Saturday, September 29, 2007

Sam Harris' lecture and the debate on religion

The debate about religion and its role in society is a contentious one these days with theories about clashing civilizations flying thick and fast. How much of society's ills are because of religion? Do we need religion at all? My own views on the topic have varied a lot and have been influenced recently by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s books. In his novels and through his passionate characters, Dostoevsky – a devout man himself – engages deeply with Christianity and what it means to be Christian, and more broadly with the essence of religious feeling. I touched upon the theme a little in my post about The Idiot. I'll reproduce here again a quote that I particularly like; it is from Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of the novel:
“ …the essence of religious feeling doesn’t depend on reasoning, and it has nothing to do with crime or atheism. There is something else there and there always will be, and atheists will always pass over it and will never be talking about that.” [Dostoevsky’s italics].

A few weeks ago, after listening to this engrossing 53-minute lecture by Sam Harris, author of The end of faith, I wondered how a debate between Harris and Dostoevsky, if it were ever held, would go. Would their positions, I wondered, be as far apart as they seem when viewed cursorily? What points would they concur on, if at all?

Harris is unrelentingly critical of religion, and wonders whether we need to be lugging today this burdensome and sapping baggage of the past. He states at the outset that “religion is the most divisive and dangerous ideology we’ve ever produced”. But his lecture is not a tirade; it is a reasoned and methodical dismantling of the tenets of some major faiths – Harris targets especially the Abrahamic ones in the lecture. His broadside is backed by his mastery of the key texts of these religions.

I won’t discuss the lecture or its main points at length, but instead will give a gist of how Harris sets about his task. He divides arguments in defense of religion into three broad categories. The first such argument is that a particular religion should be followed because it is right. The second is that “religion is useful and indeed so useful as to be necessary.” And the third is that the alternative to faith, atheism, “is essentially another religion, dogmatic, intolerant and worthy of contempt.”

To each of these three proffered defenses, Harris provides some good rejoinders. Personally, since the first assertion of the “rightness”of a specific faith is rather naive and arrogant, I was interested only in his responses to the last two claims, both of which I’ve held to some extent but am now beginning to rethink. In countering the usefulness and necessity of religion, Harris argues that morality does not require the framework of religion as is sometimes supposed. I think this is an important point – though obvious, it is often overlooked. And he clarifies that atheism should not be misunderstood as a dogma (this too is routinely done: the ideas and actions of such leaders as Stalin and Mao are attributed to their atheism) but as a tradition of healthy scepticism and of submitting everything to close scrutiny.

It is difficult, however, to accept Harris' lack of support even for moderates who are tolerant of religions. As an atheist, his recommendation, naturally, is that since the lofty claims on which most religions are based are false, we should do away with faith altogether. But how is such a thing to be done, and what of the unimaginable vacuum that this will surely leave behind? (There must be something about this in Harris' The end of faith, and in Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion as well, but I haven't read them to be able to comment yet.)

What lends a degree of moderation to Harris’ views is his sincere acknowledgement that certain experiences at the personal or individual level can be powerful. As he says, his arguments should not be “construed as a denial of the possibilities of spiritual experience, and indeed of the importance of spiritual experience.” And though nothing escapes the rigor of Harris' gaze, this is perhaps where he comes closest to admitting that some special and inexplicable feeling or state or connection – that same something that Prince Myshkin talks about above – can exist.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Travel potpourri

I am currently in Bangalore for two weeks with my parents, and am lazing around and enjoying the food, the cricket, the excellent weather in Bangalore, and, less happily, pondering my US consulate appointment that's coming up in a couple days – with all these things, I haven't been able to write anything substantial. So I thought I'd put up a potpourri post, based on some of my recent travels.

Here are a few of my pictures and notes from trips this summer:

1. I took this picture from the window of my hotel room in St.Etienne, France, immediately after checking in. I'd arrived at the St.Etienne train station at about 8 in the evening, tired after a twenty-hour journey. The streets of the town were such a maze – crooked, some of them narrow and intersecting at all possible angles – and my hotel’s location so obscure, that I was disoriented and clueless. I found the hotel after nearly an hour of roaming around parts of the town and went to my 8th floor room, ready to collapse. But when I opened the large window in the room to let the air in, I was soothed and gladdened by the view. I stayed up, sat by the window and took pictures from different angles while it was still light.

2. The first picture below shows shoots of either yuccas or agaves (I am always unable to tell the difference between the two plants). Their thin protrusions and flowers dramatize the arid landscape of the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico. This particular set was just outside the archaeological site of Casas Grandes, in the northern Mexican state of Chihuaua, which I visited in May. The next picture is of a flower of a prickly pear cactus - I chanced upon it when our group stopped by the roadside on a highway in Mexico.

3. Finally, two pictures from my trip to South Dakota. This was a long road trip on Interstate 90 which runs east-west through the state. En-route, at the Badlands National Park, I spotted these sprightly, long-eared jackrabbits.

And at the western end of South Dakota, the monotonous, gently undulating prairie does a jig and transforms itself into the pine-forested and mountainous Black Hills. The rocky top of one of these hills, Mount Rushmore, has been meticulously and brilliantly sculpted to mimic the grim, thoughtful countenances of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln.

But let me ask with a mischievous wink: Will Dubya's face ever find its way to Mount Rushmore?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

About the plains

The landscape of the Great Plains, the swathe of prairie that runs through the middle of the United States, is quite special. While traveling to Fargo, North Dakota last year, I had my first glimpse of it as my flight approached the airport. The incredibly flat, largely treeless expanse around Fargo was apportioned neatly into farms. And later, on the ground, I felt odd because my sense of perspective was altered by the flatness: because there were so few trees, the view was uninterrupted in all directions, and the sky seemed large and imposing. A character of Willa Cather’s describes aptly in her novel My Antonia the feeling of insignificance one feels on the vast prairie: “Between the earth and the sky, I felt erased, blotted out.”

When I drove through South Dakota and Nebraska last month (and quite a bit of Minnesota too), I got to see the prairie again and was able to better appreciate its variations. I learned, for instance, that it isn't always flat, and that it undulates gently - an ocean of farms and grassland with swells and lows. And pretty much throughout my trip, I found large bales of hay arrayed upon the farms that flanked the road, sometimes in an orderly fashion, as in the picture below.

I’ll stop here for now, but there will be more in coming months about the plains – not only about its landscape, but also of its history, and if I have the time, a review of Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneer, set in the newly settled plains of late nineteenth century Nebraska.

I took these pictures somewhere near the very small settlement of Carter (hamlet is perhaps the right word) in southern South Dakota.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Ishango bone

The Ishango bone was found in the 1950s, in a fishing village on the Congo-Uganda border and dates to around 20,000-30,000 BC. It is an exhibit today at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences at Brussels. The bone is the fibula of a baboon, and what makes it interesting is the set of notches that were deliberately marked on its surface, presumably by the people who lived in the region then.

The number of these notches and their grouping seem to imply a knowledge of mathematics and calculation - of prime numbers, multiplication and division - quite advanced for its time and unheard of elsewhere. If indeed the markings were inscribed with these concepts in mind, the Ishango bone would be the earliest evidence of "mathematical thinking". But is it just a coincidence that the notches are uniquely grouped and have certain mathematical properties? Or do they represent a calendar, as has been proposed by some? The problem with these interpretations, of course, is that they use modern day notions to explain something from a very, very long time ago. Nevertheless, here’s a interesting link that talks more about the markings, and also points to other such examples, including what might be an ancient calendar in the form of dots (just a little younger than Ishango), in the famous caves of Lascaux in France.