It isn’t often that I recommend a 300 page book after reading just 30 pages. But I can already tell that “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” is a book well worth recommending. I’d been feeling listless all day until I took a first look at Sam Harris’ warnings against religion. Right away I felt energized. Brutally honest words can do that to you, especially when well-written, as Harris’ book is.
I sense that Harris is a kindred spirit. He’s working on a doctorate in neuroscience, so his mind is attuned to the scientific method. And he has a fondness for mysticism, judging by a concluding chapter, “Experiments in Consciousness.” Harris says, “Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is subject to rational discussion.”
A San Francisco Chronicle book reviewer takes issue with this elevation of mysticism over religion, but I agree with Harris. Consciousness is something directly accessible by every human. And the contents of consciousness also can be directly manipulated by any person who wants to experiment within his or her own psyche.
Sure, meditation is damnably difficult. Few people can successfully conduct the experiments in consciousness described by the great mystics. But at least we are dealing here with something concrete and undeniably real, as contrasted with religious talk of God—which is almost always hearsay, distant reports of what someone else supposedly experienced hundreds or thousands of years ago.
Harris says, “The point is that most of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday.” In the first chapter he suggests an interesting thought experiment: imagine that all six billion people in the world wake up one day with no knowledge of the world. Wisdom would have to be recreated from scratch. Where would we start? How would we relearn what we know now? Which currently widely-held religious tenets would be reincarnated, and which would have died, never to be reborn?
He writes, “When in this process of reclaiming our humanity will it be important to know that Jesus was born of a virgin? Or that he was resurrected? And how would we relearn these truths, if they are indeed true?”
Along these lines, I have my own thought experiment that I often like to ponder. It leads to the same conclusions Harris comes to, but from another direction—from deep outer space. Imagine that beings from a highly advanced extra-galactic civilization make a visit to Earth. The challenge is to communicate with them. Where do you start with a being whose culture, history, experience, knowledge is so utterly different from your own? What common ground do you share? What is the Rosetta Stone that enables you to translate your concepts into their concepts?
Well, it seems obvious that this would be: reality. Earthly scientists likely would have little difficulty beginning to communicate with their extra-terrestrial counterparts. For even if their representation of a hydrogen atom, say, was unlike that familiar to human physicists, it wouldn’t take long to form a common understanding of a entity that exists both on our planet and in a distant galaxy: hydrogen.
But what of God? How would our religious leaders be able to establish any sort of common ground with these beings? Almost certainly they would have no experience of anything akin to our Bible, Koran, Adi Granth, Talmud, Upanishads, or any other scripture. Even more: I like to imagine that they would have no conception at all of religion as we know it. They would only be familiar with a single entity, reality, what exists. What doesn’t exist, but what earthly religions believe exists, would be utterly foreign to them.
So could there be any communication about religious or spiritual matters with these beings? Yes, since both they and we are conscious. In the realm of what we call metaphysics, pure consciousness would be our common ground, not the cultural/historical contents of consciousness that forms the foundation of the religions on our planet.
I like to think that the advanced mystics of Earth and these extra-galactic visitors eventually would have a grand old time sharing their experiences of God, ultimate reality. But there wouldn’t be a trace of religion in these communications of consciousness.
Religion has to be sacrificed on the Altar of Truth to know God. Such is how it always has been; such is how it always will be. Sadly, though, most people would rather worship Belief, which is why Harris’ call for an end to religion won’t be widely heeded.