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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sam Harris and The New Atheism


Recently I was forced to reconsider self-knowledge practice in the attempt to get to the bottom of  my son’s passion for atheism. He’s very fond of Sam Harris and he asked me to read his best sellers, The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape, so I patiently submitted myself to the task.

Harris praises meditation and the Buddhist wisdom. Buddhism stemmed from Hinduism and  they share the same doctrine of reincarnation. Buddhists don’t believe in God or in the afterlife.The original teaching of the Buddha implies that we have no soul. What is it, then, that according to him is going to reincarnate? The patterns that we create during our lives, namely our karma.

There is no Self involved in the concept of karma. Many Buddhists believe that we are like a stellar constellation: From our planet we see it as a whole, whereas it is just an agglomerate of stars. In the same way, we perceive ourselves as whole beings, but our Self is an illusion. The enlightened ones will annihilate their “patterns” when they reach Nirvana. Today I find this ordeal quite depressing. 

Harris insists that mysticism is a rational enterprise which requires explicit instructions, similar to those, and I quote, for operating a lawn mower. It doesn’t occur to him that some of us might not be inclined towards this kind of spiritual search. I tried it and I found it ineffective. Maybe I couldn’t reach the point where all dualism and self-centeredness disappear. Maybe I’m not intellectually sophisticated enough to appreciate the wonders of a teaching that can be compared to the instructions for operating a lawn mower.

Jesus came for those like me, who need emotional involvement. The awareness that he died for us brings our affection to its climax. This awareness is the byproduct of a rational reflection on his life, actions and motives. Paradoxically as it may sound, the belief in his resurrection, which was a supra-natural event, is also the product of a rational study of early Christianity.

However, Harris is witty and argumentative and I agree with many of his ideas. But when it comes to the analysis of religious beliefs  he misses the point. If only one person in a given social context, he says, would maintain that a certain Palestinian was born from a virgin and came back to life after being crucified, this person would certainly be labeled as crazy.  For Harris, the only reason why these beliefs are considered acceptable is that they are so widespread. He doesn’t even try to articulate an explanation for why billions of people  believe in Jesus’ story, not to mention why ninety percent of the world’s population believes in
some form of deity. For him, we are all victims of our illusions.

True, the number of people of faith says nothing about the existence of God but, to the atheist, it says a lot about himself, namely that he’s one of the few enlightened ones who understand what faith is all about. But what if these very smart people have gone lost in rationality? They have shut their brains to the perception of the divine, overloading them with the concept of “evidence”. Without evidence, nothing is worthy of consideration. Yet, in every  religious tradition, God is spirit. He transcends nature, so why should we find proofs of His existence in nature?

According to my husband, there is a philosophical quasi fallacy in Harris’ argument against faith. Harris thinks that ancient men turned to religion to explain phenomena that were later adequately accounted for by modern science, therefore, in the twenty-first century, we should give up the obsolete beliefs in the supra-natural. Harris also thinks that the desire for happiness is innate to the human being, as it is the awareness that it can be achieved only through a peaceful, civilized behavior. For him, the moral sense doesn’t come from God but stems from the ultimately selfish attempt to live a well-balanced life. Therefore, Harris builds his philosophy around the idea that the human kind possesses an innate quality, namely the desire for happiness.

Now, if religions were largely generated by independent cultures with no interaction with one another, and today  90% of the world population still tends to believe in God (or something equivalent) in spite of the discoveries of modern science, this tendency may  also be investigated as an innate quality on a par with the desire for happiness. But if this is the case, Harris’  founding ethics on one innate trait and disregarding the other as obsolete, is a judgment of value.  
Future investigation into the biology of happiness and religion may reveal that the two notions are connected in such a way that  happiness may be achieved only through the fulfillment of a religious project.

Harris trivializes Christianity, reducing it to a number of supernatural events. But there is a lot more to it than that. After all, only the gospels of Luke and Matthew celebrate his virginal birth. If one day it was discovered that this is just a myth, the Christian belief would have to adjust but wouldn’t die. However, all the four canonical gospels narrate about Jesus’ ministry,  death and resurrection, and it’s there that our faith is founded.