Awe Shucks

red_guardsThere’s quite a bit of vitriol splashed around in this new post by Sam Harris, and, as so often with his work, there’s also much that’s worth discussing at length, but for now let’s just note that the point that he makes in the following two sentences is hugely important, well worth saying and largely true:

I have long struggled to understand how smart, well-educated liberals can fail to perceive the unique dangers of Islam. In The End of Faith, I argued that such people don’t know what it’s like to really believe in God or Paradise—and hence imagine that no one else actually does.

I use the word “largely”, because there is at least one major exception to what Mr. Harris is arguing. Like it or not, the religious impulse is a very common human characteristic and it is one that many of those “smart, well-educated liberals” themselves share except that it has—for them—to manifest itself in a nominally secular guise. This might once have taken the form, say, of a fierce commitment to ‘political religions’ such as the communism of nearly a century ago (a millennial cult if ever there was one) and today, might more commonly find expression in, perhaps, various types of environmentalist faith.

I should add that I am assuming, perhaps wrongly (I note that he carefully refers to “really” believing in God, a qualification that may mean that his criticism may also be directed at certain only mildly religious people) that the clever folk to whom Mr. Harris is referring are atheists or agnostics. The question of why genuinely religious liberal intellectuals refuse to confront the spiritual reality of what drives some jihadists to atrocity is yet another topic for another time.

But back to Sam Harris:

I also have no problem with spiritual devotion, ecstasy, and awe—in fact, I think they are among the most important experiences a human being can have. I just object to the incredible ideas that surround such experiences in every church, synagogue, and mosque. I also worry that certain religious beliefs make devotion, ecstasy, and awe both divisive and dangerous. Again, my tolerance for difference is much higher than my critics understand. I’m not a scared white guy who is put off by the howls of the natives. In fact, I’ve done a fair amount of howling with the natives myself. I know what these people are experiencing, and I value many of the same experiences.

The post is illustrated with well-chosen videos of ecstatic spiritual devotion. They are fascinating, at times (briefly) beautiful, at times disturbing, at times dull, and, more often than not, depressing, glimpses of intellectual and psychological places where I would rather not go for too long, not out of fear, Mr. Harris, but because, at best, they do nothing for me, and at worst, well…

Devotion, ecstasy and awe: on the whole, no thanks.

Mr. Harris may well have different tastes. He writes:

Unlike many of my critics, I recognize that these practices profoundly affect people. In fact, I’ve spent thousands of hours doing practices of this kind.

And that’s fine (chacun à son goût, and all that), but to say this is not:

Unless you have tasted religious ecstasy, you cannot understand the danger of its being pointed in the wrong direction.

Not so: All it takes is some knowledge of history and a willingness to recognize—as Mr. Harris clearly does— some very uncomfortable truths about the nature of our species.

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3 Responses to Awe Shucks

  1. Cephus says:

    My biggest problem with this line of thinking is that acknowledging that people are going to have faith and engage in magical thinking does nothing to point out the inherent problems of such things. It’s like saying “people are going to kill each other” or “people are going to rape each other”, therefore we ought to accept it as a natural part of being human and not be too critical of it. Faith is an inherently irrational part of our basic human makeup, but luckily, we have this nice large brain that allows us to override a lot of natural instincts and desires by applying rationality, logic and the ability to think critically about our beliefs. What we need to do is start educating people that questioning their most fundamental beliefs is a net positive, that verifying ideas with evidence and intellect is to be lauded and that believing something, just because it makes you feel good, is not something to be proud of.

    That’s the only way we’ll get rid of this asinine religious nonsense that has tainted human civilization since we crawled down out of the trees.

  2. Andrew Stuttaford says:

    Cephus, I think that the real mistake that is made is to see all religions as essentially the same. They are not. Some are far less benign/more damaging than others. Equally, different people can follow the (nominally) same religion in very different ways. there is a limit, thank whoever, to the degree that humanity can be re-engineered. You are never going to “get rid of” the religious impulse (and I don’t think anyone should try to). The more interesting question is the form that that religious belief takes. The genius of the Church of England was that it took a potentially dangerous phenomenon (religious belief) and turned it into something that ended up (more or less, and prior to its modern leftism) into a force for good.

  3. CJColucci says:

    How hard is it for people to say that: (1) there is a significant group of people within the Islamic faith who hold to a dangerous ideology that has no comparably significant analogue in other major religions as currently practised; and (2) the rest of Islam is just another major religion, and nothing to get worked up about unless the dangerous group takes it over?

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