Saturday, October 24, 2009

Where I Take Sam Harris to the Mat

(...well, in the alternate fantasy universe where I actually know something Mr. Harris doesn't.)

During some recent long drives, I've been listening again to the two hour audio program of the Four Horsemen, a discussion about religion with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. These four are the spearhead of a burgeoning atheist movement, all four brilliant writers and thinkers and educators who seek to put rationality front and center in our discussion about religious matters.

I'm entirely in these guys' camp, of course, as numerous posts and book reports will attest. But after listening to this discussion a few times, there's a thing that gnaws at me. About halfway through the second hour, the four are discussing whether they would prefer to see churches empty, and there's a consensus, more or less, that what is desired is not that there be no churches, but rather that we evolve a different kind of church.

And in this context, Sam Harris makes this statement [emphasis mine]:

I think there's a place for the sacred in our lives, under some construal that doesn't presuppose any bullshit. I think there's a usefulness to seeking profundity as a matter of our attention. And our neglect of this area as atheists at times makes even our craziest opponents seem wiser than we are. Take someone like Sayyid Qutb, who's as crazy as it gets--Osama bin Laden's favorite philosopher. He came out to Greeley, Colorado, I think, around 1950 and spent a year in America, and noticed that all his American hosts were spending all their time gossiping about movie stars and trimming their hedges and coveting each others' automobiles, and he came to believe that America, or the West, was so trivial in its occupation, and so materialistic that it had to be destroyed. Now this shouldn't be construed as giving any credence to his worldview, but he has a point: there is something trivial and horrible about the day to day fascinations of most of us and of most people most of the time. There is a difference between really using your attention wisely in a meaningful way, and our perpetual distraction. And traditionally only religion has tried to enunciate and clarify that difference. And I think that's a lapse in our focus.

Far be it from me to critique Sam Harris--whose writings I love and esteem--but I think he's wrong here on several counts, criticizing what is not so toxic and quite giving (even guarded) credit where none is due.

First, the person who does not grasp the profundity in cosmology or in the flowerings of Darwinian selection (with all that follows on from it) has not in the least grasped these subjects--to say nothing of music or literature or art.

Second, the head-in-the-sand mystic doesn't get to determine what is worthy for anyone but himself; and inventing a self-validating mythology which demands that IT is the essence of the profound doesn't give a scrap of validity to a made-up story or to its claims to profundity. Questions about what the universe is and how it exists and about how humanity came to exist and even about how we should interface with each other; these things certainly touch the profound, but the answers are only profound to the extent that they give us a glimpse of something real or probable. And I submit that religious answers to the big questions are fantastic, politically-motivated guesses, and answers to the small questions have nothing to do with religion.

Third, the realization that people occupy themselves with the trivial is Day One of Human Psychology 101 (the non-credit course). People in virtually all cultures ARE obsessed with just the things Harris mentions, but clearly these attentions serve a function (even if we haven't fully sussed it all out). The status contest with others in our community; the love of gossip as an exchange of social currency; a fascination with celebrity--these things are in no way confined to America or the West. And much of this behavior appears to be hard-wired, part of the psychological mechanisms that provide an aspirational ladder and social cohesion and general group function. In any case, chatter about celebrity and hedge-trimming and automobile-coveting is harmless, even if shallow, and infinitely to be preferred to the ascetic sociopath bent on genocide if we don't see things his way.

A variant of this concession to religion comes up in almost every debate between the religious and the secularist. The religionist typically trots out the argument that there's a place for religious contemplation because scientific knowledge--by its own admission!--is limited. But there's no traction to this argument: our knowledge of the universe and philosophy are simply what they are, no matter what games we play or how we pretend (and this knowledge has increased exponentially because of the scientific method and very much despite organized religion). Whatever it is that science cannot answer, I guarantee that the religious leader doesn't know the answer either. On the contrary, pointing out what science does not yet know only shines the spotlight on all that religion claims but can't possibly know. The deus ex machina leaves your question still unanswered, and it lacks the dignity of the simple truth: we don't know.

I think Sam Harris approaches this question as one who has experimented with, and is interested in, consciousness-expanding by way of drugs and mysticism. As a practitioner of neither of these things, I cannot claim there to be no basis for his thinking. But I think I can say this: the religious foot in the door of the sacred to which Harris alludes is a reality which applies to the tiniest handful of people. I simply don't believe that most people's grasp of the profound extends beyond the outer reaches of normal curiosity, whether exercised in a setting of religion or science or art. I reject the idea that religious contemplation opens up vast worlds of profundity--except for those who would think profoundly in any case. I've spent my whole career working around default-religious people, and they certainly are not attuned to the profound in any demonstrable way.

There is awe enough to be found in the real world, in an honest assessment of what we do and do not know. Fairy tales only cheapen and brutalize the body of real knowledge amassed by our species on this speck of a planet.

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