Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Sam Harris on secular morality

The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos
Sam Harris

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One cannot criticize religious dogmatism for long without encountering the following claim, advanced as though it were a self-evident fact of nature: there is no secular basis for morality. Raping and killing children can only really be wrong, the thinking goes, if there is a God who says it is. Otherwise, right and wrong would be mere matters of social construction, and any society would be at liberty to decide that raping and killing children is actually a wholesome form of family fun. In the absence of God, John Wayne Gacy could be a better person than Albert Schweitzer, if only more people agreed with him.

It is simply amazing how widespread this fear of secular moral chaos is, given how many misconceptions about morality and human nature are required to set it whirling in a person’s brain. There is undoubtedly much to be said against the spurious linkage between faith and morality, but the following three points should suffice.

1. If a book like the Bible were the only reliable blueprint for human decency that we had, it would be impossible (both practically and logically) to criticize it in moral terms. But it is extraordinarily easy to criticize the morality one finds in the Bible, as most of it is simply odious and incompatible with a civil society.

The notion that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is really quite amazing, given the contents of the book. Human sacrifice, genocide, slaveholding, and misogyny are consistently celebrated. Of course, God’s counsel to parents is refreshingly straightforward: whenever children get out of line, we should beat them with a rod (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23:13–14). If they are shameless enough to talk back to us, we should kill them (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18–21, Mark 7:9–13, and Matthew 15:4–7). We must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshiping graven images, practicing sorcery, and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes.

Most Christians imagine that Jesus did away with all this barbarism and delivered a doctrine of pure love and toleration. He didn’t. (See Matthew 5:18–19, Luke 16:17, 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 20–21, John 7:19.) Anyone who believes that Jesus only taught the Golden Rule and love of one’s neighbor should go back and read the New Testament. And he or she should pay particular attention to the morality that will be on display if Jesus ever returns to earth trailing clouds of glory (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9, 2:8; Hebrews 10:28–29; 2 Peter 3:7; and all of Revelation).

It is not an accident that St. Thomas Aquinas thought heretics should be killed and that St. Augustine thought they should be tortured. (Ask yourself, what are the chances that these good doctors of the Church hadn’t read the New Testament closely enough to discover the error of their ways?) As a source of objective morality, the Bible is one of the worst books we have. It might be the very worst, in fact—if we didn’t also happen to have the Qur’an.

It is important to point out that we decide what is good in the Good Book. We read the Golden Rule and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses; we read that a woman found not to be a virgin on her wedding night should be stoned to death, and we (if we are civilized) decide that this is the most vile lunacy imaginable. Our own ethical intuitions are, therefore, primary. So the choice before us is simple: we can either have a twenty-first-century conversation about ethics—availing ourselves of all the arguments and scientific insights that have accumulated in the last two thousand years of human discourse—or we can confine ourselves to a first-century conversation as it is preserved in the Bible.


2. If religion were necessary for morality, there should be some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers.

People of faith regularly allege that atheism is responsible for some of the most appalling crimes of the twentieth century. Are atheists really less moral than believers? While it is true that the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were irreligious to varying degrees, they were not especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements were little more than litanies of delusion—delusions about race, economics, national identity, the march of history, or the moral dangers of intellectualism. In many respects, religion was directly culpable even here. Consider the Holocaust: the anti-Semitism that built the Nazi crematoria brick by brick was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity. For centuries, Christian Europeans had viewed the Jews as the worst species of heretics and attributed every societal ill to their continued presence among the faithful.

While the hatred of Jews in Germany expressed itself in a predominantly secular way, its roots were undoubtedly religious—and the explicitly religious demonization of the Jews of Europe continued throughout the period. (The Vatican itself perpetuated the blood libel in its newspapers as late as 1914.) Auschwitz, the Gulag, and the killing fields are not examples of what happens when people become too critical of unjustified beliefs; on the contrary, these horrors testify to the dangers of not thinking critically enough about specific secular ideologies. Needless to say, a rational argument against religious faith is not an argument for the blind embrace of atheism as a dogma. The problem that the atheist exposes is none other than the problem of dogma itself—of which every religion has more than its fair share. I know of no society in recorded history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report (2005), the most atheistic societies—countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom—are actually the healthiest, as indicated by measures of life expectancy, adult literacy, per-capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality. Conversely, the fifty nations now ranked lowest by the UN in terms of human development are unwaveringly religious. Of course, correlational data of this sort do not resolve questions of causality—belief in God may lead to societal dysfunction, societal dysfunction may foster a belief in God, each factor may enable the other, or both may spring from some deeper source of mischief. Leaving aside the issue of cause and effect, these facts prove that atheism is perfectly compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society; they also prove, conclusively, that religious faith does nothing to ensure a society’s health.


3. If religion really provided the only conceivable objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a nontheistic objective basis for morality. But it is not impossible; it is rather easy.

Clearly, we can think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a law-giving God. In The End of Faith, I argued that questions of morality are really questions about happiness and suffering. If there are objectively better and worse ways to live so as to maximize happiness in this world, these would be objective moral truths worth knowing. Whether we will ever be in a position to discover these truths and agree about them cannot be known in advance (and this is the case for all questions of scientific fact). But if there are psychophysical laws that underwrite human well-being—and why wouldn’t there be?—then these laws are potentially discoverable. Knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality. In the meantime, everything about human experience suggests that love is better than hate for the purposes of living happily in this world. This is an objective claim about the human mind, the dynamics of social relations, and the moral order of our world. While we do not have anything like a final, scientific approach to maximizing human happiness, it seems safe to say that raping and killing children will not be one of its primary constituents.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. Incompatible religious doctrines have balkanized our world into separate moral communities, and these divisions have become a continuous source of human conflict. The idea that there is a necessary link between religious faith and morality is one of the principal myths keeping religion in good standing among otherwise reasonable men and women. And yet, it is a myth that is easily dispelled.


Sam Harris is the author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.

11 Comments:

At 1:33 PM, Blogger Sticky Keys said...

I don't know much about the argument of secular morality and really it just came to my attention when I met you.

I will say that when debating the Bible one must be careful when using anything in the Old Testament as proof of anything or even the Ten Commandments since many of those things were reworked after Jesus died on the cross.

If you believe Jesus was the son of God and so on.

Anyhow, I'm of the belief that atheists can obtain morality just as Christians can lose it. I think God is a good reason to remain morally pure, and definitely a great motivation, but the choice of right and wrong is not the choice between God and the Devil necessarily.

I don't know, I guess I'm still trying to grasp why everyone gets so het up about it, but articles like this certainly give me some insight.

 
At 1:58 PM, Blogger Shell said...

Yeah, I know. I don't know why either, because it's demonstrably untrue, but Christians do tend to argue that without religion we would all be thrashing about in some kind of moral ambiguity, like the people who claim that our legal system is based on the Ten Commandments or some nonsense, when "don't kill each other" is kind of an intuitive requirement for any civilized system (while "don't worship anyone but ME is not).

An apologist I saw recently addressed this idea by saying "If you run into a group of young men in a dark alley don't you feel better if you find out they're coming from a Bible study?" Again, the basis of the claim is that somehow people who study the Bible are inherently moral. But I would feel relieved to find the men were coming from *any* organized event--secular humanist study, book club, Dance Dance Revolution contest, whatever--because it marks them as communal and sociable and not simply wandering the streets looking for victims.

Atheists are a bit touchy, still, I think, because so many people associate atheism, which means nothing but "I don't believe in gods," with Satanism or amoralism or anarchy or whatever and accuse us of being "worse" human beings with no possible moral compass.

 
At 7:36 PM, Blogger gad said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 8:48 PM, Blogger gad said...

Howdy folks --

I’m a little leery about posting this response to the first point of Harris’s essay. I am a Christian, and I haven’t read Harris’s work. Thus, I am almost certainly speaking out of ignorance and inadequate reading and, therefore, guilty of some of the same critiques I make of Harris in the paragraphs that follow. I’ll humbly ask the reader’s patience and forgiveness for these shortcomings (and any others) and hope that readers of Shelly’s blog will take this response as simply an attempt to engage in the conversation. If I do so ineffectively, then Shelly can pull the response, for while Shelly and I differ on this issue, I entirely trust her to discern whether my comments offer anything constructive to her blog.

First, let me say that I’m probably not a member of Harris’s audience. Based on this essay, at least, I don’t get the sense that he’s writing to Christians. Thus, some of my critique may be unfair. That being said, it would come to no one’s surprise that I’m sympathetic to the position that Harris is critiquing—-the assertion that there is no secular basis for morality. However, as with much of Harris’s argument, his depiction of Christian perspectives seems too simplistic. For, at this point in our history (American, Western, human—-take your pick), the sources of our “basis for morality” have become so intertwined that attempting to separate them is almost impossible. I suspect it would be extremely difficult (and probably just as scary) to find anyone who holds a single, unpolluted world view. Any secular basis for morality has—-at least in the West-—been so influenced by the historical and cultural impact of Christianity that it borrows the ethic even if it discards the theology. Similarly, a Christian basis for morality—-because it is interpreted by human beings in space and time—-is influenced by “secular” culture. Of course, the same critique can and should be directed to the small minority of Christians who make Harris’s depiction of Christianity possible.

Any argument that puts “religious dogmatism” at one end of the spectrum and “social construction” at the other is flawed from the beginning, as right and wrong as applied in the lives we (Christians) live are socially constructed anyway. Contemporary Christians read and interpret the Bible differently than medieval Christians, etc. Our understanding of the Biblical text and its ethical content is socially constructed. I think it is this very point that leads me to be wary of Harris. Because our society’s ethics are socially constructed—-which, rightly or wrongly (bad pseudo-pun intended), means some degree of compromise, or at least negotiation-—I think it important that Christian perspectives are a part of the conversation, a part of the construction, just as I think critiques of Christianity need to be a part of that construction. What concerns me most about Harris is that he would, apparently, rather marginalize/extinguish Christian perspectives. Without having read more of his work, I may be unfair in making the following statement, but based on this essay, it seems that Harris is simply asserting his own brand of fundamentalism. I’m suspicious of such assertions, regardless of the person voicing them.

Second, I’m suspicious of the extent to which Harris is utilizing what I would call a “Christian straw man.” Perhaps I’m too far into the forest to see what Harris sees, but I take assertions like the “widespread […] fear of secular moral chaos” as mere hyperbole. Yes, there is a more vocal, conservative, fundamentalist strain of Christianity that emphasizes this message and needs to be engaged, but to equate all Christian belief with that perspective-—with that fear—-is ridiculous, particularly if one looks at the lives of the many rather than the rhetoric of the few.

Similarly, I know of no thinking Christian who would assert that the Bible is “a perfect guide to morality.” Many would argue that it is the best guide, but any Christian attempting to utilize the Bible as a moral compass knows that it’s not a “perfect guide,” at least as interpreted and applied in the actual lives of human beings. To assert that the Bible is “a perfect guide to morality” is simply failing to recognize the extent to which Biblical interpretation is, as mentioned earlier, a rhetorical and socially constructed act. Because the act of interpretation falls to human beings, those interpretations will be better or worse, more or less informed, but never “perfect.” For Harris to characterize the Christian position in such terms strikes me either as misinformed, disingenuous, or manipulative. Harris’s references to “objective morality” seem to function in a similar manner, ignoring the complexities to construct (or select) a version of Christianity that amounts to a straw man. Again, I’m not denying that there are Christian voices that make such a straw man rhetorically effective for Harris; I’m simply suspicious of his choice to build his argument upon those particular voices.

Lastly, I want to agree with Harris when he asserts that “we decide what is good in the Good Book.” But, again, the majority of Christians would also recognize and agree with this assertion. I would go a step further, however, and also assert that there are better and worse ways of reading. If one is going to critique Christianity using its own text-—and one is certainly welcome to do so—-one needs to read the Bible at least as well as the proponents of that text. In the case of Christianity, where so many of us don’t read our Bibles and certainly don’t read them well, one would hope that a critic would read that text even more effectively. Harris does not. In fact, at least in this essay, he reads the Bible in the exact same fashion as those he criticizes. He demonstrates no understanding of the Bible as a complete text. He makes no recognition of the different genres (e.g., history, narrative, poetry, epistle, etc.) contained in the Bible and how those genres might need to be considered differently. He’s simply picking out the quote texts that illustrate his particular point. Until he can demonstrate a more effective reading of the Bible, I have no more sympathy for his argument than I do for Christians who appropriate a different set of decontextualized verses to further their political agendas.

Again, I grant that Harris’s audience is probably not a Christian one, and for that reason some of my critiques may be unwarranted. But, if Harris’s audience isn’t a Christian one-—at least in part—-then it seems to me that he’s once again adopting the same rhetorical tactics as those who enable his critique. For if he’s not speaking to/with Christians, then he’s not engaging in a dialogue that seeks a greater understanding. If he’s not speaking to/with Christians, then his rhetoric becomes equated more with the pursuit of power than with the pursuit of truth. (Yes, I know that truth is problematic word and can open up an entirely different can of worms, but since Harris’s essay is arguing against any inherent link between “secularism” and moral relativism, the use of truth, or a word very much like it, seems appropriate.)

I’ll end this rather long ramble by agreeing (kind of) with Harris’s own words:

"So the choice before us is simple: we can either have a twenty-first-century conversation about ethics-—availing ourselves of all the arguments and scientific insights that have accumulated in the last two thousand years of human discourse—-or we can confine ourselves to a first-century conversation as it is preserved in the Bible."

Either. Or. It's simply not that simple. However much one might like to do so, one simply cannot sequester Christianity as merely a "first-century conversation" and divorce it from everything that happened in the subsequent 2000 years. For better and worse, Christianity was too much a part of the "arguments and scientific insights" that surface in that time. Harris's argument that we ignore this fact illustrates his own naivete and/or his rather troubling assumptions about the sophistication of his own audience. Worse, it illustrates his own failure to grasp and communicate the nature of the twenty-first-century conversation that he champions. A conversation that I and many others would gladly engage in with him.

Let me end with apologies—-for rambling too long, for rambling on only one of Harris’s three points, for my ignorance of Harris’s larger body of work, for any places where I’m too generous in my depiction of the broader spectrum of Christianity or too snarky in the tone of my response to Harris. It’s been good to think through Harris’s critique, and I thank my friend Shelly and her readers for allowing me to do so. (Even if she decides to pull the response.) :)

gad

 
At 8:54 AM, Blogger Shell said...

Hi Greg! (I can’t believe you thought I might delete you.)

“First, let me say that I’m probably not a member of Harris’s audience. Based on this essay, at least, I don’t get the sense that he’s writing to Christians. “

I’m very hesitant to try to speak for Harris because he’s a much, much better writer and thinker than I am, but I can address a couple of ideas without mucking it up. I think.

He does write for Christians in his “Letter to a Christian Nation,” so you might check that out. It’s a very short book, an easy weekend read.



“That being said, it would come to no one’s surprise that I’m sympathetic to the position that Harris is critiquing—-the assertion that there is no secular basis for morality. However, as with much of Harris’s argument, his depiction of Christian perspectives seems too simplistic. For, at this point in our history (American, Western, human—-take your pick), the sources of our “basis for morality” have become so intertwined that attempting to separate them is almost impossible. I suspect it would be extremely difficult (and probably just as scary) to find anyone who holds a single, unpolluted world view. Any secular basis for morality has—-at least in the West-—been so influenced by the historical and cultural impact of Christianity that it borrows the ethic even if it discards the theology. Similarly, a Christian basis for morality—-because it is interpreted by human beings in space and time—-is influenced by “secular” culture. Of course, the same critique can and should be directed to the small minority of Christians who make Harris’s depiction of Christianity possible.”


I agree with this, and I think SH would too, in the strictest sense. Yes, obviously our culture is very influenced by Christianity and that is worthy of study. I know SH supports Bible as Lit courses in public schools, for example, as do I, because as a literature teacher I want my students to recognize the archetypes of Christianity (many of them older and borrowed from pre- Christian cultures, of course, but still).

His point, though, I think, is more that while Christianity has been influential that doesn’t mean it’s indispensable now, nor does it mean that morality is or ever would have been impossible without it. He’s addressing the people who really present that as a position against non-theism: But how do you know what’s right or wrong?

Here’s where you really need to read his work because I’m going to screw this up: Harris is a neuroscientist, and he believes that morality is a natural evolved component of our brains. Of course morality is cultural, but our basic desire for a moral system and the most basic elements (the “golden rule” for example) are instinctive. We feel good when we treat people well because there is an assumption of reciprocity, and our survival is more likely when we can reasonably assume that we won’t kill each other. I butchered that explanation. Sorry.


“Any argument that puts “religious dogmatism” at one end of the spectrum and “social construction” at the other is flawed from the beginning, as right and wrong as applied in the lives we (Christians) live are socially constructed anyway. Contemporary Christians read and interpret the Bible differently than medieval Christians, etc. Our understanding of the Biblical text and its ethical content is socially constructed.”


Well, yeah. He would not only agree with this he uses it to argue, broadly, that there’s no reason to believe that the Bible represents any transcendent truth if it’s as dependant upon interpretation as any other text and, more specifically to this discussion, that a Christian who decides that medieval readings of the Bible are barbaric or that the Inquisition was wrong or (as Stacey comments above) that the OT isn’t so much a good source for modern morality is proving his point: We’re fully capable of discerning morality outside of that context. You’re calling on something outside the religion to make that choice, that this or that aspect doesn’t work morally for you, thus demonstrating that there is a morality beyond it, which he calls a secular morality since it’s outside the religious teachings.


“ I think it is this very point that leads me to be wary of Harris. Because our society’s ethics are socially constructed—-which, rightly or wrongly (bad pseudo-pun intended), means some degree of compromise, or at least negotiation-—I think it important that Christian perspectives are a part of the conversation, a part of the construction, just as I think critiques of Christianity need to be a part of that construction. What concerns me most about Harris is that he would, apparently, rather marginalize/extinguish Christian perspectives. Without having read more of his work, I may be unfair in making the following statement, but based on this essay, it seems that Harris is simply asserting his own brand of fundamentalism. I’m suspicious of such assertions, regardless of the person voicing them.”


You lost me with fundamentalism. I’m not sure what you mean because I see that term as unyielding adherence to doctrine. What would count as his doctrine? (One interesting point that Harris makes is that the “fundamentalists” are right, not wrong, about their religion. He’s pretty harsh on moderates and liberals.) I can say (again, butchering it I’m sure) that he argues as a scientist above all else, and his main problem with religion is its embrace of non-reason. He sees anything that encourages or enables people to be content with “faith” as opposed to pursuing truth as culturally dangerous.



“Second, I’m suspicious of the extent to which Harris is utilizing what I would call a “Christian straw man.” Perhaps I’m too far into the forest to see what Harris sees, but I take assertions like the “widespread […] fear of secular moral chaos” as mere hyperbole. Yes, there is a more vocal, conservative, fundamentalist strain of Christianity that emphasizes this message and needs to be engaged, but to equate all Christian belief with that perspective-—with that fear—-is ridiculous, particularly if one looks at the lives of the many rather than the rhetoric of the few. “


So you don’t think Christianity is necessary for morality in our culture? I thought you were suggesting such when I first read this, but now I think I’m reading it wrong. If you were merely saying that Christianity contributed to our cultural ideas of morality as they evolved then I agree with that. I don’t think it means Christianity is necessary to morality though, any more than I think it proves the existence of the supernatural. This is the real source of my atheism, by the way, and always has been, that I just don’t feel any pull toward the supernatural. I don’t believe in ghosts or heavens or omniscience or resurrection or any of those things. It’s really no more personal than that. I didn’t start getting into the more aggressive (I wish I had a better word…) pro-atheism stuff until I moved to Oklahoma and got bombarded with the aggression of the Christians here. It made me angry. I was never angry before; I never thought about it much at all. It’s different now, I admit.

Anyway, I guess your reaction to the quotation depends on how you define “widespread,” but this is probably the most common question I’ve gotten from people who are suspicious of atheism so I confess I took it at face value that he was right about how common it is generally. Without god how would we know right from wrong? It’s pretty easy, actually. Don’t hurt each other. Treat people as ends, not means. Take responsibility for your own choices and actions. Etc. You’re in a better position to know, though, so if you say most religious people don’t see religion as the only way to derive a moral code than I’ll believe you.


“Similarly, I know of no thinking Christian who would assert that the Bible is “a perfect guide to morality.” Many would argue that it is the best guide, but any Christian attempting to utilize the Bible as a moral compass knows that it’s not a “perfect guide,” at least as interpreted and applied in the actual lives of human beings. To assert that the Bible is “a perfect guide to morality” is simply failing to recognize the extent to which Biblical interpretation is, as mentioned earlier, a rhetorical and socially constructed act. Because the act of interpretation falls to human beings, those interpretations will be better or worse, more or less informed, but never “perfect.” For Harris to characterize the Christian position in such terms strikes me either as misinformed, disingenuous, or manipulative.”



This fascinates me because it’s so reasonable and so…not what I hear other people say. 

But my question about it is: What’s the point then? If people believe that the Bible is the word of GOD, then I see precisely why they would want to follow it because a big part of the point of GOD is his infallibility. But if you don’t believe that…why care about him? Why even believe in him? If some bits of the Bible aren’t perfect, which can only mean that they aren’t accurate, how do you know which parts are accurate? How do you keep the Christian God without the Bible as his word? Isn’t the Bible the “proof” for all the foundational claims? Who would know the story of Christ without it?

Harris really goes after moderates and liberals in this regard, I’m afraid, because he argues that they can’t have it both ways. Either the word is infallible, which allows them to believe the impossible without proof (deities, virgin birth, resurrection, miracles, etc.) or it isn’t, in which case the FIRST things we should question should be the impossible ones, the ones least likely to be true.


“In fact, at least in this essay, he reads the Bible in the exact same fashion as those he criticizes. He demonstrates no understanding of the Bible as a complete text. He makes no recognition of the different genres (e.g., history, narrative, poetry, epistle, etc.) contained in the Bible and how those genres might need to be considered differently.”



Well, in fairness I think this is outside the very limited scope of this piece. He’s just addressing the “how can we be moral without god” question. If you’re interested, check out his online debate with Andrew Sullivan here: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/209/story_20904_1.html

It covers a lot more ground, and I’m getting increasingly uncomfortable with trying to paraphrase him because, again, he’s a much better writer than I.

I still can’t believe you thought I would censor you. I miss you very much, my dear friend. Write anything you want here any time.

 
At 8:59 AM, Blogger Shell said...

OK, I can't make that link work. That should be "html" at the end, obviously.

 
At 4:57 AM, Blogger The Freelance Cynic said...

Way to start a debate girl. I'm proud of you. ^__^
It is important to remember that the bible has next to no historical accuracy and can not be reliably used to prove anything...

 
At 4:23 AM, Blogger Jerri said...

Oh, the things I should write about my arguments with fellow scientists about Sam Harris.

Herein lies my dilemma, I'm both a social scientist and a Christian. I agree Shelley, that Harris's problem with religion is that he believes it is in essence non-reason. I do not view "faith" as non-reason. I view faith as I view love. Just because something cannot be operationally defined does not mean it does not exist. (I know many of my colleagues just fainted, but so be it). I do not think that pursuing truth always has to be separated from acknowledging faith. The word "faith" has become a dirty word to many people, and I'm not arguing that there are good reasons for this, however, faith has another meaning for me. I have faith that my children will be okay everyday while they are away from me (otherwise, I would be a big pile of crazy worrying about them). I have faith that reasonable people will use their commmon sense and morality (secular or religious) to do the things that keep people safe, to follow the rule of law, to help others in need, to listen to others with an open mind.

I totally understand, Shelley, how you feel bombarded with crazy Christian nutjobs who do not respect you as a human being (and this is definitely much more prevalent in Oklahoma) but, being in the academic community has subjected me to the same "it's my way or the highway attitudes" on the other side of the coin.

So my mantra lately is, "open discussion of all opinions and beliefs are necessary for the function of civilized society." I don't have to believe everything (or anything for that matter) you believe, but I must respect your right to believe it.

 
At 9:35 AM, Blogger Shell said...

Jerri, you might like Daniel Dennett's work. He talks about religion as an evolved impulse and it's very interesting.

Harris makes similar claims about love, actually, that it's perfectly explainable by science as an evolutionary development that allows us to survive better as a species, just like the moral conscience and other emotional experiences. Plenty of other animals display loving behaviors, even to the point of sacrificing themselves for their young or for other members of their community. It seems reasonable to me to assume our more complex emotional capabilities are also part of our general evolutionary complexity.

I know some say this is reducing love to electrical impulses in the brain and that makes it less special and perfect, but I don't agree. Love is still precious, just like our higher reasoning is precious and our ability to laugh is precious. They're precious because we make them so, not because they've been affirmed from some external authority. We're cool. (We can certainly be awful too, no question, but in so many ways--we're awesome.) The awesomeness is in no way diminished for being viewed as the result of natural forces as opposed to supernatural ones.

 
At 1:51 PM, Blogger Jerri said...

I am very familiar with Dennett because of his influence on Cognitive Sciences and because Philosophy and Psychology are so intertwined. Not to mention I have had many courses in evolutionary psychology (where Dennett and Dawkin's books were de rigueur). Maybe, it is strange for someone, such as me, who has been educated in Evolutionary Psychology, Philosophy, and hard and soft sciences, to be Christian, Hey, even I find it strange! :)

PS. This could be why I am getting a degree in Psychology; it is my attempt to analyze my Multiple Personality Disorder and to correct my cognitive dissonance regarding religion and science. NAW….I just want to know what makes people tick.

 
At 2:30 PM, Blogger Shell said...

I had no idea that Dennett was that entrenched--and I knew Dawkins was the man in evolutionary biology but not evo psych. I've only read their books dealing with theism, so you know more about them than I do. Was I right? Did you like Dennett?

I feel dumb now, because I didn't even think about evo psych as something every psych major would necessarily spend a lot of time with, though it makes sense now that you tell me. I've always had the impression it was a bit dodgy, like people using it to justify sexism or racism. Clearly I know almost nothing on the subject.

I think of Dennett as a philosopher not a psychologist. I need to put down the tv remote and go to the library...

 

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