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Finally, a government official speaks the truth about the Vatican. This is a wonderfully honest speech by Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

For those who missed my previous essay on the crimes of the Catholic Church:

Bringing the Vatican to Justice

 

 
 

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(Photo by H.koppdelaney)


Over at Truthdig, the celebrated journalist Chris Hedges has discovered that Christopher Hitchens and I are actually racists with a fondness for genocide. He has broken this story before—many times, in fact—but in his most recent essay he blames “secular fundamentalists” like me and Hitch for the recent terrorist atrocities in Norway.

Very nice.

Hedges begins, measured as always:

The gravest threat we face from terrorism, as the killings in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik underscore, comes not from the Islamic world but the radical Christian right and the secular fundamentalists who propagate the bigoted, hateful caricatures of observant Muslims and those defined as our internal enemies. The caricature and fear are spread as diligently by the Christian right as they are by atheists such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Our religious and secular fundamentalists all peddle the same racist filth and intolerance that infected Breivik. This filth has poisoned and degraded our civil discourse. The looming economic and environmental collapse will provide sparks and tinder to transform this coarse language of fundamentalist hatred into, I fear, the murderous rampages experienced by Norway. I worry more about the Anders Breiviks than the Mohammed Attas.

The editors at Truthdig have invited me to respond to this phantasmagoria. There is, however, almost no charge worth answering in Hedges’ writing—there never is. Which is more absurd, the idea of “secular fundamentalism” or the notion that its edicts pose a greater threat of terrorism than the doctrine of Islam? Do such assertions even require sentences to refute?

However, Hedges’ latest attack is so vicious and gratuitous that some reply seemed necessary. To minimize the amount of time I would need to spend today cleaning this man’s vomit, I decided to adapt a few pieces I had already written. But then I just got angry…

 
 

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At certain points near the extremity of human evil it becomes difficult, and perhaps pointless, to make ethical distinctions. However, I cannot shake the feeling that detonating a large bomb in the center of a peaceful city with the intent of killing vast numbers of innocent people was the lesser of Anders Behring Breivik’s transgressions last week. It seems to me that it required greater malice, and even less humanity, to have intended this atrocity to be a mere diversion, so that he could then commit nearly one hundred separate murders on the tiny Island of Utoya later in the day.

And just when one thought the human mind could grow no more depraved, one learns details like the following:

After killing several people on one part of the island, he went to the other, and, dressed in his police uniform, calmly convinced the children huddled there that he meant to save them. When they emerged into the open, he fired again and again. (“For Young Campers, Island Turned Into Fatal Trap.” The New York Times, July 23, 2011)

Other unsettling facts will surely surface in the coming weeks. Some might even be vaguely exculpatory. Is Breivik mentally ill? Judging from his behavior, it is difficult to imagine a definition of “sanity” that could contain him.

 
 



The above talk was sent to me by a reader and is well worth watching. In it, the neuroscientist David Eagleman says many very reasonable things and says them well. Unfortunately, on the subject of religion he appears to make a conscious effort to play the good cop to the bad cop of “the new atheism.” This posture will win him many friends, but it is intellectually dishonest. When one reads between the lines—or even when one just reads the lines—it becomes clear that what Eagleman is saying is every bit as deflationary as anything Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens or I say about the cherished doctrines of the faithful.

I don’t know Eagleman, but I’ve invited him to discuss these and other issues with me on this blog. He also has a book out on the brain that looks very interesting and which I intend to read:

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

 

 
 

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(Photo by JB Banks)

Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts. Every waking moment—and even in our dreams—we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value.

Drugs are another means toward this end. Some are illegal; some are stigmatized; some are dangerous—though, perversely, these sets only partially intersect. There are drugs of extraordinary power and utility, like psilocybin (the active compound in “magic mushrooms”) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which pose no apparent risk of addiction and are physically well-tolerated, and yet one can still be sent to prison for their use—while drugs like tobacco and alcohol, which have ruined countless lives, are enjoyed ad libitum in almost every society on earth. There are other points on this continuum—3,4-methylene-dioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA or “Ecstasy”) has remarkable therapeutic potential, but it is also susceptible to abuse, and there is some evidence that it can be neurotoxic.[1]

One of the great responsibilities we have as a society is to educate ourselves, along with the next generation, about which substances are worth ingesting, and for what purpose, and which are not. The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term—“drugs”—and this makes it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use. The poverty of our language has been only slightly eased by the introduction of terms like “psychedelics” to differentiate certain visionary compounds, which can produce extraordinary states of ecstasy and insight, from “narcotics” and other classic agents of stupefaction and abuse.

 
 

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(Image by Alex Grey)

My friend Jerry Coyne has posted a response to my recent video Q&A where he raises a few points in need of clarification about meditation, transcendence, spiritual experience, etc.:

This discussion continues at 21:25, when Sam criticizes atheists, scientists and secularists for failing to “connect to the character of those experiences” and for failing to “give some alternate explanation for them that is not entirely deflationary and demeaning and gives some warrant to the legitimacy of those experiences.”  He implies that these experiences are somehow beyond the purview of science.  I find that strange given Sam’s repeated emphasis on the value of science in studying mental states.

I’m not quite sure what he’s getting at here, and he doesn’t elaborate, but I don’t see why giving credence to these über-transcendent experiences as experiences says anything about a reality behind them.  Yes, they might indeed change one’s personality and view of the world, but do any of us deny that?

I had similar experiences on various psychoactive substances when I was in college, and some of them were even transformative.  The problem is not with us realizing that people can feel at one with the universe or, especially, at one with God; the problem comes with us taking this as evidence for some supernatural reality.  What does it mean to say that an experience is legitimate?  If someone thinks that he saw Jesus, I am prepared to believe that he thought that he saw Jesus, but I am not prepared to say that he really did see Jesus, nor that that constitutes any evidence for the existence of Jesus.

So my question for Sam would be this:  “So if we accept that people do have these seriously transcendent experiences, what follows from that—beyond our simple desire to study the neurobiology behind them?”

These are all good points. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that transcendent experiences are “beyond the purview of science.” On the contrary, I think they should be studied scientifically. And I don’t believe that these experiences tell us anything about the cosmos (I called Deepak Chopra a “charlatan” for making unfounded claims of this sort). Nor do they tell us anything about history, or about the veracity of scripture. However, these experiences do have a lot to say about the nature of the human mind—not about its neurobiology, per se, but about its qualitative character (both actual and potential).

 
 

In which I respond to questions and comments posted on Reddit.

 
 

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