Monday, October 08, 2007

So Don't Use the A-Word

Sam Harris is a writer and thinker I really admire. While Richard Dawkins (whom I also admire) has an aggressive "take no prisoners" approach in his writing against religion, Harris is different. He is blunt yet subtle, divisive yet inclusive, as paradoxical as those word pairs may seem. In his book The End of Faith, he argues that faith itself is a great danger, that giving a privileged place to irrationality if only it is labeled as "religion" is crazy. As he says in that book, "As long as it is acceptable for a person to believe that he knows how God wants everyone on Earth to live, we will continue to murder one another on account of our myths." That certainly is happening today.

I discussed The End of Faith more extensively in a 2006 post, but tonight I found a great new essay by Harris, based on a speech he gave recently. The points he makes really hit home for me, helping me to better understand the troublesome word "atheism" and what it means to me (and to others). The article is called "The Problem with Atheism," and Harris says it's very much a problem with the word atheism itself, and with what that word most often does, which is to polarize discussions and to tar the person who is labeled an atheist with all sorts of unwarranted assumptions (even if the label is willingly self-applied). It's more productive to think and talk in terms of what one does believe rather than what one does not believe (which for me is a rather long list of the usual imaginary suspects, from Zeus to the Flying Spaghetti Monster as well as God and his/her immediate and extended family, not to mention astrology and extended warranties on small electronics). I don't even believe in "science" - science is a system of knowledge and an approach to understanding the world. It's not a religion or a substitute for it and it doesn't need to be worshiped or believed, just appreciated and applied.

What Harris suggests is what I think I have been doing, or trying to do, all my life - trying to apply reason and evidence and to oppose bad ideas, wherever they may arise. Not as a crusade, and not only "against" religion, but simply as an approach to life. This doesn't mean trying to be Mr. Spock and to apply nothing but logic. There's plenty of room for (and need for) love and compassion in the world. We primates have evolved as social animals, and love and compassion are as important as intelligence and reason in the success of humans in this world. But organized religion, not so much.

In his speech, Harris also returns to and clarifies another topic from The End of Faith, his own interest in matters referred to as "spiritual" or "mystical" - things that are usually associated with religion, but need not be. I won't attempt to summarize his arguments here, except to say that practices such as meditation are well known to have benefits in terms of feelings of well being, reduced stress, and greater insight into your own mind. His point is that even if you reject religion, you needn't reject these sorts of practices as "religious by association."

Harris strikes another blow for reason in this thought-provoking speech - I strongly recommend it whatever your personal beliefs may be.

No comments: