Why People Believe and Why People Kill: Countering Dennett and Harris

A few weeks ago, I said I would be sharing a few more passages from Dr. David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions. In this citation from early in the book, Hart is in the midst of pointing out some of the bad arguments, poor understanding of both religion and history, and sanctimony in the anti-religious rhetoric of the “new atheists”….

Cover to Breaking the Spell“That there might be such a thing as religious experience (other, of course, than states of delusion, suffered by the stupid or emotionally disturbed) is naturally never considered, since it goes without saying that there is nothing to experience. Dawkins, for instance, frequently asserts, without pausing actually to think about the matter, that religious believers have no reasons for their faith. The most embarrassingly ill-conceived chapter in [Daniel Dennett’s] Breaking the Spell consists largely in Dennett attempting to convince believers, in tones of excruciating condescension, that they do not really believe what they think they believe, or even understand it, and attempting to scandalize them with the revelation that academic theology sometimes lapses into a technical jargon full of obscure Greek terms like ‘apophatic’ and ‘ontic’. And [Sam] Harris is never more theatrically indignant than when angrily reminding his readers that Christians believe in Christ’s resurrection (for example) only because someone has told them it is true.

It is always perilous to attempt to tell others what or why they believe; and it is especially unwise to assume (as Dennett is peculiarly prone to do) that believers, as a species, do not constantly evaluate or reevaluate their beliefs. Anyone who actually lives among persons of faith knows that this is simply untrue. Obviously, though, there is no point in demanding of believers that they produce criteria for their beliefs unless one is willing to conform one’s expectations to the kind of claims being made. For, while it is unquestionably true that perfectly neutral proofs in support of faith cannot generally be adduced, it is not a neutral form of knowledge that is at issue. Dennett’s belief that no one need take seriously any claim that cannot be tested by scientific method is merely fatuous. By that standard, I need not believe that the battle of Salamis ever took place, that the widower next door loves the children for whom he tirelessly provides, or that I might be wise to trust my oldest friend even if he tells me something I do not care to hear.

Harris is quite correct to say, for instance, that Christ’s resurrection — like any other historical event — is known only by way of the testimony of others. Indeed, Christianity is the only major faith built entirely around a single historical claim. It is, however, a claim quite unlike any other ever made, as any perceptive and scrupulous historian must recognize. Certainly it bears no resemblance to the vague fantasies of witless enthusiasts or to the cunning machinations of opportunistic charlatans. It is the report of men and women who had suffered the devastating defeat of their beloved master’s death, but who in a very short time were proclaiming an immediate experience of his living presence beyond the tomb, and who were, it seems, willing to suffer privation, imprisonment, torture, and death rather than deny that experience. And it is the report of a man who had never known Jesus before the crucifixion, and who had once persecuted Jesus’s followers, but who also believed that he had experienced the risen Christ, with such shattering power that he too preferred death to apostasy. And it is the report of countless others who have believed that they also — in a quite irreducibly personal way — have known the risen Christ.

It cannot be gainsaid that Christians have faith in Easter largely because they belong to communities of believers, or that their faith is a complex amalgam of shared confession, personal experience, spiritual and ethical practice, and reliance on others, or that they are inevitably obliged to make judgments about the trustworthiness of those whose word they must take. Some also choose to venture out upon the vast seas of Christianity’s philosophical or mystical traditions; and many are inspired by miracles, or dreams, or the apparent working of grace in their lives, or moments of aesthetic transport, or strange raptures, or intuitions of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and so on. None of this might impress the committed skeptic, or seem like adequate grounds for faith, but that does not mean that faith is essentially willful and irrational. More to the point, it is bizarre for anyone to think he or she can judge the nature or credibility of another’s experiences from the outside…..

…[L]et us graciously grant that there is indeed such a thing as unthinking religious conviction, just as there is a great deal of unthinking irreligious materialism. Let us also, more magnanimously, grant the truth of the second conviction I attributed to these writers above: that religion is violent, that religion in fact kills. At least, let us grant that it is exactly as true, and as intellectually significant, as the propositions ‘politics kills’ and ‘color reddens’. For many things are true in a general sense, even when, in the majority of specific cases, they are false. Violent religion or politics kills, and red reddens; but peaceful religion or politics does not kill, even if it is adopted as a pretext for killing, just as green does not redden, even if a certain kind of color blindness creates the impression that it does. For, purely in the abstract, ‘religious’ longing is neither this nor that, neither admirable nor terrible, but is at once creative and destructive, consoling and murderous, tender and brutal.”

Note: I don’t remember reading anything to indicate that Hart is a complete pacifist. So, when he refers to “killing” here, I assume that exceptions would include things like “just war” and capital punishment by the state, at least in the Judeo-Christian context. I must also assume that, as a Christian, Hart also accepts the God-directed wars and judgments in the Old Testament as just, as well. (I won’t address that now, since that is a topic for another time.)

Jesus Christ before Caiaphas the High Priest

Jesus Christ before Caiaphas the High Priest

“I take it that this is because ‘religion’ is something ‘natural’ to human beings (as Dennett so acutely notes) and, as such, reflects human nature. For the broader, even more general, and yet more pertinent truth is that men kill (women kill too, but historically have had fewer opportunities to do so). Some kill because their faiths explicitly command them to do so, some kill though their faiths explicitly forbid them to do so, and some kill because they have no faith and hence believe all things are permitted to them. Polytheists, monotheists, and atheists kill — indeed, this last class is especially prolifically homicidal, if the evidence of the twentieth century is to be consulted. Men kill for their gods, or for their God, or because there is no God and the destiny of humanity must be shaped by gigantic exertions of human will. They kill in pursuit of universal truths and out of fidelity to tribal allegiances; for faith, blood and soil, empire, national greatness, the ‘socialist utopia’, capitalism, and ‘democratization’. Men will always seek gods in whose name they may perform great deeds or commit unspeakable atrocities, even when those gods are not gods but ‘tribal honor’ or ‘genetic imperative’ or ‘social ideals’ or ‘human destiny’ or ‘liberal democracy’. Then again, men also kill on account of money, land, love, pride, hatred, envy, or ambition. They kill out of conviction or out of lack of conviction.

Harris at one point approvingly cites a platitude from Will Durant to the effect that violence follows from religious certitude — which again, like most empty generalities, is vacuously true. It is just as often the case, however, that men are violent solely from expedience, because they believe in no higher law than the demands of the moment, while only certain kinds of religious certitude have the power to temper their murderous pragmatism with a compassionate idealism, or to freeze their wills with a dread of divine justice, or to free them from the terrors of present uncertainty and so from the temptation to act unjustly. Caiaphas and Pilate, if scripture is to be believed, were perfect examples of the officious and practical statesman with grave responsibilities to consider; Christ, on the other hand, was certain of a Kingdom not of this world and commanded his disciples to love their enemies. Does religious conviction provide a powerful reason for killing? Undeniably it often does. It also often provides the sole compelling reason for refusing to kill, or for being merciful, or for seeking peace; only the profoundest ignorance of history could prevent one from recognizing this. For the truth is that religion and irreligion are cultural variables, but killing is a human constant.”

I find Hart’s responses to Dennett, Harris, et al., to be very informational and compelling, and the color-blindness metaphor was particularly eye-opening. (Hah!) It would be easy to dismiss what he says as merely the equivalent of “You can’t prove what I believe isn’t true, and I know what I know, so leave me alone!” and “Lots of non-religious people kill, too, so stop picking on religion just because some religious people kill.” But, that would be entirely missing the point.


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