Monday, June 30, 2008

Sam Harris, The End of Faith, and An Absence of Reason - Part 1

The End of Faith by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens are a trio of books written over a four year period (2004-2007) that seek to argue against, among other things, the existence of God, as well as to raise questions concerning the viability or even constructive relevancy of spiritual faith in today’s world – or, in the collective opinion of the three authors, any world at all. Although each of the aforementioned books goes about addressing such challenges in their own inimitable style , there also is a great deal of overlap among the three books with respect to the kinds of philosophical orientation, arguments, and criticisms that are given expression in the three books.

For example, all three of the aforementioned individuals do not believe in the existence of God. Indeed, their respective books are all variations on one, underlying theme – namely, attempting to demonstrate, at least to their own satisfaction and to the satisfaction of those who agree with them on such matters, that anyone who believes in the idea of a Divine Being is guilty of having abandoned reason.

The End of Faith was the first of the foregoing three books to be published. Moreover, both Professor Dawkins and Mr. Hitchens cite Sam Harris as being something of a kindred spirit -- if one may be permitted to use such a term in the current context – in relation to the, broadly speaking, religious issues with which each of these authors are concerned.

Although I have read all three books and, although there are specific themes within the books written by both Professor Dawkins and Mr. Hitchens which I may address at some later point in time, presently, I have decided to narrow my focus on the aforementioned book by Sam Harris. Despite limiting my critical attention in this manner, I believe that much of the discussion which follows carries many problematic implications for the works of both Mr. Hitchens and Professor Dawkins.

Before proceeding with my commentary concerning the book by Sam Harris, there are a couple of points which might be made in passing with respect to the other two works mentioned earlier. First, the title for Christopher Hitchens’ book – that is, god is not Great – is, in my opinion, something of a misnomer.

After having read his book I am quite willing to concede there are a number of points which he makes in his book with which I find myself in agreement. Nevertheless, despite my willingness to make such an admission, Mr. Hitchens’ real disagreement is not with God, per se, since, after all, Mr. Hitchens does not believe in God’s existence, but, rather, Mr. Hitchens’ beef is with people who have corrupted their souls through their self-serving and mistaken ideas about Divinity and, in the process, have become very destructive forces in the world. Consequently, a more appropriate title for Mr. Hitchens’ book might have been: People are not Great – something which, in all too many cases, many of us might sadly acknowledge to be a true statement.

Secondly, the title for Professor Dawkins’ book – that is, The God Delusion -- is a very catchy one whose possible meanings run in a number of directions. Of course, Professor Dawkins’ primary meaning in relation to the book’s title is that people who believe in God are delusional.

As is the case with the book by Christopher Hitchens, I find that Professor Dawkins has a great many valid points to make during the course of the latter’s book. Once again, however, as is true with respect to the book by Mr. Hitchens, Professor Dawkins wants to claim that anyone who believes in the existence of God is delusional, when, at most, all that his book shows is that, yes, unfortunately, it is true that some individuals do have delusional ideas when it comes to the issue of God. In fact, I strongly suspect that there are quite a few people who believe in God’s existence who would tacitly agree with Professor Dawkins on this issue even if they might never admit as much openly.

The foregoing considerations notwithstanding, there is at least one central flaw in the structural character of the argument being put forth by Professor Dawkins, and this problem is also present in the other two books as well. More specifically, the structural form of one of the main arguments being advanced in Professor Dawkins’ book is akin to the structural character of the following sort of scenario. One visits a mental hospital, takes notes on the delusional character which various inmates who reside in the asylum exhibit in relation to the idea of Divinity – including, perhaps, some of the attending physicians and psychologists -- and, then, one proceeds to write a book claiming that not only do the people residing in the mental hospital harbor many delusions concerning the existence of God, but, as well, all human beings who live beyond the walls of the asylum are also delusional with respect to their beliefs concerning God. The latter conclusion does not necessarily follow from the data which actually was gathered at the mental hospital.

However, even if such a conclusion contained some element of truth, one may have to treat this sort of conclusion with a degree of caution. After all, such a conclusion may carry some rather troubling implications with respect to the possible delusional status of the person conducting the research given that the individual in question is seeking to claim that the data collected in the mental hospital is applicable to everyone both within as well as outside of the asylum.

Similarly, Professor Dawkins makes an unwarranted inferential jump when he seeks to make the transition from, on the one hand, issuing a claim with which many people – both believers and non-believers – might agree – namely, that some individuals who believe in the existence of God, are quite delusional with respect to nature of such beliefs – to, on the other hand, concluding that ‘therefore, everyone who believes in the existence of God is necessarily delusional’. Furthermore, Professor Dawkins seems to fail to appreciate the ironic potential inherent in his book’s title with respect to the possible delusional character of his own ideas about God’s existence which are given expression through his book.


In the opening pages of his book: The End of Faith, Sam Harris states in the first chapter – entitled ‘Reason in Exile’ – that:

“Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior.”

Like many other facets of Mr. Harris’ book, the perspective being given expression in the foregoing quote is overly simplistic in a self-serving way. The term “self-serving” is used because one of the central purposes of Mr. Harris’ book is to put forth a series of arguments which purportedly show (although this is implied rather than directly stated) that, apparently, only people like Mr. Harris – individuals who have allegedly immunized themselves from the virulent plague of faith -- know and understand how to correctly reason their way through life in a manner which is entirely untainted by faith-based irrationality, and, apparently, only people like Mr. Harris are capable of developing systems of thought that will properly resolve – as much as this may be possible -- the problems faced by humankind.

Unfortunately, Mr. Harris sets about constructing arguments which he believes prove the veracity of his position by restricting the idea of ‘reason’ to reflect only what he believes the nature of reason to be. And it is instructive in this regard that nowhere in his book does Mr. Harris ever demonstrate that what he believes reason to be or how he uses his beliefs concerning reason in circular, self-serving ways gives expression to an objective, unbiased, rigorously empirical, non-arbitrary, and indisputably defensible way of doing things … except among those who think and believe as he does.

Returning to the foregoing quote – namely, “Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior” -- this statement cannot withstand close examination even though there is a degree of truth contained in what is said. More specifically, it is not beliefs, per se, which necessarily either define one’s vision of the world nor, strictly speaking, do beliefs always dictate behavior.

For instance, what defines one’s vision of the world is a function of not only one’s ideas about how beliefs play off against one another in specific circumstances, but, as well, one’s vision is a function of the interaction of such things as: uncertainty, anxiety, fear, hope, one’s sense of identity, motivation, interests, conditioning, temperament, personal history, likes, dislikes, and so on – none of which are necessarily beliefs per se but, rather, are forces which shape and influence what and how we believe. We may develop beliefs about all these forces, but these forces that are in play are not necessarily coextensive with the beliefs one might have with respect to them … as we often discover when such forces stubbornly refuse to act in compliance with our beliefs such as when we believe, for example, that dieting, exercise, or not smoking are good for us and, then, come face to face with forces which exist, to some extent, beyond the horizons of our beliefs. Even when an individual is successful in such endeavors, the will power or commitment that helps lead to success in such cases is not a belief, per se, but some other kind of force that factors in to how one lives his or her life. In short, for many different reasons, we do not always act in accordance with our beliefs.

In addition, Harris tends to give the impression that everyone is clear about what he or she does and does not believe. This is not always the case.

Instead many people spend much of their lives trying to figure out exactly what they do believe about any given issue. Indeed, individuals may fluctuate among a variety of possibilities concerning such matters at different junctures in their lives as they evaluate life experiences, or individuals may do things without any clear sense of what beliefs are operative within such actions but, instead, are pulled here and there by appetites, emotions, desires, needs, and the like without giving a great deal of thought to what beliefs should govern such processes.

Moreover, even after arriving at such an understanding of the dynamics of one’s own belief system, one may, or may not, act on that belief – indeed, many of us do not act on things which we believe because, for instance, we may lack the courage to act on those beliefs, or we may lack the personal character to give expression to what we believe, or we may fear the consequences which acting on one’s beliefs might have upon one’s family, or we may be in conflict with respect to which of several alternative belief possibilities should be put in motion, or we may come to the conclusion that one should be patient about a given matter rather than act on a specific belief even though part of us may be inclined to act on such a belief rather than wait.

Of course, someone like Mr. Harris might try to argue that if a person operates in accordance with patience, this is because that individual believes in the importance and value of patience. However, deciding when to be patient or where to be patient or how to be patient is not necessarily a function of a determinate set of beliefs as it may be an expression of how subtle existential, experiential currents play off against one another within phenomenology … a dynamic in which beliefs may only constitute one of the many interacting currents. How one comes to be committed to the quality of patience may have more to do with the development of a wisdom or a principle that does not necessarily consist of a collection of beliefs but, rather, a feeling for life.

We may do what we do because it feels like the right or appropriate thing to do, If someone were to ask us which belief makes us feel this way, there may not be any belief at the heart of such a feeling. One’s understanding of things may not be the result of belief – although this could be the case – but, instead, one’s understanding is how one is hermeneutically linked with existence, and one may not be able to reduce any of this hermeneutical, existential phenomenology down to beliefs, reasoned or otherwise. Wisdom, insight, and understanding are not necessarily reducible to beliefs or reason.

Shortly after the foregoing excerpt from Mr. Harris’s book, one finds:

“A glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper, reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion.” [page 12]

Once again, over-simplification rules the day as Mr. Harris unpacks his beliefs and ideas about the way things are alleged to be. Perhaps, if one only glances at history or the pages of a newspaper, then, one may come away with a superficial impression that religion is the root of all evil. However, if one actually takes the time to investigate the problems that divide human beings or unite them in slaughter of one another then one may not be able to point to religion, per se, but, rather, one comes to glimpse something of the forces such as ignorance, greed, selfishness, fear, a sense of inferiority or a sense of superiority, a desire for control, patriotism, as well as anger, hatred and contempt for the alien ‘other’, which are the real culprits underlying divisions and slaughter.

The spin masters and propagandists who orchestrate the divisions and slaughter for their own sense of personal aggrandizement, control, power, and pilfering of resources may seek to manipulate a people through selective, distorted, or invented theological interpretations of spirituality in order to induce citizens to serve, extend, and defend the vested interests of the leaders in the name of religion. However, behind most human divisions and slaughter, one does not tend to discover any sincere form of spiritual intent but, instead, a cacophony of all too human desires and weaknesses which have little, or nothing, to do with any sense of true spirituality.

In fact, many aspects of Mr. Harris’s manner of arguing in his book, The End of Faith, are disturbingly reminiscent of the same kind of demagoguery which is used by political and military leaders who seek to whip up destructive emotions, division, and enmity among a people so that such negativity may be channeled and shaped to be directed against the object of dislike and revulsion which people like Mr. Harris seek to convince those of ‘genteel civility’ to rise up against and smite down – socially, politically, legally, emotionally, and, if necessary, physically.

Mr. Harris claims on page 13 that:

“Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility.”

To begin with -- and leaving aside, for the moment, the issue of whether the Creator only sent one book of guidance rather than many such books – one needs to draw a distinction between what, on the one hand, actually may have been sent in the way of spiritual guidance and how, on the other hand, people may have interpreted what had been sent. If person A tells something to person B and, then, B passes along to person C person B’s beliefs about what person A allegedly said, and it turns out that either person C misunderstood what person B said or person B misunderstood what person A said, then, why blame person A for the fiasco which transpires due to the mistakes of either person B and/or person C?

Yet, in effect, Mr. Harris may be arguing in a manner which is very similar to the foregoing. Rather than try to ascertain what may have been meant by, or the intention of, this or that book of Divine revelation, Mr. Harris wants to start his critique with people’s interpretation of that message or intent, and, he never seems to consider the possibility that he is dealing with – and, in a sense, has become like -- individuals who, such as person B above, busies himself or herself with propagating a message to others that totally distorts what was originally said, meant, or intended.

Mr. Harris goes on to say:

“Each of these texts urges its readers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices, some of which are benign, many of which are not. All are in perverse agreement on one point of fundamental importance, however: “respect” for other faiths or for the views of unbelievers, is not an attitude that God endorses. While all faiths have been touched, here and there, by the spirit of ecumenicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed.”

Although Mr. Harris is directing the foregoing comments at different religious traditions, he might want to reflect on various portions of his own book and consider the message of intolerance which it appears to carry with respect to everything religious with which he disagrees. He seems to have little, or no, “respect” for the views of a multiplicity of believers from different spiritual traditions because he seems to show little evidence of truly trying to come to understand that, for example, not all Christians, Jews, or Muslims endorse the idea of intolerance toward those who believe differently from them. Apparently, Harris is too preoccupied with trying to lump together everything religious in one putrid pile as he seeks to point out how such spiritual traditions are – to borrow his own phrase – “repositories of error”. In short, Harris really doesn’t appear to be doing anything very much different than what he is accusing various proponents of different religious faiths of doing – namely, being intolerant, disrespectful, and hurling epithets at anyone who is ‘other’ or who resides beyond his horizons of belief and practice.

One can agree with Mr. Harris that there is far too much intolerance that is propagated through the invented theologies of self-appointed religious leaders of various religious traditions. However, stipulating to such a point does not automatically force one to accept the idea that God endorses and approves the idea of intolerance.

This leads to a crucial, pivotal set of questions at the heart of each and every spiritual tradition – whether theistic or non-theistic in nature. Some of these questions are: Why and how have we come to be? What is our potential? How might we go about fulfilling that potential? Who are we in essence? How should we treat others and interact with the rest of Being? What are the viable relationships among information, understanding, wisdom, and truth? What degrees of freedom do we have with respect to such matters?

The way in which I seek to answer the foregoing questions is entirely independent of how other people might be inclined to address such issues and vice versa. I can consider what the latter have to say, or I can reject it, but nothing necessitates that I have to be intolerant toward them or disrespect them in order for me to pursue the central issues of being human.

To have freedom of choice means that I have the capacity to accept, reject, reflect upon, modify, critique, explore, test, and question what others say or do. However, I can do all of these things without having to be intolerant of, or disrespectful toward, the ones whose ideas and actions I am considering … in fact, harboring intolerance of, and disrespect for, the views and lifestyle of others often proves to be counterproductive because such attitudes not only tend to skew and bias the process of seeking to find solutions to the questions which form the heart of Being, but, as well, such attitudes take away precious time, energy and resources from what should be the focus of my existential inquiries.

God has not instructed me that being intolerant and disrespectful is the raison d’etre of my existence. I do not believe that any authentic spiritual tradition teaches intolerance or disrespect as being central, or even peripheral, to the purpose and nature of Being.

Does this mean that I cannot or should not enter into exploratory discussions with others about such matters in the hopes of generating better approximations of truth and/or justice? No, none of the foregoing comments is meant to suggest that I should disengage from such interactive ventures, but there is an etiquette to such exchanges, and in this regard, hostile arguments, diatribes, vitriolic debates, propaganda, undue influence, and/or ego-driven debates are not part of the etiquette.

I learned the aforementioned principles of tolerance and respect through my spiritual guide. Such principles were not only reflected in what he said but, more importantly, they were given expression through what he did, especially during an abundance of very difficult and stressful circumstances.

My spiritual guide was a Sufi master or shaykh operating out of the Islamic spiritual tradition. However, there are others whom I have met and/or whose works I have read who operate out of other spiritual traditions – traditions that may carry different names -- but who, in essence, teach and give practical expression to the same kind of spiritual etiquette as did my teacher.

These mentors of the soul explore and apply the qualities of: love, patience, forgiveness, integrity, nobility, humility, tolerance, gratitude, compassion, empathy, equanimity, kindness, charity, friendship, sincerity, courage, equitability, self-sacrifice, magnanimity, diligence, and honesty. Intolerance and disrespect are an anathema to all of the foregoing principles, taken individually or collectively.

Consequently, on the one hand, I understand Mr. Harris’ frustration and concerns in relation to issues involving the promulgations and actions of the theologians or proponents of religious intolerance and disrespect. My spiritual guide experienced many of these same frustrations and concerns both from within the Muslim community, as well as from outside the Muslim community, and, as a result, he sought to counsel interested parties such as myself about the problems that tend to arise out of that kind of destructive atmosphere.

On the other hand, because I have experienced, first hand, the fact that there are those who are committed to spiritual traditions who do not at all fit within the scope of Mr. Harris’ criticism, I am inclined to believe that Mr. Harris often uses the wrong kind of instrument in his book to get at what he believes to be problematic. More specifically, he frequently uses the verbal equivalent of a dull chainsaw when a sharpened scalpel might be more appropriate.

On page 14 of The End of Faith, Mr. Harris states:

“We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation, or any of the other fantastical notions that have lurked in the minds of the faithful for millennia – because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that these developments mark the terminal phase of our credulity. Words like “God” and “Allah” must go the way of “Apollo” and “Baal” or they will unmake our world. “

One would like to know what the empirical basis is for the idea that billions of our neighbors who believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom are now armed with “chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.”

One also wonders about which “billions of our neighbors” Mr. Harris has in mind or what proof he has that they believe in the “metaphysics of martyrdom”, and the literal truth of a book of Revelation, or other “fantastical notions”? To begin with, Mr. Harris seems to share the same misunderstanding about the metaphysics of martyrdom as do some of the people he seeks to criticize because martyrdom has never been about killing others but, instead, martyrdom always has been about the willingness to sacrifice one’s own life in the service of truth and justice for everyone, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.

What fantastical notions does Mr. Harris have in mind and what is his proof that they are fantastical? How many of these billions of people has Harris interviewed, and since Mr. Harris doesn’t read Arabic, then, what exactly does he mean by the “literal truth” of Revelation? In fact, what would anyone mean by such a statement because for every book of revelation there may a variety of possible deep understandings which are entailed by, or inherent in, or expressed through, the surface structure of the ‘revealed word’.

Or, let’s approach Mr. Harris’ previous statement from another direction. Britain, France, Israel, India, China, North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, and the United States all possess nuclear weapons. The United States is the only country, so far, which has unleashed nuclear terror on the world.

The anthrax which was released in the United States in the Fall of 2001 was made in a U.S. military lab. Unlike the weapons of mass destruction which were alleged by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice to be in Iraq but were never found, weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, biological, and chemical – do exist in the United States, and in the case of anthrax has been used against its own people by a person or persons unknown.

Alternatively, there is much speculation but very little hard evidence which is capable of demonstrating that Iran is well on its way to establishing a nuclear program. At best, the current situation is ambiguous because the nuclear fuels that are being refined and the centrifuges which are being built are capable of being used for peaceful purposes, but, under the appropriate circumstances, could become part of a weapons program. I have no idea what the intentions of the leaders of Iran may be in this respect, and I would not be in favor of Iran developing nuclear weapons if that were the intentions of Iran’s leaders.

On the other hand, the United States sponsored, subsidized and conducted a coup d'etat of a democratically elected government with respect to Iran back in 1953, and, then, helped to keep their chosen Peacock in power while he ran a brutal dictatorship with the help of a rigorously cruel and oppressive secret police which the United States helped to train. In addition, the United States not only encouraged Sadaam Hussein to attack Iran and gave military support to Iraq through much of the 1980s to continue these assaults, but, as well, the United States supplied Iraq with both biological and chemical weapons, and, then, knowingly looked the other way when these weapons were turned against both Iranians and Iraqis.

So, if the Iranians are seeking to develop nuclear weapons – something which if true is, I believe, a mistake – one should not forget the role that America has played in helping to create an atmosphere of fear in which people who have been historically traumatized by the United States and its surrogates on a number of occasions may be tempted to take foolhardy and ill-advised steps because of their fears – real and imagined -- concerning what they believe, based on past events, the United States or its surrogates may try to do Iran in the future. Already American corporations, politicians, and news media that have vested interests to promote and protect have been rattling sabers with respect to attacking Iran on the mere suspicion that the latter country may be seeking ways to defend itself against, among others, the United States -- a country which has proven its considerable hostility toward the sovereignty of Iran long before the hostage crisis during Jimmy Carter’s administration ever took place.

Does any of the American-orchestrated provocations against Iran justify the possible -- but, as yet, unproven -- development of nuclear weapons or any other form of terror with which Iran may, or may not, be involved? The answer is no, but let us not be naïve and ignore the role which the United States government and military has had in terrorizing people in many parts of the world, including the Middle East, and by doing so has played a considerable part to help create a situation that is fraught with danger for everybody on Earth.

If the current Iranian leadership is intent on developing nuclear weapons, then, yes, this would bring additional stress and toxicity to an already problematic world. If this were to occur, then, many people in the world would have further reason to fear the destructive possibilities already inherent in a very problematic situation.

If Iran should be induced to stop doing whatever it may be doing, then perhaps the United States should be induced to stop doing whatever it is doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world to help instill fear in various countries. Unfortunately, it is a whole lot easier to bully a small country than to try to civilize a powerful country which suffers from bouts of megalomania which is quite capable of turning on anyone that gets in the way of its delusions concerning its assumed role in the scheme of things.

It is the United States, not the Muslim world, which has more than 700 military bases in approximately 130 countries throughout the world, including a growing number of such bases in Iraq in order to maintain its empire whether the people in the countries where those bases are located like it or not. It is the United States, not the Muslim world, which spends trillions of dollars on manufacturing weapons of war, both exotic and conventional. It is the United States, not the Muslim world, which has thousands of nuclear weapons in its arsenals and already has used several of these against another country. It is the United States, not the Muslim world, which is the biggest profiteer in the world in the sale of military weapons. It is the United States, not the Muslim world, which has given Israel billions of dollars in aid even as Israel has continued to act in violation of international law and numerous United Nations resolutions for more than 40 years through its occupation of Palestine, its annexation of territory through military means, its building of illegal settlements in occupied territories, and its building of a wall of partition through Palestine and the occupied territories. It is the United States, not the Muslim world, which, in the modern era, has sought to overthrow countries such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Chile – killing, maiming, and displacing millions of people in the process.

Iran may, or may not, be a source of some anxiety and fear concerning its future capacity to destabilize the world. However, the United States is already, in the here and now, a source of considerable anxiety as well as fear concerning its on-going role in destabilizing, invading, corrupting, and destroying peoples who oppose its wishes or those of its corporate sponsors.

Perhaps, contrary to what Sam Harris argues, it is not words such as “God” or “Allah” which need to go the way of “Apollo” and “Baal”, but, rather, it is words such as “democracy” and “capitalism” that need to be rehabilitated, especially when these ideas are imposed on people in a corrupted form with little, or no, thought be given to the destruction which the deviant, irresponsible forms of these ideas may bring to the peoples who supposedly are to be “liberated” through them. Understood and applied judiciously and with wisdom, democracy and capitalism have the potential to be great forces of constructive good, but when they are wielded about by those who are intoxicated with their own sense of acquisitiveness and power, these forces also have the capacity to lay waste to freedoms, rights, constitutions, communities, the Earth, and the human soul … and we see the evidence of this everywhere in the world.

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