Monday, March 17, 2014


A few weeks ago, while browsing through my favorite used book store, I came across a couple of volumes that looked intriguing, especially since I could get them cheap.  They were entitled, Patience with God:  Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism), (2009) by Frank Schaeffer and The End of Faith:  Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, (2005) by Sam Harris.  Since I was not reading anything at the time, I decided to dive into them both.

Though I usually am reading two or three books at a time, to avoid confusion, I try to avoid reading those with the same or similar topics.  So reading these two together was an interesting experience, almost like witnessing a debate.

I should note that this post is not an attempt at reviewing either volume; I am simply trying to interact with them and the thinking expressed in them.

Perhaps a few words are needed about the authors and why their books piqued my curiosity.

Frank Schaeffer is the son of Francis Schaeffer, the well-known philosopher and Christian apologist.  Though Frank began a career in Francis' ministry, he had parted ways with his father and taken another spiritual path, as he described in his book, Crazy for God, which I had read a few years ago.  (SEE POSTS:  CRAZY FOR GOD?, Part 1  and CRAZY FOR GOD?, Part 2.)

Sam Harris is probably the most outspoken of the so-called New Atheists.  I had not read anything of his or had I had any outstanding desire to do so, but thought I might as well see if he had anything to say more than his fellow Atheists.  He doesn't really, but he does say what he says more vehemently.

Both authors have very different backgrounds, and obviously disagree on a number of matters, especially on what I would see as basic beliefs.  Yet they also held to some similar beliefs, and as I moved from one book to the other, I quite frequently had feelings of déjà vu.

The main area of agreement is that both are opposed to "Fundamentalism."  I don't recall Harris as giving a clear definition of the term, though he does use it frequently and he does condemn everything that he perceives as religious belief.  He tells us that most people "believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book" and that respect or tolerance for those who disagree or are unbelievers "is not an attitude that God endorses" (page 13).  He claims "every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable" (page 23).  His second chapter, "The Nature of Belief" is well worth reading.  He defines "believing" on page 51 as "Believing a given proposition ... faithfully represents some state of the world," and "faith" on page 65 as "belief in, and life orientation toward, certain historical and metaphysical propositions."  Though both definitions are similar, it appears that his big gripe is with religious belief, because it is not founded on facts, as he tells us on page 232, "religious faith is the belief in historical and metaphysical propositions without sufficient evidence."  (I realize I'm oversimplifying.  He gets pretty long-winded and repetitive.)  So I'd guess that he believes all religious people are fundamentalists in varying degrees.

Schaeffer is much less wordy and a lot clearer on page xvi in his prologue.  "My love-hate relationship is with fundamentalists who say they believe in God and with people who are so sure there is no God that they've turn atheism into just another brow-beating religion."  So he would classify people like his parents as fundamentalists, but would also classify Harris and his fellow Atheists as the same.  On page 9 he says "My definition of fundamentalism, religious or otherwise, is the impulse to find The answer, a way to shut down the question-asking part of one's brain."

Both authors fill much of their books with tirades against these fundamentalists.  Harris devotes much material to attacking the shameful behavior of Islam, Medieval Christianity and the Religious Right.  Schaeffer on the other hand, while attacking "evangelical/fundamentalists," such as those he at one time kept company with, also says that "The New Atheists, like their evangelical/fundamentalist counterparts, aren't on an intellectual journey.  They are already at their destination" (page 11).

I found much in both books to agree with, especially when they attacked the thinking and actions of those with whom I disagree.  Of course, neither of them would agree with me, as both would consider me a fundamentalist.

I won't spend much space attempting to refute these people.  They appear and present themselves as much more learned and erudite than people such as I.  But I will say a few things about where their journey takes them, which appears to be nowhere.

Harris presents himself as a consistent full-blown materialist.  However, he is unlike Richard Dawkins, who attempted to find a biological/materialist reason behind religion and ethics and consciousness itself.  Harris gets really fuzzy when it comes to these matters and ends up saying things that seem quite religious.  However, he claims that his idea of "spirituality" differs from religion and that spiritual experiences "are worth seeking" although "the popular religious ideas that have grown up around them, especially in the West, are as dangerous as they are incredible" (page 40).

Schaefer too ends up with his feet firmly planted in mid-air.  (I believe that I got that phrase from something his father wrote or said.)  His opposition to dogmatism, whether religious or atheistic, leaves him in a position which I'd have to describe as dogmatic uncertainty.  He is a member of a traditional, ritualistic church and takes comfort in this, even though he has doubts about God.  He finds ancient Christian writings and traditions more to his liking than the Scriptures.  He, like Harris wants "spirituality," which he feels he finds not in dogma, but in experience, much like those existentialists with whom his father did battle.

So, what do I conclude after reading these two books?  That these two men who disagree with each other are very much alike and much like the ones they criticize.  Both are very sure of their own positions and feel that those they disagree with may even be dangerous.  Both, while abhorring dogmatism, are extremely dogmatic themselves.  Harris is certain that he has a corner on the truth, that all his beliefs are empirical and based on reason.  Schaeffer is much fuzzier and is certain that one cannot be certain.

Both, however, are religious.  Schaeffer enjoys religious rites and feelings even while he is not certain that God even exists.  Harris is certain God does not exist, yet finds comfort in meditation, which he insists is "empirical."

My certainty in the truth of my own religious beliefs is, of course, slammed by both.  Harris and Schaeffer both say beliefs such as mine are untrue; however both retreat into religious ways of dealing with life, based on their concepts of truth.


Canadian Atheist said...

Dear, Bill. This is a very interesting blog post. Thanks for writing it.

However, I am forced to disagree with it to some degree.

You use the words 'religious', 'fundamentalist' and 'dogmatic' interchangeably and in my opinion, incorrectly, in order to make your point.

The way you use 'religious' allows the word to lose all meaning. Most people, when they think of religion, don't think about a guy meditating. They think of a church, people singing hymns, a guy (or lady) in robes chanting and preaching from a book. Your definition would allow you to call any number of things I do, religious.

For example, I feel a deep peace when working out and stretching. Does this mean I'm religious? I also feel a sense of calm and awe when I'm out in nature. Does that mean I'm religious?

Your use of 'fundamentalist' is extremely wrong in my opinion. In order to be a fundamentalist, you need a scripture. There is NO scripture in atheism.


From the Oxford dictionary: "A form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture"

Finally, you say that Harris would consider you a fundamentalist, but I think that's untrue. He'd probably think of you as a moderate, which he makes a distinction about in his book.

From his book:

"The texts themselves are unequivocal: they are perfect in all their parts. By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question—i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us—religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness."

Bill Ball said...

Hi CA.
I figured you'd be replying to this one.
Yes, I do think that those feelings you describe are religious feelings and in this sense you are religious.
And perhaps Harris would consider me a moderate - but as the quote you give makes clear, he still would have no use for me.
My closing comment was, as I said, a "guess," but I'm pretty sure of this, though my definition of fundamentalist is a bit broader than yours.