Yes, I read it.
Like many secularist, I enjoy a good refresher course in the ageless pastime of undermining religion with reason. You never know when someone will want to play but who has the time to follow the latest updates on what Hubble has to say about babies in limbo. Mr Harris bears this cross for us again with a modest and concerted effort to no longer be accused of picking on Islam. Speaking as if to the Christian Nation is an interesting framework, but I don’t think they will count for much in sales. In both of his books, I find two things I like.
His moral argument about the religious taking public responsibility for the social consequences their actions in the practice of their faith elevates his stuff from the usual atheist combat manual. The books have sharp teeth and use them very judiciously, which elevates them above the usual bombast. I appreciate a good rendering of an anger I share when it is precisely aimed at the target.
I was surprised to find at the end that, after many incisive and increasingly biting attacks, the imagined Christian reader is never faced with the gaping issue of finding something better than an ancient religious land grant on which to base so much of our foreign policy. Followed up with a drilling about just why conquering Palestine was the best post-WWII solution for Jews. And closing with a demand for an explanation that everyone, even our adversaries, can understand. But I can understand that Mr. Harris might not want that much publicity.
The last quarter of the book inspired these responses from me:
If all the secularists had to do is undermine the reasoning of religion, we’d be done by now. Gay marriage and pot would be legal. The military would spend billions installing home theaters in third world countries. Reason has not prevailed. Nations still engage in regrettable actions that are ultimately based on religious truths. Reason does not empower these actions, it can only be used to make excuses for it.
As much as I like his moral argument, I have a problem with it being declared from some righteous soapbox of Science (page 74) just because we can’t find the Babies in Limbo Nebula. Science does not present a basis for morality. We still haven’t discovered the moral yardstick or acknowledged the existence of a single test case.
For all the wonderful things science has to offer, that world does not include anyone actually capable of finding it wonderful. Any views on God, the self or the afterlife can only be delusional when applied to the world of science as we know it. Science is too wary of delusions of certainty and rightly so. Many today have noticed how any organization of human minds from religious orders to government bureaucracies that depend on a static order based on a frozen moment of perceived truth have become monsters. Science sticks to a humble objectivity that is difficult to be monstrous about. But not impossible. By also rejecting any possible delusion of subjectivity, science bows out of the debate over morality since any moral authority that could be perceived as eternal and true could only come from someone’s personal experience, which is not objectively observable. The only objective evidence that any divine morality is eternal and perfect comes from human artifacts and not from observing reality, where ethics appear to be dynamic. Nature practices situational ethics. Without our civilized minds, so do we. One must already have a civilized mind in order to look at the world scientifically. Science says so. Asserting a morality is an act of faith. Morality made civilization possible. Religion says, “You’re welcome”.
Only religion offers a description of the world that includes a you that is capable of having a personal spiritual experience. Religion takes claim of the self that remembers having it. Religion answers a feeling, not an inquiry. That feeling need only be the emotional bond between people of a community or a relationship. Religions know how to use the organic rhythms of the community to reinforce their relevance as the place where they experience their lives. Once religion gets to frame all the questions, we can only engage in the endless pastime of answering them.
People that don’t think they’re living in a world of science do not benefit from logical arguments that undermine their religion because there’s nowhere else for them to go. Regardless of what science-like thinking might be going on in anyone’s mind, if there isn’t a community of people who all think they are living in a world of science right outside their door everyday, then there is nowhere to go. No one, including Christians, would tolerate any attack on the ground they are still standing on.
Religion is the tool we used to create civilization. Science is the tool we could use to keep it. I don’t like the way Mr. Harris uses it like a chain saw to metaphorically chop down the whole spiritual tree just because Jehovah is hiding in it. Many of us are sophisticated enough to handle the delusive nature of personal experience and bravely carry on anyway as if we were, at least for ourselves, a reliable witness. We understand that we are on our own as far as what any kind of mentality we could possess makes of the experience after it’s been had. That is all science really has, too. For all its objectivity, science starts as a personal experience of discovery just like any other point of view. The repeatable experiment makes the same personal experience available to everyone. If the resulting explanations suggest a consensus, any such collective conclusion might reasonably be considered objective. How does one contrive to repeat their life experiences in the laboratory? Some consensus could still be reached but by a more complex process that may never satisfy everybody as reasonably objective. The scientific view goes too far when, anywhere outside of the laboratory, a scientist must depend on a consensus of other people’s post-experience explanations before considering themselves a reasonable witness of their own behavior, at least enough to lead a life. Likewise, a Christian should feel no such constraint outside of the church community.
The hard part is ending a book like this with a projected future of more combat, more arguing and more trying to reason it out. Harder still when you see how many people come looking to this stuff for something more promising.
For the sake of a later and less traumatized progeny, we must only take on the reasoning behind the surviving religions and not the entire pursuit of spirituality which, granted, is not a scientific process. There is still a great similarity between the two. Both start with a moment of personal and subjective experience- observation becomes epiphany. Science offers a worthy lesson to spirituality. However real the experience of discovery was, our explanation of it can never be complete and flawless, and even it if it was, we couldn’t know that it was. Hence, explanations are not eternal and should only last as long as they are actually useful. In a post-religious world, these two pursuits of discovery could comfortably coexist in anyone’s life. Spirituality being the fun version, and science being the stricter peer-reviewed version.