Much like the post I wrote about Rabbi Yoffie, the debate between Sam Harris and Mark Oppenheimer is between two people who share many values. It’s Harris, the atheist, versus Oppenheimer, the pro-religious academic. Here are some highlights of Oppenheimer’s opening statement with my comments:
First, religion responds to a deep, satisfying human need for ritual. Throughout human history (and certainly among my three young daughters, who are the nearest evidence at hand), people have liked occasion, routine, ceremony….
As a proud Secular Humanistic Jew, I am deeply committed to adapting ritual and ceremony for non-theists. I celebrate holidays and bat mitzvas. Does that make me religious? Well, I’m a declared atheist, so I don’t think so.
Yesterday I had a nice conversation with a rabbi who felt that Secular Humanistic Judaism and non-theistic Unitarianism can rightly be called religions. I can’t agree. To me, religion always has a theistic element. In any case, I agree with Oppenheimer on the importance of ceremony. It has nothing to do with faith.
Second, religion often organizes the human quests for ethics and meaning. To think about the common good, the purpose of life and how to live, it has proven useful to use religious stories or theology.
I disagree profoundly with Oppenheimer. Religious stories and theology can be used to make any point. Traditionally religious people usually use it to make points that help to oppress other people. To the extent that religious moderates are feminist, pro-gay and so forth, they most certainly did not learn it from their religions.
Finally, religion is fun!
A lot of things are fun. That doesn’t make them true. Besides, as I’ve already pointed out, nothing is stopping people from taking the good stuff from religion and leaving behind the supernatural nonsense.
Harris’ opening remarks were great. Here’s the best bit:
There is no denying that religious faith sometimes moves people to act with extraordinary probity and compassion. In that sense, I must admit that religion is, on occasion, a force for good. The important question, however, is whether religion is ever the best force for good at our disposal. And I think the answer to this question is clearly “no”—because religion gives people bad reasons for being good where good reasons are available.
Bullseye. But this was the money line as far as I’m concerned:
What a person believes about the nature of reality matters….
The truth actually matters! It matters that we follow a moral code based on reason and not superstition or ancient texts. It matters that we uncover the mysteries of life by science and not through fiction.
Why don’t people like Oppenheimer understand that?