I had an interesting conversation with a friend today. He had just finished reading Sam Harris Letter to a Christian Nation, and being a (rather liberal) Christian himself, I was quite interested in his take on the book. Essentially, he thought that Harris was protesting too much over religion as a root of evil, and asserted that virtually every world conflict, from the Crusades to Manifest Destiny to the conflicts in Northern Ireland to 9/11 were really struggles over culture, ethnicity, politics, or land or other resources. Religion, he said, was always a pretext to cover simple human greed and “class struggle.”
I told him this view surprised me— the willingness to die as the 9/11 hijackers did most often arises in the case of religious martyrs. I mentioned that Christians will often give, as a reason for their belief, that many early Christians were willing to die as martyrs for their beliefs; a fact that gives weight to modern belief. The argument goes that people who die as martyrs believe that they will in fact benefit from dying (in the afterlife) so they must have good reasons for their belief. My friend’s reaction was that he had not heard of Christians giving this reason for belief, although I assured him I had encountered it on a number of occasions.
We were finally able to agree that religion is at least one factor among many that leads to conflict. I felt this was a minor victory in our debate, as he seemed quite resistant to finger religious superstition as a source of any human misery. I tried to enlarge the context of the problem by pointing out that Harris sees religion as an important component of a larger problem: dogmatic belief systems of all kinds. Religious people are dogmatic about the truth of their belief system’s propositions.
“Unlike you?” my friend asked, slyly.
I considered. “Look at the book, The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is perhaps the leading public atheist of our time. The core of his book lies in Chapter 4, entitled ‘Why there almost certainly is no God.’ Does that sound like a dogmatic statement? Is he saying, ‘There is definitely no God?’ Is he saying, ‘Any kind of God is impossible?’ No. He has beliefs on the matter (well-founded I think,) but he remains open to new evidence. Now, how many Christians are willing to make the complementary statement, “There almost certainly is a God?” How would they feel about leaving the door open to the possibility that God doesn’t exist? Who really has the dogma?”
He had no answer.