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Believing Is Fundamental



To the editors of the Chicago Reader:

I want to commend Harold Henderson for his fair and balanced criticism of Sam Harris's book, The End of Faith ["The Dangers of Faith," November 12]. I have not read the book, and so can make no comments on Harris's philosophy or his perception of theology.

However, I did want to set straight a few claims that Mr. Henderson made in the course of his review.

He seems to conflate a secularism/religion divide with a science/religion one. His claim that "half a millennium of scientific advances have shredded one tenet of faith after another--and confirmed none," ignores the fact that the basic, defining tenets of the major faiths have never been debunked by science. By "defining" tenets, I mean those core articles of faith that separate believers from nonbelievers, rather in the same way that place of birth separates a U.S. native from a Canadian one. Thus, to be a Christian (for an example I am familiar with), one need only believe that Jesus Christ died and was resurrected to reconcile humanity with God. That is a big "only," I will grant you, but one can certainly believe this to be the case without rejecting any proven, scientific discoveries about the natural world. I think people who really accept the principles of scientific method--observation, hypothesis, experiment--would agree with this statement.

However, some (but not all) fundamentalist Christians might argue that in fact there is a good deal more to being a Christian than the statement I wrote above. There is not. This raises a good point about fundamentalists and faith that never surfaces in Mr. Henderson's article. Fundamentalism always seeks to add restrictions, qualifications, and requirements to the basic tenets of faith. Despite its name, it always makes religion less, not more, simple. Mr. Henderson's claim (and I cannot tell if he is simply paraphrasing Harris here) that the Bible "is a book of absolutes" is a fundamentalist view of that document. To read the Bible in absolute, literal terms requires substantial cognitive gymnastics in order to eliminate all of the paradoxes and contradictions created by historical difference, symbolic meaning, and authorial fiat. Yet to read the Bible sensitively and carefully reveals its deceptively simple narrative, repeated over and over, about people who struggle to replace their doubt, fear, and shame with faith, hope, and love. The attempt to place the events of September 11 within that narrative of struggle--and remember "jihad" is a "struggle"--is the true legacy of religious belief in our day. If we fail to pity both the victims and the hijackers, and if we fail to reach out to Christians, Muslims, and secularists alike, then that is our fault, and not God's. Nor did we ever need to believe in God to fail in our compassion and understanding. Mr. Harris's apparent denial of that fact is never criticized by Mr. Henderson, and I felt that to be an unfortunate omission in an otherwise solid article.

Gerald Nachtwey


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