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.


Kartik said...

Of course, you could dismiss all spiritual phenomena under the big, wide carpet of co-incidence :-)

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