Sam Harris is wrong.

By on September 26, 2012 | Discuss

“This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas.” — Sam Harris

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece critiquing the tendency of the atheist community to analyze the nature and impact of religion through the exceptionally narrow lense of truth claims and discreet ideas. I summarized my position at one point by arguing that ideas, in and of themselves, have far less agency than atheists usually assume they do. Just as important as the contents of a certain idea is the social, economic and political context which gives rise to it. Atheists tend to ignore these, instead preferring to compose arguments which presume the dominance of ideas, and consequently often end up producing analyses of situations that they have less than stellar understandings of.

And then last week, along came Sam Harris, with this gem of an example of just what I was trying to argue against. Energized by the recent attacks and murders at US Embassies, Harris composed a stirring call for moral clarity – of the sort that comes only in shades of black and white.

Before I get going with what is wrong with Harris’s rhetoric and assumptions, let me state unequivocally that I agree with him completely on the issue of free speech – all nations which claim to value freedom of speech should not engage in any kind of censorship to appease anyone, be they Islamic radicalists or outraged conservative evangelicals or overly sensitive identity-politics laden liberals. Insofar as the liberals Harris criticizes really were recommending restriction of freedom of speech (enforced either through the government or social pressure), to address the problem of radical Islamic terrorism and, more broadly, Muslim alienation, they are wrong. First, it is unethical. Second, it would not work anyway. So let’s make it clear that we agree on that and move on from there.

However, I take serious issue with almost everything else about Harris’s approach to this question.

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Is Religion Best Understood as a Theory About Reality?

By on August 23, 2012 | Discuss

Richard Dawkins, easily the most well-known leader of the atheist movement, loves to define religion as a scientific theory. Religion makes claims about how the world actually works, Dawkins argues, and is therefore making scientific claims that can be scrutinized in the light of reason and available evidence.

By and large, this is the definition of religion that the atheist community likes to work with.  And undoubtedly, Dawkins is correct that religion is a theory about reality.

But it is a mistake to assume that this is all religion is. Now, nearly no one in the atheist community makes this argument explicitly – the vast majority of us acknowledge that religion is a lot of other things as well, such as an identity, a political tool, an aesthetic choice and a cultural critique. Nonetheless, there is a disjuncture between what we claim to understand about religion and the way in which we tend to talk about religion. For if most of us understand that religion is not merely a theory about reality, in our own writings and preoccupations we usually ignore all the other things it is.

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Huff and puff — the surprisingly ineffective Religious Right.

By on August 16, 2012 | Discuss

I recently rewatched the last two installments of PBS’s excellent documentary, God in America, which I’ve seen before. These final episodes deal with the rise of the Religious Right, from its origins as a Cold War creature and reaction against the secular excesses of the 1960s all the way through the Bush administration.

The final portion of God in America seems to make the argument that the political clout of the Religious Right hit an apex with the election of Ronald Reagan, and while evangelicals have remained an important part of right wing politics ever since, they have never really regained the optimism they once had that if only they could get someone in the White House to represent the “Moral Majority,” the legislation that they all craved would finally become a reality.

Renewed hope blossomed shortly with the election of George W. Bush, a sincere evangelical who, unlike Reagan (a believer but hardly a devout evangelical himself), was one of them. However, as his term unfolded it became clear that whether or not he had a personal relationship with Christ, President Bush was not going to put his political neck on the line to seriously prioritize the evangelical agenda. Not that this kept him from starting two wars on the assumption that God put him in the White House to make sure a clear-headed decider was around when the devil struck the USA.

But the remarkable thing about most of the commentary in the last two episodes is how disappointed most of the commenting evangelicals sound. We’ve sold our soul to the Republican Party, they more or less assert, and look what we’ve got for it? Prayer in school is still illegal, abortion on the other hand is not, and in several states, homosexuals are allowed to get married and have children. Certainly on the gay rights front, the grip of evangelicals on the culture and on our politics has done nothing but degrade in the past two decades.

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I am a bundle of (adorable, anxious, Monty Python-loving) neurons.

By on June 22, 2012 | Discuss

There’s a fun little story up at The Times on the imperfections of perception and memory, due to our brains being, alas, less than mere receivers of reality.

It looks at phenomena that most readers are probably familiar with – the power of misdirection, the unreliability of our senses. However I never get tired of reading about these aspects of neuroscience — it seems fundamentally important to me that one always remember that not only are you your brain, but your brain is quite the trickster.

A lot of people know and understand this but do not necessarily apply it in everyday life. For example, how many times have you gotten into a huge argument with a friend about the particulars of certain events that took place maybe days, maybe years ago? Most of us insist our memory of the events are correct. But this is usually a mistaken confidence. More of us should probably, much of the time, really question how our accurately our brain has recorded these occurrences, notorious as it is for rearranging details to fit the narratives we like to tell ourselves.

I personally enjoy questioning my memories — especially my childhood ones — and wondering what was real, and what as been created in post-production. I suppose for some people meditating on this can make them uneasy — knowing that our memories and senses are not entirely reliable can disturb one’s sense of control and understanding. However, I like to look at my cognitive mistakes as another chance to get to know myself — what is my mischievous brain up to now, and what can I learn about my thoroughly human condition from its shenanigans and mistakes? Once you let go of the idea that “you” are completely in control, living with the fact that you are your brain and, moreover, you’re not always in the driver’s seat, instills not so much terror as intense curiosity. We’re all along for the ride, and we’re all unique, so go ahead and get to know your brain — which is to say, go ahead and get to know yourself.

Atheists and Spirituality: the problem of personality.

By on June 3, 2012 | Discuss

Simon Critchley, a professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, recently had an interesting series published at the Times on the at-least-partially-insanity-driven philosophies of Philip K. Dick, the famous science fiction author who wrote many acclaimed novels (which turned into many acclaimed movies) and went a little wacko towards the end of his life.

Now, the general storyline here of Dick himself is not too important, largely because it is familiar – assisted with the use of some drugs (probably a combination of the drugs he was on at the time and had been experimenting with for a while) and probably not a little bit of mental health issues, Dick had a revelatory experience one day which led to years of occasional discussions with the bright unifying light of God/everything and an extensive journal in which he recorded all of the revelations he experienced about the nature of the universe.

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