about cultural habits, and since I spent a good part of my childhood outside of Japan that had a minimal influence on me. And while I loved the ritual and cadence of the Catholic faith that surrounded me in Italy when I was growing up, it was not really a religion to me, just a collection of founding myths with great cultural resonance (as far as I could tell there was no art in Italy that could not be traced back to Christianity or Roman mythology in one way or another, and there was a lot of it). It was only in high school that I decided I needed to become more familiar with the details on Christianity, after developing a mild affinity for the protestant urges that had driven Martin Luther (it just sounded so much more enlightened), especially for literary purposes, and I started reading the Bible. I started of course at the beginning with the Old Testament, and although Genesis was clearly not particularly consistent with evolution, I found it harmless, and kept on reading thinking it made some sort of symbolic sense in the overall corpus. Then I got to some of the other stories of the Old Testament, and the ethics of the Old Testament struck me as being ridiculous. I think, although I know can’t remember clearly, that it was the story of Sarah and Abraham pretending they were siblings and leading Pharaoh on, and God’s eventual punishment of Pharaoh that finally struck me as being more about proving that these people were chosen above all reason and compassion. (There is a great commentary on exactly these wild leaps in ethical logic by David Plotz right now on Slate) So I stopped my Bible study there, having lost any contingent faith I might have placed in the foundational Christian document.

That started me off on my “religion is an opiate of the masses” phase. It coincided nicely with a phase in my life where I got really judgmental about a lot of things anyway (I broke up with a long-standing boyfriend with whom I had spent all of the school year corresponding (I will date myself by admitting it was by snail mail, but I impress my older self with my youthful dedication) every day—over Thatcher’s position on the miners’ strike), so I lived with that for a while. Some years into this I decided that being as judgmental as all that was hard—hard on me and hard on my friends. In fact I lost touch with a lot of my friends during that phase, not only that boyfriend, and I count myself lucky to have been able to reclaim them now. (They, you see, were more forgiving than I was.) So I find Sam Harris’s main thesis hard to disentangle from my own intolerance and the personal costs I paid for it.

Now for what is interesting about Sam Harris’s book. I recently heard of an old study by Schelling that showed, through statistical modeling, of how residential segregation can come about with even a mild preference among people in a given community to live in a community that does not include more than 33% of people of another race. So the main take away from this study is you don’t need a whole community of Archie Bunkers to create segregated neighborhoods. My question then as I go into The End of Faith is, can some analogy of this dynamic be operating in the religious communities—if so, the fact that Harris may be overreaching on the thesis that religion has caused most of the world’s woes isn't that important. If this dynamic can somehow be proved to hold in this case, it raises the real possibility that radical religions of all stripes will be on the increase. It's as if we've passed some saturation point and everything will begin crystallizing into brittle shards ...