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January 25, 2007 10:19 PM   Subscribe

Sam Harris, an atheist, and Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic, debate whether moderate religion makes any sense. Harris: "Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously." Sullivan: "Blogger, please."
posted by ibmcginty (85 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
I wish these two would just get over with and kiss.
posted by quadog at 10:52 PM on January 25, 2007


Harris: We are both especially concerned about Islam at this moment--because so many Muslims appear to be "fundamentalists" and because some of the fundamentals of Islam pose special liabilities in a world overflowing with destructive technology.

Sullivan: We agree that Islamic fundamentalism is by far the gravest threat in this respect (because of its confort with violence); and that the core feature of what occurred on 9/11 was not cultural, political, or economic - but religious.

Fap fap fap...

I want to see Sam Harris take his case to Muslims.
posted by Laugh_track at 11:00 PM on January 25, 2007


So far I think Harris is right.
posted by davy at 11:06 PM on January 25, 2007


ah thanks so much for posting this.
I'm just about to start reading the second response from Sullivan.

I love this sort of thing, and Sam Harris gets right to the point (although I think he tends to greatly exaggerate the threat of fundamentalist islam).

I very much share his views on faith (in the sense of a dogmatic and stubborn belief) as being spiritually unhealthy.
posted by spacediver at 11:08 PM on January 25, 2007


Except Harris is too soft on mystical nonsense.
posted by davy at 11:10 PM on January 25, 2007


Try Abu Nuwas .
posted by davy at 11:11 PM on January 25, 2007


"Moderate religion" is like "slightly pregnant."
posted by davy at 11:18 PM on January 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


from sullivan's latest response:

It might even include an appreciation of other modes of rational discourse that are not empirical in origin or form. Take, for example, the question of historical truth. You rely in your books on a lot of historical facts to buttress your empirical case. But these facts are not true - and could never be proven true - by the scientific method that is your benchmark. There are no control groups in history. There are no experiments. But there is a form of truth. Discovering that historical truth is the vocation of a historian - and it is a different truth than science, and reached by a different methodology and logic.

Similarly, mathematics can achieve a proof that has no interaction with the physical world. It may even be the closest to divine truth that human beings can achieve. But it is still logically separate from empirically verified truth, from historical truth, and even from the realm of human consciousness that includes aesthetic truth, the truths we find in contemplation of art or of nature.

My point here is to say that once you have conceded the possibility of a truth that is not reducible to empirical proof, you have allowed for the validity of religious faith as a form of legitimate truth-seeking in a different mode. The reason why you are not like some other, glibber atheists is that you recognize this. I might say that God has already been in touch with you on the matter.


Ok so he's actually brought the dialogue a bit further than before, but he hasn't really addressed the idea that as a catholic, he is bound to adherence to certain propositions (i.e. jesus was a historical figure and unique).

He hasn't unpacked:

a) his particular mode of legitimate truth seeking

b) how this mode leads to the conclusion about the nature of jesus, the historical figure.

I'm hoping Harris will zero in on this, and try to corner sullivan into a coherent response.
posted by spacediver at 11:38 PM on January 25, 2007


I would have found this interesting if...

We are both especially concerned about Islam at this moment--because so many Muslims appear to be "fundamentalists" and because some of the fundamentals of Islam pose special liabilities in a world overflowing with destructive technology.

...this wasn't unmitigated bullshit.

On preview:

No kidding, Laugh_track.
posted by Alex404 at 11:57 PM on January 25, 2007


One problem with religious moderates is that their personal religion is constructed like making a meal from a smorgasboard - they've picked and chosen stuff from various religious traditions or popular culture (e.g. do people go to heaven upon death or only at the Second Coming?). It is really hard to know their beliefs because they are personal.

In Denominal religions (fundamentalist or less so) there is generally a Theology that has been argued over and thrashed out for centuries in which there exists answers to what should be believed.

The worst sort of religion seems to be non-denominal fundamentalism. Evangelicals in the USA are often of the this stripe exemplified by Ted Haggard's New Life Mega-Church. Basically they claim they don't need any theological tradition because the Word of God is easy to understand directly from the Bible and there is no need for words like 'interpretation" or "figurative".

Both the religious moderates and the non-denominal fundamentalists seem to think the most important thing is that they are religious (and that means they are saved or something) - the particular details of the religion can be adjusted to fit the circumstances.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 12:26 AM on January 26, 2007


do Evangelists really think that way, Monkey? I thought they were more rigid about stuff.

This is interesting--Harris always is, no matter who he's up against. Thanks!

Religious moderation really is an official contradiction in terms, i think, unless you belong to a faith/creed/branch that specifically allows for freedom not to observe/obey/conform/follow, etc. (i thank God i was brought up Reform, for instance, and i think Unitarians have that freedom too, and some non-Abraham religions).

I think Sullivan has told himself that it's ok to believe in science and evolution and reason, etc, and not in Mary and Jesus and miracles and dying for sins, etc, but that his church would officially disagree. I think that's ok tho (altho his church does not think so), because we all do it--you have to, to live in the modern world and to function. Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur'an is not a moderate. Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac--exactly.

They both greatly overestimate how many Islamic fundamentalists there really are--out of fear, and Sullivan greatly underestimates or refuses to admit the number of Christian ones (80 million of more Evangelicals alone, i've heard, if they count).

Harris is more dogmatic(?) about conflating the trappings (the bible, the koran, the rituals) with the actual beliefs underlying all of that, i think. The same needs and wants and impulses that caused our ancestors to pray (or sacrifice or go mad or have sex) in the winter for the heat and sun to return and then in the summer or fall to show gratitude for the bounty are still very much operative.

This is absolutely true, but it's only a problem when the extremists have earthly power (as we see here, now). -- While religious moderates don’t fly planes into buildings, or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they refuse to deeply question the preposterous ideas of those who do. Moderates neither submit to the real demands of scripture nor draw fully honest inferences from the growing testimony of science.
posted by amberglow at 12:59 AM on January 26, 2007


and thanks again for this--i have no heat in my apt so this is a great consolation for not sleeping--i should pray for some or something maybe
posted by amberglow at 1:01 AM on January 26, 2007


Posting for a friend who's taken a look at the links and thread:

"Ugh I hate the whole science is truth thing. It's so misleading; science is wrong so often. You never prove anything with science-- you prove nots. Even then, science is just a tool. It's not THE truth, its a way of narrowing down what might be true."

I would agree with her, though I am not a scientist.
posted by Mister Cheese at 1:08 AM on January 26, 2007


And some of Sullivan's points are just ridiculous, if he really does believe in reason, and the bible as parable: Your assertion of nothingness at the end of our mortal lives is no more and no less verifiable than my assertion of somethingness. And yet I do not accuse you of lying - to yourself or to others. I respect your existential choice to face death alone, as a purely material event, leading nowhere but physical decomposition. Part of me even respects the stoic heroism of such a stance. Why can you not respect my conviction that you are, in fact, wrong?

If you believe that there is something, you have greater need to prove it or show it than the rest of us. The reasonable, rational person--with faith or without--would not believe so. It's reasonable and even rational to want there to be something, but not to actually believe there really is something.
posted by amberglow at 1:10 AM on January 26, 2007


one more thing: this is just truly false: ...once you have conceded the possibility of a truth that is not reducible to empirical proof, you have allowed for the validity of religious faith as a form of legitimate truth-seeking in a different mode.

Love is not reducible--only its effects are. Hate is not either. Many things that aren't faith or religion are.
posted by amberglow at 1:20 AM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


I wonder if hope (not reducible to empirical proof either) is different to a person brought up to be atheist (or is it just found and/or anticipated differently? for each of us no matter what?) The something after death thing makes me wonder.
posted by amberglow at 1:23 AM on January 26, 2007


I believe that after death there are Chocobo races--nothing but endless Chocobo races and the subsequent glory and adulation.
posted by The God Complex at 1:23 AM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Sullivan's third response is incredibly weak. He misconstrues Harris' statement about "mind and matter" and goes on like an insulted puppy about it for the rest of his post.
posted by beerbajay at 1:40 AM on January 26, 2007


I didn't much care for your title, but the phrase, "Blogger, please"? Heaven!
posted by rob511 at 1:52 AM on January 26, 2007


#amberglow: do Evangelists really think that way, Monkey? I thought they were more rigid about stuff.

I said non-demoninational Evangelists. Here is Haggard on Youtube:
"We've decided the Bible is the word of God. We don't have to have a General Assembly about what we believe, it's written in the Bible. Alright, so we don't have to debate about what we should think ...
The leaders of such churches (sometimes) do pick and choose between some writers they like to cite but they are generally vague about a worked out theology.

And I've found most members of such churches the most important thing they believe is that they believe - though other than a few highlights they are vague on what they believe. I you ask about some theological point the honest ones will say "I'll have to ask my pastor and get back to you".

I would think say strongly believing Catholics would be better at this, and if they don't know there is a lot written that they can consult.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 2:06 AM on January 26, 2007


I don't know about this Sam Harris guy. I tried reading Letter to a Christian Nation a while back, found three or four factual and/or logical problems within the first few pages, and gave up.

And I say this as a staunch atheist.
posted by Target Practice at 2:12 AM on January 26, 2007


while i'm an atheist and sympathetic to the view that moderate religion is really a type of an epistemological and ethical cop-out and isn't fundamentally any more rational than fundamentalism (just more open to parrotting prevailing cultural wisdom), i also find people like sam harris infuriating.

harris is, first and foremost, an ideologue and a intellectual politician. his books and essays are frequently filled with baseless rhetoric and arguments that betray a negligence to the very principles he takes himself to champion.

this exchange between scott atran and some interlocutors (including sam harris) is a case in point (start at the bottom of the page). [previously]

though harris acknowledges that science is a method (a criterion for belief-formation) and not a set of particular beliefs, he slips easily into conflating the scientific method with the institutions and people who practice science. it's true that there's no empirical basis for believing in god, but the belief that the objects posited by current scientific theory are all that the universe consists of is another metaphysical position that is equally baseless. what science shows us is that we have no empirical basis for any metaphysical beliefs.

worse, his proposed solution to the problem of dangerous irrationality seems to amount to telling people they're mistaken, and politically/culturally marginalizing them through divisive rhetoric and policy proposals. rather than trying to understand fundamentalists scientifically, he sinks to their level.
posted by working.hypothesis at 3:28 AM on January 26, 2007


Arguing against faith is like arguing against sexual attraction. Saying that faithful moderates enable faithful extremists is like saying heterosexuals enable rapists. Faith is a function of being a social critter with highly developed abstract thinking.

The examples of faith that Harris says he is fine with are on the same spectrum of mental activity as faith in god(s), moderate and extreme. His distinction between what is benign and what enables extremists is arbitrary. I don't think his position can be justified rationally. But I still have more to read.
posted by effwerd at 5:01 AM on January 26, 2007


I think Sullivan has told himself that it's ok to believe in science and evolution and reason, etc, and not in Mary and Jesus and miracles and dying for sins, etc, but that his church would officially disagree. I think that's ok tho (altho his church does not think so) ...

This is perhaps not what you intended to say, but the surface statement has to be corrected. The (Catholic) church doesn't officially disagree with science and evolution and reason. The pope himself has said "Evolution is more than a theory". I work as an evolutionary biologist and I was taught evolutionary biology by nuns. There are many criticisms you could make of Catholicism, but they're fully on board with science.
posted by outlier at 5:19 AM on January 26, 2007


Harris is a really superior example of atheists' habit of cherry-picking what they object to about religion, opposing only that, and that claiming that what they oppose is all there is to religion. Harris likes Buddhism, which causes cognitive dissonance, so he says Buddhism isn't really a religion.

Certainly Buddhism is a religion. Religion as we know it has two sources: first superstition, which appears to be wired in (seeing faces in the clouds, or more generally our strong tendence to react as if another personality were present even when, objectively speaking, there probably is not) frozen in place by dogmatic system-building; and second, mystical experience. Buddhism, among the major religions, places relatively greater emphasis on meditatation leading to mystical experience (satori, enlightenment) but Buddhism as commonly practiced is full of obviously superstitious elements, and the "path to enlightenment" exists as a common strain in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and all the rest. Only the vocabulary differs.

Atheism has, so far, a very poor record for dealing with mystical experience. It gets dismissed out of hand along with superstitious dogma, when in fact it is a widely reported and reproducible phenomenon. As any scientist (as contrasted to the sort of science groupie so common around here) knows, a phenomenon that is reported to occur in nature and for which a method of replication is given must be taken seriously, examined empirically, and accounted for. That the very large majority of atheists, especially the more militant flavor, fails to pursue this aspect of the religious impulse (as real empiricism requires) shows with pretty embarrassing finality that militant atheism is just another uncritically accepted tribal belief, not much different worshipping little blue Krishna and hanging out in inward-looking, self-congratulatory cliques with others who sport the same tribal marker.
posted by jfuller at 5:20 AM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


"We've decided the Bible is the word of God. We don't have to have a General Assembly about what we believe, it's written in the Bible. Alright, so we don't have to debate about what we should think ...

Of course, the rest of that sentence is always. "Now, I'm going to tell you what you should think."
posted by empath at 5:59 AM on January 26, 2007


Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously.

What Harris really means: "My arguments will work best against extremists, so I'm going to ignore the moderate majority."

If you believe that there is something, you have greater need to prove it or show it than the rest of us.

I'm a person who believes there is nothing, but this isn't true, amberglow. One need only convince others of one's point of view if one is interested in converting others to one's point of view. Many people of faith are not interested in that. The ones that make the news usually are, but we should know better than to assume that who makes it onto TV represents anything other than editorial spin.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:09 AM on January 26, 2007


Atheism has, so far, a very poor record for dealing with mystical experience. It gets dismissed out of hand along with superstitious dogma, when in fact it is a widely reported and reproducible phenomenon. As any scientist (as contrasted to the sort of science groupie so common around here) knows, a phenomenon that is reported to occur in nature and for which a method of replication is given must be taken seriously, examined empirically, and accounted for.

That the people here who disagree with you are science groupies and not actual scientists was no doubt something you learned from a mystical revelation. Your comment history shows that these kinds of mystical revelations are indeed repeatable.
posted by srboisvert at 6:36 AM on January 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac—to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc.

That's only if you take scripture literally.

Of course, one can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love one's neighbor and turn the other cheek, but the truth is, the pickings are pretty slim, and the more fully one grants credence to these books, the more fully one will be committed to the view that infidels, heretics, and apostates are destined to be ground up in God’s loving machinery of justice.

Cheery-picking scripture to suit one's own sense of spiritual faith is perfectly fine and does not discount one's faith or what inspirations one uses in support of that faith.

Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously. So why not take these books less seriously still? Why not admit that they are just books, written by fallible human beings like ourselves?

I think one can understand that scripture was written by man (even completely absent direct divine inspiration) and still see it as indicative of and relevant to one's idea of spiritual faith. Andrew states this well:

We have read the scriptures not searching for gotchas, but for truth.
posted by effwerd at 6:50 AM on January 26, 2007


Well, it's a bit silly for an Atheist to be arguing that being a religious moderate is inconsistent. It fundamentally comes down to a 'scripture problem', where atheists want to tie religious directly to the scriptures, which are inconsistent.

But, if a religious person is free to disregard certain parts, or "interpret" them away, then they become much more difficult to argue with and "disprove".
posted by delmoi at 7:03 AM on January 26, 2007


Except Harris is too soft on mystical nonsense.
posted by davy


Sam Harris's Faith in Eastern Spirituality and Muslim Torture
Readers Write: Atheist Sam Harris on Torture and Faith (contains a rebuttal)
posted by the_bone at 7:05 AM on January 26, 2007


Sam Harris is obviously correct, moderate religion aids & comforts extremists, and current popular ideas about all religions being nice & happy are bad. But this does not imply Harris conclusions.

A practical solution is Gould's non-overlapping magisteria: Science & religion don't overlap by definition. *But* if they appear to conflict, its your definition of religion that is wrong & you must be more liberal.

Gould's practical public face allows people to abandon their faith much more efficently than Harris' evangelism. Otoh, we also need an atheist rights movement.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:55 AM on January 26, 2007


Sullivan says, "As the Pope said last year, I believe that God is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable."

If God = truth and truth = reasonable, then God = reasonable?

Doubtful.
posted by peeedro at 8:17 AM on January 26, 2007


Search for: "religion"
Replace with: "Christianity"

(Or at best, "Christianity, Judaism and Islam".)


Not all religions have scripture.
posted by Foosnark at 8:41 AM on January 26, 2007


Faith is a function of being a social critter

I must not be social, then.

with highly developed abstract thinking.

Faith is a shortcut that allows for less thought.
posted by spaltavian at 9:08 AM on January 26, 2007


> That the people here who disagree with you are science groupies and not actual scientists
> was no doubt something you learned from a mystical revelation.

So then (reading my claim, which you quoted, very carefully) there really are bona-fide credentialled empirical scientists on mefi who think a phenomenon that is reported to occur in nature and for which a method of replication is given need not taken seriously or examined empirically, but can just be dismissed with a handwave? Really? And I take it you're one? A scientist who hasn't a clue how science is done? And not afraid to say so right out loud! Well, at least you have the courage of your unearned convictions.
posted by jfuller at 9:29 AM on January 26, 2007


jfuller:

Atheism has, so far, a very poor record for dealing with mystical experience. It gets dismissed out of hand along with superstitious dogma, when in fact it is a widely reported and reproducible phenomenon.

I believe that a lot of scientists and atheists take mystical experiences very seriously. Is there a particular reason you claim otherwise? I'm sure Harris, who is now doing his doctorate in neuroscience, is aware of the research going into this (e.g. Andrew Newberg), and probably has some insights himself.

(maybe i misunderstood your criticism though)
posted by spacediver at 10:15 AM on January 26, 2007


jfuller
Are you familiar with neurotheology? This is a field in which scientists use neurological techniques like MRI scans to see what happens in the brains of the faithful. For instance, they have had Catholic nuns and Zen monks pray/meditate in the machines, which showed a slowdown of activity in the part of the brain that distinguishes between self and outside. It's a very interesting area of study. I'm not sure what you mean by "replicatable mystical experiences", but there is an effort to find a scientific, physical explanation for religious phenomenon going on. (Another example would be the "near death experience"people report, which is believed to be a result of the neurons in the eyes and brain dying of oxygen starvation.)

effwerd
I think your definition of faith and spirituality are different than what is commonly meant, or at least what these two writers are meaning. Your post seems to indicate that faith and spirituality to you are just the personal way you choose to see the world, without any sort of intrinsic truth. Because if you do believe that there is some eternal, divine, religious truth, than you can't hold the position that you can cherry-pick your beliefs, or that the source of belief was written by man without at least divine guidance if not direct aid. And this doesn't apply to just Christianty, Islam, or Judaism. Hinduism has its own set of holy scriptures and oral traditions, as does Buddhism, as does Shintoism (though far more oral than written...). If there is one truth, then how do you pick what parts of it to choose? Why are some parts of the truth not right but some are? What would be the foundation of your belief, if you get to ignore parts of a package? I can't call myself a Christian but choose to ignore that whole death and resurrection thing because I don't like it. But if I can choose what parts to believe, then there can't be any kind of eternal truth. Either there is objective truth or there isn't. Similarly, you can't hold that a supposedly sacred scripture is just written by men. They're not presented as collections of good ideas and stories you might want to adhere to. Buddha wasn't telling his disciples some awesome ideas he had that they should consider. These texts/oral bodies are supposed to contain truths about life and the universe. God asking Jews not to eat shellfish seems ridiculous, but on what grounds do we question that and not anything else the books say he said/did? There really is an incompatibility to say you believe in something but choose to ignore parts of it.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:26 AM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm of the belief that after we die, Zoroastrians torture us for all eternity for getting it all wrong.
posted by tehloki at 10:27 AM on January 26, 2007


Love is not reducible [to empirical proof]--only its effects are. Hate is not either.

Oh, we just need better neuroimaging technologies and a better understanding of how the brain works.
posted by martinrebas at 11:31 AM on January 26, 2007


Sangermaine,

the idea you're presenting -- of scripture as containing set of propositions to which one must either adhere or not -- is a fairly modern one -- fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon. Your point of view ignores centuries of theology in pretty much every religion, and it ignores centuries of religious practice as well. It also ignores the fact that people read and interpret differently -- you leave out, for example, the fact that there are, and have ben since the beginning of the religion, Christians who didn't/don't believe in Jesus as a divine person, and that the common interpretation of texts like his claim to be the son of God may not be the most historically accurate interpretation.
There is no universal consensus amongst theologians about even the simplest of matters, and the same is true of adherents to a particular religion. No two Christians believe 100% alike, and no two Christian always read and interpret alike.
Harris and his followers need to margialize the majority of Christians (both historically and now) who are not fundmentalist, becuse their arguments lose a lot of power otherwise.
posted by eustacescrubb at 11:32 AM on January 26, 2007


I'm a person who believes there is nothing, but this isn't true, amberglow. One need only convince others of one's point of view if one is interested in converting others to one's point of view. Many people of faith are not interested in that.
I think if you take part in a debate and you're on the side of religion and faith, you have to try to explain and/or prove why you believe what you do--otherwise there's no point at all. Debates/exchanges like this are actually sales pitches of a sort, and the onus is on those who make unfounded claims.

Arguing against faith is like arguing against sexual attraction. Saying that faithful moderates enable faithful extremists is like saying heterosexuals enable rapists. Faith is a function of being a social critter with highly developed abstract thinking.
Isn't it more that Harris argues against strictures and commandments and rules that propagate and reinforce male patriarchy and bad treatment of women and others? It's not as general to be as if heteros themselves enable rapists just by existing--it's that our male-dominated society and cultural upbringing enables rapists. We applaud young men for getting some, yet trash women for doing the same. We admire prowess in a man, but not at all in women. Our culture celebrates promiscuity in men, but not at all in women, etc.
posted by amberglow at 11:38 AM on January 26, 2007


(make that "the onus is on those who make unfounded claims, yet also claim reason isn't at all incompatible with their beliefs")
posted by amberglow at 11:39 AM on January 26, 2007


In terms of science and evolution and other things, i think Harris says it best: Your brandishing of Vatican II is just silly, and only bolsters my argument. Are you saying that for about 1960 years Christians (including all the popes) were mistaken about the true doctrine of Christianity? Would you have our readers believe that Vatican II represents some kind of epistemological breakthrough? In reality, Vatican II was just damage control.
posted by amberglow at 11:45 AM on January 26, 2007


If you do believe that there is some eternal, divine, religious truth, than you can't hold the position that you can cherry-pick your beliefs.

That may be true for dogmatic religions, but it is certainly not true for non-dogmatic religions. Judaism, for example, has consisted of a vast smorgasbord which in practice people cherry-pick from at will for the past two thousand years. There is such a thing as Jewish law, it is true, but different groups within Judaism interpret it very differently; the Talmud itself consists almost entirely of lots of sets of contradictory opinions about everything, and with the advent of Reform and Reconstructionism in the modern period, the cherry-picking has become explicit, overt and institutionalised.
posted by motty at 11:48 AM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Sullivan really also needs to take himself out of it once in a while--it's not all about him. If he were straight his life would be different; If he was poor and black his life would be different; If he was Mormon or a snake handler or a speaker of tongues, etc. How would faith have impacted all of that? What's the objective view in favor?
posted by amberglow at 11:56 AM on January 26, 2007


related: Who Believes in God--and Why?
posted by amberglow at 12:06 PM on January 26, 2007


Your post seems to indicate that faith and spirituality to you are just the personal way you choose to see the world, without any sort of intrinsic truth.

Well, I don't see this as a debate about truth, per se. I see it as a debate on whether or not faithful moderates enable faithful extremists. I also don't see faith as some search for truth in any objective sense, I see it as a behavioral phenomenon caused by brain physiology and chemistry. It may very well be integral to the survival strategy of such a social upper primate as us humans. Since I'm an atheist, I wouldn't prefer that, but I could see how that might still be the case. I've always tried to imagine what it was like in Sumeria or Egypt when the ziggurats and pyramids were being built. To see that kind of power coming from faith. That is some strong social bonding.

I wish I had more time before the evening to devote to this. Despite my casual dismissal in my first comment, I still think the subject has a lot of space for interesting debate. Hopefully I can come back to this sooner than later.
posted by effwerd at 12:46 PM on January 26, 2007


motty
I am Jewish, and was raised as a Reform Jew, so I'm familiar with the differences within Judaism. But I always found the idea of Reform Judaism to be somewhat unsettling. I can understand the desire of the 19th century German Jewish scholars to try to change their ancient practices in light of a changing world, because many Jewish "laws" at the time were merely traditions or folk habits. But even though the Torah is often times contradictory, no sect questions that at least some of it is divine, or divinely inspired and passed through humans. And God certainly didn't frame his commands and rules as suggestions. So what basis do reformers have? How do you decide what's really divine, what God really meant and wanted and what's just stuff you can toss out? The answer is that you can't, and if you try you're essentially just creating your own unique view of the world that is no more right or truthful than anyone else's, and is certainly not an eternal truth.

eustacescrubb
I am aware of the very multifaceted history of Christian theology, of the struggles with "heresies" like arianism and monophysitism that the Roman church ultimately suppressed, but the point still holds true. For one thing, all these interpretations have some version of the Scriptures as their base. I can't just claim Jesus was a talking unicorn; my arguments need to be drawn from something that is recognized as authoritative, which no matter what interpretation you hold to leads back to some collection of Gospels/stories held to be true and correct depictions of the life and teachings of Jesus. Also, it's not neccessary for their to be one view held by all adherents of the religion, because the argument against moderatism works within any interpretation. The problem is religion is inherently non-empirically provable, so there's no way to objectively prove that your version is the right version. As I said above, to do so you justify your ideas by drawing from some divine source in some form. But once you choose an interpretation, you are bound to stick with and its implications. The Nestorians, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, etc churches may not agree on certain doctrines, but aside from those points they disagree on, they need to believe in everything they don't reject and that their arguments don't preclude, which is a very large portion of the rest of the Bible. Just because in modern times some of the ancient rules have become distasteful doesn't let you off the hook in following them.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:47 PM on January 26, 2007


I think if you take part in a debate and you're on the side of religion and faith, you have to try to explain and/or prove why you believe what you do--otherwise there's no point at all. Debates/exchanges like this are actually sales pitches of a sort, and the onus is on those who make unfounded claims.

Well, but "unfounded" is subjective. To a devout person who belives they have personal experience of God, their claim to God's existense is not unfounded; you just haven't seen the evidence.

And I don't have to explain why I believe, because the debate, as Harris has framed it, is that I'm crazy, but crazy is a social construction, not an absolute - for example, in a different era, not so long ago, you'd have been clinically diagnosed as crazy, even though now we'd find that diagnosis immoral and laughable. All I need to defend is the principle that different people see the world differently. Since participating in a debate requires some shared ground, and since people like Harris don't share any ground with me regarding the nature of religion or its purpose, arguing with an extremist atheist about religon's purpose and validity would be very like trying to debating about what should go on my iPod with a medieval peasant. If he were Sam Harris, he'd insist that my iPod is demon-possesed (esp. if he hears some of my Rage Against The Machine) and that I'm a threat to society, etc, etc, and if you were ther,e you'd be saying the onus is on me to convince him that Rage Against the Machine is music and not the sound of devils fornicating. Why should I even bother?

Then, too, you're in a bad position if you're defening Harris, who has a reputation for making unfounded accusations, unfair judgements, and being willfully ignorant of his subject matter.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:47 PM on January 26, 2007


Buddha wasn't telling his disciples some awesome ideas he had that they should consider.

As I understand that's exactly what he did do. He meditated for a long time and achieved a particular state of mind. When people asked how he had achieved that state of mind, he began to teach them the techniques he used. As I remember it, the last thing he taught before his death was that his followers should not accept his teachings blindly without testing them for themselves.

People seem to bring quite a lot of their own prejudices to this discussion, and when they identify with the "science" side rather than the "religion" side, assume that their prejudices are by definition rational, because they're rooting for the "rational team". I'm not so sure that this is the case.
posted by Grangousier at 12:48 PM on January 26, 2007


Sangermaine --

But "scriptural basis" is wide open. I actually believe Jesus was not divine (not in the way your average Catholic or evangelical uses the word anyhow) and I do base it on my reading of the scripture. I also read the scripture as I believe it was intended to be read -- not as manual for life or as an authoritative text, but as a record of two communities trying to understand and relate to the divine. That record shows their failures and thier successes. There is no reason why I ought to subscribe to an "authoritative" reading endorsed by human-appointed authorities, and indeed, again, the gospels and the Prophets suggest the opposite -- that the worst way to read scripture is in the way you're prescribing.
The two main exegetes of the New Testament -- Jesus and Paul -- both took Old Testament scripture out fo context and repurposed it to suit their own ideas. One could be a Christian in the sense most people try to -- as people who obey the teachings of the Bible as if they were law (none of the actually do this, of course) or one would be Christian in believing that the Way of Christ means being like Christ -- even up to how Christ related to the scriptures.
Just because you dn't wish to recognize such a view as valid doesn't mean it isn't valid. It just means you don't wish to recognize it.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:55 PM on January 26, 2007


Grangousier
Yes, but what I meant was that he wasn't just conjecturing or having a dorm-room chat. He was putting forth some metaphysical truths (existence is an illusion, life is suffering, the root of suffering is desire, etc). He asked his disciples to test these ideas, which is admirable, but it seemed like he believed them himself, he wasn't just acting. These ideas he put forth are either true or they aren't, just as with any belief system.

effwerd
Ah, I think that's why I was puzzled by your use of the terms "faith". I was assuming you were a believer. I apologize. I think we're pretty much in agreement here.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:57 PM on January 26, 2007


These ideas he put forth are either true or they aren't, just as with any belief system.

Bah. False dilemma. They could be party true, or only true sometimes.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:59 PM on January 26, 2007


eustace, i'm not trying to defend Harris or his actions/manner, but the debate (and all debates) as a whole--which is always fascinating to me--even if never resolvable or "winnable". My faith is different from theirs and demands different absolutes (and many fewer ones on the whole).


So what basis do reformers have? How do you decide what's really divine, what God really meant and wanted and what's just stuff you can toss out? The answer is that you can't, and if you try you're essentially just creating your own unique view of the world that is no more right or truthful than anyone else's, and is certainly not an eternal truth.
But that goes back to the whole history and continued survival of us as Jews. We changed our religion and made it transportable and less dependent on temples or places or sacrifices -- it became all about us and how they acted more than about worshipping a God, or unblemished ewes, or ritual baths, i think. We did that millennia ago, and from there you get to where we have the right to reform as we wish. Those people way back when were our Martin Luthers. They (not God) gave us the power, and whether we suffered or benefitted from it, we survived because of it. You can always attribute some or all of that to what God wanted of us, but you don't even have to do that. Only the Commandments are the word of God, i think (and that doesn't even matter that much in the scheme of things--and Orthodox Jews have many many more of them to observe.) As the world changes, we changed. We'll always do that. It works.
posted by amberglow at 1:01 PM on January 26, 2007


I think the very existence of spinoff religions is a direct result of that power people took into their own hands way back then, no matter what it's ascribed to.
posted by amberglow at 1:05 PM on January 26, 2007


eustace, i'm not trying to defend Harris or his actions/manner, but the debate (and all debates) as a whole--which is always fascinating to me--even if never resolvable or "winnable". My faith is different from theirs and demands different absolutes (and many fewer ones on the whole).

Ah. Well then. I misunderstood. My bad.
posted by eustacescrubb at 1:05 PM on January 26, 2007


related: Who Believes in God--and Why?

Amberglow, that article has the greatest MeFi motto evar:

Sulloway and I believe that these results are evidence of an intellectual attribution bias, in which people consider their own beliefs as being rationally motivated, whereas they see the beliefs of others as being emotionally driven.
posted by straight at 1:17 PM on January 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


eustacescrubb
Maybe, but that's not what he said. Anyway, I'd just like to close out by saying that I do agree with you and lots of people here in agreeing that Harris and his ilk go about this completely in the wrong way. "Militant" atheists are by far the most aggravating people around. I'm not exactly a believer, but if people are willing to let me have my ideas in peace, then why should I wage a pointless, damaging, hurtful war on theirs? There's nothing to be gained for anyone, and it will only cause pain and hate to arise. Live and let live, McCartney and Rose be damned!
posted by Sangermaine at 1:25 PM on January 26, 2007


Love is not reducible


You clearly haven't finished your first marriage yet.
posted by srboisvert at 1:52 PM on January 26, 2007


God certainly didn't frame his commands and rules as suggestions. So what basis do reformers have? How do you decide what's really divine, what God really meant and wanted and what's just stuff you can toss out? The answer is that you can't, and if you try you're essentially just creating your own unique view of the world that is no more right or truthful than anyone else's, and is certainly not an eternal truth.

I've always liked this question: if we presume that God wrote the Torah, (or it's a divinely inspired transcription, whatever) what did he mean when he wrote it? I mean, pretend you're God for second, and you've got one chance, just one, to tell the world what you want them to know. What do you say? Do you give orders? Do you tell them a joke? I think if God wanted to command people, he would have just written some commandments and left it at that. Instead, God is purported to have written A STORY about himself writing some commandments, and they get broken, and then he writes the ones we have.

When a novelist puts himself in his novel, you always wonder what they're trying to do: are they telling you who they are, who they want you to think they are, or are they unsettling the idea of authority, pointing out that you should be skeptical of their intentions? For this reader, the Torah is a story about uncertainty, about divinely inspired doubt. Here's a novelist (God) writing a story about what a prick gods can be. And I kind of like that.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:55 PM on January 26, 2007 [4 favorites]


You clearly haven't finished your first marriage yet.
(that would probably be because it's not legal yet--altho i could get married in a Reform temple today)

For this reader, the Torah is a story about uncertainty, about divinely inspired doubt. Here's a novelist (God) writing a story about what a prick gods can be.
It's totally written by people. God would be more flowing and consistent in his prose, i think. : >

Total pricks--but don't leave out that the acknoledgement and existence of other Gods is liberally sprinkled throughout it--and even in the 10 Commandments.
posted by amberglow at 2:01 PM on January 26, 2007


(God as a pre-modern postmodernist Barth is very cool, tho)
posted by amberglow at 2:06 PM on January 26, 2007


To a devout person who belives they have personal experience of God, their claim to God's existense is not unfounded; you just haven't seen the evidence.

The problem is that the tendency to call upon this hidden, wholly subjective personal experience as if it were real evidence is kinda like saying "this person is a terrorist, but I can't show you any proof for it because that evidence is confidential." It masks everything from basic idiocy to dangerous agenda. The believer has an all-purpose, ready-made faith putty to easily fill in the cracks in any argument; the atheist has nothing so magical.

I'm not exactly a believer, but if people are willing to let me have my ideas in peace, then why should I wage a pointless, damaging, hurtful war on theirs?

I used to have this attitude as well, but it's false. Too many of these people aren't willing to allow you to have your beliefs in peace; they want to force you within the framework of theirs. On top if it, they want to claim special faith-based immunity from the same scrutiny they would direct toward you without hesitation. This kind of perversion of basic fairness is dangerous when it is tolerated, particularly when it has gone so far as to be considered by many to be self-evident.
posted by troybob at 2:22 PM on January 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


The better discussions of religion on mefi are way more interesting than this Sullivan-Harris tete-a-tete. It's an important subject though, so the more discourse the better.

That said, I've been reading Sullivan more lately. He's a decent writer, but I can't imagine why a gay person would be so desperate for acceptance from two of the most homophobic institutions out there -- the Republican Party and the Catholic Church.
posted by bardic at 2:58 PM on January 26, 2007


Sangermaine: If you do believe that there is some eternal, divine, religious truth, than you can't hold the position that you can cherry-pick your beliefs.

If one humbly believes in the limitations of human comprehension of ultimate knowledge and such, then one can believe in a religion, but admit that their beliefs are no more empirically justifiable than alternative beliefs of others. Faith need not (though admittedly it often does!) be accompanied by a claim of absolute metaphysical certitude.

Sangermaine: I can't just claim Jesus was a talking unicorn; my arguments need to be drawn from something that is recognized as authoritative, which no matter what interpretation you hold to leads back to some collection of Gospels/stories held to be true and correct depictions of the life and teachings of Jesus.

Not so. I can believe that the Civil War really happened, but not believe a given claim that Stonewall Jackson killed 50 Union troops by glaring at them. Christians worship Jesus, not the Bible. The Bible can be taken to be "the finger pointing at the moon."

I'm not saying there are zero literalist Christians; just that it need not be so. An atheist who quotes absurd passages from Leviticus makes a persuasive case against the Bible being the Alpha and Omega of morality and history, but not against faith itself. The Gospels weren't written down until decades after Jesus's death. And I don't think they themselves claim to be inerrant. Some followers impose that burden on the texts.

I went to the Smithsonian exhibit on early Bibles. It made me realize that for the vast bulk of time in Christiandom, literalism wasn't an option, because most people weren't literate. Literalism is a late-model, far-from-universal form of belief.

Your charge is a tougher one for Muslim apologists to handle, because the Koran itself was thought to be the validation of Muhammad's claim that angels spoke to him, rather than the decades-later descriptions of the Gospels.

rob511: I didn't much care for your title, but the phrase, "Blogger, please"? Heaven!

Fair enough on the title. Actually, I meant by that title that these debates are as they are for ever and ever. I expected that the thread would degenerate into a rehash of the "you're wrong"/"no, you're wrong!" religious debate. I underestimated our ability to debate the issue, and the high quality of the linked debate.
posted by ibmcginty at 3:24 PM on January 26, 2007


troybob
My fiancee is a fairly devout Baptist, so I take this position of tolerance as much for self-preservation as I do for ideological reasons....

ibmcginty
Yes, you are right. There is much room for interpretation between the fact that the Gospels were written long after Jesus' life, and that "the" Bible as we know it leaves out many other, equally valid, Gospels and traditions. I suppose I'll just refer to what I said before about interpretations. Thanks for posting an article about religion that actually managed to stay fairly civil. We managed to avoid the usual tide of "fuck those religious retards".
posted by Sangermaine at 3:40 PM on January 26, 2007


The problem is that the tendency to call upon this hidden, wholly subjective personal experience as if it were real evidence is kinda like saying "this person is a terrorist, but I can't show you any proof for it because that evidence is confidential." It masks everything from basic idiocy to dangerous agenda. The believer has an all-purpose, ready-made faith putty to easily fill in the cracks in any argument; the atheist has nothing so magical.


I didn't mean for that to be a defense of prostelyzation; I was responding to what I thought was amberglow saying religious folk should be required to defend their faith on science's terms even if they're not trying to convert anyone. as it turns out, I misunderstood amberglow's point.

You clearly haven't finished your first marriage yet.

Most ironic comment of the year.
posted by eustacescrubb at 4:05 PM on January 26, 2007


Missed this in my hurry.
Arguing against faith is like arguing against sexual attraction. Saying that faithful moderates enable faithful extremists is like saying heterosexuals enable rapists. Faith is a function of being a social critter with highly developed abstract thinking.
Isn't it more that Harris argues against strictures and commandments and rules that propagate and reinforce male patriarchy and bad treatment of women and others? It's not as general to be as if heteros themselves enable rapists just by existing--it's that our male-dominated society and cultural upbringing enables rapists.


Harris may be arguing exactly that but that's not necessarily what I was getting at. My point was that faith is a byproduct of our biological processes, much like sexual attraction. These are meta-structures within the human psyche that impel us toward specific behaviors. And that saying we should avoid faith is like saying we should stop being sexually attracted to each other. I think history has clearly demonstrated that faith is inseparable from the human psyche.

And I think the premise that faithful moderates somehow enable faithful extremists is as general as saying the mere existence of heteros enables rapists. It's taking one general behavior, having faith/having sex, and accusing those who engage in such behavior normally empowers those who would engage in these behaviors to an antisocial, criminal degree. I think that's a leap. And a bad one.

Now to catch up.
posted by effwerd at 4:18 PM on January 26, 2007


I guess, but then why would that "faith" have to be religious (or why would it be a good thing to see it as religious instead of just moral or good or normal or regular or banal or part of being human?) I don't think it needs to be nor really is, at all--whether people credit it to religion or not. We humans have an inexhaustible capacity for self-delusion and rationalizations and for trying to make order out of random or chaotic or unexplainable events, etc -- that doesn't make any of them true in reality.
posted by amberglow at 4:27 PM on January 26, 2007


Some more thoughts on the debate...

Sullivan tried to address the distinction between fundamentalists and extremists, but Harris didn't really reply. I think this is a critical point. AS is right, fundamentalists can be great people. They aren't the problem. The problem is with the extremists, those who are more than willing to use orthodoxy as a pretext to violent ends. And linking culpability for extremists to fundamentalists is also tenuous.

Harris: Forty-four percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. This idea is extreme in almost every sense—extremely silly, extremely dangerous, extremely worthy of denigration—but it is not extreme in the sense of being rare.

Okay, but how many of them might resort to violent means to serve that faith? Hell, how many of them might actually modify their behavior to demonstrate they actually believe this with any amount of conviction above answering a poll question? The belief may be seen as extremely silly and fundamentalist, but it certainly isn't indicative of the dangers of extremism. Or how moderates are at fault for such beliefs.

Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism:

I think scripture (writing) changed religion. It slowed down the evolution of religious thinking by creating a much more static reference than the oral tales before it. It created something concrete to focus and expand on, rather than ethereal yarns to explore and enjoy. And yeah, this may very well create a fertile environment for both fundamentalism and extremism. But that doesn't make the scripture to blame for anything.

His point makes the same mistake that those who wish to regulate books, music, video games and television make. It assumes the idea and the expression of that idea cause behavior. X reads book on skydiving. X goes skydiving. What happened in the space between these two sentences can only be answered by X.

The rest of their debate is mostly tangents that don't shed any light on the subject. Harris makes some good points in them, I just don't think they're on topic.

This is his most salient assault on the subject (my emphasis):

Religious moderates—by refusing to question the legitimacy of raising children to believe that they are Christians, Muslims, and Jews—tacitly support the religious divisions in our world. They also perpetuate the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence in order to have an ethical and spiritual life. While religious moderates don’t fly planes into buildings, or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they refuse to deeply question the preposterous ideas of those who do. Moderates neither submit to the real demands of scripture nor draw fully honest inferences from the growing testimony of science. In attempting to find a middle ground between religious dogmatism and intellectual honesty, it seems to me that religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.

It's just not convincing. Because moderates don't deeply question extremists' beliefs, they are somehow a party to the extremists' behavior? And what is the point of questioning them to begin with? To refute their own faith? It's not like it's going to dissuade some radical bent on domination.

I think the subject of this debate is interesting enough but I don't think either of them have the self-editing ability necessary to make this kind of commentary focused and insightful.
posted by effwerd at 6:08 PM on January 26, 2007


Okay, but how many of them might resort to violent means to serve that faith? Hell, how many of them might actually modify their behavior to demonstrate they actually believe this with any amount of conviction above answering a poll question? The belief may be seen as extremely silly and fundamentalist, but it certainly isn't indicative of the dangers of extremism. Or how moderates are at fault for such beliefs.

I think Harris' fundamental argument is that (dogmatic) faith is intellectually weak. His core argument doesn't depend on such weakness actually having negative consequences.

That said, there are problems with believing the world is going to end in the next 50 years (assuming that these polls reflect a genuine belief as such). As Harris has pointed out, it is not conducive to long term sustainable thinking. It's clear that if we are to do well as a species, we need to be thinking thousands of years ahead.


It's just not convincing. Because moderates don't deeply question extremists' beliefs, they are somehow a party to the extremists' behavior? And what is the point of questioning them to begin with? To refute their own faith? It's not like it's going to dissuade some radical bent on domination.

Indirectly, perhaps they are. They are tacitly approving a lot of these fundamentalist attitudes by professing faith in a divinely inspired set of teachings, yet are not consistent enough to follow through with these attitudes/behaviours themselves.

At least fundamentalists have the courage (idiocy) to follow through with their faith.
posted by spacediver at 7:15 PM on January 26, 2007


People tend to follow religious dogma to the extent that it makes sense to them. In the same way that, (annoyingly) people will accept scientific results only to the extent that it conforms with their personal experience. In one breath attacking the use of others' anecdotes in the face of some new study's results, and in the next using their own anecdote to do the same.
posted by dreamsign at 9:05 PM on January 26, 2007


which is exactly what Harris is after - dogmatism - whether it be scientific or religious, he thinks it intellectually weak.

He also makes the point that while scientists are not immune to dogma, the scientific ideal eschews dogmatism, whereas the religious ideal embraces it.
posted by spacediver at 9:18 PM on January 26, 2007


He also makes the point that while scientists are not immune to dogma, the scientific ideal eschews dogmatism, whereas the religious ideal embraces it.

Bah. Thomas Kuhn would disagree with you regarding science and dogma -- he noted that loyalty to a particular paradigm is actually necessary for science to function properly (his term for this was "normal science"). He noted that most scientists are fairly dogmatic and resist new ideas, but that this is essential for the scientific method to work.

In both the case of science and religion, those who stand apart are the ones who aren't dogmatists -- the innovators in science, and the founders/reformers of religion. Jesus was no dogmatist ("The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath") nor the prophets, nor Mohommad, nor Buddha.
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:01 AM on January 27, 2007


> the scientific ideal eschews dogmatism, whereas the religious ideal embraces it.

Yet another person concludes without investigation that the organized religion familiar to him is the same all religion. Why is the sort of person who hangs out here so incredibly provincial and culture-bound about this?


May every disciple take care not to cling to the words, as if they were a perfect expression of the meaning; because truth is not in the letters.
Lankavatara Sutra, Buddhist, 4th C.
The teaching itself is more than words and letters, why should we seek it in these? He who attains the meaning forgets the words.
Hui-Neng, Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumoured by many.
Do not believe in anything because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conductive to the good and benefit of one and all then accept it and live up to it.
Gautama Buddha, Kalama Sutra
Leave the senses and the workings of the intellect, and all that the senses and intellect can perceive, and all that is not and is; and through unknowing reach out towards oneness with him who is beyond all being and knowledge.
Angelus Silesius, Catholic, 1624-1677.
Logos is the WORD itself, which cannot be expressed by any human word, a nonword, nonknowing, nonbeing, nonname.
Dionysius Areopagita, Christian Neoplatonist, 5th-6th C.
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.
The name than can be named is not the eternal name.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

posted by jfuller at 5:55 AM on January 27, 2007


spacediver,

I think Harris' fundamental argument is that (dogmatic) faith is intellectually weak. His core argument doesn't depend on such weakness actually having negative consequences.

That may be and if the debate were about the intellectual weaknesses of faith I might accept his points. But in regards to whether or not moderate faith and behavior bears any culpability for extremist faith and behavior, the strength or weakness of faith is irrelevant. It establishes no link.

That said, there are problems with believing the world is going to end in the next 50 years (assuming that these polls reflect a genuine belief as such). As Harris has pointed out, it is not conducive to long term sustainable thinking. It's clear that if we are to do well as a species, we need to be thinking thousands of years ahead.

Well, the idea may seem dangerous but what appears intuitively correct is one thing, reality another. And as far as intuitive dangers go, 911-scale terrorism appears much more compelling than pervasive, negligent ideology due to belief in an imminent saviour.

Indirectly, perhaps they are. They are tacitly approving a lot of these fundamentalist attitudes by professing faith in a divinely inspired set of teachings, yet are not consistent enough to follow through with these attitudes/behaviours themselves.

Still tenuous and unconvincing. Indirectly, breast feeding could lead to religious extremism. Yours is the same point Harris uses. But it needs more. How does weak commitment to faith empower psychotic zealotry? By not taking a side?

The whole premise seems like a rehash of tirades against the bourgeoisie. That such weak and facile infatuation with consumption and comfort empowers totalitarianism. Or Holocaust victims; that weak and submissive Jews enabled their own destruction.

Maybe along with faith, assigning blame is also inherent to the human psyche. So much so that even after direct blame has been ascertained, humans must then obsess over these kind of tenuous abstractions of blame. Maybe humans just hate fence sitters. "If you aren't an extremist, or you aren't fighting against the extremists, then you are to blame for why we are fighting the extremists." Or to put it more bluntly, "you are either with us or you are against us."
posted by effwerd at 7:02 AM on January 27, 2007


eustacescrubb:

Bah. Thomas Kuhn would disagree with you regarding science and dogma -- he noted that loyalty to a particular paradigm is actually necessary for science to function properly (his term for this was "normal science"). He noted that most scientists are fairly dogmatic and resist new ideas, but that this is essential for the scientific method to work.

This is a good point to bring up, and while I was kinda hoping nobody would do so (as it would require mental effort to resolve it), I'm kinda glad you did (as it gives me the opportunity to work through it and learn something new).

If we look at dogmatism as being on one end of a continuum of cognitive flexibility, and insane/chaotic open mindedness on the other, then we can see that neither extreme is conducive to being a well tuned organism.

For example, if I were overly open minded about the possibility that the floor may, at any point, disappear (a la Hume's problem of induction), then I may spend an unreasonable amount of time investing in a personal jet pack as well as suffering the anxiety of having to be prepared to activate it at any given moment. Similarly, If I take cartesian sceptism too seriously, I may suffer massive psychological damage if I continually question whether I'm really a brain in a vat.

Thus, it makes sense to develop some stability in my cognitive structures, in order to function efficiently.

So, with this in mind, I would reform my original statement about science eschewing dogmatism:

While the scientific ideal may ask us to eschew any form of dogmatism, this is a ludicrous charge, given that it is probably impossible to form a coherent pattern of thought without some cognitive stability.

Thus, we can reform the scientific ideal to ask us to strike a reasonable balance between flexibility and rigidity.

Getting to Kuhn's point, we can make a further claim:

The emergent properties of the scientific establishment actually give rise to a more persistant form of dogmatism, which can in many cases hinder the rate of progress, but can also at the same time help it progress through the process of periodic revolution. Importantly, this form of dogmatism is above and beyond that balance asked of us in our modified ideal of striking a balance.

In both the case of science and religion, those who stand apart are the ones who aren't dogmatists -- the innovators in science, and the founders/reformers of religion. Jesus was no dogmatist ("The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath") nor the prophets, nor Mohommad, nor Buddha.

I agree with you to an extent. I am not as familar with the teachings of Jesus as I am with Muhammad & Buddha. I can certainly say that Muhammad was far more of a dogmatist than Buddha was, and this is clearly reflected in one of the central themes of the qur'an - that of faith as being a fundamental virtue. Faith in god, faith in angels, and faith in revelation (though faith in god is more important than in angels and scripture).

That said, Muhammad was certainly a remarkable man, and if history is to be believed, he was of outstanding moral character.
posted by spacediver at 11:00 AM on January 27, 2007


jfuller:

Yet another person concludes without investigation that the organized religion familiar to him is the same all religion. Why is the sort of person who hangs out here so incredibly provincial and culture-bound about this?

point taken (p.s. I haven't yet received a response about the neurotheology that Sangermaine and myself brought up).

When I used the word "religion" there, I meant faith based religions. As Sam Harris pointed out in an essay which you yourself linked to, there is a strong case against identifying the teachings of Siddhartha with the religion of buddhism.
posted by spacediver at 11:02 AM on January 27, 2007


effward:

Well, the idea may seem dangerous but what appears intuitively correct is one thing, reality another. And as far as intuitive dangers go, 911-scale terrorism appears much more compelling than pervasive, negligent ideology due to belief in an imminent saviour.

There is an empirical question here which is not very well satisfied by Harris' continuous invokation of that 44% poll figure.

However, if it could be shown that the beliefs of these 44% actually rendered them less able to organize their attitudes and planning along a broader timescale (i.e. adjust their behaviours in accordance with a morally driven understanding that generations far into the future will benefit from such adjustments), then I would argue that 9-11 scale terrorism pales in comparison.

Since this hasn't been shown, it is somewhat speculative. I hope someone tries to study this question (I can think of a few interesting paradigms which might empirically address this question).

Still tenuous and unconvincing. Indirectly, breast feeding could lead to religious extremism. Yours is the same point Harris uses. But it needs more. How does weak commitment to faith empower psychotic zealotry? By not taking a side?

True, it is tenuous. At the very least, one can make the claim that while the moderates' cognitive dissonance around their faith may not have any causal connection with the strength of fundamentalism (indeed, perhaps it actually buffers it in some interesting way), one part of their dissonance actually agrees with fundamentalism. By this I mean that the moderate, who, while tolerating, and perhaps even accepting homosexuality, also professes the belief that scripture is divinely inspired. If such a scripture is pretty clear about the moral status of homosexuality, and what to do about it, then the moderate's faith in such a scripture implicitly agrees with such a (homophobic) view.

Unless, of course, the moderate successfully pulls off some incredible hermeneutic acrobatics. I can speak more for islam than I can for christianity, but I rarely find such acrobatics intellectually satisfying.
posted by spacediver at 11:15 AM on January 27, 2007


There's also a gigantic and pervasive community and solidarity aspect built into all 3 Abrahamic religions. We are responsible for our brothers and sisters. Some of us bear a responsibility for all people, whether of our religion or not.
posted by amberglow at 11:28 AM on January 27, 2007


And the beliefs many religious moderates have--that it's really not their problem, or that they only have an individual relationship with God or whatever, etc--actually do enable extremists and fundamentalists to do whatever they please--the fundamentalists can actually point to rules and commandments in the original texts and the moderates usually can't, depending on the faith.
posted by amberglow at 11:34 AM on January 27, 2007


Unless, of course, the moderate successfully pulls off some incredible hermeneutic acrobatics. I can speak more for islam than I can for christianity, but I rarely find such acrobatics intellectually satisfying.

Or unless the moderate redfies the relationship between scripture and the believer, and creates a new understanidng of what dinvine inspiration means. As a young man, I had my doubts about the common understanding of divine inspiration, because I'm also a writer, and I knew that the mental processes involved in writing make the very idea of idea of divine dictation untenable. So I quit thinking of scripture as something left here by God to tell us what to do, and started thinking of it as something left here by humans to tell us about God. Scripture doesn't need a dinvine imprimatur to reccomend it -- the very fact that humans have and continue to find it useful and inspiring for millennia reccomends it.

I understand, however that such a position would be a lot easier for a Christian of Jew than a Muslim, since Islam gives unprecendented weight to the actual text, whereas even Christianity had its dobuts (see St. Paul -- "the letter kills but the Spirit gives life", or John, who made Jesus, and not the text, the Word of God).
posted by eustacescrubb at 3:25 PM on January 27, 2007


the fundamentalists can actually point to rules and commandments in the original texts and the moderates usually can't, depending on the faith.

The fundamentalists break far more rules and commandments than I do, and I dare any fundie to try to out-theology me w/r/t who's breaking more rules, I who don't believe homosxuality is a sin, or Pat Robertson, who is a liar, who has become incredibly rich off of his lies, who has also become rich off of war profiteering and aiding brutal dictators, who tried to steal the 1988 presidential election by stacking the Republican electoral delegates with faithless electors, etc. etc.
The fundies have far less respect for Scripture than I do. They willfully ignore the many, many commandments to care for the poor, to welcome immigrants, to champion the cause of the oppressed. They glorify and support war, where the Bible (especially the New Testament) advocates peace and peacableness. They, and not Harris's moderates, are the chery-pickers -- why do they focus on six verses in the Bible regarding homosexuality, half of which are vague and the other half of which are rendered invalid by thier own "new covenant" hermenutics, while ignoring multiple, plainspoken commandments about economic justice?

And the other thing: this idea that moderates don't speak out is hogwash. Go back through all the MeFi threads like this -- you'll find several such moderates in them, spekaing out. There's a nation filled with such people who publish books and magazines, but the media loves a controversy and gives the Dobsons and the Robertsons airtime while only recently starting to pay attention to men like Jim Wallis.

The more I think about Harris's whole argument, the more holes it has in it.
posted by eustacescrubb at 3:36 PM on January 27, 2007


eustacescrubb:

Thanks for your reply.

Or unless the moderate redfies the relationship between scripture and the believer, and creates a new understanidng of what dinvine inspiration means.


Ok, so let's examine this moderate position:

one who instead of understanding scripture as a direct communication from a divine being, understands it as conveying the teachings of a being who had some special connection with the divine being.

(would this be a satisfactory characterization of your relationship to scripture?)

So a question:


What is your cognitive relationship to the proposition following proposition:

"Jesus had a connection to the divine which is unique in history. No other primate has or will ever have such a connection"

Do you believe it to be true?

What epistemic means led to you accepting this proposition?

Do you see yourself as potentially ever having a radically different belief about the veracity of this proposition? (say some historical or biblical evidence emerges which makes it more likely that jesus was simply a normal and enlightened human, or didn't even exist).



I understand, however that such a position would be a lot easier for a Christian of Jew than a Muslim, since Islam gives unprecendented weight to the actual text, whereas even Christianity had its dobuts (see St. Paul -- "the letter kills but the Spirit gives life", or John, who made Jesus, and not the text, the Word of God).

Indeed: the qur'an, when you get right down to it, is an extraordinarily arrogant text (ironically I don't think Muhammad was arrogant - I think it more likely he genuinely believed he was a vehicle for god's message).

It leaves no room for questioning its origin - it's extremely explicit in referencing itself as being perfect and without error.
posted by spacediver at 4:37 PM on January 27, 2007


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