Monday, March 29, 2010

Sam Harris and ditching religion altogether

My buddy Dave wrote me the following quick email:

Not sure if I agree with the conclusion of the article, but I think some of his points are valid.

Philosopher: Why We Should Ditch Religion (CNN article and video)

The above-linked CNN article and video are about scientist and thinker Sam Harris, one of the so-called "New Atheists": people who are actively campaigning for the secularization of modern society. Harris is an interesting fellow, and although he's clear about his agenda, he never comes off sounding as bitter or as polemical as other New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. See, for example, the video of his very civilized debate with Rabbi David Wolpe (if you have an hour or so):

American Jewish University Video

Harris does, however, hit me where it hurts when he accuses religious moderates and liberals* of being "enablers" for the more radical wings of our religious traditions. In trying to unplug the unpleasant elements from religion in order to present its friendlier face, moderates and liberals end up simultaneously (1) avoiding the problems posed by fundamentalists (violence, etc.) and (2) missing the point that religion itself is the problem.

As someone who appreciates the commonsense, empirical approach advocated by both Zen Buddhism and scientific skepticism, I actually have little to argue with regarding Harris' critiques of religion. Religion is, in my opinion, full of magical nonsense. I do, however, think that Harris-- like the other New Atheists-- often mis-attributes problems to religion that should actually be ascribed to something more fundamental, such as the basic flaws inherent in all human nature. (Side note: most postmodernists, in their zeal to tear down so-called "totalizing metanarratives," deny that there's a such thing as human nature, which is one reason why they dislike the work of scientists like Steven Pinker, who argues forcefully for the existence of a distinctly human nature.)

People accuse religion of dogmatism, oppression, etc., and I agree that the historical evidence supports the idea that religious traditions and institutions have thrown up a wide variety of roadblocks to human flourishing. But the accusation against religion holds only if we can prove that religion alone causes and/or perpetuates these problems. In modern times, we see that secular institutions can breed all the same ills that religion is accused of: dogmatism (e.g., cleaving to some company's "corporate philosophy," or stubbornly arguing for a certain scientific paradigm in the face of mounting evidence against it), oppression, cronyism-- even superstition of a sort (e.g., unjustified over-reliance on a product or method, as with the over-zealous Korean woman who insisted to me that antioxidants cure cancer, a meme that's actually rather widespread). As we moderns are learning, the removal of religion from the picture doesn't necessarily remove the basic impediments to human flourishing.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that religion, whether in personal or corporate forms, isn't problematic, or that it can't be blamed for certain specific, massive ills. But the human problems that the New Atheists refer to are often located not at the level of religion, but at a deeper level. Human pride, selfishness, hubris, arrogance, and blindness to reality are all pre-religious traits, which is why a supposedly secular institution can, if it flies off the rails, morph into a cult of personality. As long as people are susceptible to their own passions and irrationalities, problems will always arise.

I also disagree with Harris's accusation that we moderates and liberals are enablers for our more radical fellows. I concede that we could be enabling the fundies to pass behind us and work their evil (by "evil" I mean things like the acid-throwing Harris refers to in the video, or the fundamentalist Christian insistence on teaching creationism in bio class, or other unenlightened behaviors/tendencies), but my own view of the trend toward a more liberal or moderate view of religion is that this is the leading edge of a collective evolution toward healthier religious practice.

Far from trying to enable the more fundamentalist strands of any given tradition, religious moderates and liberals see themselves as openly confronting tradition, pointing out its ancient flaws, and actively working to unplug those elements that are, especially in the modern age, obviously immoral. It's not an overturning that can happen overnight; it's more like a very slow process of erosion, one that can be interrupted, unfortunately, by periods of conservative resurgence/resistance.

Obviously, that process of erosion isn't happening at the same rate everywhere: Islam comes immediately to mind as an example of a religion that is, on the whole, battening down the hatches and refusing to deal with the implications of modernity. Fundie Christianity isn't far behind in that regard: we've still got Christians in 21st-century America who refuse to submit their children to the ministration of doctors. There are also super-orthodox Jews, magico-folkloric Buddhists, superstitious Hindus, etc. We've all got a long way to go before we, as a race, openly embrace rationality as the basic, and best, route to human flourishing.

Harris takes a moment, in the CNN video, to talk about Muslim-Christian dialogue, noting the impossibility of compromise because of the exclusivistic nature of each tradition's truth claims. If we remain at the level of abstract doctrine, then Harris has a point, but if we move the discussion to a more human level, the level of actual social interaction, it's no longer quite as clear that compromise, of some sort or other, is impossible. We see such compromise all the time: modern Muslims (a minority, to be sure) who have no problem living in secular society because they themselves are reconciled to living within the context of religious diversity; Christians and Muslims who live and work together in the same neighborhoods; happy dialogue between and among mystics of different traditions. My point isn't that there are no walls between the traditions, or that no standoffs exist: it's that those walls are (1) a function of our own minds, and (2) breachable.

Interreligious dialogue is a messy phenomenon; general statements about abstracta don't address the actual reality. Doctrines are incarnated in people, and (as I've said many times on this blog) religions are as they are practiced. If Harris were actually to delve into the topic of interreligious dialogue, he'd quickly realize that his claim, "There's no way to reconcile Islam with Christianity," is a spear that has no target. There is no Islam without Muslims; no Christianity without Christians. And to the extent that there are Muslims and Christians who find some way to coexist peaceably, those people stand as refutations of Harris's general claim.

Were he to modify his rhetoric to take this human complexity into account, I might be more inclined to agree with his critique: after all, Harris isn't wrong to point out the existence of theological gulfs between major traditions. But like a lot of critics who make their critiques from outside religion, Harris doesn't seem to show much appreciation for the complexity of the problems under discussion. A proper critique would include a deeper examination of how abstract doctrines incarnate themselves in the actual practice of religious adherents. On the personal level, we often see supposedly irreconcilable differences negotiated, set aside, or even outright ignored. Ask any married couple whose spouses come from radically different religious traditions-- or a couple in which one member isn't overtly religious.

Having said all that, I nevertheless think that the arrival of the New Atheists is salutary: it's good for religious folks to have their trees shaken-- for them to be upset by this very in-your-face denial of their most basic truth-claims. It may be that some of the more thoughtful religious practitioners will wake up and realize that they've been brainwashed into believing some patently ridiculous notions. Perhaps Harris and the other New Atheists will also wake up believers who belong not to major religious traditions, but to other loopy worldviews: pseudosciences like astrology and homeopathy, for example. On the whole, I feel that nothing but good can come from the arrival of the New Atheism. I hope it's here to stay.

UPDATE: Two Easters ago, I wrote on almost the exact same topic. See here. I guess my thought hasn't evolved all that much.

*One of the problems with this topic is the potential for chaos involved in agreeing on basic terminology. I'm deliberately using words like "moderate" and "liberal" rather vaguely, mainly because I know that vagueness is about my only option when writing a relatively short essay. More precise definitions of key terms would require me to hammer out a book-length preface to this post.

For what it's worth, and for the purposes of this discussion, my understanding of the terms "moderate" and "liberal," as applied to religious belief and practice, is that they represent a move away from centuries-old established religious traditions, theologies, and practices. The moderate has retained tradition in some form or other, perhaps by leaving the old concepts in place but re-understanding them in a more modern way. The liberal has probably gone further, perhaps outright rejecting certain core terms, concepts, and practices as outmoded, sexist, or otherwise immoral or unworkable, all while reinterpreting any remaining core concepts in ways more consistent with modern science, modern concepts of morality and jurisprudence, etc.

A theological moderate might, for example, concede that biblical accounts of Jesus' life can be thought of as symbolic narratives, given the obvious factual contradictions between and among the gospels, but that those accounts nevertheless point to a fully real, fully divine dimension of existence, leaving open the possibility of miracles (as traditionally understood), but accepting their improbable nature, based on the insights of modern science. For this type of Christian, the Bible probably represents a more or less reliable sketch of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Such moderates might also be willing to view the fact of religious diversity through an inclusivistic lens, perhaps seeing the Christ at work in and through other religions. And even if they don't go this far, they might still allow that God is deep and mysterious enough to make room for those who are good and decent, despite being non-believers.

A theological liberal might, by contrast, be perfectly comfortable with the idea that Christ was just a wise and unresurrected teacher, and that "holy," when applied to Jesus, might be a synonym for "respected" or "revered." A liberal Christian might also view Christianity as merely one legitimate religious path among many. John Shelby Spong is a good example of this sort of liberal: a scholar (and former Episcopal bishop) who has taken the demythologizing tendencies of, say, Rudolf Bultmann to their logical conclusion. John Hick, perhaps the best-known modern advocate of a certain form of religious pluralism (and author of The Metaphor of God Incarnate, a book whose title reveals the author's christological stance), is less polemical and more philosophical in tone than Spong is; he, too, could be placed in the "liberal" category. Such Christians often have a hard time convincing others that they are, in fact, still meaningfully Christian.

It's important to remember that the liberal strain of Christianity by no means constitutes the majority view. Globally speaking, most Christians tend to fall toward the more conservative (read: traditionalist, literalist, and often fundamentalist) end of the spectrum of belief and practice, especially when we consider how Christianity is preached and received in the third world. Religious liberals often forget this fact, to their cost.



Charles said...

Intelligent and well-written, as usual. You put into words some things I think I've always felt (in particular about many of the so-called problems of religion being founded in human nature) but never really thought through. Thanks for the read.

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks, man.

Anonymous said...

IMO, another thing the "new atheists" fail to take into account in their polemics is the function religion plays in both the individual psyche and in our social systems. It does something for us. Yes, there are negative effects, but there are reasons religion has been so universal, and is so persistent. A truly rational, scientific approach to religion would take that seriously as a data point, and explore the reasons, not with the prior intent of "debunking" or arguing away any positive reasons or benefits to religion's role in our psyches or societies, but with the neutral intent of understanding. As long as eliminating religion is the explicit agenda, I question their claim to pure rationality. (Actually, I question the possibility of the existence of pure rationality in any survivor of evolution, but that's another topic.)

And another point, that you make in your post but less explicitly: there's a way in which many of the new atheists--I won't say all because I haven't read them all--ignore the possibility that they just might have some of the irrational failings of the rest of us humans. I think it's one of the hazards of the scientific paradigm--the scientist is outside the system he studies, and must remain so in order to be objective. Which is fine when studying the physics of billiard balls, or chemical reactions--but not so fine when studying human psyches or social systems. There, we see a paradox: the stronger the claim to objectivity of the investigating scientist, the greater the vulnerability of that scientist to err due to his (or her) lack of objectivity. The social sciences are littered with examples of this. Harris, Dawkins et al. are human, religion is a human phenomenon of the human psyche and social nature, and their own psyches are formed by the exact same forces and processes that form the psyches of everyone else. They ignore this when they, explicitly or implicitly, set themselves over against everyone else in their claims to being right or rational, or right because (solely) rational.

I feel I haven't said this as clearly as I'd like--but its early (excuse 1) and I gotta go to work (excuse 2), so I'll just leave it at that.

Nathan B. said...

Kevin, I've known you for years, but must be extremely daft: I'm quite curious to know what keeps you interested in religion generally. Religion hasn't been all bad, certainly, but do we need it now? Is it helpful nowadays? What practical value does it have for the theological liberal?

I must admit that I enjoy the beauty of old churches, and of good, traditional sacred music. I also enjoy the liturgy of the Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox churches, though I haven't been to a regular church service for years. That said, I run out of patience every time I even think of the Apostle's creed, to say nothing of the five pillars of Islam or the Westminster Catechism. Religion for me is now mostly interesting for historical and aesthetic reasons, and I can't see much of its relevance in the modern world. I know that you are no fundamentalist; what keeps the fascination for you?

I'm hoping you'll write a blog post or comment as an answer, if you can forgive my thick-headedness.

Kevin Kim said...


It's a good question, and you're not daft. I don't know that I can offer you an articulate answer, but I seem to like walking the razor's edge between a full-on scientific skepticism and a sense that the numinous is intimately wrapped up in the everyday. I can't bring myself to dismiss all religions and religious behavior as mere foolishness, but at the same time I often find myself castigating the religious for all the foolishness they subscribe to. Maybe I'm just crazy.

Let me put it this way: when I listen to scientists talk excitedly about progress in cognitive neuroscience or theoretical physics, I'm fascinated, hooked. And I get the same feeling when sitting and listening to a monk giving a dharma talk, explaining "right action" in simple, direct, commonsense terms.

My beef isn't so much with "religion" or "science" as human pursuits: it's more with human failings like pride, ignorance, insincerity, irrationality, and dogmatism. The moment the Buddhist monk starts talking about rebirth or "transfer of merit," I switch off. The same goes for when a Dawkins or a Dennett comes along and targets religion for termination, on the shaky assumption that the absence of religion will guarantee the collective improvement of humanity. This is a bit like poisoning the ground floor when the rats are actually in the cellar.


Charles said...

I am so stealing that last line there. Now I just have to find a conversation to use it in.

Nathan B. said...

Interesting, Kevin. I think you have far more patience than me. When I hear that Buddhist monk talking about the meaning of life, I like it, too, but I just know he's likely to believe in reincarnation and various other doctrines, and that stops me from having the patience to seek out anything further.

Party Pooper said...

I rather like the 'new atheists', and though they may exaggerate the evils of religion, what they are doing well is to drag out into the light the sheer nonsense that still infects most religious beliefs. I don't care if people want to entertain the possibility of a god or gods, but it's way past time for the fundamentalist superstitions and myths to go the way of Zeus and Odin.