Faith, public life and Sam Harris

By Dennis Gruending

I spent several hours on a recent Saturday morning with 20 people at the Galilee Centre, set amid the woods along the Ottawa River at Arnprior, Ontario. We talked about the links between religious faith and public life. Much of the discussion was about how, unfortunately, the call to public involvement remains marginal within many church-based communities. Yet there was also pride in what has been accomplished, particularly when people of faith work in cooperation with others.

galilee_centre_mar08_400.jpgIt can be argued that our country’s rights and freedoms, our sense of tolerance and justice, owe at least something to ideas embedded in all of the great world religions. We are, indeed, our sister’s and our brother’s keeper. Our health, social and international development programs are an institutional way of putting those faith concepts into action. I think, for example, of medicare. When I was growing up in a poor farm family in Saskatchewan in the 1950s, my mother developed multiple sclerosis. We were almost ruined financially by the medical bills that we had to pay. Our government led by Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister, initiated publically financed health care and it was extremely important to my family and many others. Medicare did not just happen. It had to be conceived, planned, debated and promoted in a struggle that took years to realize. Thankfully, and to their credit, many churches and people of faith were deeply involved in that effort.

This is how we see ourselves, working diligently to pursue the common good — but how do others see us? Writer Pierre Berton published his book, The Comfortable Pew, in 1965. His portrait of Canada’s mainline Protestant churches was not a flattering one, yet despite his criticisms, Berton could say, “Christianity has shaped Western man for the better.” That benign view is being challenge today by many people. American writer Sam Harris is the author of The End of Faith, a runaway best seller in the United States. “There seems to be a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs about the world,” Harris writes. “They are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another.” Harris provides a five-page list of quotations from the Koran, which he says instruct observant Muslims to despise non-believers and encourages violence against them. The Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, he says, encourages a similar contempt and violence against heretics.

It is indisputable that both the Bible and the Koran are being used today to justify claims to land and power; to launch invasions and suicide attacks; to support the clash of civilizations and the prospect of war without end. Historically, there are churches that supported or condoned slavery, segregation, apartheid, anti-Semitism, and even genocide in countries like Rwanda. Canada is not immune to these violent excesses. The terrorist attack on an Air-India Flight 182 bound from Toronto to New Delhi in 1985 killed 331 people – the largest terrorist attack in Canadian history. It was planned and executed by Sikh religious extremists living and working in Canada as well as India.

On the other hand, I read recently in a weekly church bulletin about Hong Kong Christians urging the Chinese government to stop its suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Tibet, and of the United Methodist Church’s criticism of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land. The same bulletin reported on an international church-linked group that pioneered micro-finance to help people out of poverty.

Sam Harris wrote recently on his blog that, “It is, of course, good to know that [people of faith] occasionally do help the poor, feed the hungry, and care for the sick. But wouldn’t it be better to do these things for reasons that are not manifestly delusional? Can we care for one another without believing that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is now listening to our thoughts? Yes we can.”

If religious faith is a delusion, as Harris suggests, it is one that is not receding and it probably won’t any time soon. The Economist magazine reports that, “In the 20th century people, particularly among the elites, tended to think that religion was disappearing. That obviously hasn’t happened.” (See my blog posting of November 19, 2007 regarding The Economist’s special report on religion).

Those who gathered at the Galilee Centre recently do not believe they have a monopoly on wisdom or truth, but do believe that they have something to offer. People of good will, including those of all religious beliefs, or of no religious belief, have the opportunity in our country to participate in public life. Most movements (environmental, labour or professional groups) and all political parties are coalitions of of individuals drawn from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs. It should be possible for all of them to work together in a spirit of tolerance and respect on behalf of the public good.

One thought on “Faith, public life and Sam Harris

  1. “It should be possible for all of them to work together in a spirit of tolerance and respect on behalf of the public good.” It seems, however, that the more religiously committed people are, the more newsworthy it is when they do “work together”. Perhaps that’s because religions, as they “mature” and get themselves organized, tend to become so absolutist. They begin to have more answers than questions, and they become legitimate targets for Sam Harris & Co. A good friend and about-to-be-minted PhD might say that it’s an epistemological problem! When I know I’m right, and that you’re wrong, it’s impossible for us to carry on discussion, or work together for most anything at all.


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