Sunday, September 30, 2007

More on Why the New Atheists Will Fail

The "new atheists" continue to get a lot of press. But there are also some reasonable people arguing alternate points of view. Here are three from just the last two days.

First up, ~C4Chaos is reviewing Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation. While he tends to agree with some of Harris' positions, he goes into an integral defense of faith that I think is very correct:

Since Harris is arguing about faith, let's use James Fowler's stages of faith as reference (so that people of faith would be able to relate). In James Fowler's stages of faith, Harris is doing battle with Stage 2 (“Mythic literal”) and Stage 3 (“Synthetic-Conventional”)–devout religious people–and then wielding his intellectual sword on Stage 4 (“Individuative-Reflective”) and Stage 5 (“Conjunctive Faith”) whenever he turns his attention on religious moderates/liberals. While Harris, in my opinion, is coming mostly from a Stage 5 (with his “faith” anchored on science). It's possible that Harris has had glimpses of Stage 6 with his Dzogchen practice. But that remains to be seen.

(NOTE: I think Harris addresses Stage 6 (“Universalizing Faith”) in his book, “The End of Faith,” in a chapter about consciousness. I'll talk more about that later when I get the chance to review that book. Let me just say at this point that Fowler's use of Mother Teresa as example of a person with Stage 6 faith is highly objectionable it would make Christopher Hitchens puke, especially after the revelation of Mother Teresa's crisis of faith.)

And therein lies the rub. Harris's polemics may be highly reasonable and rational, but people at stage 2 and stage 3 of faith will not hear his reasoning. It would simply fall on their deaf ears. Yes, he will anger them. Yes, he will offend them. In return, they will defend their dogmas to the end. Only people who are ready to step out of stage 3 will hear his plea. In short, Sam Harris will not convert suicide bombers and devout Christian missionaries. And I think he knows that.

Which brings us to the more relevant target audience of Harris's writings: people at stage 4 and stage 5 of faith. These are the stages of faith which bear the qualities of religious tolerance and religious liberalism. This is where I find Harris's approach refreshing and deserving of a higher level of intellectual discourse.

“It accomplishes nothing to merely declare that 'we all worship the same God.' We do not all worship the same God, and nothing attests to this fact more eloquently than our history of religious bloodshed.”

“While religious tolerance is surely better than religious war, tolerance is without its problems. Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us unwilling to criticize ideas that are increasingly maladaptive and patently ridiculous. It has also obliged us to lie to ourselves–repeatedly and at the highest level of discourse–about the compatibility between religious faith and scientific rationality. Our competing religious certainties are impeding the emergence of a viable, global civilization.”

For Harris, religious faith and scientific rationality are not compatible. There's no middle ground. He's not aiming for integration of science and religion. He wants to end religion in favor of science and reason.

Speaking of faith and science being compatible (or not), Freeman Dyson (interviewed in Salon) has no problem with scientists also having faith in some form of transcendent truth. He feels that Richard Dawkins is doing science a great disservice by arguing that scientists must not be religious.

Do you think science and religion are at odds?

No. I think it's only a small fraction of people who think that. Perhaps they have louder voices than the others.

What do you think of what Richard Dawkins is doing.

I think Richard Dawkins is doing a lot of damage. I disagree very strongly with the way he's going about it. I don't deny his right to be an atheist, but I think he does a great deal of harm when he publicly says that in order to be a scientist, you have to be an atheist. That simply turns young people away from science. He's convinced a lot of young people not to be scientists because they don't want to be atheists. I'm strongly against him on that question. It's simply not true what he's saying, and it's not only not true but also harmful. The fact is that many of my friends are much more religious than I am and are first-rate scientists. There's absolutely nothing that stops you from being both.

Dawkins calls religion as a virus.

I disagree totally. He has the arrogance to say that anyone who does not share his views is infected with a virus. No wonder he cannot coexist peacefully with them.

Later he says:

You write that as our understanding of biology advances, so too will our understanding of religion.

It impacts upon our understanding of theology. What I was pointing out is that human theology is based on our own value system -- above all our knowledge of good and evil as we experience it. Take an autistic child. I took the case of Jessica Park, who is a friend of mine who happens to be autistic. If she had a theology, it would be quite different because she cannot understand other people suffering. She has no conception of other people's existence in the way we have. It's a radically different world that she lives in. You can tell by the fact that she can't understand the difference between "I" and "you." She uses the words indiscriminately.

So the idea of a suffering savior would have no meaning for her at all. If she had a theology, it wouldn't involve sin. One thing that is characteristic of autistic people is that they cannot tell a lie. Jessica never tells a lie because to tell a deliberate lie, you have to have the idea of deceiving somebody. That's something she couldn't imagine. Since there is no sin, there can be no fall from grace and no redemption.

The example of Jessica shows us how our own view of the world might be equally skewed. There may be many essential features of the world to which we are blind, just as she is blind to other people's thoughts and feelings. So our theology also reflects our possibly skewed view of the world.

This is an interesting argument, but one that is often lost on scientists who feel that their lens is the only one through which to see the world. But what if science is as narrow and deficient in its vision of subjective experience of transcendence as Dyson's example of Jessica's inability to understand how others feel might be? I think it is. Science is currently no more able to understand subjectivity than Jessica is capable of understanding sin or a lie.

Finally, there was a column in the LA Times on Saturday that references the Burmese monks and their efforts to stand up against oppression as a defense of religious values and why their are needed.

It has become fashionable in certain smart circles to regard atheism as a sign of superior education, of highly evolved civilization, of enlightenment. Recent bestsellers by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others suggest that religious faith is a sign of backwardness, the mark of primitives stuck in the Dark Ages who have not caught up with scientific reason. Religion, we are told, is responsible for violence, oppression, poverty and many other ills.

It is not difficult to find examples to back up this assertion. But what about the opposite? Can religion also be a force for good? Are there cases in which religious faith comes to the rescue even of those who don't have it?

I have never personally had either the benefits nor misfortunes of adhering to any religion, but watching Burmese monks on television defying the security forces of one of the world's most oppressive regimes, it is hard not to see some merit in religious belief. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a deeply religious country, where most men spend some time as Buddhist monks. Even the thuggish Burmese junta hesitated before unleashing lethal force on men dressed in the maroon and saffron robes of their faith.

The monks, and nuns in pink robes, were soon joined by students, actors and others who want to be rid of the junta. But the monks and nuns took the first step; they dared to protest when most others had given up. And they did so with the moral authority of their Buddhist faith. Romantics might say that Buddhism is unlike other religions, more a philosophy than a faith. But this would be untrue. It has been a religion in different parts of Asia for many centuries, and can be used to justify violent acts as much as any other belief. For evidence, one need only look at Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is lashed onto ethnic chauvinism in the civil war between Buddhist Singhalese and Hindu Tamils.

Ian Buruma concludes the column with a hard truth that liberals will scoff at, but which seems pretty on target:

Nevertheless, faith has an important role to play in politics, especially in circumstances in which secular liberals are rendered impotent, as in the case of Nazi occupation, communist rule or military dictatorship.

Liberals are most needed when compromises have to be made, but not as useful when faced with brute force. That is when visionaries, romantics and true believers are driven by their beliefs to take risks that most of us would regard as foolhardy. It is, on the whole, not beneficial to be ruled by such heroes, but it is good to have them around when we need them.

While I tend to agree with this, in the case of the Buddhist monks in Burma, they are the liberals -- they are the voice of a progressive effort toward democracy. And they are not using violence -- they marched with nothing more than upturned alms bowls.

In the tradition of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Burmese monks join their liberal faith with peaceful resistance. They are marching for the freedom of their nation, not to impose their beliefs upon those who do not share them. They merely seek an open and free nation.

The religion that Harris, et al, oppose seeks to impose its narrow view of the world on ALL others, whether they want it or not. And this is certainly something that must be battled. In this respect, I am with the new atheists.

However, as ~C pointed out above by bringing Fowler's stages of faith (as well as moral development), not all religion and all religious people share the same views. Harris and his pals conflate ALL religions and ALL religious people into one mythic belief system, which is intellectually dishonest and factually incorrect.

Until they can figure this out and revise their position to what some might call a more integral perspective, they will fail to reach anyone other than those who already share their views.


Unknown said...

Are the Burmese monks liberals, in the tradition of Gandhi and MLK?

I think Ian Buruma mischaracterizes the situation that developed in Burma in important ways. The monks stood up, not because others wouldn't, but because the moral authority they represented was thought to be too respected to be attacked. At first, at least, the monks stood up in place of others, though that changed as the others began locking arms in rings around the marching monks.

Gandhi and MLK had a different strategy. For them, there were people in authority whom they could address in distant, indirect ways. And, it was meaningful if the public was aroused with sympathy for Gandhi's/MLK's causes.

The Burma monks, sadly, have more of a Tiananmen Square situation going. The power they were addressing is fully ruthless and it doesn't matter what the citizens of Burma think.

So, are the people of Burma going to be abandoned, as the people of China were, or the people of North Korea? slaves in a totalitarian state that no one adequately confronts?

I guess I disagree with Buruma's idea that liberals are valuable miners' canaries before next bringing in the calvary. Heroes are necessarily both properly idealistic [and I don't mean of the mushy and unrealistic variety] AND courageous.

Is there a third act in this Burma situation? or will interest in what's going on there dissipate, leaving the people there to a dim future?

william harryman said...

Hey Tom,

I think, in part, the monks did stand up because no one else would. They thought the could do so without retribution (because of their stature in the culture), but they were wrong.

Similarly, I think MLK and other religious leaders were needed for the civil rights movement -- without their "moral weight," I'm not sure the movement would have succeeded - same with Gandhi.

The difference, obviously, is in who they were standing up against. The US government was not about to slaughter MLK (well, not officially), nor was Britain in the Indian issue. China and Burma have no qualms about killing or "disappearing" dissidents.

I think the Burmese monks represent the "liberal" or progressive political cause in their nation, at least contrasted to the government, which is where I disagree with Buruma. Such liberalism is needed as much as the more "religious" courage he admires so much. One without the other usually goes badly awry.

I think the Burma situation is over for this round. Thousands of monks have been killed, many more beaten and/or imprisoned. The people are too scared to do anything else right now. Outside intervention never developed to save the situation.


Unknown said...

Thanks, Bill.

How different things might have been if America had gone in to save the Burmese, instead of going in to Iraq. The Burmese would have greeted us as liberators.

Knowing that we would never have gone into Burma proves Greenspan's point: It's the oil.

So the people of Burma are abandoned and everyone hopes the well-esconsed junta will become milder over the course of decades. Eventually, the government of Burma will agree to be nicer to its citizens in exchange for having any remaining trade sanctions lifted. And then everyone -- the junta, the people of Burma, the Americans -- live happily ever after.