First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Monday, November 27, 2006

"Too Much Religion?" by Rev. Tom Schade

Sermon Delivered on November 26, 2006

First Reading: Isaiah 44:12-20
Second Reading: Excerpts from the Epilogue of "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris.

This morning I have departed from my usual practice around readings. I try not to read readings that are that long. And I generally avoid readings that I disagree with. I don’t like to read something so that I can argue with it during the sermon. Readings, in my mind, should be inspirational.

But I wanted to give you a taste of Sam Harris’ book: The End of Faith. Harris’s book is like one of those people who corner you at a party and proceed to yell at you about his or her greatest passion. There isn’t a lot of nuance in what they are saying And you agree whole heartedly about a third of the time, and are intrigued about a third of the time, but the final third seems a little crazy. Sam Harris pushes you, the reader, around.

Harris’ book is of this time, the first five or six years in the 21st century. According to him, the main danger in the world is Islamic fundamentalism. He is also opposed to Christian fundamentalism, details the crimes of the Medieval Catholic church in the Inquisition, and lays the blame for the Holocaust on religious doctrine. But the reader senses that it is Islamic fundamentalism that most haunts Harris now. That is what he spends the most time on and where he has the greatest passion.

And I share his general point: On the one side, Muslim fundamentalism and jihad.

On the other side, Christian fundamentalism.

Both imagine an apocalyptic ending of history in which God intervenes in history to allow the believers to triumph while the unbelievers suffer and die.

Both imagine that the world is moving toward a Clash of Civilizations or a Final Religious War.
Unstated in those scenarios, of course, is that the vast majority of the world’s people, the people like you and me, are to be collateral damage, not just metaphorically, but in actuality, as weapons of mass destruction are now accessible to many more countries and movements around the world.

I believe that this is an accurate description of the peril that the world faces.

And if we are to form ourselves as the C.D.S.L.F. – The Collateral Damage Survival and Liberation Front -- a world wide movement of those of us who do not want to die in somebody else’s Armageddon – we need to diagnose the root cause of this situation accurately and propose the right cure.

Sam Harris believes that the root of the problem lies in religious faith, by which he means belief in religious teachings that have no basis in scientific fact or reason and which are preserved in human culture in religious texts and traditions. Religious faith functions like a portal through which the tribal hatred and narrow views of centuries and millennia past are given entry into today’s world, where they are still unquestioned and unchallenged.

Harris makes no real distinction between “moderate” religious beliefs and “extreme” religious beliefs. Religious moderates still validate the same mental process – taking religious teachings on faith – as do extremists. Once you start quoting the Bible as normative, as being authoritative, even about something so benign as “loving your neighbor as yourself”, you have, in Harris’ opinion, also left the field open for the extremist who will take the harsh judgments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy to heart. Or who want to conduct war in the manner prescribed by Joshua.

The problem with moderates is that they are tolerant.
“Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of Go, but they want us to keep using the word “God” as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world – to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish – is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness.”

For Harris, the only hope of human survival and flourishing is that humanity should give up religious faith of all types. Or as he says” An utter revolution in our thinking could be accomplished in a single generation: if parents and teachers would merely give honest answers to the questions of every child.”

And so, here at the first meeting of the Collateral Damage Survival and Liberation Front, we have a motion, a resolution, and a plan of action proposed by Mr. Sam Harris, on how to proceed, in order to avoid the world ending in a religious war between Christian and Muslim extremists.

Whereas, religious believers threaten to end the world in an orgy of religious violence and whereas, religious faith underpins the tendency toward self-destructive violence,
Be it therefore resolved, that humanity will give up religious faith immediately and be it further resolved, that this be accomplished by every parent and teacher telling the truth to their children in all cases.

Can I get a second?
Of course, I can.

My question is “while we are at it, can I get a pony too?”
My question is sarcastic and intended for a laugh, but if the situation is as serious as Harris argues that it is, and I do agree with him there, then his solution doesn’t make any sense. He argues that the greatest threat to humanity is that most people think badly about life, death and religion and that the solution is that we should change our minds.

Anyone whose plans for a better world involve a rapid advance in human consciousness, such as the people of the world giving up their religions, is not being very realistic.

In fact, what becomes clear through the rest of Harris’ book is he believes that war with Islam is necessary and has already begun. He is more than willing to fight the religious war that the Islamic fundamentalists have been trying to provoke us into, and in which our Christian fundamentalists are already enlisted.

Is there another way to approach the problem posed by the rush to Armageddon, toward the apocalyptic religious war envisioned by some?

Would a different diagnosis of the problem we face lead us in a better direction?

Let’s back up and talk about religions for a moment.

Religions are like cathedrals. Religions are ancient on-going collective works of multi-media art, always growing and always evolving. They are collections of music, and art, and literature, and words. The World’s Religions are humanity’s greatest cultural creations. They are giant imaginative understandings of who we human beings are, and what we are like, and what we do that is full of love and wonder. The World’s religions are imaginative understandings of how we fail, and how we recover from our failures, and how the universe is so constructed that we have a place in it.

Religions try to describe a mysterious source of moral authority that seems to order the Universe, even if imperfectly.

And however one describes that ultimate source of moral Authority, the religious imagination draws a picture, creates a model, of how that Authority makes its presence known in the world of men and women. How do we discern the voice of God among the clack and clatter of the world? Where do we find it?

I define the religious problem facing humanity differently than Sam Harris. He says that problem as religious faith in general. To me, the problem is not religious faith per se, but external sources of religious authority. External sources of religious authority are those which place the final arbiter of religious truth outside the individual – external to the person. The Magisterium of the Roman Catholic church, the Bible if understood as inerrant word of God, the Koran, which was dictated directly by God.

An internal source of religious authority, on the other hand, is within the person: it my determination of what is true and meaningful to me. It is my reading of texts, and my freedom to read them, or reject them, as I see fit. It is my use of reason, and my weighing of the evidence; it is my emotional response to the world around me; it is my own mystic experiences, or reflections. It is my willing submission to a tradition that I have decided is worthy of my life.
Whether one sees the source of religious authority as external, in scripture or hierarchy or tradition, or internal, in conscience, in personal reflection, in private study or meditation, this is not just a philosophical argument. At the heart of any system of religious authority, there are social relationships at stake, there is power. External Religious authority is enforced by people and confers power onto particular individuals and groups. The priest has power in the community.

If your community believes that kissing frogs is a necessary step to salvation, people who own swamps will become rich and powerful. Religious beliefs have political and social consequences. I believe that external systems of religious authority are idolatry, in that they try to capture and freeze God in a human creation, as sure as Isaiah described it. But what I want to stress is that religious idolatry is a social process, which leads to relationships of domination and subordination in the community.

Look at American Protestant fundamentalism. It argues that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, which trumps all other forms of knowledge. Who is empowered by such a claim? People who control the process by which the Bible is read and interpreted. There was a time in American history when the small town minister was the smartest and most educated man in the village. And what he knew was the Bible. Protestant fundamentalism is, in part, an effort to maintain the social power of the Protestant clergyman. He knows the most important form of knowledge that there is.

When you pose the fundamental philosophical conflict in the world today as between Religious Faith and Reason, as Sam Harris does, the future looks dark and grim, a world-wide war unfolding.

When you pose the fundamental religious conflict in the world today as between systems of external authority on the one hand, and systems of internal sources of authority on the other, the future is not so bleak.

On the one hand, there are all the oppressive systems that come from idolatry. But as powerful as those are, on the other is the most powerful force active in the world today, and that is… the accelerating desire of individuals to seek their own freedom, self-determination and happiness. The desire of people to be individuals, to claim their own authority over their own life.

We see it in the world wide growth of secularism and the world-wide shrinkage of the religious realm. People pursue their own happiness. We also see it the growth of what Harris dismisses as meaningless moderating forms of religion. We ourselves are evidence of that: Unitarianism and Universalism emerged out of Christianity, a religious culture that looked as closed and totalitarian as anything before or since. We grew to believe that God is present in this world in the thoughts, words and actions of the inspired individual; that God is not present in books, or the bread and wine, or in any sacred text, but as the Holy Spirit speaking directly to the solitary human soul. And from that insight, we developed the covenanted democratic religious community. And from that insight, we came to understand the need for tolerance and interfaith respect, and interfaith dialogue.

Where shall we place our hopes for our own future? In war and religious conflict, and Armageddon – and believe me, a war between the Secular Rational and Scientific West against Muslim fundamentalism is just as much an Armageddon as any proposed Rapture – or in the process of interfaith dialogue, tolerance, and personal liberation?

The latter is our only hope.


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