God help us when faith silences reason

Published January 7, 2007

According to televangelist Pat Robertson, God told him that the United States will be victim to a massive terror attack in 2007. That comes on the heels of his 2006 prognostication in which God told him the United States would be hit by terrible storms and a possible tsunami. He claims that the spring storms in New England last year partially fulfilled his prediction.

But if God is talking to Robertson, why is the Almighty being so cagey? Why didn't God alert Robertson to the terror attacks that would occur on Sept. 11, 2001? Why all the vagueness about precisely what will happen and when?

The most sensible explanation, and the one most readers are probably thinking, is that Robertson is not actually conversing with God. Robertson is making this stuff up out of his own warped imagination and hedging his bets by being hazy on the details.

We think this because there is a healthy skepticism about televangelists who claim to be speaking for God.

But Robertson has been declaring his direct line to God for a long time, and even when he gets things wrong - raising the specter of a fallible deity or a feint by Robertson - he retains a remarkably large and loyal following as well as the support of elite Republican political leaders. His television show, The 700 Club, has a daily viewership of more than 800,000, people who undoubtedly think of themselves as the "values" voters of America.

To these viewers and the millions like them, author Sam Harris has addressed his Letter to a Christian Nation. In its sparse 90 pages, Harris makes a clear, direct challenge to those who subscribe to the inerrancy of the Bible, the existence of a personal God who responds to prayer and the exalted morality of the Christian religion.

You're wrong, Harris says, and by harboring such irrational and demonstrably false views (for example, the Bible has many internal inconsistencies and even bad math) you are hampering reason and human advancement.

Harris' book is a study in inherent logic and sense which makes it a withering rejoinder to evangelicals and fundamentalists. But it is also a warning to religious moderates - people who use religion to fill communal and emotional needs without plumbing faith and its relationship to reality too deeply. Harris takes them to task, too, for not using the same standards of reasonableness when it comes to religion that they use in all other spheres of life.

The danger of this lapse, Harris rightly notes, is that religion has been and still is the cause of terrific human suffering (undeniably tempered by many good works). Yet its purveyors are often not called to task, protected by the shield of "religious tolerance."

The hostility and violence generated from religious differences in places like Iraq, Nigeria, the Balkans and Israel is an obvious consequence of religious certainty leading to blind hate. But there are more subtle ways that religion harms more than helps.

Harris uses the example of stem cell research, in which the "values" voter would rather protect the "life" of a human embryo of 150 cells (compared with more than 100,000 in the brain of a fly) than allow extremely promising medical research to go forward. Research that has the potential of offering breakthroughs for therapeutic care for virtually every human disease or injury has been stymied due to lack of government funding because conservative Christians believe that a microscopic clump of cells has been imbued with a soul.

"The moral truth here is obvious," Harris asserts. "Anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics. The link between religion and 'morality'... is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion."

Harris cites numerous other examples, such as the religiously grounded opposition to the new inoculation against the human papillomavirus (HPV).

The vaccine would shield women from a disease that infects half of all Americans and leads to nearly 5,000 deaths from cervical cancer every year. Yet some Christian conservatives believe that the HPV acts as a disincentive to premarital sex. Their "moral" equation is that an increase in human suffering, disease and death is an acceptable trade-off to potentially reducing fornication. That same calculation keeps condoms out of HIV prevention programs.

And these people get away with calling themselves "moral."

Why do we give religious personages such a pass? And why don't we laugh Robertson right out of Dodge? Because way too often, faith silences reason, even among reasonable people.