Friday, February 09, 2007

A Fulfilling Atheism?

Sam Harris has his latest response to Andrew Sullivan in their "blogalogue" up now (click here for the main repository and scroll to the end), and one part in particular jumped out at me. I'll post it below the fold.

I think one of the truly mystifying aspects of atheism for a theist to "grok" is how an atheist can feel any sense of hope or wonder or happiness without what the theist sees as the wellspring of all those glorious feelings -- God. Sam puts it into words very well here, I'll just let him speak for himself (all emphasis is mine):

Finally, let me make it clear that I do not consider religious moderates to be “mere enablers of fundamentalist intolerance.” They are worse. My biggest criticism of religious moderation—and of your last essay—is that it represents precisely the sort of thinking that will prevent a fully reasonable and nondenominational spirituality from ever emerging in our world. Your determination to have your emotional and spiritual needs met within the tradition of Catholicism has kept you from discovering that there is a mode of spiritual and ethical inquiry that is not contingent upon culture in the way that all religions are. As I wrote in The End of Faith, whatever is true about us, spiritually and ethically, must be discoverable now. It makes no sense at all to have one’s spiritual life pegged to rumors of ancient events, however miraculous.


I’m asking you to imagine a world in which children are taught to investigate reality for themselves, not in conformity to the religious dogmatism of their parents, but by the lights of truly honest, fearless inquiry. Imagine a discourse about ethics and mystical experience that is as contingency-free as the discourse of science already is. Science really does transcend the vagaries of culture: there is no such thing as “Japanese” as opposed to “French” science; we don’t speak of “Hindu biology” and “Jewish chemistry.” Imagine a world that has transcended its tribalism—racism and nationalism, yes, but religious tribalism especially—in which we could have a truly open-ended conversation about our place in the universe and about the possibilities of deepening our experience of love and compassion for one another.

I don't fault anyone who finds comfort and a deep love for other people in their religion, but I hope this offers a glimpse about how an atheist can do the same within their own (non) belief. Speaking just for myself, I hope to find a system of ethics and morality which are as culture-neutral as science, as Harris puts it. I doubt we'll ever get there, but it's important to me that we try.


Geopoet said...

Actually, I do not think that Sam's discourse has as much to do with how atheists retain a sense of hope as it does with demonstrating his exclusivity of thought.

In other words, it appears that Sam employs a rationality that is devoid of the possibility of the existence of God when, in fact, belief in God is just as rational a position. However, Sam is trying to narrow the acceptable range of evidence (for proof either way) to that which can be proven scientifically with the tools we possess - a position that cannot even be proven as being valid to begin with.

Sam further imagines a future in which the formation of a human person is devoid of anything beyond the here-and-now provable realities that science has uncovered. He thus wishes to strip man of many of his innate social tendencies and characteristics that make him uniquely man (culture, faith, heritage) and train them on the USS Enterprise of neutrality with the dogma of science as the only reality. He thus poses a theory that man, once de-programmed of any semblance of religious sentiment, will be a much better species.

There are so many flaws with this that it stretches credulity and reveals a pre-set bias. We need only look at recent regimes where Sam's experiment has been tried to find historical proof against his theory (Stalin, Hitler, Cambodia, China). More scientifically, the facts show man has an innate set of morals, ethics, love and the divine that does not fit in Sam's small sphere of realism. This Lennonesque image does not resemble man at all. If the theory does not fit the facts, it must be questioned and its motives searched, so let's look at it a little more:

Sam's theories begin with the statement that God does not exist and he selectively chooses the field of physical science to build his religion. He idealizes science when we know very well there is bad science (and scientists) as well as good science and scientists, yet does not begrudge believers the same. He is far from being “contingency-free” – he requires that one cannot allow the natural inclination of man (to be with God) to be part of this new humanity. He presupposes that the upbringing of children that involves any culture or belief with theistic underpinnings as being dishonest and fearful which defies the observed facts and highlights his subjective and anti-religious viewpoint. He’s willing to have inquiry and discussion as long as we ignore the 600-lb deity lurking in every brain and in every culture. In this, Sam is being very irrational and unscientific, clearly biased. At their extremes of certainty, Sam is quite similar to biblical fundamentalists.

You seek a morality and ethics without God. I think you will find it because it was instilled by God to begin with and heightened by the very cultural and religious teachings that Sam so despises. I would not be surprised to find many theists are less moral and ethical than many atheists. This misses the point. It's not just about deeds or rituals but about where we are going with our inquiry and why we inquire. To theists, the point is that these beacons are an imprint of God Himself that are meant to lead us to Himself. This is the difference theists speak of, a sense of purpose and reason that fits so perfectly with the reality of a Creator and is best described as love incarnate. To Christians, this is much more than theory, there is proof in the flesh and blood of Christ. These truths are lived and known in the sense of experience and myth that is just as real as a molecule. For Sam to deny this as even a possibility without any proof to the contrary is being presumptuous.

The debate, in order to be productive, must be fully open and honest, non-judgmental, and respectful. In that regard, I would say that atheism is a rational position coming from perfectly rational and good people. Same thing for the theists. However, if either side draws a box around certain knowledge and claims it holds all truth, the sense of rational thought that got us to this point withers. Further, such dogmatism shuts the door that leads to truths that are entirely reasonable in the aftermath of what theists call revelation (truths that are a jump in human thought but make perfect sense looking back).

This is where the two sides diverge; the theists peeking over the edge, the saints diving in, while the atheists say (and now seem to demand) we need not bother with an edge that science cannot prove. In the middle, we could agree that, no matter where love, ethics, morality come from, there is more than enough mess here and now that need all of our talents and attention.

Anonymous said...


I will try to be brief. I have really enjoyed the atheism thread. I started to respond several times from a theological perspective, but the recent posting has stirred the scientific and objective part of me, specifically the parts where Harris says “discoverable now… (not) pegged to rumors of ancient…” and for a day where children can “investigate reality for themselves (via) truly honest, fearless inquiry. Imagine a discourse…” In your closing remarks you wish for a “culture-neutral” arena where truth can be researched (I assume you mean similar to the institutions run by Aristotle and Socrates?) I have two points.

I think the first item that bothers me is the assumption that the questions Harris and other atheists raise are never seriously discussed in seminaries and religious schools of divinity. Yet, even casual conversations with the few priests have as friends as well as in my 11th grade CCD class include the topics “What if we are wrong and there is no God?” and “ Do only Catholics go to heaven? Only Christians? Everyone?” I can assure you they are not laughed off. Most of us have some level of doubt. I have no proof, but I would suspect that all faiths do indeed “investigate reality for themselves” and try to do so in a “culture-neutral” way. To restate this, I think that your wish for honest debate is being done in private all over the world at all levels, and yes, it should be done in private and at an age that is appropriate. (e.g., young children cannot understand the “life is not fair” concept. That is why the story of the payment of the workers in the vineyard being paid the same isn’t taught to 1st graders.). Part of this type of debate requires throwing out deep doubts, outlandish ideas, and absurd notions. Total freedom needs the luxury of being unaccountable for your words. The subject matter is at its core so important and personal, moreover, that it will usually, indeed SHOULD, invoke passion. In my opinion, if your emotions are not laid bare than you are not engaged in the debate at all. This is a topic for another day!

The second item is that in no other arena would people like Harris want each generation, much less each person, to start from scratch. To search for the meaning of life on your own seems a bit foolish. Some form of a mentor or teacher is needed so that everyone doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Neither you nor I can even fry a stupid turkey by ourselves without a few pointers! By definition a need for “religion” exists, even if it is a religion that there is no need for religion. This seems a basic practical principal, or am I missing something? To ignore thousands of years of research and knowledge, which resulted in shaping human history, is, well, unscientific. I guess part of your comment comes from wishful thinking, and Harris’ points come from the frustration of others not seeing what he sees as obvious.

Keep it up!!


Jeff Hebert said...

I think it's unfair to say that Sam "despises" all cultural heritage. He disdains religious instruction for children, yes, and obviously feels we'd all be better off without giving religion the privileged status he feels it has been accorded historically.

I don't have a problem with people like Sam Harris who have a very strong point of view or belief system, any more than I have a problem with my brothers being very clearly believers in the Catholic version of Christianity. I find it refreshing to hear the opinions of those who have a definite position and who aren't afraid to articulate it. That doesn't mean I think they're right, of course, just interesting.

Also, you take it as a given that the urge to religion that humanity seems to possess is, in fact, put there by God. Furthermore, I think it's safe to say that the God in question is, in your mind, the same as the Christian, and specifically the Catholic, one.

However, you're guilty of the very same crime you're accusing Harris of, you're presuming your interpretation of the data is beyond question and is absolutely correct. But of course there are many possible interpretations of the observed data:

* The observed behavior is in fact a legacy of some other evolutionary mechanism and has no supernatural function;
* The observed behavior was placed there by a God, but not the Christian or Catholic God;
* The observed behavior was placed there not by a God, but by an evil entity, or alien intelligence, for purposes unknown

There's not really a way to know. His underlying philosophical bent is to ascribe a natural explanation to everything, as that's the only kind of explanation which can be applied in a culturally neutral way, and thus (he feels) has a higher likelihood of being true. Others, like you, will feel that there are things that are supernatural and thus are beyond the reach of intellect and reason, and must be understood in some other way.

One or the other of you is right, unless neither of you is, or both. But I find it interesting to read Harris' writings because he's approaching the problem in a way that you rarely hear discussed anywhere, and I think there's value in that. It would be a bit counterproductive if he were to cede to you the very issue under discussion -- the existence of God -- before he's allowed to participate in the discussion itself.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I think you misunderstood me. I don't think I was saying anything like the urge for religion was put there by God, or that there is a need for "religion". I think my second point, though, did involve two assumptions: as long as there are human societies there will be a significant number of people who will search and wonder "How did the universe begin, but more importantly WHY? And even more importantly, why do I exist?" In history the people who answered these questions were witchdoctors, shamen, mystics, priests, rabbis, etc. I am stating what I think is a very practical point,that Mr. Harris is in fact playing the same role. And I am fine with that, even if he would be offended that I put him on the same level as any theologian. In the future, we may call them a different name, but even on the Starship Enterprise SOMEONE is training the crew on neutrality with the dogma of science as the only reality. Again, what am I missing? Gotta go! Wish I was more articulate.