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Ch. 4: Religion (The Moral Landscape) 
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 Ch. 4: Religion (The Moral Landscape)
Ch. 4: Religion (The Moral Landscape)



Thu Dec 09, 2010 10:07 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4: Religion (The Moral Landscape)
After his two books specifically on religion, I wondered what else Harris would have to say on the subject. He starts off with a theory I hadn't seen about the prevalence of religion in the U.S., a country that unlike European nations has no state-sponsored religion. I had favored the idea that our religiosity is explained by the "free market" approach we took to religion, where the absence of a state religion opened up the field to mix of sects (almost all Christian, of course). Harris thinks that the "societal insecurity" theory is stronger, whereby "high levels of socio-economic inequality may dictate levels of religiosity generally associated with less developed (and less secure) societies" (146). Looking at the minimally religious societies of Europe, it does seem that their higher level of "social security" could explain their ability to let go of religion. This relationship causes Harris to speculate that it might actually be easy for people to lose their religion in the process of becoming more secure. He quotes an anthropologist who says religious commitment "is superficial enough to be readily abandoned when conditions improve to the required degree" (147).

He moves on to the evolutionary origin of religion. He doesn't favor a view that religion was adaptive in any specific way, but leaves it as a possibility. He cites strong evidence that structures in our brains make us susceptible to religious thinking. This leads to an involved account that people should read for themselves. We probably have "cognitive templates for religious ideas that run deeper than culture (in the same way that we appear to have deep, abstract concepts like 'animal' and 'tool')" (151). The anthropologist Pascal Boyer states that "people do not accept incredible religious doctrines because they have relaxed their standards of rationality; they relax their standards of rationality because certain doctrines fit their 'inference machinery' in such a way as to seem credible. And what most religious propositions may lack in plausibility they make up for by being memorable, emotionally salient, and socially consequential. All of these properties are a product of the underlying structure of human cognition, and most of this architecture is not consciously accessible" (150).

An interest of mine is the relationship between religiosity and mental illness. Sometime I want to research the influence that culture may have on the content of delusions. Do adherents to polytheistic traditions such as Hinduism also become ill with the belief in their divinity? Where theism is not prevalent do people have delusions of being gods or having godlike powers? Harris sites strong evidence for a physical cause of hyperreligiosity, especially evidence that the neurotransmitter dopamine is implicated in mania, OCD, and schizophrenia--all conditions regularly associated with hyperreligiosity. No one has ever equated intense religiousness with sanity. If such a person is technically sane, the religion always puts others on their guard. This is even true for ministers or priests who counsel their church members. No pastor, these days, praises the faith of a member who tells of hearing God speaking to him, although in the scriptures this is held to be a mark of great honor. I know a man who is devoted to the Greek Orthodox faith. He also has a mental illness, schizoaffective disorder. He talks to his priest, who tries to keep him on the side of sanity by challenging him when he shades toward ideas of his election or special role in God's plan.

There used to be a belief in "divine madness," by which mental illness could be seen as a sign that one had access to the world of spirit and divinity. This is no longer true, as we have progressed to a more accurate, medical definition of mental illness.

There's quite a bit more to the chapter. Briefly: Harris reviews the brain evidence for the specialness of religious belief (there seems to be no such evidence). He gives a long account of perhaps the most famous religious scientist, the respected geneticist Francis Collins. I knew about Collins' declaration that faith and science don't collide, but didn't know that he said this in respect to a detailed evangelical justification. It isn't just what I assumed it was, a bland attempt to keep the peace by saying that scientists can be "spiritual" without violating reason.

Here is a passage that shows Harris' own reasonableness on the topic of religion, as it sums up the unreason of what Collins has done: "I should say at this point that I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many of the world's religions. Compassion, awe, devotion, and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have. What is irrational, and irresponsible in a scientist and educator, is to make unjustified and unjustifiable claims about the structure of the universe, about the divine origin of certain books, and about the future of humanity on the basis such experience" (165).



Last edited by DWill on Tue Feb 01, 2011 1:20 pm, edited 2 times in total.



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Post Re: Ch. 4: Religion (The Moral Landscape)
Harris on Religion

I’m so glad DWill that you have revived the discussion on Harris. I read this chapter on Religion again today and it is a pearler, the highlight of the book. While I do not agree with all his views, Harris argues superbly. His cutting demolition of conventional religion is a baseline that any theology should confront if it wishes to avoid charges of stupidity, hypocrisy and bigotry.

Only 26% of Americans believe in evolution through natural selection, indicating the 'epidemic of ignorance' that religion has produced. This parlous situation is due to “the taboo around criticising religious belief”. Religious belief in metaphysical propositions is “what renders these enterprises relevant”. Religious practices are “the direct consequence of what people believe to be true” (p148). So there is no hiding behind convention and ritual to defend false beliefs.

As DWill noted, Harris observes that human ‘inference machinery’ predisposes us to delusion. Things we find easy, attractive and useful to believe are preferred over things that are true. The agility with which crazy enthusiasts rationalise failure of prophecy opens the problem of the sanity of religious belief. Delusion is “a false belief firmly sustained despite evidence” (157). But the American Psychiatric Association defers to the taboos around criticism of religion by saying if many people share the delusion then it is not a delusion. Harris caustically notes that by this logic, tiny minorities such as rational scientists would be insane. He cites an example of the lunacy of religion, a family who starved their toddler for not being devout, and carried his dead body around in a suitcase waiting for his resurrection.

Harris has many memorable phrases here. “The major religions remain wedded to doctrines that are growing less plausible by the day” (158). “An immortal soul independent of the brain seems untenable ... the soul doctrine suffers upheaval [as] religions ignore the awkward facts” of our continuity with other animals (159).

The demolition of Francis Collins, appointed by Obama as head of the National Institute of Health, is a masterpiece of clear reason. Collins holds to numerous false supernatural dogmas, making him a butt of mockery for his “solemn excursions from honest reasoning” (165). Obama seems to have “split the difference between ethics and superstition” (173).

I really appreciated Harris’s condemnation of John Polkinghorne, a so-called scientist who is prominent in the evangelical effort to bridge science and theology, but is really just another hypocritical apologist, as is N.T. Wright. Polkinghorne’s verbiage is “impossible to differentiate from an extraordinarily patient Sokal-style hoax intended to embarrass the religious establishment with carefully constructed nonsense” (167). Readers will recall physicist Alan Sokal was responsible for the post-modernism essay generator, which actually deceived gullible academics by stringing together random clichés. Polkinghorne and Wright’s claims all boil down to the false belief “that the Gospel account of the miracles of Jesus is true”. As for the Templeton Foundation, it “seems able to purchase the complicity of otherwise secular academics”, and to lead the prestigious journal Nature to “adopt an embarrassingly supine posture” (169).

Relevant to our recent discussion of whether Jesus existed, Harris comments that “miracle stories somehow become especially credible when set in the pre-scientific religious context of the first-century Roman Empire, written decades after their supposed occurrence, as evidenced by discrepant and fragmentary copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts.... Just how many scientific laws would be violated by this scheme [the Christian creed]? One is tempted to say ‘all of them’” (168).

Harris concludes that religion is unethical, because “dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning” (170). “Belief in souls leads people to be indifferent to suffering”, as “delusional products of religion lead to an ethical blind alley” (171) on embryonic stem cell research. Harris says his critics accuse him of totalitarian opposition to human rights, but really the right they are defending is to hold unjustified beliefs and promote disordered thinking (171). The critics of the new atheism are "just objecting to people taking specific claims of religion seriously".

He defines faith as “conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas obscured by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation”. Defenders of religion lack “the requisite intelligence and emotional maturity to respond to rational argument, satire and ridicule on the subject of religion” (175).

Against this withering attack, how can religion be defended? My view is that supernatural belief is obsolete and will steadily disappear. However, this leaves open the question of what fills the social and institutional function of religion. My view, as I have argued previously, is that Christianity actually contains a kernel of natural truth that has been smothered by the weight of superstition. The new atheists, in their valid demolition of the dross, lack the philosophical insight to find the kernel of truth. The demolition work is an important negative task, but it neglects the positive reform agenda of how existing institutions could be changed to serve ethical goals by looking honestly to their inner resources.

There should be no compromise with falsity in an effort to make Christian theology compatible with scientific knowledge. Efforts to date to achieve this bridging of faith and reason have largely assumed that faith does not itself need to compromise with science, but can be rationalised. Such dogmatism is untenable. Human culture is evolving past the point where lies are acceptable on a mass scale. Faith can only be salvaged and redeemed through comprehensive reform to accept scientific critique of its factual errors. As Jesus said, there is no real forgiveness without repentance. Until religions repent of their promotion of false supernatural claims, their ideologies remain unforgivable.



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Post Re: Ch. 4: Religion (The Moral Landscape)
This is of great interest to me. Dwill, I would agree more with your initial theory of the religiosity of the United States, than I do that of Sam Harris', that is "social insecurity"

Until the early part of the 20th century most Americans lived on farms. Also most of the newly minted sects like Mormonism, Seven day adventists, Shakerism, Christian Science (not too sure about this one) were founded in the early decades of the 19th century before the rise of the huge fortunes of the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers etc. Then too they arose in the north far from the "landed gentry" plantations and estates that were kings grants.

But the bigger discussion. . . what makes the difference between a person susceptible to religious belief and one who has none . . . is of the greatest interest to me in any discussions of atheism/belief. Much more so than the tenets of any particular belief system, past or present.

I happened upon a lecture on t.v. by Sam Harris. It was my introduction to him and I was very impressed. Since I have not read any of his books, which would this group recommend? Should I start with the "Moral Landscape"?

Robert; again why is it necessary to "salvage and redeem faith"? Why is it necessary to have faith in any "taught" way? Why do you quote Jesus if you do not believe in him? It is one thing to say . . . "Jesus is said to have said" and another to say "Jesus said"



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Post Re: Ch. 4: Religion (The Moral Landscape)
lady of shallot wrote:
Robert; again why is it necessary to "salvage and redeem faith"? Why is it necessary to have faith in any "taught" way? Why do you quote Jesus if you do not believe in him? It is one thing to say . . . "Jesus is said to have said" and another to say "Jesus said"


I quote Jesus much as I would other great characters in literature such as Huckleberry Finn or Don Quixote. Jesus is of course a bit different as the archetype of the channel to eternity. I quote him here because I have faith that he was right that there is no salvation and forgiveness without repentance. Unrepentant evil is a path to destruction. My point was that the main repentance required today is by religious frauds - wolves in sheep's clothing - who undermine public understanding of science. They should confess their error and turn to the truth of science.

Christianity is such a rich part of the legacy of humanity that consigning it to the junkheap would be a shame. We don't toss out our treasure with our rubbish. There is a lot of treasure buried in Christianity. The parables in Matthew 13 explain this quite clearly.



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Post Re: Ch. 4: Religion (The Moral Landscape)
It seems to me that real evil would always be unrepentant (Hitler, Stalin, mass murderers on a smaller scale)

As for more of a human scale transgression (rather than evil) I don't know what "salvation" means in such a context. It's not like we go to jail for unkindness to each other and hopefully we all can forgive each other and ask forgiveness. Often we are unaware of acts of cruelty or we are heedless. I don't believe in a cosmic sort of repentance, salvation or evil. We are mostly simple, with simple lives. We do not need salvation.

Sometimes I think that feeling repentant is more of a wrong (that is feelings of guilt) than any actual wrongdoing most do.



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Post Re: Ch. 4: Religion (The Moral Landscape)
lady of shallot wrote:
It seems to me that real evil would always be unrepentant (Hitler, Stalin, mass murderers on a smaller scale)

As for more of a human scale transgression (rather than evil) I don't know what "salvation" means in such a context. It's not like we go to jail for unkindness to each other and hopefully we all can forgive each other and ask forgiveness. Often we are unaware of acts of cruelty or we are heedless. I don't believe in a cosmic sort of repentance, salvation or evil. We are mostly simple, with simple lives. We do not need salvation.

Sometimes I think that feeling repentant is more of a wrong (that is feelings of guilt) than any actual wrongdoing most do.


Please excuse my slightly mischievous appropriation of old religious words that admittedly carry a lot of baggage - faith and salvation. In my view, which is purely materialist, we are saved if the world progresses towards peace, justice and love, and we are damned if the world regresses towards war, injustice and hate. Salvation is primarily worldly, but also has an individual dimension, in that individuals find these good or bad qualities in their personal lives. Going to heaven is pure delusion. The assumption that life is simple ignores the big ethical problems that we see in global historical and cultural trends. True religion is about engaging with world trends in a constructive way.

Germany largely repented for supporting Hitler, and has achieved much forgiveness and progress as a result. Russia has only partially repented for Stalin, and this failure is a big part of Russia's problem. A community or a state carries moral responsibility for the actions of its ancestors.



Thu Feb 03, 2011 6:50 am
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