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Faith and Reason and Writers

The intrepid Maud attended this year’s PEN Faith & Reason event, and did us all the favor of posting a lengthy report on the goings on. Her closing statement:

By the end of the night, Russell, a science guy, shared Michael Orthofer’s opinion that the focus of the event was too heavily tilted toward faith, “with reason as the afterthought or occasional counterweight.” They’re right: the discussion was largely religion-centered.

Overall (from my agonistic but faith-sympathetic perspective) this focus followed from the idea that religious extremism of various kinds is one of the greatest obstacles to harmony in our increasingly globalized world. Some authors worked toward the notion that faith isn’t inherently bad — that reason, too, can be problematic. Others charged that religious faith is backward or insidious. A few seemed to believe it may be the death of us all.


From Maud’s report, it doesn’t sound like anybody suggested that faith might actually be salvific. From my extremely humble perspective, this may possibly indicate a flaw in PEN’s invitation decisions. Would it have killed them to invite one serious believer, one person who saw faith as not only human, not only compatible with reason, but as a real (if still msyterious) and transcendent good? They could’ve invited Ron Hansen – he’s got cred. Or Alice McDermott. Just somebody.


  1. j. christian says:

    You hope for too much. Here is an excerpt from a review of the 2005 PEN winner of first nonfiction:

    In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (Norton, 2004), Harris calls religious beliefs “antithetical to our survival.” Cataloging passages in the Bible and Koran that support martyrdom and the killing of nonbelievers, he warns that those who consider such texts literal truth now have access to weapons of mass destruction.

    “Our world is fast succumbing to the activities of men and women who would stake the future of our species on beliefs that should not survive an elementary school education,” he writes. “That so many of us are still dying on account of ancient myths is as bewildering as it is horrible, and our own attachment to these myths, whether moderate or extreme, has kept us silent in the face of developments that could ultimately destroy us.”

    Harris, who graduated in 2000 after stopping out to study Eastern philosophies and is pursuing a PhD in neuroscience, urges society to stop tacitly tolerating beliefs that cannot be backed by evidence. The idea that a cracker turns into the body of Jesus, he says by way of example, is no more supportable than a claim that frozen yogurt renders a person invisible. People should consider the Bible and the Koran akin to Greek mythology, and think of God no differently than they would Zeus. “In almost every other area of our lives, when people hold strong convictions without evidence, they get pretty swiftly marginalized in our culture,” Harris says. “It’s really only on matters of faith where a radical exception is being made. That double standard is something I’m criticizing.”

  2. J. Christian,

    Herein lies the rub:

    “graduated in 2000 after stopping out to study Eastern philosophies.”

    As the saying goes, if you stare long enough into the abyss (which is the heartless heart and soulless soul of Eastern philosophy), the abyss starts staring out of you …

    The jig is rigged – just like the Jesus Seminar and other such “looks” at faith. One might as well invite Nazis to a roundtable on Jewish culture or Communists to a motivational conference for the Fortune 500 crowd.

    Ah well. Like an aging tree wilted by desert winds, the world shrinks a little more, and Sauron spreads his blight a little more around this middling Middle Earth…


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