The Fantasies of Sam Harris

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Middle East, Religion

I find Sam Harris slightly less annoying than, say, Richard Dawkins, but that’s not saying much. Much like Dawkins, Sam Harris is intelligent and articulate and a seething mass of self-deception. He’s a smart guy soaking in his own bullshit, basically.

If you know me at all you know I don’t give a hoo-haw whether someone believes in God or not, as long as they aren’t being missionaries about it, either way. I’m fine with atheists. I call myself that sometimes, although I prefer the label non-theist if I have to be labeled. What bugs me aren’t so much atheists but anti-theists, people with a knee-jerk disdain for all religion. Anti-theists are inevitably ignorant of religion — including non-theistic ones — and assume it all to be just varying degrees of fundamentalism.

Harris also represents another crew I can do without, the true believers of scientism. Scientism — the current and more dogmatic form of what is also called positivism —  is not science; it’s a blind faith that the scientific method is the measure of all truth, and whatever is not subject to falsification by the scientific method is just superstitious nonsense. Scientism is itself unscientific, since its premise is not subject to testing by the scientific method, but the scientismists get very angry when you point that out to them.

You may have heard about the televised flame over Islam among Bill Maher, Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Maher’s show last week. Affleck isn’t the guy I would have chosen to stand up to Harris, and I confess I haven’t taken the time to watch it. (I defer to Juan Cole’s analysis of the event.) Nicolas Kristof was on the show, too, and apparently could get few words in edgewise. But the fallout has been interesting, possibly more so than the flame itself.  People clearly are judging the “winner” based on their prior opinions of Islam. And now Harris writes on his blog that Affleck and Kristof were mean to him. “Affleck and Nicholas Kristof then promptly demonstrated my thesis by mistaking everything Maher and I said about Islam for bigotry toward Muslims,” Harris writes.

But Harris’s bigotry to Muslims, and toward all religion generally, has been commented on for years; he really ought to be used to it by now. For the ultimate analysis of Harris’s twisted worldview, see this 2011 article by Jackson Lears, “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris.”

There is copious data in the field of psychology suggesting that people are not nearly as rational as we think we are, and the myth-making parts of our brains are still churning out myths. Generally without being conscious of it we’re all creating a narrative, a personal myth, that explains us to ourselves. As we go through life we make up a story about ourselves and our role in the world, and who we think we are, and we process our experiences by fitting them into the narrative. I wrote in the book,

In his book The Unpersuadables, which really is the best thing I’ve read on this topic, Will Storr suggests that our thinking skills haven’t evolved beyond the age of myth as much as we think. Our brains are wired to look for connections and meaning, and so we see connections and meaning whether they are there or not. Our experiences are framed by our personal, mythical (and usually self-flattering) narratives, not data. We feel emotions and impulses, generated in the subconscious, that we cannot explain, so we make up stories to explain them. We create our stories from our biases, however, not from objective fact, and that’s how we interpret the world. And we all do this, religious or not.

Indeed, it may be that the most foolish belief of all is the belief that any of us are rational. The only difference between a sensible person and a kook may be that the sensible person holds irrational beliefs that conform to a socially acceptable norm, while the kook is more creative.

Further, the social psychologists tell us our opinions on just about everything are being generated by our subconscious, and without realizing it we then craft a story to tell ourselves why we believe as we do. We’re all being jerked around by biases unless we come to know ourselves very, very well and recognize the emotional cues we’re getting from our ids, and make a conscious choice to ignore them. And that would be one person in a million.

And a bit later in the book, I wrote,

What’s happening with scientism believers (scientismists?), seems to me, is that they very much want to believe they are as entirely rational as computers and utterly unlike those irrational religion-believing people they so dislike. So the myth-making parts of their brains have developed a strong cognitive bias to “confirm” their belief in absolute rationality and of themselves as relentlessly rational. They’re living in a myth that they’re not living in a myth.

I say a person cannot be genuinely rational until he recognizes and acknowledges his own irrationality. Otherwise, he’s just kidding himself.

IMO this is precisely what’s going on with Harris. He is living in a myth that he is entirely rational, and in his mind everything he thinks must be rational because he’s the one thinking it. If you disagree with him, you are being emotional and irrational.

Harris’s and Dawkins’s groupies are just as bad. Find any online article critical of one of the Prophets of New Atheism and you get hundreds of comments sputtering in outrage that anyone dare question the wisdom of The Prophets. It doesn’t matter how clearly the article writer has expressed himself and supported his views; whatever he writes will be dismissed as ad hominem and even as bigoted toward atheism. This is true even if the author acknowledges that he is an atheist himself. (This review of the first volume of Dawkins’s autobiography is a good example. If you read it, then see “John Gray’s scurrilous attack on Richard Dawkins” for the knee-jerk defense of a true believer against anything short of fawning deference toward the Great Man.)

In the book I make mention of Harris’s ideas on science-based morality, which he described in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values and elsewhere, and which I dismantled in some detail. Harris really does see the ideal human as absolutely rational and as logical as a computer, which is nonsense, and as a neuroscientist he ought to know better. In fact, we’re all an oozy mess of biases and various psychological pathologies trying to cope with it all, and our brief moments of pure rational thought are like lightning flashes in the sky of our otherwise muddled understanding. That may sound pessimistic, but it’s the truth, and I honestly don’t believe anyone can be rational at all until he or she owns up to that and makes allowance for it.

Regarding Islam, Harris is stuck in the belief that the ghastly violence and extremism roiling the near and middle east are entirely coming from Islam, which is irrational on its face considering that there really are devout Muslims who are gentle and nonviolent human beings and not violent psycho-pathological killers. New Atheists assume all religion exists on a sliding crazy scale, and the more “devout” one is the more extreme, crazy, and potentially dangerous one is, but it actually doesn’t work that way. As I observed in the book,

Violent religious factions around the globe appear to share some characteristics, and one of these is a tendency to disregard doctrines that counsel putting away hatred and avoiding violence. In fact, the more radical and violent the group, the less likely the fanatics are to accept their religion’s doctrines in any holistic way. Instead, they tend to make a fetish out of some doctrines, usually those involving enforcement of morality and respecting the religion’s deities and symbols, while ignoring deeper spiritual doctrines about humility and compassion. We can see this clearly in radical Islam, but the same tendencies are apparent in hyper-conservative Christianity and Judaism as well as in the militant Buddhist monks.

As I document at some length in the chapter on religious violence, “religious violence” never happens in a vacuum. If you look deeply and objectively at the episodes of religious violence around the world today and back through history, they are never just about religion. Violence happens during a confluence of particular cultural, social, political, historical, and sometimes religious factors, usually combining some kind of “holy cause” — which is not necessarily a religious one — with a fanatical grievance, an unshakable belief that one has been wronged somehow and is entitled to get back at somebody for it, a belief that can manifest in many forms. Sometimes religion is a primary motivator, but more often, when religion is a factor at all, it’s used to package the rage and give atrocity a fig leaf of respectability.

Among New Atheism’s pet dogmas is the belief that religion is the cause of nearly all wars. I understand there is a massive tome called the Encyclopedia of Wars that analyzes wars, mentioned recently in a Timothy Egan column. “Of 1,723 armed conflicts documented in the three-volume ‘Encyclopedia of Wars,’” he says, “only 123, or less than 7 percent, involved a religious cause.” I would have guessed a bit higher than that, frankly, but I will assume that’s accurate.

New Atheists get around apparently non-religious reasons for war by equating all ideological fanaticism as “religious,” even when the fanaticism has a stated anti-religious basis, as in Communism.  In the late Christopher Hitchens’s largely ridiculous book God Is Not Great, Hitch supported his argument that religion is the root of all evil essentially by classifying things he disapproved of as religious and those he approved of as not religious. Thus, Mao Zedong was religious, but Martin Luther King wasn’t. And Hitch believed himself to be entirely rational.

Islam actually is a hugely diverse tradition in which scripture and teachings are interpreted and practiced many different ways, which means anyone who ever speaks of Islam as if it were one monolithic thing should automatically be dismissed as ignorant. And if you can’t see the many historical, cultural, social and political factors fueling violence in the Muslim world, you are blind. There’s just no getting around that; you’ve got to be a blinkered idiot to assume Islam alone is the cause of the current madness. And since Sam Harris sees the world that way, I have to assume there’s something seriously wrong with him, and applied rational thinking isn’t it.

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34 Comments

  1. Dolorous Stroke  •  Oct 9, 2014 @10:43 am

    The Real Time video is worth watching if only for an excellent bit of snark from Affleck. As Harris pontificated about the failure of liberals (they’ve “let us down”) to realistically address the problems of Islam, Ben interjected, “Thank God you’re here.”

  2. c u n d gulag  •  Oct 9, 2014 @11:39 am

    Non-Theist.
    I love that!

    I’ve always called myself and Agnostic.
    I neither believe, nor do I disbelieve.
    But I try to live my life as if I believe that good will be rewarded, and bad and evil, will be punished.

    I wrote a comment here not too long ago about these Militant Atheists.
    I find them to be just as dogmatic, just as hard-headed, and just as demagogic as Fundamentalists of all religions.

    Let peaceful people worship or not worship as they please.
    What the f*ck business is it of anyone else, who or what people are worshipping – as long as they worship peacefully?

    “Violent religious factions around the globe appear to share some characteristics, and one of these is a tendency to disregard doctrines that counsel putting away hatred and avoiding violence. In fact, the more radical and violent the group, the less likely the fanatics are to accept their religion’s doctrines in any holistic way. Instead, they tend to make a fetish out of some doctrines, usually those involving enforcement of morality and respecting the religion’s deities and symbols, while ignoring deeper spiritual doctrines about humility and compassion. We can see this clearly in radical Islam, but the same tendencies are apparent in hyper-conservative Christianity and Judaism as well as in the militant Buddhist monks.”

    Beautifully put, maha.
    Truer words were never spoken.

    Follow “The Golden Rule,” folks.
    It’s not religious.
    It’s a goal worth pursuing.
    And we all need to live our daily lives with that in the front of our irrational little minds.

  3. joanr16  •  Oct 9, 2014 @12:05 pm

    mistaking everything Maher and I said about Islam for bigotry toward Muslims

    Aw jeez, man, really?! Making ugly, false assertions about a certain religion absolutely is an expression of bigotry toward that religion’s adherents. (For a person capable of thinking, I wouldn’t need to write that last sentence.)

    Also too, getting beat up by Ben Affleck is really sad. Someone’s moping.

    Finally, is it just me, or is anyone else pretty much done with Bill Maher?

  4. Ed  •  Oct 9, 2014 @12:57 pm

    Why would anyone settle for a third rate Lucretius like these guys when there are good recent translations of the real McCoy which capture much of the poetry of the original?

  5. buddhasteps  •  Oct 9, 2014 @1:33 pm

    I’m pretty much done in with the whole stupid thing. Fundamentalists of all stripes are ignorant,bigoted and otherwise not worth my time. The ONLY people I can find anywhere without an axe to grind are just plain, everyday Buddhists living in the moment as best they can. Humanity seems determined to go down the “this is the only way there is and I’ll destroy you if you don’t agree…with me!” Greed for power and money is paramount, as it has been before at times; this did not work out well before and it won’t now. Violent thugs of any religion are all the same; we never seem to learn.
    🙁

  6. Ed  •  Oct 9, 2014 @3:54 pm

    Well, people who are curious about God are always more interesting than people who are certain.

  7. Doug  •  Oct 9, 2014 @7:44 pm

    “Islam actually is a hugely diverse tradition in which scripture and teachings are interpreted and practiced many different ways, which means anyone who ever speaks of Islam as if it were one monolithic thing should automatically be dismissed as ignorant.

    That’s as good a summary as anyone could possibly write. The only point I would add is a question. How can you build a panel for a discussion of Islam without even attempting to include a Muslim? Not a representative of ISIS, but a mainstream American Muslim with a job and a family here. I know, there may not be a lot of Muslims eager to expose themselves to the barrage of accusations and harassment – but did they even try?

  8. erinyes  •  Oct 9, 2014 @9:13 pm

    Excellent commentary. As a non believer, I never went through the anger stage. I went from being a nice catholic boy to a man who discovered total liberation. Why be pissed over that ?
    I have learned that Islam, like any other religion is nuanced. I’m reminded of sting’s song from the 80’s, “if the Russians love their children too”. We’d better learn to get along, the world is so much smaller.

  9. Ed  •  Oct 9, 2014 @9:53 pm

    Two calamities befell us on 9-11. We lost 3000 people, and we lost our heads. The latter loss has proven to be more baleful, as it has contributed to the losses of many more than 3000 people in foreign wars to remake the greater Middle East. Sam Harris and people who think like him illustrate the dual nature of the disaster of that day.

  10. uncledad  •  Oct 10, 2014 @7:43 am

    “How can you build a panel for a discussion of Islam without even attempting to include a Muslim?”

    Yes but there was a jew on the panel so that counts twice? They know much more about Islam than actual muslims, silly!

  11. goatherd  •  Oct 10, 2014 @8:37 am

    “Generally without being conscious of it we’re all creating a narrative, a personal myth, that explains us to ourselves. As we go through life we make up a story about ourselves and our role in the world, and who we think we are, and we process our experiences by fitting them into the narrative. ”

    That really nails it. Once you start thinking along this line, dare I say it? A lot of things start to make sense.

    Does anyone remember the Bill Moyers series where a Christian, a Jew and and a Muslim discussed there faith and ideas? It might be worth digging up and watching again.

  12. Bob  •  Oct 10, 2014 @10:58 am

    Thanks Maha for your unique and wonderful way of looking at the “world of religion”…I have been baffled by the arguments and/or beliefs of some of these people…and you always have a really good way to explain or at least shed some light on the thought processes of some of these ahhh…experts??? Bill Maher is getting boring…now, John Oliver is another story…

  13. Phaedrus  •  Oct 11, 2014 @11:30 am

    Maha, I love your political commentary, so it really pains me to see just how terribly you misrepresent both Sam and Richard. They have both clearly spoken that their problem with religion is faith – the acceptance of “truth” based on bad evidence. Full stop. They have each said that religions that don’t make testable truth claims (“God is Love”, “God is the foundation of all being”) are not their concern. They have said, very clearly, that they understand they are not perfectly rational – and their answer to confirmation bias is the scientific method. They have also said that they have no idea if science is the answer to every question, but right now it is the way that works.
    I need to stop this because I’m starting to sputter at the computer and my kids are beginning to get nervous.
    I’m not defending all of Sam’s and Richard’s statements about Islam or women. I, too, find some of them problematic – but your representation of how they view science is completely wrong, and your readers are being misinformed.

  14. maha  •  Oct 11, 2014 @1:32 pm

    Robert, I love that you love my political commentary, but you don’t know religion from beans. Having written an outstanding book on the subject that you ought to read, I will give you a short lesson.

    First, what is religion? We in the 21st century West tend to think of religion as a belief system involving myths and Gods, but that’s a peculiarly modernist western view. Outside of Abrahamism (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), with the exception of Sikhism, religions are not primarily about the relationship of God or gods to humankind, but the relationship of the self to everything else throughout space and time. Where there are gods, they can be understood as archetypes.

    Even within Abrahamism, the notion that religion is mostly about uncritical belief in doctrine is belied by the huge tradition of Christian exegesis and commentary — which Dawkins in particular has pointedly refused to look at, because he’s made up his mind in advance it is stupid, an attitude generally called “prejudice.” The idea that scriptures were intended to be believed in literally is something that was denied explicitly by many of the great theologians, such as saints Augustine and Anselm, and indeed was quite unusual until the past three centuries or so. Instead, they were most often read allegorically for meaning, not “facts.”

    The one thing all religions have in common is they are all about relationship, of either the individual or tribe or humankind generally to *something* greater that represents the mystery of life and death, time and space, or self and everything else, which I call the Great Ineffable Whatever (GIW). The GIW can be understood as God, although not necessarily. And God is understood in infinite ways, most of which do not resemble a “sky fairy.” This connection is enabled through practices that might include prayer, worship, meditation, chanting, singing, dancing and martial arts. In most religions through most of human history, practices were more important than belief.

    Faith in the religious sense is not mere belief but is also trust, a trust in something probably unknowable and beyond the limited self. I like the definition of faith offered by Christian theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), which is “a centered act of the whole personality.” Tillich explicitly rejected faith “as an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence. . . . If this is meant, one is speaking of belief rather than faith.”

    In most religions the faith and practice are more important than belief in specific doctrines. In most religions belief ion doctrines is ancillary, not central. Doctrines support the faith and practice, but merely believing them has no real purpose without the faith and practice.

    For a lot of reasons that have been addressed in depth by scholars such as Karen Armstrong, Christianity and Islam in particular have bee infected by a modernist view that “truth” is something objectively verifiable as “fact,” which is not how “truth” was understood when scriptures were written, and this in turn has brought about this weird modern idea that religions are primarily about believing supernatural things, which most theologians of the past would deny.

    But Dawkins and Harris — and I really have read a lot of their stuff; don’t tell me what they say because I’ve seen it — arrogantly refuse to listen to religious people explain to them what they’ve gotten wrong. But most of the time they seriously do not know what they are talking about. They mistake the most stupid and backward parts of monotheism as the entirely of religion.

    As for how they view science, again, I’ve read their stuff. Harris in particular appears to be in love with the belief that science will resolve all mysteries any minute now. So I stand by what I have written.

  15. c u n d gulag  •  Oct 11, 2014 @1:44 pm

    WOW!
    Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeautiful, maha!!!

  16. inwitinthemidwest  •  Oct 11, 2014 @3:03 pm

    I’m with your fans here, but feel troubled by the fact that you didn’t view the kerfuffle itself, resorting instead to that venerable shield, Juan Cole. Never assume you can analyze a kerfuffle without experiencing it, please! If you have watched it by now, I am curious to see whether you have anything to add, or nothing…

  17. maha  •  Oct 11, 2014 @7:35 pm

    inwitinthemidwest — I’m not all that interested in the kerfuffle itself, as no one involved actually represented any sort of expertise in the subject. I’ve read enough of Sam Harris to know where his head is.

  18. paradoctor  •  Oct 11, 2014 @4:20 pm

    Dear maha: yes, but…

    Sure Islam isn’t necessarily bigoted or violent or backwards. There have been plenty of Islamic societies that lived out centuries of peace, prosperity, tolerance and intellectual progress. For instance, between them and the Hindus they invented positional numeration and the zero; which all by itself counts as a giant leap for all humankind. (Could you build this Internet using Roman numerals?) We owe the House of Islam a _lot_; it is a civilization with enormous creative potential.

    But… it hasn’t been living up to that potential lately, not for generations if not centuries. Note for instance the treatment of women, gender minorities, dissidents and apostates. Also there’s massive corruption and bad governance.

    But why? Is it their neighbor’s fault? Their own fault? Beats me. Maybe civilizations and faiths suffer these long cycles by fault of unity; the inertia of cohesion. Certainly European Christendom stagnated for centuries while Islam was inventing algebra and reinventing medicine, optics and navigation.

    Europe’s solution was systemic reform. Some say that they gave up being Christendom. Must the Middle East suffer the storms of reformation and counter-reformation?

    Now let’s look at Japan, China, India and the Asian tigers. They too were stagnant fairly recently; they too were savagely exploited by European imperialists; but now they’re on the modernization train. Admittedly that was after some 20th-century wars and revolutions and megadeaths, but nonetheless the gods didn’t interfere. How come?

  19. maha  •  Oct 11, 2014 @8:24 pm

    Pardoctor — How come? Well, as witnessed by violence in Burma and Sri Lanka, and some in Thailand, I’m not sure all the kinks have been worked out yet. Japan is an interesting case because it went through its “upheaval” period in a relatively condensed time. In the last half of the 19th century it went from being isolated and highly traditional to being a modern world power. Particularly after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, it was like the whole country suddenly rebooted itself, shook off the last of feudalism, and prepared to join the 20th century in one generation. All kinds of centuries-old traditions, like the samurai class, suddenly were abolished in favor of modernity. I think it burned them that those stupid clumsy white people had gotten ahead of them technologically. But then of course they went way overboard with the militarism thing. Japan doesn’t do anything half way.

    Going into the 20th century I don’t think either Japan or China were all that religious. Certainly there was religion, but people weren’t necessarily all that intense about it. It’s common for people in that part of the world to mix together elements of Confucianism and Buddhism and bits and pieces of either Shinto or Taoism, depending on geography, and not really being concerned about doctrinal clashes. In Japan, people traditionally had Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals, for example, because Shinto does better wedding and Buddhists do better funerals. I understand that in Chinese temples it’s not unusual to have Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian altars under one roof; a one-stop shop, if you will. It’s also the case that the Asian religions, with just a few exceptions, don’t concern themselves with proselytizing and converting people. Of course, some individuals are very devout and practice in one religious tradition exclusively, but on the whole people in Asia just don’t seem to get as bent out of shape about what other people are doing, religion-wise, as in Christian and Islamic countries. I sincerely think the religious unrest in Sri Lanka and Burma are partly the result of colonization. They’ve picked up ideas about religious exclusivity from Christian missionaries.

  20. erinyes  •  Oct 11, 2014 @6:43 pm

    Paradoctor makes some good points, however, there is diversity in the Muslim faith.
    The more secular Muslims in Malaysia are quite different than the strict conservative types in the wilds of Pakistan or the wahabbists in Saudi.

  21. paradoctor  •  Oct 11, 2014 @7:03 pm

    erinyes: indeed, and such diversity is both fissiparous and adaptive.

  22. inwitinthemidwest  •  Oct 11, 2014 @8:20 pm

    C’mon, Maha— watch it before it evaporates!

  23. paradoctor  •  Oct 11, 2014 @11:55 pm

    maha: Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand noted. I agree that the crazy can be anywhere. And come to think of it, the Japanese Emperor was considered a god; that was part of the militarism.

    But if you’re saying that Eastern spirituality is more accepting of religious inclusion than are the Abrahamic faiths, then aren’t you in some partial sense agreeing with Sam Harris?

  24. maha  •  Oct 12, 2014 @12:03 am

    // aren’t you in some partial sense agreeing with Sam Harris? //

    Sam Harris has on occasion said things I agree with. He’s a bright guy and he says a lot of things, so the odds of him being always wrong are remote. He still doesn’t “get” religion.

  25. Phaedrus  •  Oct 12, 2014 @12:12 am

    I appreciate your engagement, Maha. You are entitled to your view of what religion is, but my experience has been vastly different. I was not brought up an atheist, but enjoyed a childhood with a free-spirited mother who was searching. I’ve lived in Christian communes, beaten the drums in Hindu temples, worshiped on Saturday’s and gone to services all in German, to name a few. In none of these places did I experience the theology that you describe. My mother has now joined the ranks of the evangelicals that shape so much of our American politics. While far from being an educated theologian like you, I’ve taken the time to read Karen Armstrong, Bishop Spong, Native wisdom of the Navajo and Souix, the Anchor bible, the book of Mormon and many critiques – I’ve danced in drum circles and talked late into the night with wonderful people full of insight. After all of this, my considered opinion is that people see what they want to see, believe what they want to believe. The only system that actually tests it’s beliefs and discards the ones that don’t work is science. You are a lovely writer, but I’m afraid that I see very little truth in your description of what religion is and how it is practice by the bulk of our fellow humans. Most people believe there is a god who loves them and answers their prayers. These are the people who Sam and Richard are talking about.

  26. maha  •  Oct 12, 2014 @2:54 pm

    Phaedrus — If you indeed have had those experiences, then you remind me of a line from the Dhammapada — the spoon doesn’t taste the soup.

    Religion and science function as different epistemological systems exploring entirely different things, and the things religion deals with cannot be tested and verified except through personal experience. One of my ongoing arguments — and if you really have read Karen Armstrong you should know this — is that modern religion has taken a wrong turn and has forgotten its mystical roots. And in doing that it has become just a weird supernatural belief system, which is not what it is good for. When religion is “believed in” as if its doctrines and myths are just facts, it not only loses most of its meaning and transformative power, it becomes downright ridiculous.

    I realize there are people who don’t get mythos and mysticism, sort of the same way tone deaf people can’t keep a pitch, and if you don’t get them there’s no amount of explaining I can do that would make any difference. However, neither do I demand everybody be religious. If it’s not your thing, not a problem. Just leave it alone. And leave religious people alone unless they are doing something potentially damaging, in which case, speak out. Andrew O’Hehir wrote something recently that I’m going to quote —

    I want to focus on Harris, the neuroscientist and “New Atheist” philosopher, because he’s a fascinating and troublesome figure who embodies many of these contradictions. His premise that the primary role of religion in human history has been as “failed science” – as a set of factual claims about the universe that have now been proven false (or are inherently unfalsifiable) – lies at the core of his atheist worldview.

    This is something I see over and over again in atheist writings, and given the twisted literalness of much contemporary religion, this misunderstanding would be forgivable in a casual observer of religion. For people who have made it their life’s mission to discredit religion per se, however, it’s unforgivable ignorance. It’s like a guy I ran into recently who was opposed to women taking birth control pills because he thought pills worked by killing fertilized eggs, not by preventing fertilization. If you are going to crusade against something, you need to understand the nature of the thing you oppose.

    It’s also dramatically at odds with the standard view in religious studies, and would provoke eye-rolling from a sophomore seminar in the subject. At best, it’s a partial account of one of the roles filled by religion, and an account that ignores overwhelming evidence that believers interpret religious doctrine and scripture different ways in different contexts. Did the ancient Greeks literally believe that Zeus and Athena and Apollo lived in palaces on top of Mt. Olympus? It would take a sociologist with a time machine to supply a definitive answer, but the best available evidence suggests a situation we ought to recognize: Some did, some did not and a great many weren’t sure or hadn’t really thought about it.

    Religion, and God, can be understood on a lot of different levels, and in most religions — including Christianity — it’s primarily about guiding our experience of living and dying. The transformative power of religion doesn’t come from merely believing a bunch of doctrines but in allowing the mythos and archetypes of the religion to illuminate your life on a personal, intimate level. This is, unfortunately, something a lot of modern religion has forgotten.

    On the other hand, Harris’ belief that reason and science can (or someday will) supply a transcendent, religion-like experience that satisfies the human yearning for spirituality, while relinquishing all claims to metaphysical truth, is almost charming. That’s an article of faith if I’ve ever heard one, and one that rests on what St. Augustine would have described as a theological heresy – a misguided faith in the perfectibility of man in this fallen world. There is something noble about Harris’ efforts to bridge the gap between science and philosophy, and also something severely naïve in his declaration that in the age of astrophysics we no longer need God. To phrase Augustine’s response in modern terms, what we know about human psychology to this point suggests that as a species we favor storytelling over facts, and that we do not draw much distinction between stories that are true, those that are metaphorically true and those that feel true but are entirely false.

    As I don’t personally believe in God, either, I would say that it’s not so much a matter of needing God but needing what God represents — a still center in our lives; a trust that this life of commuter traffic and office cubicles and take-out dinners is not the sole meaning of my existence. And that’s not what science is good at, or for.

  27. William Burke  •  Oct 12, 2014 @9:17 am

    Excellent analysis, Barbara, as usual. The following comment is priceless: “Scientism is itself unscientific, since its premise is not subject to testing by the scientific method, but the scientismists get very angry when you point that out to them.” This point cannot be made loudly enough, in my opinion. Folks like Harris and Dawkins speak as if the scientific method is some sort of absolute, instead of the continuous process that it is (or should be). Harris therefore assumes a fundamental certainty where none can exist, at least not to human consciousness, and this becomes the vision that blinds him in the end.

  28. Phaedrus  •  Oct 12, 2014 @7:20 pm

    I’m really going to try and keep this short. I understand that, for a small subset, religion is about the cool, still voice. Read or listen to Sam on this – he totally gets it and these are NOT the people he is talking about (I won’t speak for Bill – but Richard has said similar things).
    But ask millions of Americans if they believe Christ actually rose from the dead. All religions have their mystical sects, but read the early Christian founders and you’ll see they’re arguing the trinity, was Christ Logos or Physical, do we need to be circumcised. The Nicene Creed was written to nail this stuff down, and all the great upheavals since (Calvin, Luther) were based on Biblical interpretations very far removed from a “can’t we all just get along” mysticism. I just don’t see the evidence for what you’re claiming – perhaps I should buy and read your book 🙂
    Bottom line – Sam and Richard are against truth claims based on faith (as defined in the Bible : “the evidence of things not seen”). You’ve chosen a religion that lies outside common practice, so you’re not who Sam is talking about.

  29. JimV  •  Oct 12, 2014 @11:23 pm

    I second the comment of Robert above (except for the part about loving your writing, assuming this post is a fair example). As I look around me I see the tangible results of two things: nature, and the scientific method (in the general sense of experimentation, observation, analysis of data, forming hypotheses which fit the data, and testing the hypotheses). I feel fairly certain that anything valid which you may have learned by studying religion or unicorns was due to the latter. Everything I have done with any success, such as writing computer programs, engineering projects, and learning guitar, has been.

    The most basic form of science is the same process as biological evolution: try things, even randomly; if they meet a selection criterion, keep doing them until you find something better. Humans can sometimes do this process much faster than nature, such as the evolution of automobiles and telephones, but humans can fool themselves about the selection criteria, which nature does not. Hence the need for the formalities of the scientific method such as peer-review and replication.

    As Iain Banks said more eloquently than I can, people who complain about science’s insistence on evidence should stop using any technical products and go back to living in caves, rather than using a device which depends on quantum mechanics (e.g., a PC) to complain about scientism on the Internet.

  30. maha  •  Oct 13, 2014 @7:07 am

    JimV — You’re entirely missing the point. I’m not dissing science for what it does. I have no problems with science and the scientific method within its particular epistemological realm, which is to gain knowledge and understanding of objectively verifiable phenomena. Science does what it needs to do. I certainly don’t complain about science’s insistence of evidence IN MATTERS OF SCIENCE. However, religion has an entirely different function, a different epistemological realm, and concerns itself with matters that by their nature are not objectively verifiable. The scientific method does not “work” with religion. To insist that it ought to is like trying to apply the principles of algebra to swimming.

    If you are a positivist, or a scientismist, then you believe as a matter of faith that anything not objectively verifiable or measurable by the scientific method must be pure fantasy, but that’s a proposition that cannot be proved false by any objective or scientific method.

  31. maha  •  Oct 13, 2014 @7:11 am

    I note also that one of the fascinating things about the scientism vs. science argument is that a true scientismist cannot understand the difference between scientism and science. The difference seems clear to me, and you can explain it to them patiently and clearly, and they will still conflate criticism of scientism with criticism of science. They are True Believers, in other words, and I take it JimV is a representative specimen.

  32. Swami  •  Oct 13, 2014 @1:07 pm

    However, religion has an entirely different function, a different epistemological realm, and concerns itself with matters that by their nature are not objectively verifiable.

    “whither I go, ye cannot come”. .I don’t know if that statement has any relevance to anything or anybody other than myself, but it popped into my head when reading Maha’s statement and it seemed relevant to me. Sorta like saying the same thing but in a fewer amount of words.

  33. harry  •  Oct 14, 2014 @5:53 pm

    Maha, I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.

  34. maha  •  Oct 15, 2014 @6:29 am

    harry — “in the bowels of Christ”? That’s a new one. I’m a Buddhist, btw, but I don’t really need anybody’s bowels around here, thanks much.

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