Preaching To The Choir

As one of the wretched unbelievers that Mitt Romney has now clearly identified as foes of God’s favorite country, I’d like, as a further act of sedition, to share with you an excellent speech that Sam Harris gave to a roomful of atheists back in late September. Harris has a supple mind, and he has been keeping it limber. Among the points he makes in this excellent piece are several that may have ruffled some feathers even among the damned souls in attendance.

We read:

Now, it is not often that I find myself in a room full of people who are more or less guaranteed to agree with me on the subject of religion. In thinking about what I could say to you all tonight, it seemed to me that I have a choice between throwing red meat to the lions of atheism or moving the conversation into areas where we actually might not agree. I’ve decided, at some risk to your mood, to take the second approach and to say a few things that might prove controversial in this context.

First, Harris, realizing that a gathering of the Atheist Alliance may seem to many to be just as much a gathering of the uncritically faithful as a Sunday revival meeting or a Dolphins tailgate party, suggests that it might be better not to make a big deal about being “atheists” at all.

Given the absence of evidence for God, and the stupidity and suffering that still thrives under the mantle of religion, declaring oneself an “atheist” would seem the only appropriate response. And it is the stance that many of us have proudly and publicly adopted. Tonight, I’d like to try to make the case, that our use of this label is a mistake—and a mistake of some consequence.

My concern with the use of the term “atheism” is both philosophical and strategic. I’m speaking from a somewhat unusual and perhaps paradoxical position because, while I am now one of the public voices of atheism, I never thought of myself as an atheist before being inducted to speak as one. I didn’t even use the term in The End of Faith, which remains my most substantial criticism of religion. And, as I argued briefly in Letter to a Christian Nation, I think that “atheist” is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people “non-astrologers.” All we need are words like “reason” and “evidence” and “common sense” and “bullshit” to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion.

If the comparison with astrology seems too facile, consider the problem of racism. Racism was about as intractable a social problem as we have ever had in this country. We are talking about deeply held convictions. I’m sure you have all seen the photos of lynchings in the first half of the 20th century—where seemingly whole towns in the South, thousands of men, women and children—bankers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, church elders, newspaper editors, policemen, even the occasional Senator and Congressman—turned out as though for a carnival to watch some young man or woman be tortured to death and then strung up on a tree or lamppost for all to see.

Seeing the pictures of these people in their Sunday best, having arranged themselves for a postcard photo under a dangling, and lacerated, and often partially cremated person, is one thing, but realize that these genteel people, who were otherwise quite normal, we must presume—though unfailing religious—often took souvenirs of the body home to show their friends—teeth, ears, fingers, knee caps, internal organs—and sometimes displayed them at their places of business.

Of course, I’m not saying that racism is no longer a problem in this country, but anyone who thinks that the problem is as bad as it ever was has simply forgotten, or has never learned, how bad, in fact, it was.

So, we can now ask, how have people of good will and common sense gone about combating racism? There was a civil rights movement, of course. The KKK was gradually battered to the fringes of society. There have been important and, I think, irrevocable changes in the way we talk about race—our major newspapers no longer publish flagrantly racist articles and editorials as they did less than a century ago—but, ask yourself, how many people have had to identify themselves as “non-racists” to participate in this process? Is there a “non-racist alliance” somewhere for me to join?

Perhaps, says Harris, another approach is warranted:

So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

Now, it just so happens that religion has more than its fair share of bad ideas. And it remains the only system of thought, where the process of maintaining bad ideas in perpetual immunity from criticism is considered a sacred act. This is the act of faith. And I remain convinced that religious faith is one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised. So we will, inevitably, continue to criticize religious thinking. But we should not define ourselves and name ourselves in opposition to such thinking.

Harris then makes the point that all religions are not the same, and that defining oneself simply as standing in binary opposition to “religion”, as if it were an undifferentiated monolith, overlooks the fact that some religions are very much more of a problem than others. In fact, argues Harris, by focusing attention on the many contradictory ways in which religions differ from one another — the very incompatibilites that Mitt Romney, his eyes glinting with ambition, has tried to obscure by giving vent to an odorous cloud of murky and soporific vapor — we bring attention to the fact that “these differences make all religions look contingent, and therefore silly.”

But what I was most gratified to see in this post was Harris’s acknowledgement that a rejection of conventional “faith” in no way means that one must abandon an inner exploration, a search for the limits of human possibility:

Is there a form of happiness that is not dependent upon having one’s favorite food always available to be placed on one’s tongue or having all one’s friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or having good books to read, or having something to look forward to on the weekend? Is it possible to be utterly happy before anything happens, before one’s desires get gratified, in spite of life’s inevitable difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?

This question, I think, lies at the periphery of everyone’s consciousness. We are all, in some sense, living our answer to it—and many of us are living as though the answer is “no.” No, there is nothing more profound that repeating one’s pleasures and avoiding one’s pains; there is nothing more profound that seeking satisfaction, both sensory and intellectual. Many of us seem think that all we can do is just keep our foot on the gas until we run out of road.

But certain people, for whatever reason, are led to suspect that there is more to human experience than this. In fact, many of them are led to suspect this by religion—by the claims of people like the Buddha or Jesus or some other celebrated religious figures. And such a person may begin to practice various disciplines of attention—often called “meditation” or “contemplation”—as a means of examining his moment to moment experience closely enough to see if a deeper basis of well-being is there to be found.

I think he is absolutely right about this — it is plain to me that he must have had some personal experience here — and I admire his willingness to defend this view when many of his prominent allies in this movement give the idea of such contemplative discipline, and the possibility of genuine results, short shrift.

Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens are often lumped together as a sort of quadricephalic infidel hydra, and I think this speech suggests that he might be the subtlest thinker of the lot.

Meanwhile, in the far corner, the better theological philosophers (such as Bill Vallicella, or William Lane Craig) continue to score points with the believers by tarring the atheist “Gang of Four” as childishly ignorant of scholarly theological thinking. They point out that when like Harris people glibly compare belief in God to belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or to Russell’s Teapot, they completely miss the glaring difference between such facile concepts and the most sophisticated models of God. (See here and here, for example.) I think they are right about this, and Harris and Dennett, trained philosophers both, should be more thorough. The “ontological” and “cosmological” arguments of natural theology — although I find neither of them compelling, and am prepared to say why — are worth more careful treatment than they have got from these writers so far, and I think it is important not only to push back against the lowest, most unreasoning sorts of religion (although that is certainly where the real peril lies for the world), but also to correct the impression of intellectual shoddiness being leveled by theism’s most sophisticated proponents.

Anyway, this is a fine speech, and you can read it all here.

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