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PSYCHOLOGY OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF
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In February 2005 I read a book by Sam Harris called “The End of Faith” and sent a review to Amazon.com. I enjoyed parts of the book but knew going in that Harris made some outlandish philosophical statements that he would probably live to regret. No matter, it seems, as his book is selling like mad, and as of this writing is number 64 on Amazon. By contrast, and to give you an idea how many books Amazon offers, Joe Hanak’s brother-in-law’s self-published book is hovering around the 900,000 mark. That might be the difference between 2 and 2 million copies sold. I wish I could give exact figures.

Two authors responded to my review with the suggestion that I might be interested in reading and reviewing their books. Paul Dehn Carleton suggested I might enjoy his self-published book, “Concepts: A ProtoTheist Quest for Science-Minded Skeptics of Catholic, and other Christian, Jewish & Muslim Backgrounds.” This book is sitting around the 450,000 mark on Amazon.

And David Eller suggested I might enjoy reading and reviewing his book, “Natural Atheism,” published by American Atheist Press; his book is around 10,000. I would say that’s a nice spot to be in, and the book has many positive reviews.

I exchanged numerous e-mails with Carleton and Eller; you can read the exchanges with Eller below. But let me talk about Carleton first.

PROTOTHEISM

I was surprised to find that I already had Carleton’s book. I hadn’t made it through the introduction before I stuck it back on the shelf. I gave it another chance but could not make much progress. Then I tried a couple more times, diving in here and there, having read most of the book by the time I set it aside for good. I think it suffers from two fatal inadequacies: Lack of a good central idea and lack of clear presentation.

Carleton and I began corresponding about his book, but I either I could not grasp the importance of the book — or there is no importance to grasp. That’s for each reader to decide. You judge. Here’s the passage Carleton pointed out as, “a succinct statement of my thesis.” It begins on the bottom of Page 181:

“Perhaps a restatement of the Life Urge tenets is in order here: Life initially emerged from Earth’s matter nearly four-billion years ago as molecules randomly rearranged themselves to better withstand some adversity. Other molecules adopted the practice and elaborated on it, passing their ever more complex and elegant arrangements on to other macromolecules — they replicated. What was a reaction became a proaction, a way-of-life, a Life Urge. At first Life was housed in simple cells — archaea and prokaryotes . But as the Urge to Life experienced ever greater adversity, it randomly found ever more elegant solutions — synergistic arrangements of complex structures. By building on earlier arrangements in nested hierarchies, the evolved. Some prokaryotes merged with archaea into single cell eukaryotes, then some eukaryotes combined into multicell organisms by dedicating differentiated cells to specialized functions and somehow coordinating them. As coordination became more elaborate it enabled movement — animals with nervous systems. As nervous systems became more elaborate they became brains and finally brains became reflexive — consciousness emerged. All Life is innately aware of its Life Urge else it wouldn’t be alive. Consciousness not only is intuitively aware of this Life Urge (faith?) which can be experienced  as numinous and transcendent, but consciousness can also infer Life’s evolutionary trajectory — where Life’s evolution might be heading. Hence we conscious humans can not only revel in Life but can be evolutions executors, we can choose to help carry Life’s evolution forward each in our own way. This can be our calling, our mission in Life, our ‘religion.’ Not to honor and serve a projection of some imaginary God but to honor and serve Life, and to be part of evolution’s long trajectory in advancing Life. I believe this is the Meaning of Life.”

REVIEW NEVER APPEARED

I sent a review to Amazon after my initial perusal of the book, but it was never posted. Perhaps Amazon was requested to hold the review or maybe it was lost. I never asked about it because the follow-up review would be even more critical than the initial one, for I do not see how the behavior of macromolecules 4 billion years ago can result in an interesting discussion about belief in God today. But if people are reading his book and re-examining their beliefs, then I say good for him; maybe he’s doing something positive, and I don’t want to take away from that. Check out all the positive reviews he got! Plus, he escaped from the Catholic Church, so hats off. And I mean that. I might not care for his book, but I appreciate his freethinking exploration of faith. At least he's making an effort.

Here’s a copy of that initial review, just for the record, where I tried to mix admiration with caution. A second review would mostly certainly attack the idea of the Life Urge as explanatory of almost nothing. To some extent, I think the book is simply a reinvention of Hinduism: Life Force, Brahman, Atman … projection of the Life Force resulting in a mistaken belief in personal gods … Atman reverencing Brahman, life loving Life. I think that's a fascinating idea, and an interesting explanation, but it's about 5,000 years old — the B.C version of the Big Bang — and the introduction of macromolecules does little to advance it in my view.

PROTOTHEIST REVIEW FOR AMAZON

I think maybe Paul Dehn Carleton and I are brothers from a different mother. We are both on the same quest, exploring the nature of belief for the purpose of gaining freedom of thought, each believing that parochial views cause huge problems in our global world, and each trying to inspire people to think more and accept less. It’s a challenge. I’ve created a Web site to put forth my views, but I am not very happy with the results so far; after 10 years I am still just scratching the surface and somewhat mired in the confusion I’ve created for myself. Perhaps Mr. Carleton is in the same boat. Perhaps it’s almost impossible to avoid; as Protagoras said: “About the gods I cannot say either that they are or that they are not, nor how they are constituted in shape; for there is much which prevents knowledge, the unclarity of the subject and the shortness of life.”

Instead of creating a Web site, Mr. Carleton has written a book to air his thoughts, the title of which may stop you dead in your tracks: “Concepts” — A ProtoTheist Quest for Science-Minded Skeptics of Catholic, and other Christian, Jewish & Muslim Backgrounds.” You will note that we have the word “and” plus an ampersand in the title for no discernable reason whatsoever. This is the first hint that Mr. Carleton needs an editor.

Since I was an editor — and an English teacher — I am perhaps overly aware of what a professional would do with this book, how he or she would strike out all the overuses and abuses of “hopefully”; how he would remove the quote marks that pointlessly hover around so many common words; how he would cut out the clichés — or at least remove them from quotes, which scream at the reader, “Hey, look, I am using a cliché, and in case you don’t recognize it, I will put it in quotes.” Admittedly, I have never been a strict-constructionist about such things, and I can overlook them and still sleep at night, which is probably why I am no longer a copy editor or a teacher. But I do care about clarity and concision, communicating powerful ideas clearly. Point being, Mr. Carleton’s book, like Mr. Carleton’s title, needs an editor to force the issue of, “What do you really mean, and how can you communicate it better?”

To his credit, Mr. Carleton admits he is neither a professional theologian, scholar or scientist, nor a naïve, complacent bystander. He is a layman-thinker in the proud American tradition, and in my opinion we need more people like him, thoughtful people trying to see past what they were taught as children. And to his credit, Mr. Carleton admits his book started out as, “A study guide and notes for my own questions, explorations, insights and conclusions — a personal research project.” I am in complete sympathy with that approach and approve it whole-heartedly. Everything Emerson and Montaigne accomplished as writers began in just that manner. And look where it took them! Mr. Carleton is surely on the right track. But alas, his volume reads more like “study notes” than a finished book. In my view, this offering is not ready for prime time.

One more point: Mr. Carleton says in regards worn-out world views that, “A viable alternative hasn’t yet been proposed.” Well, of course, many wonderful ideas, alternatives and titles have been put forth by brilliant people: “The Art of the Novel,” which reveals that Milan Kundera has stunning insights into the nature of belief; “Doubt: A History,” which details the history of skepticism and shows that, “Faith can be a wonderful thing, but it is not the only wonderful thing”; “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” which approaches the problem of belief starting with the Greeks and traces all manner of authoritarianism back to problems we have in taking responsibility for our own lives — and it’s a wonderful introduction to Karl Popper; anything by Ernest Becker, which is easy because he wrote only three books before his death from cancer; “Why God Won’t Go Away,” which links belief and biology; “The Spiral Staircase,” which tells how Karen Armstrong left the convent for a life of the mind (see also her book, “The Battle for God”); “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity,” or “The Roots of Romanticism,” which trace the power of ideas. The list could run on for pages.

In summary, I am a big supporter of Mr. Carleton’s efforts to understand the nature of belief, and I am almost tempted to say, “Buy this book to support that cause.” But I can only recommend it as a “for-beginners-only” starting point in that quest.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing this review I decided to check Amazon and see what other readers thought; I was delighted to find so many positive responses. Perhaps this volume is a better introduction to the topic than I had imagined, and while I stand by my review, I sincerely hope Mr. Carleton sells lots of books and inspires many readers to study belief. From my perspective, nothing is more important.


MY AMAZON REVIEW: “THE END OF FAITH”

Sam Harris is a brave man.

It’s not that he’s taking on big oil, government corruption or even “the church.” No, he’s taking on religious faith across the board and the problems it brings to our ever-shrinking global world, problems of the sort we witnessed as we watched the World Trade Center towers burn and fall. And since most people belong to one religion or another and believe in God — though they fail to agree on what the word means — Sam Harris is in the unique position of annoying most of the human race. You have to admire his bravery — and his book.

I think it’s safe to say that, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason,” is bound to be as great an abomination to believers as it will be an inspiration to freethinkers. I hope it will provoke wide debate on the topic of faith and belief. Indeed, someone should place a copy of Harris’ book in a time capsule in the foundation of the building under construction at Ground Zero, which is to say that the book should be the basis for something that keeps the Freedom Tower upright, a tall order for he world’s tallest building.

Since it’s the reviewer’s duty to point out problems, allow me to share a flaw, a minor weakness eclipsed by the strengths of Harris’ daring book.

Harris uses the word “evidence” a lot. He seems to think that much of the problem of faith will be solved when people learn to follow the evidence, with science having a lot and religion having none. However, we must remember that Newton’s physics was overshadowed by Einstein’s ideas and that Einstein’s theories were overshadowed by quantum physics. And when we deride the faithful over their strange, unproved beliefs, we must remember some scientists propose spooky things like “action at a distance,” a phrase that should always be accompanied by the other-wordly tones of a Theremin. In short, scientific evidence is fallible and tentative, and too much faith in the scientific method causes problems.

Philosopher David Hume pointed out in the 18th Century that even something as glaringly “obvious” as cause and effect — the bread and butter of the scientific method — is not necessarily demonstrable or logical; he concluded, of all things, that it was primarily psychological! And “Hume’s Problem” — the assertion that we can’t help but psychologize the empirical method — is still unsolved and puts limits on all our claims of objectivity. I agree on the importance of evidence, but the battle over belief won’t be won that way.

It will be won when we understand how, as fallible human beings, we invest certain beliefs with monumental power, when we understand the mental and emotional mechanisms that turn human ideas into sacred “truths.” Or to put it more simply: The battle over belief will be won when we understand — on a deeper level than hitherto imagined — the difference between fact and opinion. And not before.

The answer to the problem of faith is not in the evidence but in ourselves. And in spite of his faith in evidence, Sam Harris helps us understand that. Read this book.


Reason’s Unreasonable Defender, Faith’s Unlikely Friend:
A Discussion of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith
by David Eller

There are certain book titles that should be permanently banned, including those that start with “the end of” (as well as any of its variations, such as “the twilight of,” like the contrary and off-the-mark volume The Twilight of Atheism by Alister McGrath) and those that start with “the culture of.”  Both of these titles have been done to death, and frankly they show a lack of imagination that should alert the potential buyer and reader of such texts.  Sam Harris breaks this rule with his new book; unfortunately, this is not the only manner in which he displays a lack of imagination and a dependence on exhausted and bankrupt themes.

As a rationalist and a non-theist—an overt atheist, in fact—I was happy to see Harris’ book arrive and receive the remarkable attention that it has received.  Not many treatises on the subject of the negativity of religion get much publicity in America, especially these days of religion ascendant.  The comments and reviews by secularists had been overwhelmingly positive.  As I began to read it, I had high hopes, which were initially supported, then disappointed, and ultimately dashed.  I think Harris missed a major opportunity with this book, and I have not yet decided what its popularity means as a commentary on the Atheist community.  Perhaps little more than starvation.

Harris’ work is actually three books in one—no mean feat for a text of 227 small-trim pages.  The first mini-book considers the general problem of faith as an impediment to good decision making.  The second focuses on the violence that religion does, with special emphasis on Islam.  The third and final turns to a disquisition on morality and spirituality.  In short, the first mini-book is useful, even quotable; the second is tired and cliché; and third is just dead wrong.

Book 1: What’s Wrong with Faith?

The first roughly eighty pages of The End of Faith are promising.  In it he makes a strong case for the destructiveness, not just politically but intellectually, of religious faith.  He accurately asserts that it is not religious extremism alone that is the problem, nor any specific religious ideology, but rather the very phenomenon of faith itself.  In some nice turns of phrase, he says such things as “Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse—constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor” (65) and “Believing strongly, without evidence, they have kicked themselves loose of the world.  It is therefore in the very nature of faith to serve as an impediment to further inquiry” (45).

Anyone who knows anything about the intellectual history of Christianity knows that these statements ring true.  The early church fathers were rather explicit in their views.  Tertullian wrote: “When we come to believe, we have no desire to believe anything else, for we begin by believing that there is nothing else which we have to believe….  I warn people not to seek for anything beyond what they came to believe, for that was all they needed to seek for.”  He continued by claiming that, “In the last resort, however, it is better for you to remain ignorant, for fear that you come to know what you should not know….  Let curiosity give place to faith, and glory to salvation.  Let them at least be no hindrance, or let them keep quiet.  To know nothing against the Rule [of faith] is to know everything.”  Augustine after him opined: “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger.  This is the disease of curiosity….  It is this which draws us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing, and which man should not wish to learn.”

Harris makes a good case, for those who have not already heard it, that faith is dishonest and mentally debilitating, depriving us of the very curiosity and critical attitude that we need in order to make empirical progress and to sort out the true from the false.  Even worse, he points out the political or social dangers in faith, including the “larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself” (45).  In perhaps his strongest formulation, he concludes: “Give people divergent, irreconcilable, and untestable notions about what happens after death, and then oblige them to live together with limited resources.  The result is what we see: an unending cycle of murder and cease-fire” (26).

This is no doubt true, but it already presages problems with the direction he intends to pursue.  First of all, the “cycle of murder” is only one—if the most dramatic—of the troubles with faith, one that he will stress ad nauseum throughout the book.  To place such stress is to leave the impression that if religion could be shorn of its violent side, it would be okay.  However, this goes against not only everything we rationalists understand about religion and faith but also against the mainstream of Harris’ own argument—that faith is inimical to clear thinking, whether it is malignant or benign.  Also, we see here for the first time the confused and indulgent approach to religion itself; religion or faith is not uniquely about “what happens after death,” and to say so is to underestimate religion’s scope and hold on the human mind.  There is an awful lot that happens before death that has the stain of religion on it too.

The most worrisome thing we hear in the first section is an anticipation of the spirituality/mysticism stuff to come later.  Early on he claims that mystical or spiritual experiences “are relatively rare (unnecessarily so), significant (in that they uncover genuine facts about the world), and personally transformative” (40).  A complete critique of this position will appear below, but suffice it to say that all three claims are suspect at best and vacuous—and “faithful”—at worst.  This was my first warning that I was not in the presence of steady reason.

My other warning was that no definition or description of reason, or of faith for that matter, occurs in this book.  This might be excusable in a “popular” text which is not going to be too technical, or perhaps in one that can assume its audience already knows all about it.  However, his vague and sloppy use of terms like reason and reasonableness, let alone faith and belief and spirituality and mysticism, makes it clear at least to me that he is operating with a primitive conception of all of these notions.  This impression was borne out in full as I proceeded.

Book 2: Violence Again (and Again)

The middle third of Harris’ book is an extended thesis on the violence that religion does.  To those who do not know much about the Inquisition or the Holocaust, there is arguably some worthwhile information in these chapters.  However, two objections to this use of valuable print space need to be made.  The first is that the violence-and-religion connection has been made so many times, and so much better, elsewhere that Harris’ choice here is a real misstep.  It is a cheap and hackneyed ploy that some lesser freethinkers enjoy but that really proves nothing.  James Haught, Karen Armstrong, Mark Juergensmeyer, and an army of others have already made this point, and it was tired and cliché when they made it.  Finally, if the goal is to shake religionists out of their dogmatic slumber, then this strategy is the least likely to obtain results.  They can respond that not all religion is violent and that not all non-religion is non-violent—both true and salient points.  Harris almost seems to grasp this point at moments; he quotes Rudolf Hess and Will Durant on the damage done by absolute certainty and unquestioning loyalty, independent from any religious content.  On this count, Harris would have done well to read and refer to Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer which likewise makes the cogent argument that religion is not the fundamental issue; religion is only one manifestation (if the purest manifestation) of humanity’s propensity to differentiate into hostile camps, believe absurd things, and condemn those who do not belong to the camp and share the belief.

The second objection is that this whole branch in Harris’ presentation contradicts the main branch of the first section of the book.  There he insisted that the irrationality of faith was its main problem and that its violence was just one undesirable manifestation.  In fact, Jainism and Buddhism (most of the time) tend to be fairly non-violent, but they are still just as irrational and still continue to be, as he phrases it, “a fathomless sink for human resources (both financial and attentional)” (149).  A passing treatment of the violence issue is certainly merited, but to switch gears so abruptly and place all the burden on the violence effectively forgives religion for its “minor” crimes against reason.

The book comes in seven chapters, and far and away the longest is chapter four, “The Problem with Islam,” weighing in at almost 50 pages (that is, just under one-quarter of the entire volume).  Again, he provides some interesting and headshaking information about this religion, including extensive quotes from both the Qur’an (which he anachronistically calls the Koran) and the Hadith or traditions of Muhammad and his successors.  The conclusion that he attempts and desires to support is that Islam is unique among religions in its capacity for violence.  Here I think he is being trendy at best, narrow-minded at worst.  Surely Islam is a religion of conviction and conflict, although he misunderstands the Muslim concepts of dar al-Islam and dar al-Harb.  The dar al-Islam is the “world of submission” the “domain of peace.”  It is the realm in which the true religion and obedience to the true god reigns and therefore where righteousness exists.  The dar al-Harb is the “world of struggle,” the “domain of conflict.”  It is not necessarily a place where open war exists, even against the domain of Islam.  Rather, it is a realm where life is hard and everything comes with difficulty due to its lack of conformity to the righteous order of god.  The people there may even mean well, but being out of compliance, things just don’t work out well there.

Now, it is true that Islam recognizes the reality, even the virtue, of struggling against this domain of godlessness; where truth is not known or practiced, it should and will be.  It is also well to remember that Islam was from its first days a political religion in a way that Christianity was not until some three centuries into its history.  As a faith and a politics, Islam married faith and power from the start, and it used that power to advance that faith.  Christianity may be overestimated as a religion of peace, even powerlessness (“blessed are the weak”), but only by emphasizing its initial condition over its eventual condition.  Once Christianity attained political power, in the later Roman Empire, the persecutions, forced conversions, Crusades, and Inquisitions followed quickly.  If there is a “problem with Islam” (at least a unique one), it is that the power and the faith—the “church” and the “state”—were never separated in its case.  It can be said, and I think it is important and accurate to say, that Islam is what Christianity would be if the Reformation and the Enlightenment had not happened in Europe.  There is nothing superior about Christianity compared to Islam; all the respite we have in the Western world from the full fury of religion comes from the dilution of religion with a strong dose of reason and “toleration.”

Harris seems to grant this to a degree, since he follows up the 50-page Islam chapter with a 16-page Christianity chapter.  However, the message is made: some religions are “better” than others (although not more rational, I would presume), a theme that he develops, wholly wrong-headedly, in the final section of the book.

Book 3: In Which Reason Leaves by the Back Door

I was mildly bored and disappointed by the second mini-book in Harris’ mini-trilogy, but I was only slightly prepared (although in retrospect I should have seen it coming) for the collapse of all reason in the third part.  Here Harris, allegedly a major in philosophy, shows his most sophomoric side in his complete disregard for reason when it comes to his pet beliefs and theories, as well as his penchant to lecture on subjects that he has no expertise on and that do not advance his main cause in any way   

The two major subjects in the two chapters that comprise this section (other than the short epilogue) are morality and spirituality.  These are topics that rationalists should tread warily in.  Morality is a tar pit that sucks in everything it touches, and spirituality, as I and others have argued in these very pages, is a matter that rationalists should eschew altogether.  But Harris rushes in where rationalists fear to tread.    

Everything that he has to say about the two subjects is wrong.  Starting with morality (in a chapter whose title is ironically shared with Michael Shermer’s book The Science of Good and Evil—and just about as confused), he announces the plan to establish a rational foundation for ethics.  Of course Kant and others have already attempted this (and in their minds no doubt succeeded).  What this leads him to do is to define morality as the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of suffering (Kant defined it as duty, demonstrating that the rational approach to morality is as doomed as the irrational approach).  After fifteen pages, even he has to admit that there is more to happiness than morality and more to morality than happiness (190); what he does not admit is that the association of two is problematic and faulty.  First, happiness is relative; it makes carnivores happy to eat meat, although this entails imposing a degree of suffering on the world (I do not know if Harris is a vegetarian, but if he is not, then he is inconsistent if not hypocritical).  Even more so, it makes some Muslims happy to spread the true faith by jihad, and it makes some Christians happy to think about the end of the world in a fiery apocalypse.  Ultimately, to return to the here and now, it makes the “moral majority” happy to outlaw gay marriage, abortion, and contraception, although these same things make others unhappy.     

Second, not all if even most of morality is about happiness.  Frankly, there are a number of things that make us happy (like sex) that are strictly immoral by certain standards.  But the serious point is that morality is difficult, it is about self-denial and opposing baser instincts and such.  In some cases, morality can be downright austere, even self-mortifying.  In a certain utilitarian sense it might be argued that even beating yourself with whips and chains or starving yourself conveys some pleasure, but it is not what most of us mean or seek as “happiness.”  And third and finally, religion is not co-extensive with morality.  This is an approach tried and failed by Stephen Jay Gould in his Rock of Ages, in which he attempted to assign science and religion to their respective “magisteria” of empirical knowledge and moral truth.  The problem with this partition is that religion obviously makes empirical claims too (like when and how the earth or humanity first appeared, or what kinds of beings exist) and that morality is not always dependent on religion (there are philosophical, cultural, natural, and even rational bases for morality).  Worst of all, as Nietzsche told us over a century ago, there is no such thing as “moral truth” at all.

Harris cannot allow that, however, since he explicitly rejects moral relativism.  This is incidental to his case against faith, but it illustrates another flaw in his thinking that actually aligns him more closely with the faithful than the rational.  He flatly pronounces that “most forms of relativism—including moral relativism…are nonsensical” (178).  This attitude is understandable because he so completely misunderstands relativism.  According to him, relativists “believe that truth is just a matter of consensus” (181) and “believe that all cultural practices should be respected on their own terms” (179).

There may be some epistemological or metaphysical relativists who hold the first position (which is incoherent), but I can tell him as a practicing moral and cultural relativist (a professional cultural anthropologist) that moral/cultural relativism neither does nor can say such a thing.  What moral/cultural relativism says is that all judgments of good or bad, moral or immoral, or normal and abnormal, or valuable or not valuable, are made in reference to some standard of goods or morals or norms or values.  This is indisputably true.  How do you determine if X or Y behavior is moral or normal, etc.?  You hold it up against some “yardstick” of morals or norms—that is, the judgment of morality or normality or value is “relative to” some set of morals or norms or values.  The only important question is whether or not there is more than one such standard or set, and the answer is of course there is.  There are many many different standards or sets or codes of morality.  Each religion, each culture has or is one.  They may agree on few or many specifics, but they constitute discrete moral/norm/value systems.  Which one of these systems you judge the behavior against (“relative to”) affects the judgment.  Polygamy is bad in mainstream American society, but it is good, even ideal, in the vast majority of societies.  Sticking out your tongue is an insult in America but a greeting in some other societies.

Is polygamy really bad?  The question is as meaningless as asking whether sticking out your tongue is really an insult.  It is an insult to those who learn to take it as an insult, and polygamy is bad to those who learn to take it as bad.  Even further, we must ask the question, “Bad for what?”  Polygamy might be good for men and bad for women.  It might be good for having lots of children and for sharing household labor and bad for keeping down household expenses or getting all men married (obviously, if some men have multiple wives, other men have none).  In fact, the same behavior or institution can be good for some men and bad for others, or good for men in some ways and bad for men in others.  A “moral” claim like “X is good/bad” is meaningless not because it is false but because it is incomplete; until you specify the context and criteria, it is simply a sentence fragment.  It is like saying “X is big”—big compared to what, “relative to” what? 

Cultural or moral relativism does not apply to factual or propositional claims, however, because those matters are not cultural or moral.  A statement like “The earth is round” is propositional and therefore either true or false.  How do you decide which?  By careful observation and equally careful interpretation of those observations.  That is, propositional questions are settled by appealing to external reality.  They are not relative to the viewer or culture: the earth is not round for you and flat for me.  But moral claims are not propositional, although they look suspiciously like propositional ones.  Rather, they are judgments, which cannot be arrived at by appealing to external reality.  You can hold a sphere up and compare it to the earth; what would you hold up for comparing a moral claim against?  The only answer is one of the multitude of moral systems.

But Harris’ confusion allows him to assert that some religions and “worldviews” are better than others, which is what he was apparently planning to do all along.  A clear-thinking rationalist and relativist would have to ask, or explain, “Better than others at what, and for whom?”  Any criterion could do equally well for this purpose, and each criterion chosen once again would yield different judgments.  Missionary monotheisms are better at converting members than other religions. Islam is apparently quite good at getting people to die as martyrs, and fundamentalist Christianity is quite good at getting people to vote certain ways.  It all depends on what your goals are—that is, it is relative.

Then finally comes the left-field defense of spirituality, first introduced as “intuition.”  However, in order to make a space for intuition/spirituality, reason must be demoted and distorted.  Harris maintains that intuition, without ever really defining it, is “the most basic constituent of our faculty of understanding” (183).  That would be false if it made any sense.  His conflation of intuition, “brute fact,” axiom, and other non-intuitive things is truly spellbinding, as is his demonstrated ignorance of science as method or body of knowledge.  For instance, he states that scientists never “feel the slightest temptation to ponder” the notion of cause, which is absurd: since Aristotle rationalists have been pondering cause, and advances particularly in quantum physics have opened up the entire idea of cause to re-examination.

Contrary to what he seems to think, a fact is not an intuition, an axiom or principle is not an intuition, and reason is not an intuition.  Incredibly, he even argues that the only objection to the intuition of magical thinking is “the intuitive content of rational thinking” (184).  I cannot imagine a more muddled position—except when he suggests that experimentation and statistical analysis, even logic itself, are merely intuitive.  Why do these forms of thought “convince at all”?  For him, presumably for no other reason than our faith in them.  But this is to misrepresent reason so thoroughly that it might as well be religion.  Controlled observation and statistics and logic are valuable and trustworthy because they can be demonstrated empirically and conceptually to produce sound conclusions, or at least to avoid unsound ones.  In fact, they are demonstrations, and demonstration is the very essence of reason: do not accept as true what cannot be demonstrated, from evidence and logic, to be true.  To think any other way is to think irrationally.

The damage is done, so spirituality can be imported happily now.  This key concept too is not defined, at least not consistently.  At one point it is “cultivation of happiness directly” (192), at another point introspection and the study of consciousness (209).  It is synonymous with mysticism, and as we were forewarned in part one, mysticism/spirituality is “significant” because it uncovers “genuine facts about the world.”  There are two problems with this.  One is that a “science” of consciousness, let alone of happiness, does not inform about the world but at best about the self or the society; I cannot assume that my experience (especially my altered experience) of the world really says more about it than it does about me.  That would be akin to saying that, if I take a psychoactive drug, I am seeing a different aspect of reality, when I am rather seeing the same reality in a different condition as a receiver or experiencer.  This leads us to the second problem, which is well documented in John Horgan’s Rational Mysticism, a book Harris would have been wise to read before he made his pronouncements.  Horgan, a science writer, interviewed a wide variety of “spiritual seekers” from Huston Smith to Ken Wilber to Stanislov Grof to Michael Persinger.  The one thing he comes away with is that mystical encounters are as different as the people who have them: some are ineffable while others are highly specific, some are positive while others are negative, some are profound while others are trivial.  Contrary to what Harris asserted earlier, they are not even always “personally transformative.” 

There are a number of other gratuitous and probably false claims in this chapter, including a defense of dualism, an attack on pacifism, a denial that consciousness is a brain function, and a conclusion that mysticism is “rational.”  Not only that, but a few things he says now openly contradict things he has said previously, some of these contradicted things being the very heart of his book.  The most astounding one, in his broadside against pacifism, is that “I believe we must accept the fact that violence (or its threat) is often an ethical necessity” (199).  With that his entire house crumbles, for the first two-thirds of the book were dedicated to a condemnation of religion as a source of violence, and even most of the final third was a paean to love.  But I’m sure many jihadists, crusaders, terrorists, inquisitors, and gay-bashers would wholly agree with his last statement and would offer it themselves as their motivation.  By the time he concludes, on the penultimate page of the text, that “we are the final judges of what is logical” (226), my despair as a passionate rationalist was complete.

Conclusion: One Man’s Reason is Another Man’s Religion

The End of Faith, despite its worn out title, has some things to say that are worth hearing; I heartily recommend that rationalists and Atheists read the first third or even half and then dispose of the rest.  Harris’ heart is in the right place, but hearts are not thinking organs.  The end of faith is a good goal, but the retreat from reason that he takes to get there is wrong and dangerous—even if “the retreat from reason” is probably a more accurate description of the current historical situation.

Harris gets some things right, so why is it so important to focus on what he gets wrong?  The answer is at once simple but consequential.  His book is ostensibly a plea for clearer thinking, and it rightly identifies faith as an obstacle to that process.  However, faith is not the only such obstacle, any more than it is the only inspiration for violence.  In an odd twist, he has overestimated the importance of faith and underrepresented the nature of reason.  A well-meaning but novice rationalist could and would come away from his or her reading experience with a tainted conception of reason and no actual guidance on it at all.  Harris insists that mysticism “requires explicit instructions,” but it has none; in fact, my main criticism of mysticism and religion as a type of knowledge is that they utterly lack methodology and therefore cannot produce verifiable or confident knowledge.  Reason too requires explicit instructions—humans do not appear to do it well instinctively—but we do not get any help with those instructions here.  Rather, we get an equation of reason with intuition.  If it feels good, think it?  Harris completely fails to appreciate that human intuitions are largely culturally acquired, but reason, if it is anything, ought to be cross-culturally valid.

While this book starts out hopefully as a devastating critique of religion, it ends up not only re-inserting (one particular brand of) faith but also crippling reason in order to do so.  I would encourage readers—and the writer—to apply the lessons of the first mini-book to the contents of the last mini-book and to take the middle one with a grain of salt.  While “spirituality” and “morality” are feel-good words (unless someone else’s are shoved down your throat), they are not the grounds for nor the results of a rational approach to the world.  Honesty is perhaps the first requirement of critical thinking, and honesty compels us to admit that “spirituality” is no more rational or benign—and no less “faithful”—than any other species of religion.

 

 

“Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little
awakening. No doubt: no awakening.”

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©jonfobes 2005