Op/ed: "Does Tolerance Disarm Religious Liberals?"

August 15, 2006

Source: UU World


On August 15, 2006 the UU World published an opinion piece by Warren R. Ross, "In his best-selling book, The End of Faith, Sam Harris takes a dim view of the consequences of religious belief. 'As long as it is acceptable for a person to believe that he knows how God wants everyone on earth to live,' he writes, 'we will continue to murder one another on account of our myths.'

If Harris had limited himself to demonstrating how the faith of some Muslims has led to suicide bombings, beheadings, and the mass murders at the World Trade Center, his thesis would not be terribly controversial in the United States. But his critique of religious faith is much broader�and hits much closer to home.

'It is time we recognized,' he writes, 'that all reasonable men and women have a common enemy. It is an enemy so near to us, and so deceptive, that we keep its counsel even as it threatens to destroy the very possibility of human happiness. Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself.' Yet, he goes on, 'it remains taboo to criticize religious faith in our society, or even observe that some religions are less compassionate and less tolerant than others. What is worst in us (outright delusion) has been elevated beyond the reach of criticism, while what is best (reason and intellectual honesty) must remain hidden for fear of giving offense.'

Harris points with alarm to the influence of the Christian Right... But the nation’s slide toward theocracy is not solely the fault of the fanatics, Harris maintains. Religious moderates, blinded by their very moderation, share in the blame. 'When was the last time that someone was criticized for not "respecting" another person’s unfounded beliefs about physics or history?' he asks. 'The same rules should apply to ethical, spiritual, and religious beliefs as well.'

Up to this point, Unitarian Universalists reading his book might be inclined to cheer. After all, historian Earl Morse Wilbur identified reason, freedom, and tolerance as the core values of the Unitarian tradition�and we stopped citing this historic triad not because we became intolerant, but because we felt that tolerance didn’t go far enough. It smacked of condescension, it became fashionable to say: We should not just tolerate other faiths, but treat them with respect. Harris thinks that’s not only wrong, but dangerous."