It’s always a delight to read Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. He’s got a knack for speaking honestly about subjects that often are taboo topics in polite conversation.
Like, “Why do you cling to such weird religious beliefs?” In a November 13, 2006 Newsweek essay, “The Case Against Faith,” Harris socks it to the faithful in six paragraphs that had me cheering from my seat in the churchless bleachers.
After lamenting that more than half of Americans believe the entire cosmos was created 6,000 years ago, he says:
This is embarrassing. But add to this comedy of false certainties the fact that 44 percent of Americans are certain that Jesus will return to Earth sometime in the next 50 years, and you will glimpse the terrible liability of this sort of thinking.
Given the most common interpretation of Biblical prophecy, it is not an exaggeration to say that nearly half the American population is eagerly anticipating the end of the world. It should be clear that this faith-based nihilism provides its adherents with absolutely no incentive to build a sustainable civilization — economically, environmentally or geopolitically.
Newsweek calls the essay “an atheist’s lament.” Well, I don’t know how Harris describes himself, but I’ve read just about everything he’s written and he doesn’t strike me as an atheist. He seems to have the same attitude toward religion that I do: blind faith is a dead end while empirical experience leads somewhere.
From the last two paragraphs of The End of Faith:
Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion.
…A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous. While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it.
Clearly, it must be possible to bring, reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith.
A quick question for the Reverend Hines - is blind faith the only kind of personal faith in existence? Is there such a thing as "experience-based faith," the kind that you can attest to, but have no corroborating witnesses for?
I mean, we all have physical world experiences where we alone are the only spectators. Are we not to believe anything anyone says unless we experience it with them?
Oh, you think this is just called, "trust" do you? Well then, what is trust based on... isn't there a smidgeon of blind faith in there somewhere?
On a personal note, I assume that you trust your wife. Do you also trust the veracity of the experiences she recounts to you even when those you were not witness to? Are spiritual experiences excluded from that trust?
Posted by: Marcel Cairo | December 04, 2006 at 03:36 PM
Marcel, there indeed are degrees of faith. By "blind faith" I was thinking of the extreme, where no one has seen the article of faith (such as that Jesus meets a believer after death), so everyone without exception is blind.
Your "experience-based" faith is what I'd call direct experience. In this case you know because you see, but I can't share your eyes. So there's good reason for me to be somewhat skeptical of your report because I haven't shared your experience.
I do trust my wife to accurately relate what she has experienced. And generally other people too (except when the Bush administration tells me they have evidence of WMDs).
But she can be deceived. Anyone can. So I'd have more faith that she saw a cougar if she brought back some fur or a photo. Though the excitement in her voice would be persuasive also.
Faith, like everything else, isn't black or white. I have faith in the theory of relativity based on other people's experience. As I wrote in my previous post, it partly comes down to how accessible the claimant of some truth is to being questioned.
Scientists open up their research to public view. Most supposed mystics don't. They resist having their experiences put under an inquisitive magnifying glass.
And religious believers are even worse. Not only don't they usually have any direct experience of their own, but they get offended when someone questions the blind faith they put in their holy books.
Posted by: Brian | December 04, 2006 at 07:54 PM
A simple question. How do you explain "little miracles"?
Everyday across the world "little miracles" confound medical professionals whose own "scientific" predictions are somehow ignored or proven wrong, as say, when a terminal patient completely recovers or the prevalence of near death experiences. See:
Posted by: Marcel Cairo | December 05, 2006 at 12:51 AM
The believers against faithful ones. I believe that a thing exist because I have evidences about it. But sometime it is needed have faith that a thing exists without you have any evidence.
One doesn't exclude other.
Posted by: Spark | December 05, 2006 at 03:52 AM
This is where my carefully cultivated mystical self gets peeved at Mr Harris... There are times when the incense, or the laughter of children, or the sound of a gong, or something else existing as a sort of bridge from where I find myself to a place of more mindfulness is necessary for me to find peace. I know I need the trtaining wheels still. I realize so many do not, but I do.
That said, I don't seek permissions from anyone to use these things anymore. Communion is fine if it's offered; but I do not need to have the sacrament within the confines of the building or as offered by a certified member of the sect to feel as though I am part of the body of Christ anymore.
I find religions are filled with mostly trite fears and proscriptions and a few sound warnings which the religious usually ignore. I agree with Harris here. But I also belive in (among other things) communion with the saints, the existence of a Divine Creator, the forgiveness of sins and the existence of my own soul. That does not mena that I think the world was created 6,00 years ago, but I also do not have unerring trust in science and its -often inaccurate- measurements. So do I disagree with Harris because of these beliefs? I do not know.
What is sad is that Harris so capriciously dismisses worthwhile searching for truth by being either sagely provocative or purposefully dismissive of honest and decent believers. Either way, I feel about Mr. Harris the way I feel about St Augustine - he has some important things to teach me, but I cannot imagine liking the man in person even a little bit.
Posted by: benandante | December 05, 2006 at 01:07 PM
It should be clear to anyone interested in cold hard facts that humans are not here to build a sustainable civilization. Religion and other hubris aside, when you look at the impact, we have all the loving effect of volcanoes. Planning for the future? That is a saleable commodity available from your bank.
As for "the end of faith," let's think of "end" in the causative, and say yessirree, the reason for faith is to begin applying rationale to our deepest personal concerns, because faith in an outcome is necessary to rationalizing.
I have noticed though, that so far rationality is as effective as faith in addressing "our deepest personal concerns".
Now, I'd like to get back to calmly raising universal consciousness via (insert intellectual abstraction here.)
Posted by: Edward | December 05, 2006 at 01:48 PM
Is there a link between; Illusion and Rationality?
Illusionism - The doctrine that the material world is an immaterial product of the senses.
Rationalism - The theory that the exercise of reason, rather than experience, authority, or spiritual revelation, provides the primary basis for knowledge.
Thanks for some comments,
Posted by: Roger | December 06, 2006 at 06:18 AM
Roger, I wish there were some obvious answer to your very smart and astute question, but the only thing that seems to pop up in my head right now is "beer." Bottoms up! :-)
Posted by: Marcel Cairo | December 06, 2006 at 09:10 AM
Illusionism says that when Marcel drinks his beer, the world will change.
Rationalism says that is a good idea IF he can think of a reason that drink it will change to world for a "good" (good sleep, good comraderie, etc.). Having the thought just pop into his head is not quite enough.
Of course rationalism can be used to justify drinking the beer even if concretism applied. Whiskey and car keys can be rationalized as well.
The primary basis of knowledge sometimes is more gut level and unredoubtable than reason, like headaches and jersey curbs.
And the elves tell me that illusionism is just plain false.
Posted by: Edward | December 06, 2006 at 11:25 AM
Edward and Marcel - thanks for your comments.
My curiosity need of the week, came from the, "Put up or Shut up" thread. The comment by Bad Bob Al, and the comments (in aggreement) that followed by many from our little regulars group.
I've been asking myself, "Why is everyone in agreement with Bob's comment?"
Is his philosophy a combination of Sant Mat, Advaita, Zen Buddhism, Nililism, Illusionism, Rationalism, etc?
I'm not finding fault. I kinda liked his comment too. I just don't know why I do.
Anyway, is his philosophy some type of Eclectism, with a smigin of Syergism thrown in?
Thanks for more of those dang comments.
Posted by: Roger | December 06, 2006 at 12:30 PM
Roger, leave it to the French to tackle your philosophical question. Here is a visual study of illusionism and rationalism well worth watching.
Posted by: Marcel Cairo | December 06, 2006 at 03:27 PM
Kool video, the guy in the white outfit should find his way to Las Vegas one day. He would be a great opening act for the Blue Man group.
I still hope there are some additional comments, regarding my questions presented a few comments above.
Posted by: Roger | December 08, 2006 at 05:43 AM
Check out Sunday's NYTimes article about secularists celebrating Christmas... in it, Mr. Harris admits he has a Christmas tree and exchanges gifts and in almost every way celebrates Cjristmas in the same way that Christians (like me) do.
This article seems to articulate a nagging sense what I've been unable to put into words: if my faith is so darned illogical and hypocritical that Mr. Harris is compelled to publicly criticize and demean it, then how exactly does Mr. Harris rate a mulligan for his illogical and truly hypocritical "celebration" of a holy-day (or holiday) like Christmas?
I don't just pose this question to those who embrace Mr Harris and his ilk on the grounds that he is supposedly more sensible, but also pose this question to myself.
Since I allow myself the latitude to engage in essentially illogical thinking, I grant the same dispensation to the secularist/scienceist crowd, though they clearly do not have the same intellectual magnanimity.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Harris!!
Posted by: benandante | December 17, 2006 at 09:14 AM
blind faith is a dead end while empirical experience leads somewhere.
Eh. I agree and disagree. If I were to go by experience I would hate the world and everyone on it and go and kill myself. I live on hope of what I don't see. Maybe you've had really good experiences, or maybe I've just had really bad ones. But you get two different people with two entirely different experiences. Sure everything we see is true, but it is only half of truth and it is quite likely we'll deduct incorrectly. I learned this from reading Baruch Spinoza, whom you seem to quote with zeal. Your above quote interferes on some levels with your "mystic" approach because mysticism is referring to those "religious" things that are mystery. Extrapolation is needed. Spinoza was the best, and his medium of mathematics was incredible for the discipline he undertook.
You're so quick to wag a finger at those with blind faith, completely tossing aside Spinoza's relativist premise.
Posted by: Michelle | December 20, 2006 at 09:02 PM