Religion & Rationality

I’m reading Sam Harris’s End of Faith with my Sunday School Class at Chalice Christian Church. I think it is fair to say that Sam Harris defines faith as irrationality. This allows him to do a couple of things. One, in Chapter 3 of his book he can make the claim that Nazism is essentially a religion. Two, in Chapter 1 and elsewhere, he can claim that rational adherents to a religion are not really religious.

What I take from this is that rational religious folks need to work hard to make other rational people understand the value of faith to a rational person. The shortest answer I have for this is that the human condition involves a spiritual/soulful something that is neither defined by our intellect or our physicality. Religion and faith help nurture and grow that aspect of our humanity. Developing our sense of compassion and empathy, feeding our better angles, and sharing our progress in these efforts with others is important and entirely rational.

The other thing I take from Harris’s book is how tremendously dangerous irrational beliefs are. Irrational fears whether brought to us by religious leaders, political leaders, or news moguls all seeking to consolidate power are dangerous. Harris’s book is really a critique of the frequent failures of humanity.


Day 57 (Freedom)

[reaction to One Year Bible’s June 21-23 readings]

The title of today’s post is from Jonathan Franzen’s book of the same title, which I finished earlier tonight. Franzen’s book explores the ordinary lives of suburbanites who, once free from various things that are holding them down–parent child relationships, marriage vows, social convention, etc.–find generally find themselves no more happy than they were before. The book is full of settling on half-fulfilled expectations, largely as a result of how overgrown the expectations are.

I’d like to compare this to a Psalm 139 from today’s readings. It isn’t that long, but I don’t want to take up the space here. So click here and come back. How do these phrases strike the modern reader?

You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

Not necessarily good, right? Kind of suffocating. For me, that has always been at least a second response to these verses. Of course they are written as comfort. I suspect that many people would read this Psalm exclusively in terms of comfort.

On the third hand, I am not sure that the human race has completely adapted to its freedom. Many of us want freedom as individuals, but maybe we don’t have the tools yet to cope with it. And that seems to be the point of Franzen’s book. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the freedom is bad; it just means that perhaps more evolution is required.


Who First Thought Progress Was Possible?

The idea of progress—belief that the conditions of life can improve, and that history can in this sense get somewhere—originated in the West. Insofar as other peoples have come to this notion, they have acquired it from the West.

Striking as this fact is, it seems explicable. If we confine ourselves to the two other enduring civilizations—South Asian, centering in India, and East Asian, centering in China and its cultural offshoots—we find that there presiding outlooks were forged by people who were in power; in India these were the brahmins, and in China the literati. By contrast, the West’s outlook was decisively shaped in this matter by the Jews, who for most of their formative period were underdogs. Ruling classes may be satisfied with the status quo, but underdogs are not.

~Huston Smith.

This is really marvelous. First, I like it because it affirms and explains my faith that Western religion is about justice for the down trodden. (Smith writes a little later, perhaps gilding the lily a bit, “The prophetic protest against social injustice is universally conceded to be without close parallel in the ancient world.) Second, I love this because it provides an explanation for why Eastern religions are so much more focused on the internal self.

I do cringe a little from overlooking the religions that originated in–you know–the other four populated continents. That notwithstanding, this really struck me as an eye-opening passage.


On Judaism

Some say that God/Truth exists beyond this natural world.  They are the Hindus who teach that this world is maya, illusion.  They are the philosophers who teach that this world seems ever changing due to natural forces, but the truth lies with the unchanging forms.

Some say that God/Truth exists in this world but cannot be changed.  They are the natural polytheists, like the Egyptians who saw their god Ra everyday.  They are the scientists who study the movement of celestial bodies.  Neither asks what ought to be; both observe what is.

Judaism established the natural world as both important and changeable.  Through the prophets, the Jews worked to see the world as what it could be.


Gem from Huston

The last word is Psalm 8:5 is ‘elohim.  This is mistranslated as "angels", yielding "Thou hast made [man] little lower than the angels."  The word ‘elohim is actually gods, or–because the number is not specified this Hebrew word-God.  Hence, the verse should read, "Thou hast made him little lower than the gods [or God]."

I guess I see why the KJV translator wimped out.


The Five Pillars of Islam

The Good Confession: for Disciples the two parts are (1) Jesus is the Son of God and (2) Jesus is my personal Savior; for Muslims (1) there is no God but God and (2) Mohammed is God’s prophet.

Prayer: Muslims are to live in prayer. (Compare 1 Thes. 5:16-18) They are to at least 5 times a day face Mecca and pray.

Charity: Christians 10% of income; Muslims 2 1/2% of income AND holdings. Also, Muslims are supposed to give directly to those in need.

Fasting: Christians still fast sometimes. Muslims fast from sun up to sun down during Ramadan, one month.

Pilgrimage: Once in their lives Muslims are to make the trip from Medina to Mecca. I don’t know that Jews(Jerusalem) or Christians(Rome) have anything similar. I’m a Disciple, so I guess my Pilgrimage should be to Indianapolos, Indiana–or perhaps Cane Ridge in Kentucky.

Of course, the devil is in the details. Islam, according to Huston, recognizes four great revelations, first the oneness of God to Abraham, second the Ten Commandments to Moses, third the Greatest Commandment to Jesus (Love your God and, likewise, love your neighbor as yourself), and finally the means to carrying out love of your God and your neighbor. This results in classifying every action as some where on the continuum between required and forbidden.

These systems, for me, always fail. They are too limiting stealing joy away from their adherrents. They are too easily worked around, allowing their adherents to legally commit acts of injustice. I’m a Christian in part because I believe there are times when the right thing to do can require even breaking one of the ten commandments. I also can’t help but notice that violent extremists–and I think anyone reading this can think of Christian, Muslim and Jewish examples pretty easily–often seem to be among the devotees putting the law ahead of humans.



Reading about Islam feels more familiar than Buddhism, even though I’ve spent more time over the years studying Buddhism.  According to Huston the four theological anchors in Islam are God, Creation, Individual and Judgement Day.  Familiar indeed.


Notes from Huston on Islam: Christ is to Christianity as the Koran, not Mohammed, is to Islam. The Koran is not about truth, the Koran is truth.



I was surprised to be even less impressed with Taoism than Confucianism. Maybe I’ve been saturated with eastern religion. Smith divides Taoism into three groups. Philosophical Taoism and Religious Taoism are the first two. The third sounds basically like Taoism as self-help fad, although Smith used the less pejorative energizing Taoism. The focus of Taoism is on tuning one’s spiritual energy or ch’i. The difference between Philosophical Taoism and energizing Taoism is that the former focuses on efficiency (which doesn’t turn me off) and the latter focuses on increasing one’s energy (which does turn me off).

Every once in a while I will run into someone who is really into the notions of aligning spiritual energy and think acupuncture can align their ch’i and yoga can keep them from getting the flu. Generally these are people who think it is ridiculous that a Catholic would believe in transubstantiation or that an Evangelical would believe prayer could heal cancer. So why on Earth would they accept a supernatural belief system from another culture?


An interesting note though. Buddhism + Taoism = Zen Buddhism. It is my impression that Zen Buddhism is most related to the Philosophical Taoism.

Next up is Islam. Which is good because I am obviously ready to get back to the Great I Am.



Confucianism is the most recent religion I read about in Smith’s survey of world religions. At the end of the chapter, he addresses the question of whether Confucianism is a religion or an ethic. Basically, although there are some metaphysical beliefs that is a part of Confucianism, it is primarily about how to live and how to view the world.

It reminds me of a discussion Pat & I had about a book by Brian McClaren she is reading with our adult Sunday School class. The question was do you see faith more as a way of life or a belief system. The book suggested a scatter graph with four quadrants. Way of Life-Strong/Belief System Weak; Way of Life & Belief System Strong; Way of Life-Weak/Belief System Strong; Way of Life & Belief System Weak. Confucianism, according to Smith and the primary texts he provides, falls neatly into the Way of Life-Strong/Belief System-Weak. I think this is where a lot of Christians are as well. To be Christian means to be charitable and kind. It means to be forgiving and faithful in your marriage. It is about the way you live. I think as we get into shouting matches about the age of the Earth, these Christians may take a side, but it isn’t that important to them. I wonder if these Christians are often forgotten in the debate I provide here.

I want to see my faith as a Way of Life faith. And indeed, I have made efforts to live consistent with my faith. Furthermore, my belief system is at odds with the belief system who see faith primarily as a belief system. The Fundamentalists who will shout that gays are going to spend eternity in hell because God is a fair judge, will receive intense scorn for me. I will shout at them that they are missing everything and that there hate filled world view is absence from God. They don’t see that they are in hell now. I will say to them, “Don’t you understand, the Kingdom of God is not some far away place, it is at hand?” But all this just means my belief system is different than theirs.

To give Confucianism at least some of its due, this was the idea Smith presented that seemed to crystallize this civility code. If you have a good heart, you’ll be a good person. Good people will have good families. Good families will yield good nations. Good nations will lead to a peaceful world.

Perhaps a code of civility that starts with engendering good-heartedness is more effective at changing the world, that an exquisitely crafted metaphysics.