I just read "Letter to a Christian Nation," and I found the logic irrufutable. I'm a person who spent many years in church, taught Sunday school (reluctantly, since the idea of indoctrinating children in religious dogma rubbed me the wrong way), and loved both giving and receiving support in, yes, a caring community of like-minded folks genuinely interested in channelling their energies into worthwhile and truly beneficial social causes. My church was moderate-to-liberal one, and if push came to shove, I'll bet that over half of the congregation would have had to admit that they didn't quite believe in the "truths" of Old or New Testament. Religion was a community, God was a sense or a feeling, and the point was to keep it positive and constructive. We were there to think about our lives, remind ourselves of our shortcomings, and aspire to do good things, both individually and together. The details of the dogma weren't very interesting or important to many of us, and debating them could only get us into trouble (we know; we tried).
Now, here's the thing: Sam Harris is correct; the Bible is either inspired by God or not inspired by God. If it's not inspired by God (if there is in fact no God), then the house of cards comes tumbling down, no matter how hard you try to keep it propped up. In any Christian church, this simply has to be the case.
But one thing Harris doesn't talk about (at least not in what I've read so far) is the very real and laudable human desire for collective moral frameworks that are SACRED. Sacredness, transcendance, call it what you will - human beings want to bend to the will of something greater than themselves, to be awed by the mystery and force of life, and I don't believe that this is merely a crutch of the weak. Furthermore, many of us are almost viscerally attracted to ritual, mystery, and the sense of profundity that only organized religion seems to impart. Religion serves complex social and personal needs, and unless something can be found to replace it (unlikely, wouldn't it seem, after all these millenia?) then it's going to be with us forever. That's why, though I can't abide the logical contortions of church any more, I don't see church disappearing, and am not sure that it should. Are we in the grip of a mass delusion? Probably. Is it hurting us? In some ways, certainly. But in other ways religion serves a need so vital that depriving ourselves of it would be like depriving ourselves of food or water. If you don't address this fact, your campaign to rid the world of religion isn't going anywhere.
(By the way, on a totally different note: I really hated Harris' reference to the "Muslim hordes." A real lapse in an otherwise even-handed book. Sounded like anti-Japanese/Chinese propaganda during WWII and after.)
If you want to believe in God enough, you’ll find ways around the irrationalities. People do it every day. So in a sense, for a lot of people, the “truth” of religion isn’t critically important. Harris’ approach is compelling but will not convince hard-core believers who, according to Harris, are most dangerous of all (I agree, by the way). The more that believers feel attacked, the more angry and defensive they will become; indeed, isn’t that the story behind the anger of Islam fundamentalists, who feel left behind and humiliated by the modern world? So who exactly is able to convinced by Harris? People like me, perhaps, but then, I wasn’t dangerous to start with.
[quote author=“melquinn”]If you want to believe in God enough, you’ll find ways around the irrationalities. People do it every day. So in a sense, for a lot of people, the “truth” of religion isn’t critically important.
That’s the basis of the problem though. Religious belief encourages people to be idealogues because it encourages them to believe without applying any intellectual rigor or even responsibility. Here’s an excerpt from a blog entry about Saddam’s execution:
[quote author=“Baron von Bone”](Baron von Bone is my stage name)
It would be nice if we could learn to actually derive our understanding from reality rather than trying to impose our ideology upon it as if we could force reality to oblige our personal sentiments and bend to our will, but our history doesn’t offer much hope of that. By and large we consider faith to be the highest of virtues when in reality it’s just presuming to impose our ideologies upon reality, and distorting our perceptions to delude ourselves into believing those presumptions are true. Faith is the ultimate snow job, selectively validating pure presumption as if it were epistemologically sound and intellectually responsible and honest, none of which is the case in reality.
Ever known a believer to accept faith as validation for opposing franchise doctrine?
I call the typical results and this kind of “thinking” religiostupidification (which is by far the most popular and pervasive and insidious subset of ideostupidification). Religiostupidification is a property of faith which compromises minds in a fundamental way—strongly encourages people (through divine/ultimate authority, entirely presumed) to believe what they’d prefer over what can be verified through responsible, honest thinking, and teaches them to devalue true honesty and intellectual responsibility. In short faith encourages people to be ideologues.
The sense of sacred is derived from sexual awe.
That is why so many religions, like Christianity is fearful about sex;
the worshippers of fertility cults had a far better approach:
Namely INTEGRATE sexuality, and make it the centre of your religious ceremonies, rather than repress it.
[quote author=“melquinn”] But one thing Harris doesn’t talk about (at least not in what I’ve read so far) is the very real and laudable human desire for collective moral frameworks that are SACRED. Sacredness, transcendance, call it what you will - human beings want to bend to the will of something greater than themselves, to be awed by the mystery and force of life, and I don’t believe that this is merely a crutch of the weak.
You should then read the first book, The End of Faith, in which Sam Harris does leave the door open for “spirituality” and “mysticism,” terms he uses but does not like. These refer to subjective and existential experiences by the human subject (ego) of the consciousness behind it, attainable through meditation and contemplation.
Science, and human reason on which science is based, are irrefutable within their realm. Consequently, illogic, dogma, superstition, fantasy, magic, etc., are correctly refuted and rejected.
But human reason is NOT the sina qua non of Truth, as milennia of philosphy and theology constantly remind us. Reason filters and interprets that of which it is conscious. What reason conceptualizes is not “reality, in itself” but an interpretation of reality by human reason. Furthermore, by every individual’s particular human reason, and its tiny point of view.
Reason reaches dead ends when trying to penetrate the extremities of reality: 1) the cosmological limit is the dilemma between the illogical poles of accepting either an “uncaused cause” of the universe, on the one hand, or a universe “without a cause” on the other. Neither is acceptable to human reason, and reason cannot resolve the contradiciton ; 2) the epistimological limit is the ultimate inabiltiy of reason to determine what it knows and how it knows it; of determining what is “subjective” and what is “objective,” and where the one stops and the other begins. 3) finally the immanent limit is reached when consciouness is turned onto itself. How can the subject (consiousness) know itself without converting itelf into an object of its own knowledge (ego), and then no longer be subject? How can we know in the present as opposed to reflecting on knowledge and finding the past?
To go “beyond the limits of reason” is the mystical, spiritual, religious and personal - call it what you will - quest of the human pilgrim as seeker of “Truth” This is what religion “should” be about: seeking knowlege, seeking wisdom, seeking Truth. Not fearing death and the unknown, running away from problems, social acceptance, belief as a crutch, replacing drug addiciton with dogma-addiction, etc.
What can be bad about seeking Truth?
Well, of course the next dilemma: that the Truth which the seeker may (or may not) find is entirely subjective from the point of view of everyone else. The seeker may have “become One with Truth” have found that the “Transcendent Truth and the Immanent Truth are One Truth”, or maybe not: It can’t be communicated. Any communication of experience is simply another interpretation, and will necessarily get lost in the translation.
So what “good” is it? Not much, except for the seeker, unless there is something to teach. To everybody else listening to the mystic who had the experience, the experience could be valuable knowledge, or it could be pure hallucination and fantasy - there is no way for anybody to experience anybody else’s experience.
The only way for the observers to judge the mystic and his/her message, then, is to observe how the mystic acts. A pearl of wisdom from the Christian New Testament: “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Matthew 7.” If they preach but don’t practice, then it’s probably an hallucination. If they set an incredible positive example, they may have something to teach. You should be asking them, not them telling you. Preachers and “trip-pushers” are not to be trusted.
1) traditional religious dogma is not truth, if it contradicts science and reason.
2) science and reason are true, but only within their domain.
3) there is an Asbsolute Truth which is the “spritual quest of humans”, other than the domain of reason, but it is subjective.
4) the Absolute Truth, might be more or other than, but can’t contradict, science and reason. Otherwise, it’s merely an hallucination.
5) you find your own Truth, but you don’t push it on anybody else. You live it. Otherwise, it’s just another dogma.
Reason reaches dead ends when trying to penetrate the extremities of reality: 1) the cosmological limit is the dilemma between the illogical poles of accepting either an “uncaused cause” of the universe, on the one hand, or a universe “without a cause” on the other. Neither is acceptable to human reason, and reason cannot resolve the contradiciton ..
Yes - that’s exactly right. Human beings are unable to accept or resolve this ‘first cause’ or ‘uncaused’ problem, or, for that matter, to even manage the complexities and disappointments of daily life. So some of us turn a hopeful if bewildered face to “God.”
However, I’m concerned about one aspect of this discussion. Much of what I hear from athiests is tinged with contempt and derision for believers. Some of them do indeed deserve it (most evangelicals, in my opinion), but such intellectual high-handedness doesn’t advance the athiest agenda and moreover misses the point.
What is the point? It’s this: typical mainstream churches today are NOT necessarily filled with ardent, Bible-thumping believers. They’re filled with people seeking a sacred space, who want to be “in community,” and who are attracted to the very real social good that a group of volunteers can do together in the name of a higher purpose. I’m reminded that John Cheever said he went to church every Sunday, not because he was particularly religious, but because church offered him uniquely quiet, prayerful, meditative space in which to sit for an hour and simply think.
I’m also reminded of a pastor of mine (in my chuch-going days) who announced on an Easter morning: “Look, I don’t know what happened 2,000 years ago [referring to the resurrection story], but something happened, because we’re still talking about it.”
Athiests - and particularly those interested in moving the mass of public feeling away from religion - simply must come to terms with the reality that church occupies an absolutely unique place in society - it brings together people who don’t know each other, often don’t agree on much at all and even on theology, and asks them to put aside petty concerns and do something worthwhile for others, to be “radically compassionate” in the style of Jesus. And that, for many moderate/liberal Christians, is the only real reason for being involved. Having been raised out of church, then being in church, now being out again, I can tell you firsthand that like organized religion or not, there’s no substitute for it in society. Until one is developed, people are not leaving en masse.
I take the point about reading The End of Faith, by the way, and will do so asap.
Welcome to the forum. I recognized some of my own feelings in what you wrote. I, too, am in reluctant agreement with some of the points Sam Harris raises in End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. I am hesitant to walk away from the good things religion offers (which I think you listed eloquently in your posts—a sense of the sacred, moments to take the time for self-reflection, working individually to improve our lives and the lives of others, and working together in groups to improve society….) in spite of its many examples of egregiousness, I really do believe that the world’s religions have accomplished good where it would not have otherwise been accomplished.
I struggled with the problem of belief for many years. The bottom line, for me, is that I don’t like the God of the Bible. I think he is horrendous. After reading about bloody battle after bloody battle, where God’s chosen people, with the direct intercession of God himself, slaughtered city after city, people after people… women, children, animals ...for all the years that I really believed that this was truly God’s doing.. it made me sick.
I was a Catholic for many years, and I thought that maybe I just wasn’t studying the Bible hard enough, so I began a Bible study with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They know their Bibles. I studied really hard. It actually made me feel worse.
I finally came to the realization that I did not believe that the God which is described in the Bible is the One True God. And if He is, I don’t want to have anything to do with him.
I can’t tell you how much better I feel now that I don’t have to do battle with my conscience anymore about whether the Bible is God’s inerrant word. I thoroughly believe that the Bible and the God that it describes is 100% human generated.
The best thing is, I haven’t lost my sense of the sacred at all. In fact, I feel as though my sense of the sacred has been set free, and decontaminated, and restored to its original purity and innocence. I experience the sacred in my life every single day, from my first cup of coffee in the morning, until the moon comes up and the stars start to shine. Whatever the source of this sacredness is, I am grateful to it. And when I die, I neither expect nor desire a renewal of this human life. The Witnesses believe that the “chosen ones” (mostly, them) will be resurrected to an eternal life on a paradise earth in a human body. That just doesn’t sound right to me. But I hope that I will be there in some way or another…. as dirt, or a tree, or water, or air. It’s all good.
[quote author=“woofy”]I experience the sacred in my life every single day, from my first cup of coffee in the morning, until the moon comes up and the stars start to shine. Whatever the source of this sacredness is, I am grateful to it.
The difference between the religious and non-religious is the question of the source of the sacredness. But let’s take this one step further and enjoy what is in front of us without attaching a source or meaning.