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Sam Harris New Book - A Letter To A Christian Nation
Posted: 28 October 2006 07:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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Excellent idea, Jim. Having not had a religious upbringing, I’d have no idea how to get started on such a project, but it sounds like a good one.

NB: I’d not call them “contracatechisms” though; rhetorically it sounds too “anti”. Better to come up with a positive word ...

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Posted: 30 October 2006 04:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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More on Sam Harris’ book….

Doug said: I’ve read “Letter” now, and note how the mainstream press (and some even on this board ) call it “simplistic”, yet the arguments provided in it are simply devastating. It is certainly true that they aren’t worked up to the extent they would be in a philosophy dissertation, but they aren’t untested arguments, either. They are simply well put, clearly and directly, in the form of a “Letter” rather than an essay. And for that Harris deserves plaudits.

Plaudits?  Well, if your expectations reach as far as wanting a simplistic book about some of the problems with theism/supernaturalism.. a book which says nothing new (albeit it may reach lots of people because of Sam’s name right now), then by all means, pass the plaudits to Harris!

But if one wants to say something to lots of religious people - because he knows he can - about what sort of society we COULD become if we exchanged supernaturalism for naturalism, then this books fails badly at that. 

As yet another attack on the religious among us - and their “silly, dangerous and absurd ideas” - Harris’s book has done well.  But at the end of his last book, he at least hinted at something positive that can replace supernaturalism.. something that can speak to the spirituality religious people yearn for.. something foward moving, affirming and meaningful.  He does none of that here. 

I doubt many will see this as anything but another angry atheist bashing of religion.

Doug said: As to whether it will change minds: nobody believes it will change the minds of “dyed in the wool faith-heads” as Dawkins puts it, but I have little doubt it will get some on the fence to re-think the rationalism of their Christian beliefs, which are never ever critiqued in the mainstream media.


Those on the fence you speak of will have to be just about falling over to the atheist side to seriously re-think their beliefs by reading this book.  This sort of book never reaches far beyond such people.  When I picked up my first atheist books (George Smith’s “Atheism,” and Kurtz’ “Transcendental Temptation,” I was about to fall too. 

Sure, the title and small size of this book might lead to more perusers, but the message is the same (and weak at that).

And by the way, if you think the term “dyed in the wool faith-heads” is the way to reach 90% of our fellow Americans, you’ve got to be pretty faithful yourself!

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Posted: 31 October 2006 12:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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So, Harris’s book is “weak” and “simplistic” ... I’ve read similar claims from religious book reviewers, and none of them actually go to the trouble to tell us which arguments are so “weak” and “simplistic” and why. Perhaps you could enlighten us as to the bad arguments Harris makes?

His last book did “hint at something” that might replace supernaturalism, but it basically amounted to contemplating one’s inner states through meditation. Fine and dandy, but it’s no real answer. And he did take eastern mysticism a little too seriously—that was the weakest part of End of Faith; best to leave it aside. I discussed the problems with it in a different thread .

[quote author=“Barry”]But if one wants to say something to lots of religious people - because he knows he can - about what sort of society we COULD become if we exchanged supernaturalism for naturalism, then this books fails badly at that.

When you mention “society” I’m assuming that you think Harris’s book would be much better if Harris only wrote about anarchy. You’re looking on the wrong bookshelf.

[quote author=“Barry”]Those on the fence you speak of will have to be just about falling over to the atheist side to seriously re-think their beliefs by reading this book. This sort of book never reaches far beyond such people. When I picked up my first atheist books (George Smith’s “Atheism,” and Kurtz’ “Transcendental Temptation,” I was about to fall too.

So, are you telling us you still haven’t fallen into atheism? Or that all these anti-religious books are for suckers? If they did help you to become atheist, why couldn’t they help someone else?

How do you think people become atheist, Barry? By reading credulous religious tracts, or books about “non-overlapping magisteria”? Indeed, Dawkins for one has talked about receiving many letters from people who were convinced to become atheist by reading his books.

Clearly there is room for a variety of techniques in this debate. But one technique has got to be the one of plainly and directly attacking the basic arguments that religious people use in this country and elsewhere to claim primacy. All you have to do is look at the makeup of our present government, and much of present day Islam, to see the pernicious effect that neanderthal religious beliefs can have. Apologetics is not the answer.

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Posted: 31 October 2006 03:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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Barry,
You are wrong on this one. Harris is addressing a subject that is very worrisome and that has gained more traction in our government than any one could ever have believed.
Go to Google and search these terms, “dominionism”, “reconstructionist theology”. Then read about reconstructionism (the Christian not the Jewish variety) and dominionism.
We have some 22 Million people in the USA who believe the world is 6000 years old and that Jesus will return within their lifetimes. Patrick Jones,University was begun just a short while ago to receive the best and brightest of these home schooled kids (oxymoron?). It graduates about 200 annually. Those graduates have over 20 percent of white house staff jobs.
There is something wrong with this picture, right?
Check this Mother Jones story
I’m sorry this is the only link I have time to provide. I forgot what a PITA this software makes of inserting links. I’ve decided to it a lot easier to send them to readers who want them. I’ve got your email Barry so if you want greater detail on the threat I’ll be happy to provide it. But you don’t need my help to find this stuff - you are quite able. If you check the terms you will run across the PRA, PublicEye.org where you can read the best material.
Sam is the only voice we have that is getting read in large enough quantity to make a difference. If the GOP manages to keep its majority after the 8th we might not have a democracy worth a damn at the end of his term.
Jim

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Posted: 31 October 2006 04:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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Of course , one expects me to state this: Doug and Jimmie know their stuff! They indeed do. I hate it when parents only use faith-healing for their children- that ought to be a crime . But my main animus against any religion is that it it only nonsense that others should abjure . I am with Dawkins , Harris and others that we should not repsect nonsense and need to provide arguments with humour to overcome it . Science and philosophy without humour won’t do it. Any sugguestions?[color=violet][/colo :!: r] :!:

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Fr. Griggs rests in his Socratic ignorance and humble naturalism.He might be wrong!His cognitive defects might impact his posting. Logic is the bane of theists.‘Religion is mythinformation.“Reason saves, not that fanatic Galilean!
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Posted: 31 October 2006 06:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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Barry,

I’ve read both of Sam Harris’ books and all of Richard Dawkins’ ones. I’ve also read George Smith’s which was a lot drier. I like Sam Harris’ style. He writes well and argues clearly. You call his arguments weak. I would be very interested to hear any recommendations you may have for any authors who you think argue the case more strongly.

Have you read The Happiness Hypothesis by the way? Well worth the effort.

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Posted: 31 October 2006 07:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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[quote author=“Englishpaul”]I would be very interested to hear any recommendations you may have for any authors who you think argue the case more strongly.

One of the best single sources for atheistic arguments is The Miracle of Theism by Oxford professor of philosophy J.L. Mackie. It makes detailed reading but is quite brilliantly written and argued. Many of Dawkins’s arguments are more or less taken from Mackie, although in simplified form. Mackie was a metaphysician rather than a scientist, so took the theistic arguments at face value as metaphysical claims and showed why they did not stand up to the simpler atheistic alternative.

... and welcome to the forum, Englishpaul!

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Posted: 31 October 2006 07:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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Thank you Doug, I’ve ordered it from Amazon. I’d recommend the Happiness Hypothesis to you too. It’s absolutely brilliant.

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Posted: 31 October 2006 03:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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OK, I need to do some ‘splaining….

Hi all!

I see I started a ruckus… Again!  I need to do some ‘splaining…  This is a good thing, it keeps people (including me) thinking. 

Before I address what seems to be a consensus on my comments on the Harris (and Dawkins?) book, let me point out that nowhere did I argue that the philosphical arguments in Harris’s book were weak or simplistic.  On basic atheism, secularism, and some other points, Harris argues (and yes, in clear form - it may be hard for “regular folk” to read George Smith, nevermind Michael Martin), very much the same arguments for atheism and against religion as so many people before him.  And on this, I suggested we give kudos to Sam for making such arguments clear and written in a bestseller (made possible because of End of Faith.)

What I said was weak and simplistic is a book - in these times - which does nothing new… Nothing that speaks to most religionists… And certainly nothing any Dominionist (of which I am very aware - see Yurica’s chapter in my book, Toward a New Political Humanism) would pick up. 

Also, the book offers nothing beyond attack and debunking of religion and religionists (and not merely supernaturalism or lies about the Establishment Clause). 

As I implied in my last post, Sam would get much further toward his goal of “naturalizing” America if he wrote a book to Christians (or whomever) in which he proved that he understood the real reasons people are religious in the first place before he talked about the problem(s) with religion in politics or of supernaturalism itself.  Sam, like most atheists, seems to think the core reason people are religious is simplistic, and writing such a book as “Letters” seems to prove that.  Religion is not going away, not the core of it at least.  Atheists need to become more humanistic about addressing the problems within religion and not attack religionists as if they are all Dominionists ... And atheists would also do well to find out WHY people become Dominionists (or just religious) in the first place.  Tell Dawkins it’s not is not all about parenting or fear of death.

PS: If the Republicans manage to steal another election this Tuesday, our democracy will continue to be dismantled, but this is not because of the Christian Right or the Dominionists - though they are used to win more votes for the Neo-Cons - it will be because of many more problems that lie within Representative Democracy in the first place.  Leo Strauss - the neo-con prototype - made it clear that religion ought to be used as one of the means toward the end .. And the Neo-Cons (most not being Dominionists) know this very well. 

PSS: In an Inclusive Democracy, the Dominionists and the Neo-Cons among us would never obtain the power to destroy said democracy!

Now, to reply to Doug et al:

Doug Said: His last book did “hint at something” that might replace supernaturalism, but it basically amounted to contemplating one’s inner states through meditation. Fine and dandy, but it’s no real answer. And he did take eastern mysticism a little too seriously—that was the weakest part of End of Faith; best to leave it aside. I discussed the problems with it in a different thread.

In End of Faith, Harris made a good start, and there is nothing wrong with meditation and some forms of “mysticism,” if we understand both as naturalistic.  He seemed to understand the human condition beyond pure reason or black and white thinking about spirituality.  Before this part of the book, most of his writing was quite standard stuff.  The only thing interesting was his take on moderate religion - which in some vain is worth thinking about.  The last section is where Sam begins to move beyond mere atheism and toward laying the plans for a humanistic society.  I think he might get more into this - I can hope, at least - in his upcoming book which will debunk Free Will. 

Of course, the weakest (and crudest) part of his book was his pro-torture ideas, his blatant Islamaphobia, and his clear denial of the root causes for terrorism.

Here is what my CO-producer on Equal Time for Freethought had to say when he saw the post (he is not signed up) ... I think it speaks to my point better than I did.

“When I speak with Moms and Dads and other mainstream moderate people who are presently involved in moderate religious communities, what I hear they are seeking is the value of a vital and dynamic community that shares in each others lives; they want to be involved in a way of life that offers support toward becoming a healthier, more alive, and more connected, and more potent human being; they want fun - they seem to want just about everything except to be expected to live their lives based on a powerful intellectual argument. The brilliance of the argument is as lost on the average person as it is meaningless to Rex (my dog.) 

“Those who advocate naturalism must find a new nonintellectual manner of spreading that meme.  A book may be a reasonable place to start, but only if it can help naturalists recognize why they continue to fail, and if it lays out at least some of the elements of a naturalistic practice which will meet the very real needs of people that are currently being met, in a pathetic half-assed fashion, by their ancient religions.

“Listen to the last Carl Sagan talk at a CFI conference in Seattle in 1994.  It’s currently featured at the end of a recent episode of “Point of Inquiry,” the one which features an interview with Ann Druyan that precedes the Sagan speech.  Over twelve years ago and he’s completely spelling it out.  He warns against our arrogance and inability to recognize why perfectly intelligent average people make the seemingly bad choice to pursue religion.  He strongly suggests that until we can do that and adjust our approach accordingly, we can not succeed. 

“What would he think of the new Dawkins and Harris books?  Considering that what he said in his final address to CFI is in no way even approached yet, I doubt if he’d think them a meaningful step forward.”

Doug Said: So, are you telling us you still haven’t fallen into atheism? Or that all these anti-religious books are for suckers? If they did help you to become atheist, why couldn’t they help someone else?

I did not say that, of course.  I was an atheist-leaning agnostic when I read those books.  I was just looking for others to prove to me I was sane for being such!  That I had good reason to be such.  When I was religious, I would never have bothered with those books.

Doug Said: How do you think people become atheist, Barry? By reading credulous religious tracts, or books about “non-overlapping magisteria”? Indeed, Dawkins for one has talked about receiving many letters from people who were persuaded to become atheist by reading his books.


I never read any books on atheism or the like to become an atheist.  Actually, I just began to study more religions.  It was a class in Egyptian Mythology in 1982 which first lead me to think much of Judaism and Christianity (I was brought up Jewish) might too be just myth.  I also watched Sagan’s Cosmos series and found spirituality within science and saw how myth was a silly path toward such. 

At first - for too long a time, sadly - I was the angry atheist who got upset about everything from ‘God Bless You’ when one sneezed to breached church-state laws.  That was because, of course, I felt liberated from what I thought were all the lies I was told for so long.  But as I began to see why people actually believe in absurd things, then I began to see that the core of these reasons were the same as my reasons for turning to science and leaving Judaism. 

I was lucky.  I was able to replace the “food” for my core as I became an atheist.  Most people do not have this chance.  Once I understood that atheism was for me the path I took to naturalism and humanism, it failed to stay at the core of who I was for very long.  It would be great if all humanists and naturalists would go all the way and loose supernaturalism, of course.  Indeed this MUST occur one day if we are to mature as a species.  But I think it will happen AS we mature and become more humanistic and naturalistic and not the other way around.  That is, atheism need not be the starting point. 

And certainly arguing over and over again, generation after generation, for atheism… is silly and useless UNLESS we first become more humanistic.  This is not apologetics.  This is not being “soft” on religion.  It is understanding people deeper than many atheists do when they attack what people believe as if most people are just ignorant or childish.

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Posted: 01 November 2006 01:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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Fair enough, Barry, it sounds like we aren’t quite so far apart as I’d thought given your former post.

However, Dawkins doesn’t believe that the reason people are religious is solely due to “parenting or fear of death”. It is true that he believes parenting plays a major role, which is both uncontroversial and irrefutable—there is an enormous statistical correlation between the religion of the parents and that of the children.

Dawkins does go in for other explanations, both involving “memes” (the strength of particular religious notions to replicate) and involving biological propensities. In particular, humans appear to have an overly active agent detecting mechanism in their brains, one that gives a lot of false positives. That’s what yields the very human tendency to see agency in wind, rain, earthquakes, bumps in the night, what have you. Anthropologists like Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer go into this in quite a lot more detail; they discuss how such beliefs became the basis for supernatural or superstitious thinking in early societies. These forms of thought then became the basis for world religions. Both of their books are recommended by Dawkins.

One thing is for sure: any true explanation of why people become religious is going to be very complex and involve a mass of different causal elements. Indeed, for any two people, they may well become religious for entirely different (and even contradictory) reasons.

Certainly it is a good thing to support forms of humanism as well as be atheist. Many religious people are concerned that atheists are fundamentally immoral, so we do need to display a truly atheistic morality. However I don’t think it’s entirely fair to criticize Harris for not having written a humanist manifesto with his latest work: that was not his aim.

And if we can step back a bit here, I do think that one of the things that leads people to become religious—even fundamentalist—is an intuitive wish to find a clear, coherent belief system to help guide them through life. They are fed up with wishy-washy post-modern-type confusion, and want clarity. Now, we may well laugh at the confusions involved in traditional religion, however the fact is that once you swallow an irrational faith in a very small number of things, the rest of the religion follows quite simply.

To the extent that there are believers who think in this fashion, they would be amenable to ‘de-conversion’ by a strong atheistic argument by someone like Harris or Dawkins. Both their approaches also involve the explanation of a clear, coherent belief system: rationalism and the scientific method. Both also reject the confusions of post-modern thinking. Both are willing to stand up and argue clearly and forcefully in public for their beliefs.

So I don’t think that their style will turn off all believers in the audience. Sure, it won’t appeal to all of them either, but frankly no single argument could ever do such a thing, so it can’t be a knock against their argument that it doesn’t.

It also helps give some spine to the moderate atheists, ones who are intuitively sympathetic to the position but don’t have any clear notion of how to argue their position. And giving arguments to these people is a good thing, as it will help them debate friends, family and co-workers in a more effective matter. At the very least this will help religionists to know that atheism has some very strong arguments on its side: it can’t be dismissed easily.

If you watch some of the videos and read about the reception of Dawkins’s recent speeches in the deep south and Kansas, you will see how effusive the audiences have been. People there are hungry for someone to finally stand up in public and argue so well what they have believed. And that sort of catharsis is also a good thing. Even better if it helps embattled groups to mobilize.

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Posted: 01 November 2006 06:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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More on Dawkins and Harris

Doug Said: Dawkins doesn’t believe that the reason people are religious is solely due to “parenting or fear of death”. It is true that he believes parenting plays a major role, which is both uncontroversial and irrefutable—there is an enormous statistical correlation between the religion of the parents and that of the children.

Well, of course!  Since my parents were from German and Polish background, I grew up thinking I was German and Polish (though I was born in America).  Nationality is silly and meanless because whatever human-created named-land one was born in should carry no more significance than perhaps some minor cultural things such as food or dress.  I need not consider myself German or Polish any more than Jewish… but this is how I was taught to identify myself.  I did not self-identify as a humanist untill well into my 20’s or later.  There are some kids who switch from their parent’s religion to another religion or atheism early on in life, but this is rare. 

So parents have this sort of effect, but many parents teach their kids about other religions as well.  But more importantly, what I meant was that stopping our search for reasons at “parental brainwashing” as I have heard Dawkins do many times (including on my radio show) is silly because it does not address why the parents are religious.

Doug Said: Dawkins does go in for other explanations, both involving “memes” (the strength of particular religious notions to replicate) and involving biological propensities. In particular, humans appear to have an overly active agent detecting mechanism in their brains, one that gives a lot of false positives. That’s what yields the very human tendency to see agency in wind, rain, earthquakes, bumps in the night, what have you. Anthropologists like Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer go into this in quite a lot more detail; they discuss how such beliefs became the basis for supernatural or superstitious thinking in early societies. These forms of thought then became the basis for world religions. Both of their books are recommended by Dawkins.

Well, I am glad Dawkins recommends Atran and Boyer!  These two have a better understanding of why religion than many.  I am not sure I buy the meme stuff yet.. even though I like the idea and Sue Blackmore’s writings on the subject… it just seems not quite right to me. 

I am not sure about what biological causes Dawkins refers to, but I assume they are not ‘God Gene’ stuff like Dean Hamer talks about because that seems highly dubious.  If Dawkins is reffering to the Temperal Lobe work of Michael Persinger, that work has much promise I think.  I think Atran’s work mixed with Persinger’s takes us closer to the truth, but also I think - in modern society, at least - religion plays the saviour role, the “fitting in” role, and empowerment roles… best in places of political or economic strife (such as in the Arab world and in the American South and midwest).  The ‘God presense’ and supernaturalism of soul-belief are powerful BECAUSE they give meaning to peoples in bad lives - people who cannot afford to eleminate these “religious” elements from their lives… lives caught in survival mode, something you and I have been lucky to overcome. 

Re Dawkins, if he focused more on this stuff and less on mocking religion and religionists and those simplistic and negative aspects of his argument, he’d go much further toward creating a better society.  Religion is more than supernaturalism. 

Ditto with Sam Harris. 

Dawkins is a scientist and Harris is studying neuroscience.. both are particularly able to be positive and engaging about this stuff instead of writing about people made into morons by Islam or “faith-heads” being “delusional.”

Then again, Harris and Dawkins ideas about human nature and politics are fairly conservative, so perhaps they can’t do otherwise.

Doug Said: Certainly it is a good thing to support forms of humanism as well as be atheist. Many religious people are concerned that atheists are fundamentally immoral, so we do need to display a truly atheistic morality. However I don’t think it’s entirely fair to criticize Harris for not having written a humanist manifesto with his latest work: that was not his aim.

Fair enough.  I just happen to think that Harris is in a position to do just that, write a humanist manifesto (based on what he believes about atheism and naturalism), because if his goal is to create a healthier society, he needs to go further than “ending faith” or debunking an “immoral Christain nation.” 

Also, there is no such thing as atheistic morality.  There is a morality we can gleam from naturalism and which is detailed in the philosphy of humanism, but atheism is not a world view. 

And again, Harris may not BE a humanist, so perhaps expecting him to do more with his knowledge and passion is asking too much?

Doug Said: It also helps give some spine to the moderate atheists, ones who are intuitively sympathetic to the position but don’t have any clear notion of how to argue their position. And giving arguments to these people is a good thing, as it will help them debate friends, family and co-workers in a more effective matter. At the very least this will help religionists to know that atheism has some very strong arguments on its side: it can’t be dismissed easily.

I agree that “moderate atheists” need to snap out of it.  If one is an agnostic, fine.  But if one goes as far to call him or herself an atheist - in this country, at least - he or she has a moral duty to express the moral failings of Dominionists, at least.  Then again, I know lots of moderate and liberal religionists who ARE going after the Dominionists. 

But all this should be done in careful ways.  I often wonder how far atheists ought to go to “grow a spine” when dealing with religionists ... especially friends and family.  I have found that unless one’s friends or family members wants to engage in an intellectual argument about God and the like - which most don’t - than coming at them from the atheist direction can be useless, and damaging to the relationship.  Best to come at the dicussion from a humanist or naturalistic position, I think.  And trust me, even THAT will be difficult!

Barry

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Posted: 02 November 2006 09:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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Yes, we need to understand them better.Isn’t part of the problem that they have to give up something that they believe in itself a problem- to be so wrong?I like Dawkins hard line. He shows up theistic evolution and errancy for the obscurantism they are! “Arguing for Atheisum,and”’ Arguing about Gods” are good on atheisum and ‘Confronting Believers’ ” is good against the Tanakh and the Testament. Thanks in. part to Kurtz, there are now so many books advocating atheismus.

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Fr. Griggs rests in his Socratic ignorance and humble naturalism.He might be wrong!His cognitive defects might impact his posting. Logic is the bane of theists.‘Religion is mythinformation.“Reason saves, not that fanatic Galilean!
  ’ Life is its own validation and reward and ultimate purpose.”

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Posted: 03 November 2006 04:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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I think what we are missing in this discussion is what (my opinion) Sam is attempting with his book(s).
He is certainly able to produce the book you describe Barry, but his critics would have no idea what he is talking about and his readers less.
I believe he is trying (and succeeding) to energize humanists so that we become activists. So that we begin to read about the real threat from fundamentalism of every stripe. He doesn’t view his mission to be explaining the real reasons they are trying to kill us to legions of suicide bombers.
He thinks if he writes enough of these alerts it may cause enough of those alerted to work to turn back the threat of theocracy here.
Perhaps some will work to change the religious training in the madrassas in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and just maybe it could help the moderates in Iran win the next elections there.
You may be right, maybe the solution to the ills of the world is as you see it.
But Sam is not trying to discuss solutions, his is a call to action. And so is Dawkins. I haven’t yet finished Dennett’s first book but I will and I’ll buy the new one soon.
My problem, one of many, is lack of time to do fun things like read books. Oh well!
Jim

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Posted: 03 November 2006 05:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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Harris as cheerleader for humanists?

I believe he is trying (and succeeding) to energize humanists so that we become activists.

Well, I see Sam’s work as cheerleading (energizing is a better word, but I am not sure it is as applicable), for atheism and not humanism.  Letters to a Christain Nation is certainly such.  I just happen to think that atheism should be a necessary byproduct of naturalism and humanism and not something to cheer others to adobt or focus their activism around. 

Now, in all fairness, Letters is also cheerleading for secularism (re government), and this is indeed urgent to cheer for under King George Dubya.  But many have done this better, even religious people like Katherine Yurica and Marci Hamilton.

It’s not that religion itself should not be shown for all its dangers, and for a whole lot more, but it has to be done in ways I just feel Letters and End of Faith do not.  Indeed, the important parts of the latter is mixed in with insults of all religionists (you can critique without insulting), Islamaphobia, calls for torture, and neo-liberal values.  I do not think I want to call this humanism.

Here is a review by someone who is critical of religion in that he sees that it is lending to great problems in these modern times.  His new book, which I have not read yet, seems more than “fun” ...  It seems relevant, smart and fair.  Too much of Harris’s and Dawkin’s comments and arguments are not such.  When they try, they appear only to be rabid atheists and not humanists.. and in Harris’s case in End of Faith, even anti-scientific! 

Now I know I said that Harris seemed to be trying to understand that religion is more than the stuff he spends most of his book saying it is - which is most certainly true - but he does wrap much of that sentiment into messy new-agy babble (as Doug said)... And I am not talking about his use of the work spirituality either.

Alexander Saxton is author of Religion and the Human Prospect.


Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason is unusual among books issued by mainline publishers in that it begins by rejecting all religious faiths—not just Islam or fundamentalist Christianity but ALL—as contrary to reason and detrimental to the human condition.  Thus far, your reviewer could read with enthusiastic agreement.  But unfortunately, after this strong opener, Harris’ book goes downhill as he develops four themes that become increasingly problematic and end by contradicting his starting assertion. 

After having declared all religions irrational, divisive, and inciters of conflicts that threaten the destruction of civilization, Harris turns to a vitriolic and selective polemic against Islam.  This permeates the entire book.  His notion seems to be that Christianity passed through its bloody, repressive phase during the Middle Ages (as manifested by the Crusades, Inquisition, and similar atrocities), but since then has been gentrified due to the benign influences of science, industrialization, and secularism in the West.  Islam, on the other hand—now at the apex of its repressive phase—becomes vastly more dangerous because of the availability of twenty-first century weapons of mass destruction.

Harris’ examples of irrational religious behavior are mostly Islamic, relating to suicide bombers and 9/11.  Thus his opening chapter, which describes the suicide bombing of an Israeli bus, locates irrationality solely on the Palestinian side, without noting that Israeli policy toward Palestinians may have had something to do with the event. 

When he turns to religious irrationality in the United States, examples are drawn mainly from drug control and anti-abortion politics, which—important though they certainly are—carry less emotional impact than suicide bombings.  The result is to obscure the obvious reality that invasion of Iraq and the War Against Terror are driven by religious irrationalities, cultivated and conceded to, at high policy levels in the US, which are at least comparable to the irrationality of Islamic crusaders and jihadists. 

“Any honest witness to current events,” Harris writes, “will realize that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetuated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments” (146).  This assertion may be difficult to swallow for an “honest witness” old enough to remember Hiroshima/Nagasaki, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, and all the rest; not to mention the “morality” of withholding crucial evidence about weapons of mass destruction prior to the invasion of Iraq. 

Harris offers no criticism of the war in Iraq, and in fact vindicates it as an essential part in a new crusade that reaches far beyond simply the repression of terrorists. 

“We are at war with Islam. . . . We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran . . .” (109).  He goes so far as to justify torture in the interrogation of prisoners —citing Alan Dershowitz of the Harvard Law School—who (it so happens) appears as one of three blurb-ists on the back jacket of the book. 

Interwoven into Harris’ main argument are sarcastic references to Edward Said, denunciations of Ghandian pacifism, and a ferocious 5-page assault on Noam Chomsky.

Abruptly, however, in the next-to-last chapter, the author moves to a more exalted level of consciousness: “At the core of every religion lies an undeniable claim about the human condition: [that] it is possible to have one’s experience of the world radically transformed.”  Conceding that it may be “difficult to find a word” for these transformations, he nonetheless does find such a word—indeed two words: “spirituality” and “mysticism” —which he says can now be used interchangeably (204-5). 

Is this a shortcut back to religion? 

“[T]he truth is that we simply do not know what happens after death . . . . the place of consciousness in the natural world is very much an open question.  The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it” (208). 

So if brains do not produce consciousness, maybe consciousness might be some sort of cosmic force beyond any individual subjectivity?  Where have we heard that before?

By the time he gets to his last chapter, Harris is into a fairly conventional exposition of Tibetan Buddhism and theories and practice of meditation, yet continues to insist that these have nothing to do with religion. 

“The mystic has reasons for what he believes and these reasons are empirical.  The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism)” (221). 

Nowhere in the entire work is there a definition of religion, nor any theory of how religion works in cultural evolution.  In the index, Harris promises a definition of “spirituality,” but the designated pages contain nothing resembling such a definition; and the index entry under “mysticism” says simply, “see spirituality.”

The End of Faith is an intensely-written and at times compelling book.  Its ideological thrust is a projection of Western imperialist visions, although Harris avoids any such claims.  The constituency apparently aimed at—which we can expect to be increasing numerically on both shores of the (North) Atlantic—is that younger, computer-educated, affluent (or aspirant) set, doing well (or hoping to do so) in the information age, who style themselves secular realists, yet remain awash in virtual spiritualities.  Such folk might be expected to feel some uneasiness at collaborating with religious fundamentalists of the Bush-Republican type.  Harris rather subtly invites them to focus their transcendental hopes on the global—and neo-liberal—free market upon which our upcoming World Order (presumably) will be based . . . but only after the cleansing “war with Islam” has been brought to satisfactory conclusion.

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Barry F. Seidman
Exec. Producer of Equal Time for Freethought

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Posted: 05 November 2006 02:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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I have to side with Barry on a lot of these things: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins et al. are certainly doing an excellent job of debunking religion on the rational side, but most religious people I’ve talked to never cite these reasons for being part of their religion - the response I keep hearing over and over is that it’s because their religion offers a community, a place for them to go. Until an atheistic/humanistic organization can supply a place for people to go on Sundays, I think the success we’re going to have with be limited.

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