I love Sam Harris' books.
His "The End of Faith" came out about a year after I started this churchless blog in the fall of 2004. It provided me with a surge of faithless energy, validating my decision to do what I could to help rid the world of destructive religious dogma.
"Letter to a Christian Nation" (2008) also was a winner, but didn't appeal to me quite as much. Never having been a Christian (aside from pretending to be one in my early elementary school years), I guess his focus on the ridiculousness of Christianity seemed self-evident to me.
Now, though, I'm fully fired up about "The Moral Landscape," which I've just begun to read.
Two chapters into it, I'm freshly impressed with Harris' ability to blend rigorous logic and a scientific outlook (he has a Ph.D. in neuroscience) with an earthy attack-dog sensibility. In his newest book what he's attacking is the oft-heard notion that science deals with facts and religion with meanings.
Given this assumption, much of the moral battlefield is ceded to armies of warring combatants brandishing competing holy scriptures and sacred sayings. Those of us who value reason, reality, logic, and the scientific method are relegated to the sidelines.
The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume famously argued that no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us how we ought to behave (morality). Following Hume, the philosopher G. E. Moore declared that any attempt to locate moral truths in the natural world was to commit a "naturalistic fallacy."
... Other influential philosophers, including Karl Popper, have echoed Hume and Moore on this point, and the effect has been to create a firewall between facts and values throughout our intellectual discourse.
However, the central point of "The Moral Landscape" is that human knowledge and human values can no longer be kept apart.
As we learn more about what contributes to the well-being of us Homo sapiens, and what doesn't, it would be crazy to set aside our sapience and blindly follow the moral advice of religious pre-scientific magical-thinkers who were (and sadly, still are) mired in supernatural superstitions and fantasies.
Even though I was never a crazy Christian, for many years I was a crazy follower of an Eastern system of religious thought. Radha Soami Satsang Beas, a form of Sant Mat, accepted the reality of karma accrued over countless births in myriad forms of life.
So, for example, it was thought that someone born blind might have poked out the eyes of a dog in a previous incarnation. And in general, that if something bad happens to a person, this is a justice-balancing act of the cosmos (personified as "Kal," the Lord of Karma).
This is an example of how religiosity prevents us from seeing moral truths clearly. Good becomes bad, and bad becomes good, when people overlay what is actually happening in the world with imagined desires, wishes, laws, or commandments of an unseen "higher power."
Here is our situation: if the basic claims of religion are true, the scientific worldview is so blinkered and susceptible to supernatural modification as to be rendered nearly ridiculous; if the basic claims of religion are false, most people are profoundly confused about the nature of reality, confounded by irrational hopes and fears, and tending to waste precious time and attention -- often with tragic results.
...It makes no sense at all to have the most important features of our lives anchored to divisive claims about the unique sanctity of ancient books or to rumors of ancient miracles. There is simply no question that how we speak about human values -- and how we study or fail to study the relevant phenomena at the level of the brain -- will profoundly influence our collective future.
After picking up "The Moral Landscape" in the morning, yesterday I bookended my reading day with TIME magazine. I found an article about the Westboro Baptist Church right in line with what Harris is talking about.
The 70 members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas stage protests at military funerals around the country because they believe God is punishing troops for America's tolerance of homosexuality -- even when those killed, like Matt [Snyder] were not gay -- and that all of God's judgments must be celebrated.
In a reasonable reality-based world, judgments about the morality of homosexuality (including the appropriateness of the U.S. armed forces' "don't ask, don't tell" policy) would be based on evidence about gays: how homosexuality arises; how, if at all, gays differ from straights in areas other than who they are sexually attracted to; and so on.
But once religiosity enters into the moral debate, facts make an exit.
The TIME article says that a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion on the lawsuit filed by the Snyders against the Westboro Baptist Church said that the First Amendment protects statements that fail to contain a "provably false factual connotation."
The Westboro signs were hurtful and wildly inappropriate -- "God hates you," for example -- but you can't disprove God's hate.
No, you can't. And you can't prove it either.
Thus this sort of claim, along with every other faith-based assertion, has no place in societal discussions about what is moral and what isn't. Harris is absolutely correct when he says:
There are surely physical, chemical, and biological facts about which we may be ignorant or mistaken. In speaking of "moral truth," I am saying that there must be facts regarding human and animal well-being about which we can also be ignorant or mistaken. In both cases, science -- and rational thought generally -- is the tool we can use to uncover these facts.
...Meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures -- and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain. Rational, open-ended inquiry has always been the true souce of insight into such processes. Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.