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Do we need faith? Believe it

Lee Siegel is the author, most recently, of "Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television." His "Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob" will be published in January.

Voltaire famously quipped that if God didn’t exist, he would have to be invented. American publishers would enthusiastically agree because God, it turns out, is a consistent moneymaker -- especially, these days, for those who want to attack him.

In the last few years, so many books have rolled off the presses challenging God, belief and religion itself (by Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger and Christopher Hitchens, among others) that a visitor from another planet might think America was in the iron throes of priestly repression. You’d never know that we live in the age of Paris Hilton, HBO, Internet porn and flip-flops. The 17th century Catholic Church proscribed Galileo -- just imagine what it would have done with the creators of “Entourage.”

Nor would anyone know from reading the latest rash of anti-God books that promiscuous sex and polymorphous sexuality are taken for granted in modern-day America (let’s see a conservative Supreme Court try to roll that back); that the separation of church and state is inscribed in our Constitution; that no priest, minister or rabbi holds any top position in the federal government; and that even the state board of education in Kansas recently forbade the teaching of creationism. The Catholic Church imprisoned Galileo and hounded Voltaire and his fellow philosophers; Harris & Co., meanwhile, are dining out on their self-styled iconoclasm in every corner of the media.

The anti-God books have appeared in the wake of two developments: the rise of Islamic fundamentalism overseas and the religious right’s enormous influence on President Bush’s policies here at home. But as responses, the secular jeremiads don’t make a whole lot of sense.

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Who, exactly, are they aimed at? Who is the ideal reader of these attacks on belief in God? Not Muslim or Christian fundamentalists, obviously, because one of the engines driving religious fundamentalism today is, precisely, a hostility toward modern science. If anyone thinks that Dawkins’ book, “The God Delusion” -- with its “scientific” attempts to refute the existence of God -- is going to persuade today’s religious fanatics, here or abroad, to loosen up and enjoy a little MTV, you have to ask yourself just who is “deluded.” It’s hard to imagine anyone abandoning his faith after reading Harris’ condescending polemic, or the science of Dawkins and Dennett, or Hitchens’ vitriol.

The attacks in the books often don’t make much sense either. For instance, Bush and his gang preach Christian values while lying us into a slaughterhouse overseas, ransacking our public coffers and ignoring social inequities and iniquities at home -- and so our heroic anti-religionists attack . . . Christian values. But shouldn’t they be attacking Bush and Co.'s hypocrisy in betraying Christian values instead? Such polemics are a case of throwing the sacred bathwater out with the baby. The analytic philosophers used to call such arguments that so sorely miss the mark “category mistakes.”

If anything, you could imagine these assaults on religion becoming infamous in the Muslim world, confirming for fundamentalists that the West is every bit as godless -- and hostile to Islam -- as they thought. Hitchens’ intemperate invective against Christianity, Judaism and Islam, for its part, will probably strengthen the resolve of fanatics in all three religions. What an intellectual mess.

Voltaire and his colleagues attacked the dominant values of their day, at great risk to themselves. By almost comical contrast, the new anti-religionists are safely needling the dominant liberal culture’s favorite bete noire. They are publishing their books in an atmosphere of complacency and self-congratulation; they preach to the secular converted, who are buying the books in droves. I’m not a particularly religious person. These arguments don’t offend me or my beliefs. But they make me concerned nevertheless, because I think they strike a blow against something more important (at least to me) than belief in God. In their contempt for any belief that cannot be scientifically or empirically proved, the anti-God books are attacking our inborn capacity to create value and meaning for ourselves.

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To be sure, the current assault on religious faith is the product of a centuries-long movement, beginning with the Enlightenment, toward the supremacy of science and empiricism and a rejection of unverifiable beliefs. But that campaign against religious faith and superstition triumphed long ago in the West, where we now live in a technological, irreligious age beyond the wildest Enlightenment hopes. When our anti-religionists attack the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic, they are, in effect, attacking our right to believe in unseen, unprovable things at all. Their assault on religious faith amounts to an attack on the human imagination.

For the imagination is what embodies concepts, ideas and values that cannot be scientifically verified and that have no practical usefulness. Because the existence of God is undemonstrable, unverifiable and the object of an impractical leap of faith, religion, it seems to me, is one of imagination’s last strongholds.

Credo quia absurdum est. I believe because it is absurd. That sentiment -- either a corruption or a paraphrase of the saying of an early church father -- is the essence of religious belief. By taking a leap of faith in God, you create value out of nothingness. The more difficult it is to believe, the stronger the faith that flies in the face of absurdity. Your willingness to stake your life on the possibility of an impossibility makes a fact out of a fantasy.

You don’t have to be a religious person to cherish the idea of faith in the absurd. When artists have an unverifiable, unprovable inspiration, and then seek to convey it in words or images, they take a leap of faith every bit as vertiginous as that of the religious person.

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The leap of faith is really a very ordinary operation. We take it every time we fall in love, expect kindness from someone, impulsively sacrifice some little piece of our self-interest. After all, you cannot prove the existence of truth, beauty, goodness and decency; you cannot prove the dignity of being human, or your obligation to treat people as ends and not just as means. You take a gamble on the existence of these inestimable things. For that reason, when you lay scientific, logical and empirical siege to the leap of faith at the core of the religious impulse, you are not just attacking faith in God. You are attacking the act of faith itself, faith in anything that can’t be proved. But it just so happens that the qualities that make life rich, joyful and humane cannot be proved.

Judging religion by its instances of fanaticism is like judging a democracy by its crime rate. You lose far more than you gain. In the case of Harris & Co., their stingy and narrow-minded anti-God polemics are perhaps having an unintended effect. Far from “enlightening” our benighted (if sizzling and fluorescent) society, they may well be moving us into a new dark age of heartless utilitarianism.


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