In the 2000s, in the aftermath of 9/11, several well-known intellectuals wrote books examining the bases and legitimacy of religion in general. Four of them—Sam Harris (the book discussed here), Daniel Dennett (BREAKING THE SPELL in Feb. 2006), Richard Dawkins (THE GOD DELUSION in Oct. 2006), and Christopher Hitchens (GOD IS NOT GREAT in May 2007)—became known as the “four horsemen” of the “new atheist” movement, though their books were all quite different from one another. Harris was not previously well-known; he was pursuing a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience at UCLA when he was motivated to write his book, specifically concerned with Islam, following 9/11.
There were numerous other books on similar topics, by Carl Sagan, John Allen Paulos, A.C. Grayling, and others. But these four were the best known.
I read these books as they appeared with great interest and fascination. Their arguments were not necessarily new—philosophers and scientists had been debunking the various arguments for the existence of god (whichever god the claimant might imagine) for centuries, and the violent and intolerant history of most religions has long been well known. The authors’ sometimes calm and sometimes pointed dismantling of supernatural religious claims seemed to me merely obvious, the kind of thing smart people realize on their own, even if they know better than to assume others think the same way.
But the appearance of these books made public discussion of the pros and cons of religion respectable in a way it hadn’t been; no longer a subject to be avoided in polite conversation for fear of offending the credulous. Critics didn’t answer their arguments so much as dismiss their presumption to make them, on the grounds they were insufficiently schooled in theology, or religious history, or whatever. The response to that line was PZ Myers’ famous “courtier’s reply” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courtier%27s_reply), in which insufficient knowledge of high couture is used to dismiss critics of the emperor’s new clothes.
So here’s a summary, first overall then in detail, of the first of these: Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.
Super Brief summary:
Harris was the first of the “four horsemen,” public intellectuals who published controversial books about religion in the years following 9/11. He discusses the irrationality of faith and of rival faiths, with particular concern about the dangers of fundamentalist Muslims whose belief system would exterminate unbelievers. Also, the pernicious influence of Christians on American politics, issues of morality that can be addressed through reason, and the spiritual aspects of human existence that should be rescued from the irrationality of faith.
- Ch1, Harris explores the incompatibility of rival faiths, and of reason and faith, while hinting that nevertheless there is a “sacred dimension” to existence that must be respected. Moderation in religion is fiction when fundamentalists consider moderates as bad as unbelievers. The incompatible claims of religions deserve no respect. Religious beliefs, immune to evidence, will one day be looked back on as impossible quaint and suicidally stupid.
- Ch2, Beliefs should correspond with the world, and be logically coherent; belief in God equates to no factual knowledge about the world, Saying it makes you feel good isn’t a reason. Faith is credulity that abandons constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor. Faith isn’t required for a doctor or engineer. Faith leads billions to believe what no sane person would believe on his own. The most monstrous crimes against humanity have been inspired by unjustified belief.
- Ch3, About the sordid history of Christianity: the Inquisition, putting heretics to death, obsessed with demonstrating how Jesus fulfilled prophecy, the imagined rituals of the Jews, the complicity with the Holocaust.
- Ch4, about Islam, which has more than its share of bad beliefs: its support of suicide bombers, its belief that martyrs are rewarded in paradise, the Koran’s endless passages that vilify unbelievers. Claims of moral equivalency for the sins of the US ignore intentions. Dealing with Islam is like thinking how to live with Christians of the 14th century. Islam must transform itself, from within, or a world government may be needed to confine it.
- Ch5, Politicians in the US regularly pander to the religious; some actually apply Biblical morality. Legal policies derive from the Christian idea of sin, never mind many such crimes are victimless, never mind that other activities actually are harmful. Thus drug laws, stem cell research, the option of abortion. We need better ways of answering questions about right and wrong.
- Ch6, The issue of good vs. evil can be cast as a question about happiness and the suffering of sentient creatures. What the ancients thought is irrelevant. “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Moral relativism is self-contradictory. Pragmatism offers no solution. Realism is better. Intuition can be useful, but its guesses can be tested. Reason can link morality and happiness.
- Ch7, Author discusses ‘mysticism’ or spirituality as something to rescue from religion, which would hold “bad concepts in place of good ones for all time” in denial of “the vastitude of human ignorance” (that can be steadily overcome); thus we need the end of faith.
- And in the epilogue, he pleads for an end to a “certain style of irrationality” the better to appreciate the true mystery of the universe and our place in it.
The book isn’t just a renunciation of the idea of faith, but the author’s attempt to save what he considers spiritual experiences from the shackles of irrational faith. Some of these themes — morality, lying, spiritualism — emerge more fully in his later books. I’m not completely in synch with his appeal to “spirituality” or his occasional leaving the door open to “psychic phenomena” (which I think have pretty much been shown not to exist), but the bulk of the book is very solid. To get a flavor of his writing, glance down the page and read the passages I’ve block-quoted.
Ch 1, Reason in Exile
A young man boards a bus and detonates a bomb, killing himself and twenty others. When told, his parents are sad but proud; he has gone to heaven. What can we infer about such a person? Not much—except that it’s trivially easy to guess his religion.
Beliefs are mere words—until you believe them. Many of our cherished beliefs are leading us to kill one another. Most people in the world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. But there are many such books on hand, and so people align themselves along these factions. They seem to share a lack of ‘respect’ for unbelievers. Page 13:
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. People tend to organize themselves into factions according to which of these incompatible claims they accept—rather than on the basis of language, skin color, location of birth, or any other criterion of tribalism. 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…
Unfortunately criticism of a person’s faith is taboo, everyone seems to agree. Thus when Muslim suicide bombers strike, his motives are assumed to be political or economic—not simply motivated by his faith. Modern technology makes the faithful ever more dangerous; it is thus imperative to send such ideas to the graveyard of bad ideas, as alchemy has gone before it.
Of course there are ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’, but the latter are as much of the problem, for they support that respect for the unjustified beliefs of others. Two myths: that religion provides good things that nothing else does; that the terrible things done in the name of religion are due to base motivations other than the faith itself. In any case, faiths routinely criticize the errors of other faiths. The so-called truce between reason and faith is another delusion. And yet—there is a sacred dimension to existence; it just requires no faith in untestable propositions to pursue.
The Myth of ‘Moderation’ in Religion
Despite the implausibility of the idea that any one religion represents the sole truth, most people say they believe various literal notions—that the bible is inerrant; that god directed creation; etc. Presumably ‘moderates’ have decided to ignore, or loosely interpret, their canonical books in order to live in the modern world. Thus they don’t kill their children for converting to another religion, as Deuteronomy instructs (p18). Moderation has been forced by advances in human thought from elsewhere—democracy, human rights, etc. Even fundamentalists require evidence for mundane claims (p19). Most people know more than anyone did 2000 years ago; we don’t equate disease with demons, etc.
But to fundamentalists, moderates are as bad as unbelievers; and moderates do not permit criticism of even fundamentalist belief. Moderates implicitly endorse belief systems passed down from people who knew nothing about the world. A well-educated 14th century Christian would be an ignoramus by today’s standards—but he’d know everything there is to know about god.
Nor does religion progress, incorporating new knowledge. Whatever is true now should be discoverable now… p22
The Shadow of the Past
Religions preach the truth of propositions for which there is no evidence. Should all knowledge disappear overnight, we would need to relearn many things, but knowing Jesus was born of a virgin wouldn’t be at all useful. How would that even be re-learned –except by reading a book? But there are many books; why not believe similar facts about Thor or Isis?
Hasn’t religion enabled communities to cohere? Yes, but it’s also responsible for wars of conquest. There are plenty of past things we hope never to return to: slavery, cannibalism, etc. (p25). Religion is a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.
The Burden of Paradise
The world is full of people killing others for the sake of their religion (list p26). India and Pakistan verge on nuclear war; are their beliefs to be ‘respected’? Islam represents a particular danger at this point in history. Why do Muslim terrorists act? They are not poor or uneducated. And the answer is that such men really believe what they say—the literal truth of the Koran. An explanation reluctantly accepted.
They are extreme in their faith, and thus belief that western culture would lead their families away from god. They fear contamination; they’re consumed by feelings of ‘humiliation’ over seeing a godless people become masters of the world. This isn’t ordinary hate. Bin Laden is most upset by the presence of unbelievers in the Muslim holy land… And most terrorists are explicit about their desire to get to paradise.
Some argue that it isn’t faith itself that inspires such violence, that e.g. Islam is a ‘religion of peace’—but the Koran itself says this isn’t true. Muslims view cultures of partial revelation, Jews and Christians, as inferior in every respect. The Koran makes martyrdom sound like a career opportunity; to be preferred over staying at home. The appropriate response isn’t to quibble about the line in the Koran that forbids suicide… but to challenge the entire presumption that such books are the literal word of God. (How do we know they are? Because the books themselves say so!) Imagine a world in which people believed that certain films were made by God, or software..?
Death: The Fount of Illusions
We live in a world in which everything is eventually destroyed. We each contain a virus that will eventually, tomorrow or in decades, kill us. We worry about ourselves, and our loved ones. We can disappear into the world or within ourselves. We’ll all die eventually. So of course the idea that you won’t die is an attractive one—and carries one to a faith-based religion. Religious moderation leads to a world in which a person who doubts the existence of heaven and hell could never be elected president.
The World beyond Reason
There is of course a range of human experience that could be called ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’, and while these are associated with religion, they in no way endorse particular books. There’s also data “attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena…” (p41.2 –!?) The problem of dealing with religion is to reconcile such experiences with the beliefs that have grown up around them. “We cannot live by reason alone.” But spirituality can, must, be deeply rational.
Coming to Terms with Belief
Belief is more than a private concern when beliefs translate into actions. Certain beliefs are intrinsically dangerous.
We must admit that there’s no evidence that any of our books was authored by the Creator of the universe (45.0) Reason must transcend national and religious boundaries (there is no ‘American’ physics). Religion does not admit such discourse; no evidence is involved. We can’t tolerate diversity in religious beliefs any more than we can beliefs about hygiene.
Gathering Our Wits
Our own national discourse has a dark current of unreason. The president routinely cites God and attends prayer groups.
If we’re still here in 200 years, something will have changed, or we would already have killed ourselves. We’ve reached the age where a single person can destroy a city. Our descendants will look back upon many of our beliefs as impossibly quaint and suicidally stupid. So our task here is to identify those most dangerous beliefs, and subject them to sustained criticism. Maybe this time hasn’t arrived—but author prays, in the spirit of prayer, for day it will happen.
[[ Is Harris going to suggest, in response to the litany of dangers he identifies, what can be done about it? Is it possible to defuse religious belief? ]]
Ch2, The Nature of Belief
Believing a proposition means believing that it faithfully represents some state of the world, 51t; thus we should value evidence and demand that propositions logically cohere. 51.3:
“Freedom of belief” (in anything but the legal sense) is a myth. We will see that we are no more free to believe whatever we want about God than we are free to adopt unjustified beliefs about science or history, or free to mean whatever we want when using words like “poison” or “north” or “zero.” Anyone who would lay claim to such entitlements should not be surprised when the rest of us stop listening to him.
Beliefs are principles of action; they are processes of understanding the world and made available to guide our behavior. Might some propositions be so dangerous that it would be ethical to kill people for believing them? 53.0
Beliefs require logical coherence with each other. You can’t believe opposite things or contradictory things. Humans are not actually perfectly coherent, as in examples of cognitive dissonance. Example, p55, of a hotel room in Paris overlooking the American embassy. Even a perfect brain couldn’t keep track of the logical consistency of more than about… 300 beliefs.
Beliefs are representations of the world, and they should require that they be true (not that we just wish them to be true). Thus ‘because’ = by cause. What does it mean to believe that God exists? Because why? There’s no reason equivalent to factual knowledge about the world; and saying so because it makes you feel good isn’t a reason. Thus Pascal’s wager, Kierkegaard’s leap of faith are “epistemological ponzi schemes” 63.0. Most people’s reasons, about spiritual experiences, trust in authority, etc., are typical games of justification; but if a belief represents an actual state of the world, it must be vulnerable to new evidence…
Is faith the same as belief? There are rarefied ideas about faith (Tillich) but author takes it to be the ordinary sense. 65.7: “Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse—constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor.”
Faith is eager to find phenomena that seem to confirm their faith; but it doesn’t stoop to reason when there are no good reasons to believe, 66m.
We don’t require faith in other spheres of life—we require the engineer or the doctor to have reason for their claims about the world. But not the priests. How does the priest or mullah know that God wrote their holy books? They don’t, not in any way that uses the word ‘know’ properly, 67.3
The men who flew the jets on 9/11 were men of perfect faith.
No doubt the faithful reading this will claim the consolations of their faith. Indeed, the faithful hold truth in highest esteem, 68.3; 68.8: “The faithful have never been indifferent to the truth; and yet, the principle of faith leaves them unequipped to distinguish truth from falsity in matters that most concern them.”
The dividend of faith is the conviction that the future will be better than the past, 69b. Despite the actual world, e.g. long quote p70 about the Black Death.
Smry so far, 71b-72. There is sanity in numbers. 72m:
And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are. This is not surprising, since most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as thought they were primordial truths. This leaves billions of us believing what no sane person could believe on his own.
Example: transubstantiation. You can eat Jesus Christ in the form of a cracker. “Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?”
So what should we believe? We all rely on the authority of others; the more educated we become, the more our beliefs come to us second hand. Examples: a news report; a scientific conclusion; a religious claim. Which should you believe? By what justification are we to believe or disbelieve each one?
We should examine closely what is really in our holy books. “A close study of these books, and of history, demonstrates that there is no act of cruelty so appalling that it cannot be justified, or even mandated, by recourse to their pages.”
Thus the Spaniards in Mexico and Peru would baptize infants – before bashing their brains out (cf Bertrand Russell).
Yes some faithful benefit others. But the most monstrous crimes against humanity have been inspired by unjustified belief. Even Stalin and Mao operated on a political religion, communism. And the Soviet Union followed Lysenko rather than the “capitalist” biology of Mendel and Darwin.
Ch 3, In the Shadow of God, p80
The terrible consequences of Christianity. The Inquisition started in 1184; people were accused of heresy, or often of casting spells to bring disease or storms (before science people thought such things were possible), and put to torture until they confesses, and often to implicate others. The Bible requires that heretics be put to death (p82), in Deuteronomy. The Dominican order was particular enthusiastic about this. Torture often ended in the ‘auto-da-fe’, the public burning.
Witches and Jews were particular targets of Christian zealotry. Jews, in a sense, collaborated in being despised through their own sectarian belief in being the ‘chosen people’.
P94. Biblical writers and scholars went to great lengths to demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled prophecy, and therefore must be the son of God; such arguments impressed even Pascal into a conversion late in life. But some tenets of faith may have arisen out of mistranslations—‘virgin’, for example, re Mary (the word could just as well have meant a young woman).
Jews were often thought to practice bizarre rituals involving the blood of Christian babies – ‘blood libel’ – or of ‘host desecration’, bringing harm to the wafers used in the Catholic ritual of transubstantiation.
The Holocaust came about after decades of anti-semitism rooted in Germanic tribalist attitudes about the special role and purity of the Aryan race (not just Hitler et al). The Catholic church collaborated in a sense, by providing information, by helping Jews escape only if they’d be baptized, and by remaining mute on the subject even while persecuting scholars who engaged in ‘modernism’, i.e. scholarly examination of the Bible that led some to doubt its inerrancy. The Church banned Descartes, Lock, Voltaire, Paine, Kane, Darwin.
The history of Christianity is “principally a story of mankind’s misery and ignorance rather than of its requited love of God.”
(Harris supplies extensive notes to the main text. For example in this section, Note 5 about how William Tyndale was punished for having translated the New Testament into English—a capital offense at the time, p82.2; about what Deuteronomy says; about John 15:6; about an 1860 book that compiled outright contradictions in the Bible.)
Ch 4, The Problem with Islam, p108
All religions have their share of insupportable beliefs, but Islam has more than its share of bad beliefs. We’re at war with the Muslim worldview—the beliefs, stated over and over in the Koran, that Muslim must destroy nonbelievers, engage in ‘jihad’. In Islam changing one’s faith or renouncing Islam is punishable by death. Polls of Muslim countries find widespread support for ‘suicide’ bombers against civilian targets, p124.
Some writers address the issue of why the Muslim world has stagnated in recent decades, or why it is Muslims so often feel ‘humiliated’, but avoid the literal content of the Muslim religion [a recurrent theme for Harris] – they really do believe their martyrs are rewarded in paradise, etc.
Long list of quotes from the Koran that vilify unbelievers, 117ff, for five full pages!. Note ‘People of the Book’ phraseology.
He notes how the description of the Koranic paradise reflects the limits of human imagination, p127-8.
What will happen when such people get long range nuclear weapons? Democracy isn’t necessarily the answer; the people in some countries just vote back in theocratic leaders. Nor is education; many terrorists have had western educations and advanced degrees.
The problem was once called a ‘clash of civilizations’—Edward Said objected to generalizing about an entire culture or religion. The problem is the faith itself.
Is Muslim ‘humiliation’ at the root of terrorism? But democracy in these countries would only enforce sharia law. Many of the terrorists had decent educations.
P136b here’s another solution to Fermi’s paradox—a toxic faith that destroys the world in favor of being transported to paradise.
It’s popular among some to claim a kind of moral equivalency – that the west brought 9/11 upon itself, that terrorism is in response to western oppression. Noam Chomsky is an example. Many of his points are well-taken (the sins of the US), p140. Anudhati Roy makes similar arguments about American arrogance, p142. But there is no equivalency. We can see the distinction but considering the ‘perfect weapon’ that could kill or disable precisely at a distance, and imagine how GW Bush would use it vs Saddam Hussein. Not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development, p143m. Consider New York of a century ago, or My Lai in 1968. There are good and bad ways for a culture to behave, p145 [[ this anticipates his later book The Moral Landscape ]] Even if the US does kill innocents or behave badly, it expresses remorse. Intentions matter.
Bottom line is the colossal waste of time and energy taken by religious practice (see p149.2). All the good things religion does can be had elsewhere.
What to do about Islam? It is like thinking how to live with Christians of the 14th century. We need a civil society, meaning a society where ideas can be criticized without risk of physical violence, p150b. Even if imposed from without. Ultimately, a world government. And Islam must transform itself, from within. And the west should develop new energy sources.
Ch5, West of Eden, p153
Compared to Islam the influence of religion in the west is rather benign. But still, politicians regularly pander, and religious leaders often hold major influence on politicians, e.g. Falwell and Reagan. And Christians ‘support’ the state of Israel (cynically) because they believe it heralds the second coming—and the destruction of the Jews! P153.8
Politicians and judges routinely apply Biblical morality, e.g. Judge Roy Moore, who insisted on erecting monuments to the 10 commandments. Other examples. Tom DeLay. Antonin Scalia, long quote 156-7, finding guidance in St. Paul and perhaps Leviticus, 158.
Legal policies derive from Christian’s attitude about sin; thus drugs, prostitution, and so on. It doesn’t matter if these are ‘victimless’; if God sees everything, there is no such thing as privacy, and laws are put in place to avoid angering God. Thus the state still prohibiting oral and anal sex. Drug laws. They’re not about health, since cigarettes and alcohol are still legal and more harmful. The draconian drug laws, and the amount spent, considering other things such money could be spent on. Prohibition just drives up the market. In fact, terrorist groups often depend on drug revenue! 164t.
We don’t celebrate other sources of irrationality (astrology, reasoning biases, 165.6), only religious faith.
Thus laws against research on human embryonic stem cell, banned in 2003. Bush cut funds to group who would mention abortion.
Rightly criticized, some try to delink such events from religious faith—Nicholas Kristof, e.g., exonerating faith p168.
We need better ways of answering questions of right and wrong.
Ch6, A Science of Good and Evil, p170
Is the difference just whatever people say it is? Recall cat burning in 16th c Paris. Ethical truths seem contingent; without a rule-making God, how do we know what’s right or wrong?
We recast the question as one about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures, p171. From that pov, much of what people think of about morality is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what the ancients thought; we can seek answers in the present. We don’t derive a sense that cruelty is wrong from the Bible; we have a rudimentary sense that it is. what we know about the natural world is evidence of no creator who is not a monster; Bertrand Russell quote p173t. The God of Abraham is capricious, petulant, and cruel. The problem of God and evil, the problem of theodicy, has no solution; (long footnote about free will).
These questions should be tied to our understanding of the consciousness of other creatures. Thus Descartes, convinced that nonhuman animals were mere automata, allowed vivisection, p174. The Spanish supposed the Southern American Indians had no souls. How can we know if other animals can suffer? (long footnote 11) (Also note footnote 13, in which author steers clear of past philosophical approaches in favor of starting fresh.)
Religious dogma is of no help. Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” P176.
The idea of moral communities clarifies some matters. Religion only advances tribalism. Then how do we draw boundaries of moral concern? Not just ability to feel pain. Author has no simple solutions; examples 177-78.
Relativism is a demon; intellectuals sometimes speak as if all worldviews are on equal footing; add Kuhn, and can we ever really know everything? But this is nonsense. It implies that tolerance of all viewpoints is necessary; this itself is a moral stand. Moral relativism is self-contradictory.
Another approach is pragmatism, as discussed by Richard Rorty. This is the idea that a statement is true only to the extent that it functions in some area of discourse—not that it is ‘really’ true about the universe. Thus different views of the world might be useful at different times. This suggests one can never be right about anything; recalls Yeats, 180.7.
This is as opposed to realism, in which statements are true or false based on how reality actually is. We may not understand all truths, but they are there waiting to be discovered. But is this even possible without mediation by our language and thus interpreted? But the pragmatist’s argument against this possibility relies on realism being realistic or not; a self-contradiction (long footnote 23). So truth is not a matter of consensus; everyone might agree on something and still be wrong. And so we proceed as if facts, even about ethics, can be discovered.
P182. Intuition is generally scorned (except among mathematicians). Yet intuition underlies our use of reason itself. It’s a necessary first step. We know intuition can mislead p183b [[these are ways in which we are unable to perceive the world]] Intuitions underlie superstitions; but these can be tested. For ethics to matter, the happiness and suffering of others must matter to us. We understand that not everything evolved is good for us (erroneously called the naturalistic fallacy).
We are not limited by our genetic priorities; we are not completely selfish. We treat each other out of concern for others’ happiness (the golden rule etc 186b). These observations hold even for people who claim no concern for others. Christians do not seem to be especially concerned about honor killings, which seem invariably Islam. We can say that the men who commit such acts love their women less than men in the West do, but it’s not polite to think so. It’s not just cultural; it’s a failure of ethics.
We can use reason to link morality and happiness. Happiness can be improved by being loving and compassionate. (long footnotes 31 on ethical intelligence.) We used to think torture evil, but some are reconsidering it in this age of terrorism. And this isn’t really any different from accepting collateral damage in the deaths of civilians. If we are willing to do one, we should be willing to do the other.
Pacifism seems morally unassailable, even though difficult in practice, but it is immoral—it’s the willingness of pacifists to be killed by thugs. P199.
Author tells about incident in Prague in which he diverted a couple thugs so a woman could escape. But he did so by lying and not confronting the men directly.
Gandhi made great successes but his remedy for the Holocaust was that the Jews should commit mass suicide.
Given the threat is Islamic fundamentalism, we must be ready to resist by any means necessary.
Ch7, Experiments in Consciousness
It’s undeniable that one’s experience of the world can be radically transformed. The problem with religion is that it blends this truth with the venom of unreason. A component of happiness that isn’t about food and shelter can be called spirituality, p205. That and mysticism both have unfortunate connotations, but author will use them interchangeably.
Consciousness… It’s assumed now that the mind is a product of the brain, but in truth we don’t know what happens after death. Investigating the nature of consciousness through sustained introspection is another name for spiritual practice. It’s perfectly rational to carry out various experiments, as long as we don’t make claims about the world without empirical evidence, p210.4.
Each person is a system that is in turn an eddy in the great river of life. Even our minds are composed of things from all around us, scarcely under our own control. So what is this feeling of self? p212 It’s about appropriating the world, not just being. … Humans experience a duality of subject and object, and thus a sense of separateness. But to explore a spirituality that undermines such dualism has an obstacle in current beliefs about God.
So we turn to the wisdom of the east. No western philosophers can rival those from the east. Perhaps because of the western idea of faith. He compares a passage from Buddhist literature to anything in the Bible, p216. Meditation, to author, is about making the sense of self vanish. The obstacle is thinking.
[[ I see him jumping the shark here … I’m glazing over. ]]
Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. …. 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). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial—at once full of hope and full of fear—of the vastitude of human ignorance.
Nice summary paragraph, page 223:
My goal in writing this book has been to help close the door to a certain style of irrationality. While religious faith is the one species of human ignorance that will not admit even the possibility of correction, it is still sheltered from criticism in every corner of our culture. …Our religions have seized upon ancient taboos and prescientific fancies as though they held ultimate metaphysical significance.
Is the problem hopeless? How to get billions of people to reconsider their religious beliefs? And yet we have no reason to think we can survive our religious differences indefinitely. Just give children honest answers to their questions.
Where we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; where we have no reasons, we have lost both our connection to the world and to one another. People who harbor strong convictions without evidence belong at the margins of our societies, not in our halls of power.
There need be no scheme of rewards and punishments transcending this life to justify our moral intuitions or to render them effective in guiding our behavior in the world. The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil’s masterpiece.
And the last paragraph, page 277:
Man is manifestly not the measure of all things. This universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name. … No myths need be embraced for us to commune with the profundity of our circumstance. … The days of our religious identifies are clearly numbered. Whether the days of civilization itself are numbered would seem to depend, rather too much, on how soon we realize this.