Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Real debate: Religion

Rather than deplore the absence of true debate in our time, I would like to refer my dear readers to a beautiful example of honest and aggressive debate conducted in e-epistolary form and reprinted using digital technologies: Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and renowned atheist, and Andrew Sullivan, "conservative" homosexual Catholic and author of The Conservative Soul. I've read Harris' book and loved it, and his sarcastic wit and clear thinking come through perfectly in this debate. Sullivan is honest and, for me, embodies many of the better aspects of religion: tolerance, caring, and wonder. In the debate thus far Harris has come through as the more articulate of the two, while Sullivan has lost his way a few times but is nonetheless determined to keep moving.
On the topic of Harris' book, I believe I saw some criticism of his tolerance of certain buddhist practices and other mysticism. Harris' point, I think, is that we simply do not know the limits of human cognition and so on, so we really cannot discount mysticism wholesale. Moreover, he expresses (correctly, in my belief) the wonder that even non-believers can experience at certain times and places, including that brought forth by the use of psychedelic drugs. As a soon-to-be neurology PhD, Harris understands that the brain is able to shift into some pretty interesting modes of thought and experience, and I think any cogent defense of atheism will have to accept that some weird shit happens in our brains and thoughts.
Finally, although I haven't had occasion to listen to it, this debate from NPR looks really great. The question being considered was "Is America Too Damn Religious." Pretty racy for public radio, no wonder those bastard conservatives want NPR defunded. [cite Stanley Fish here]


Blogger Sebonde said...

This is what I think of Sam Harris:

So, I'm reading Sam Harris's The End of Faith, a typical Enlightenment critique of religion. Religious people are dingbats because they believe in stuff for which there is just no evidence or proof. The interesting twist of Sam Harris's book is his full frontal attack on the religious liberals who by his lights want to have it both ways: They want to be both religiously devout and good, reasonable, and tolerant sons and daughters of the Enlightenment. Well, you can't, thunders Harris. Religion is the dark abyss of irrationality, the Enlightenment is sweetness and light. The two clash and necessarily clash. You've got to choose one or the other, and if you choose religion, Harris will hold you complicit in Faith's attempt to nullify the hard won triumphs of Reason.

And if the religion you choose happens to be Islam, well, he might even kill you. See, all religion is insane, but Islam is the worst. Harris has read the Koran and has concluded that there is a direct line from it to suicide bombings. Islam trains people to destroy themselves for the sake of paradise, and should Islamic countries ever acquire long-range nuclear weaponry, they may choose destruction of the whole world as the quickest route to Koranic Paradise. This is a very real possibility. What's to be done if these whacko Muslims don't see the reasonableness of the Western Enlightenment? What if they stubbornly persist in their nihilistic beliefs that the value of this world is nothing compared to the glories of the next? Harris answers:

In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime--as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day--but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. (p. 129 of the Norton Paperback Edition)

Now, Harris does stress that "[a]ll of this is perfectly insane." And he makes clear that he conjures up just such a scenario only to illustrate that the beliefs of Islam are so serious that they could very well force us to into a genocidal war. Harris is by no means advocating the realization of the horrific hypothetical. Harris would, of course, much prefer for Muslims to moderate their beliefs, which means to admit that the Koran is as fictional as Batman Comic Books and to accept the Good Sense of the Godless Enlightenment. And as much Mr. Harris hates to say this, it's either that or all out nuclear genocide.

Oh, if only we were all as reasonable as you, Mr. Harris! But because over one sixth of the world's population are not and stubbornly refuse to be, I guess nuclear genocide is the only way for the legacy of the Enlightenment to endure. Too bad.

I have about seventy more pages to read in Harris's book. I will have more to say after I have finished it.

Second post:

I finally finished Sam Harris's The End of Faith. Religion is bad because it is irrational. It is irrational because it demands beliefs for which there can be no empirical evidence of any kind. One wonders if Sam Harris has ever read David Hume. The Humean Argument shows that belief in causality is irrational (in Harris's sense) because there can never be an empirical expression of causation. There can be such an expression of conjunction, of course, but not of causation. So, are scientists who mistake mere conjunction for causation irrational by Harris's lights?

Harris would perhaps counter with the argument that the confusion of conjunction and causation (if it is indeed a confusion) has not led to such patent atrocities as inquisitions, witch hunts, bloody religious wars, and suicide bombings. Religion has led to such things and will continue to lead to such things as long as enlightened atheists are unwilling to say outright what has been obvious for centuries now, that religion in putting all value in a beyond for which there is no shred of proof necessarily devalues the world we all can see and, hence, much wreck havoc with it. Why not blow yourself up and take dozens of innocents with you if the glories of this world are just filthy feces when compared to those of the next? No, the civilized world cannot tolerate such nihilistic irrationalities, and atheists must say this with pressing urgency. Else the world is doomed to be destroyed in an orgy of irrational religious piety.

Okay, so, how do we convince billions of whackoes to be rational, forget about the at best dubious rewards of the beyond, and focus on creating global harmony for the here and now? By the promotion of Buddhist meditation. Yes, folks, we must spread the gospel of Buddhist meditation throughout the world. See, in the last pages of Harris's book, we discover that religion, as pernicious as it is, is not the basic problem. No, the subject-object duality is. The fact that we understand ourselves as individuated selves over and against this world of the here and now makes us hostile to it and to eachother. Duality means opposition, opposition means strife. To get rid of strife, we must get rid of the opposition, to get rid of opposition we must do away with duality. To do away with duality, we must get rid of the sense of the self. And if we don't want a religious whacko to do that for us by triggering thermonuclear war, then we better start promoting Buddhist meditation.

The goal of the Buddhist meditation is the extinction of the self and the contemplation of the nothingness behind the illusion that we call this world. Buddhism devalues the world of the here and now as much as, if not more than, any of the irrational religions do. But Buddhism does not offer a better world, only a blissful nothingness. It is easy to imagine someone going on a suicide mission for the sake of an orgy with seventy dark-eyed virgins. It's kinda stupid to go kamikaze for the sake of a contemplative dissolution into the non-empty emptiness.

But, then again, it's kinda stupid to do anything for the sake of nothingness. I mean, perhaps, I am too caught in the straitjacket of occidental binary thinking, but if you succeed in this Buddhist meditation and wipe out your sense of self and become one with the emptiness (which is somehow non-empty), then why the hell would you give a shit about some religious whacko wanting to take Armageddon into his own hands?

I don't really believe Sam Harris is serious with his suggestion that the Gospel of Buddhism will save the civilized world. Harris has fallen into Huntingtonite despair about the Islamic Hordes chomping at the bit to impose Sharia upon their enlightened betters. He thinks that only a pre-emptive genocidal first strike will prevent it but really doesn't have the cahones for such a bloody solution. So, the only option left short of getting blotto drunk or your brain completely fried is to curl up into the Lotus Position and tell yourself over and over that nothingness isn't so bad and suffering is just an illusion, and if you can convince yourself of this, then you'll be able to endure either the imposition of the Koranic Law or the nuclear/genocidal clash of civilizations. Nihilistic contemplation is the only reasonable solution to murderous nihilism, I suppose.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

First, I think you are seriously misrepresenting Harris' argument on pp. 128-129. He does not advocate the killing of Muslims at all; instead, he argues that radical Muslims' obtainment of weapons could quite plausibly lead to a scenario in which the United States would preemptively bomb some city in the Islamic world. That's not advocating the killing of Muslims, rather, its common sense for anyone who has watched the American military at work. Just read Chirac's recent interview with the New York Times if you want to see someone saying the exact same thing.
Harris does take a hard stance against Islam, saying that it is the most dangerous religion, but I think that that is justified empirically as well. Would you care to argue otherwise? I might agree with you if you argued that it is not as dangerous as people think, but that's another issue.
Second, I think you're falling into at least one of the very same traps as Andrew Sullivan does with your Hume argument, a trap to which Harris clearly points in his book: the "faith" that we have in causation and other every-day principles is substantially different than the "faith" that you or Sullivan has in God. We have reasons to believe in certain things, while other times people say they have reasons but they turn out to be bad ones. Harris cites a passage from his book in the debate with Sullivan: "It is time we conceded a basic fact of human discourse: Either people have good reasons for what they believe, or they do not. When they have good reasons, their beliefs contribute to our growing understanding of the world. We need not distinguish between "hard" and "soft" sciences here, or between science and other evidence-based disciplines, like history. There happen to be very good reasons to believe that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Consequently, the idea that the Egyptians actually did it lacks credibility."
You can say that, because we have to have faith in causation and other such things, we therefore have to accept faith in things like religion. But that would give you no room to discriminate against bad faiths, like Islam or Flying Spaghetti Monsterism.
Also, you might want to check out Note 26 to page 63--it attempts to deal with the epistemological questions you cite.
Third and finally, I can't find the basis for your allegations regarding Harris and Buddhism. From my reading, he's pointing out that Buddhism has many valuable insights vis-a-vis the human, mystical experience. Is this not true? Do you care to back up your rant with quotations?

8:37 PM  
Blogger Sebonde said...

Let me quickly respond to two of your points. Harris, as you know, argues at length that Islam is necessarily nihilistic and, thus, necessarily bent upon destruction. This becomes especially problematic, to put it very mildy, in this atomic age. We now have nihilistic technology, and this does not go well at all with such a nihilistic religion as Islam. But since we should not roll back scientific progress, the problem becomes the maintenance of an enlightened attitude towards this progress. Islam teaches the wrong attitude. Islam has the destructive zeal to use that progress to end it entirely. Therefore, Islam has to go. How is that going to happen? Should we bombard Islamic countries with Arabic and Farsi translations of Harris's book? Should we set up Buddhist monasteries around Mecca? These plans would take too much time to succeed (if they could succeed at all), and, as Harris pointedly notes, time is not on our side. If Islamic ambition is as destructive as Harris claims, then (since nuclear proliferation is an inexorable given [cf. the last sentence of p. 129]) we have only one choice: wipe out Islam before it wipes out us. It is that simple.

On page forty-three, Sam Harris concedes that man cannot live by reason alone. Man needs spirituality but one that will be on good terms with reason. Why does man need spirituality? Because he needs comfort from the intrusive terrors of reality? So, Sam Harris in his munificence introduces us to Buddhism, which has as its aim the extinction of the self. In other words, Sam Harris wants us to seek shelter from reality's terrors in spiritual suicide. Yes, I know, I am repeating myself but this time I gave you a page reference to back up my rant.

And, yes, I know he does not mention Buddhism on page forty-three. My point is that at the beginning of the book, Harris tells us that he will show how man can reasonably satisy his spiritual yearnings, and to that end he gives us Buddhist Meditation. It is, thus, reasonable to infer, as I did, that for Harris Buddhist Meditation or something like it should replace all the belief systems he happens to deem irrational.

I will address your comments about causation later when I have more time. Probably later tonight.

4:39 PM  

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