Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Religion" vs. the "New Atheism"

Author, Sam Harris
("Letter to a Christian Nation")
Addressing the Enilghtenment 2.0 conference held in 2007, best selling author and religious critic, Sam Harris (author of "Letter to a Christian Nation"), observed:
"There is nothing about science that entails a criticism of religion, and there is nothing about science that entails a commitment to atheism. This, I think is to be misled by words. Words like religion and atheism. Science clearly does not entail that one identify one's self as an atheist, or even think of one's self as an atheist. But science does entail that one be skeptical of unsupported and unsupportable claims about miracles and about the divine origin of certain books. And when you dig into the details, this is all atheism is. Atheism is the failure to be convinced by other people's claims about miracles, and it is the conviction that they too should not be convinced."

"If there is something worth discussing in the experience of a Buddha or a Jesus . . . as I think there is, I think there is really a 'there' there . . . I think it is possible to have a rare and beautiful and transformative experience . .  and we can call that spirituality or mysticism . . . If there is something worthy of discussion there," says Harris, "it should be susceptible to rational inquiry, and we can hold mystics and contemplatives to the highest standards of empirical rigour and logical coherence. It's simply a myth to say that we can't."

But defining science as the best of our knowledge about the physical universe, Harris does not define what "religion" is to him, before veering off into a discussion of what roles religion and empirical science may have to play in morality and ethics . . . and then going completely off the rails.

Narrowly conflating religion with (i) miracles, (ii) divine origination of scripture, and (iii) ethics, Harris provocatively states that, "The truth is understanding a scriptural tradition is no more relevant to questions of ethics than it is to questions of astrology." And here he misses the point, as do so many leading voices of what Harris himself derides as "the New Atheism."

What Harris misses by leaving his definition of religion unexamined is that there is within religion a vast difference between inner religious experience and the outward dogmas and creeds that encompass Harris' unspoken narrow definition of what religion is.

Yet while, Harris acknowledges that there may be something worthy of discussion in the experiences of "a Buddha and a Jesus," he fails to do so. Buddhism, in particular, is strictly speaking already an 'atheistic religion,' in which its "founder," Gautama Buddha specifically urged his followers not to take his teachings on faith, but rather urged that they should try doing what he did and finding out the truths he talked of experientially, a far more scientific viewpoint (repeatability of 'experiments' and results being, along with the ability to falsify theoretical predictions, being the hallmarks of the scientific method), than perhaps Harris is aware of.

William James (1842-1910)
William James, an acknowledged founder of the modern study of psychology and the father of the 'pragmatic school' of American psychology, delivered perhaps his most famous addresses in the Gifford lectures, a series of talks he later published as "The Varieties of Religious Experience." In so doing, he clearly distinguished between inner religious experience of higher states of 'spiritual' consciousness and the outer religious forms of rites, rituals, creeds and dogmas. Yet this distinguishment is assiduously avoided by Harris, as it is by Christopher Hitchins, the biologist, Richard Dawkins, and other advocates of Harris' brand of "atheism."

There is a strong argument to be made that pro-science religious critics, like Harris, avoid talking about inner religious experience because it has everything to do with "consciousness," a subject area that science, particularly the mind sciences, are uncomfortable with and, thus, somewhat reluctant to approach.

However, with the increasing recognition of the work of leading scientists like the biologist Rupert Sheldrake, the neuroanatomists V.S. Ramachadran, David Chalmers and Dan Siegel, as well as that of synthesist physical/metaphysical theorists like Alan Wallace or the late David Bohm on consciousness, it can be hoped that the seemingly forever ongoing debate between science and religion may at some near point be conducted within mutually agreed upon terms.

After all, even the once most staid of religious institutions, the Catholic Church, has - if I can paraphrase a master metaphysicist - learned to "render unto Galileo what is Galileo's, and render unto God what is God's." It is high time, then, for religious critics to fully and honestly debate the questions of inner religious experience, instead of narrowly and dishonestly restricting their debate to matters solely of external religious beliefs, dogmas and ethics.

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