No End of Faith

Monday, January 03, 2005

I thank reader Tom Miovas in for the title of this post, which I have shamelessly ripped off from an email of his.

Stick your neck out....

I finally got around to reviewing Sam Harris's book this weekend and now, not being Dan Rather, have to issue a partial retraction! I have turned out to be wrong about my overall assessment of the book as "beneficial in the main." Though I stand by many of the points I made in that review, especially those that I made about the book's many serious deficiencies, I have to revise my estimate of its author's intentions.

On that score, I recall that Ayn Rand once wrote in an essay ("Philosophical Detection," I think it was.) that corrupt intellectuals will often traffic in the language of the vague and the approximate when peddling their wares, and count on their readers thinking along the lines of, "Oh, but he couldn't possibly mean that!" There's no sense beating around the bush: I fell for it. Yes, the text was rambling and often unclear. Yes, it wasn't clear where Harris was going with the techniques of Eastern mysticism, but it's clear now.

Before I continue, let me state again what I thought would be the worst possible thing Sam Harris could have done in his book. "Indeed, my worst fear for this book is that [Harris] ... will champion some new version of revealed truth as a means of knowledge. He would then end up aiding religion while appearing to champion reason." He is basically doing this. His method is similar to that of the environmentalists, who dress their political agenda in scientific clothing in order to reap the credibility of science for their irrational cause. What Harris does is dress the Kantian attack on reason in the language of neuroscience in order to sell his brand of mysticism to his readers. (This I did point out, but failed to fully appreciate why he was doing it at the time.) Perhaps this is why animal "rights" activist Peter Singer gave the book such a glowing review on its dustjacket.

So why my change of heart? I was already thinking about posting further on this book when I realized that part of my analysis was in error. The mistake? I repeatedly noted that many of the ideas espoused by Harris are already common in our culture and that he really wasn't introducing anything new on the bad side of the ledger. Unfortunately, the whole often exceeds the sum of the parts in an argument and this is precisely where the error of my analysis lies.

Harris is indeed asking questions whose time has come. He makes numerous observations from the historical record which support asking these questions, as well. But throughout the book, he argues sloppily and gradually tosses in one bad idea after another. The effect is to overwhelm the reader to the point that he becomes mentally exhausted and loses track of where Harris is going. I once read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, who used a similar tactic. His arguments were also sloppy and "supported" by a huge assortment of facts, including lurid pictures from the livestock industry. However, these facts did not, in any way make the notion that animals have rights any more true. So it is with Harris's book. Yes, ideas move men, even to the point of killing themselves and others. Yes, faith is dangerous and has ruined entire societies throughout history. But no, this doesn't make Eastern mysticism the path to enlightenment.

So my analysis was partly wrong, but the clincher is that there is now a website that makes Harris's intent with respect to mysticism abundantly clear. As its main page states: "The Faithless Community launched December 5, 2004 [around 6-8 weeks after I saw him on Fox News] with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith. We highly recommend this important work." From this mission statement (which, curiously, lies elsewhere):

It is the mission of United Universists to provide humanity the vibrant and positive alternative to traditional religions that millions are seeking. That alternative is Universism. [No it isn't.]

Traditional religions proclaimed authoritative answers for the most important questions we will ever face. Universism announces the true hope of an individual quest, understanding the reality that no one knows for certain [emphasis added]. We are each grappling with the mystery; finally engaging in the true human experience.

Universist themes will serve as a societal antidote to faith, uniting existing freethinkers and generating millions more. Universism will be an alternative to faith for the entire spectrum of human cultures and perspectives. [Like Moslem culture? Like Nazi culture?]

United Universists will grow through local groups and online communication. Some Universist groups will provide social functions, education, and engage in community outreach. Some groups will keep looser association and gather primarily for special projects or functions. Many will fit in between. The diversity from which Universism derives strength will be reflected in our local groups.

From now on, all people interested in our awe-inspiring universe will have the opportunity to find fellowship with others passionate about the search. United Universists makes this its mission.

If this somehow doesn't sound like New Age pap, just proceed to the FAQ. Here's a tiny sampler. My comments are in boldface.

[Universism] is a progressive, naturalistic worldview in which all meaning and purpose is understood through personal reason and experience. This allows for belief in a supernatural first cause, as in Deism, or a conception of the universe as explaining itself, as in Atheism [sic]. Metaphysics is whatever floats your boat.

Universism says no rational religious philosophy can claim certainty... there is no revealed book, no faith, no dogma, so anything we know about the universe and our place in it is due to hard won reasoning and world experience, something everyone has to share. Universists value their religious perspective in terms of its approximation to apparent reality, yet also derive inspiration from the fact that no one knows for certain. Reason cannot lead to certainty.

A person's perception of reason is relative. Subjectivism. Whatever waxes your lance, man! So maybe you're calling "my reason" "faith"? Hmmmm?

Universism identifies and aggressively addresses [this] essential emotional aspects of religion[: t]he sense that we are part of something greater than us individually. We aren't really individuals, as Harris claims in the book.

As for the development of one ethics, this is tricky because morality can be culturally and individually subjective. From a societal standpoint, many Universists believe the basics of John Stuart Mill's "Harm Principle" provide an ample reason-based ethical framework... From wikipedia: Utilitarianism: "The greatest good for the most people." or: "The greatest good over the least pain." A theory that the morality of any action or law is defined by its utility. [Utility? For whom?]

Is the statement "There is no absolute Truth" itself an absolute Truth? No, rather "There is is no absolute Truth" actually includes the statement "There is no absolute Truth." Contradiction is OK.

This stuff goes on and on and on. Nothing is certain. Reason doesn't see real truth. If someone decides your life can be sacrificed for the "greatest good for the most people," that's OK, and you're not really an individual anyway, so shut your dogma-hole! This collection of beliefs will not bring world peace, but will just as surely bring death and destruction as any other irrationalist movement.

This movement represents, not the adoption of reason, but emotionalism, which is not the opposite -- in essence or in result when put into practice -- of faith.

I am afraid I was snookered for awhile by Sam Harris and maybe by the hope that his book couldn't possibly be this bad. His book, as an attempt to sell new-age looniness as a "replacement" for traditional religion is, in fact, as bad as I'd feared. Even worse, it is a bald attempt to cash in on the Islamofascist atrocities of September 2001. Sam Harris seemed convinced of the rectitude of his cause the day I saw him on Fox News, and maybe he was. But then Osama bin Laden can certainly cast quite the beatific smile. I guess we can now start thinking of Sam Harris as a construction worker helping to pave the Road to Hell....

But yes, I still say that the book is an important one: as one whose influence we should be on the lookout for.

-- CAV

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