In today’s news I’ve posted a link to an opinion piece by Sam Harris in the Washington Post’s ‘On Faith’ section, titled “The Problem with Atheism“. As things sometimes get lost in the mass news avalanche that is the TDG news briefs, I thought it worth singling out as being worth a read (and discussion). While I don’t agree with all that Sam Harris says, there are a load of great points made in this essay. Harris is still confrontational (when it comes to things he thinks are just plain stupid), but he advocates a less combative approach to strange beliefs, and more an emphasis on promoting the value of “intellectual honesty”.
While parts of the essay are largely focused towards removing the stigma attached to (and arguments against) atheism as a philosophy, Harris does touch on another issue which has seen him fall foul of materialist hard-liners such as James Randi:
The last problem with atheism I’d like to talk about relates to the some of the experiences that lie at the core of many religious traditions, though perhaps not all, and which are testified to, with greater or lesser clarity in the world’s “spiritual” and “mystical” literature.
Those of you who have read ‘The End of Faith’, know that I don’t entirely line up with Dan, Richard, and Christopher in my treatment of these things. So I think I should take a little time to discuss this. While I always use terms like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, and take some pains to denude them of metaphysics, the email I receive from my brothers and sisters in arms suggests that many of you find my interest in these topics problematic…
…Leaving aside all the metaphysics and mythology and mumbo jumbo, what contemplatives and mystics over the millennia claim to have discovered is that there is an alternative to merely living at the mercy of the next neurotic thought that comes careening into consciousness. There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.
As such, the essay ends up as somewhat of a dichotomy on rationalist thought. Harris begins the essay by extolling the virtue of promoting rational, logical thought, and ends by saying we (and specifically mentioning scientists) should sometimes try and quiet this aspect of our mind, and just ‘be’, for our ‘spiritual’ well-being. It’s an important thing to note though, as most debates on this question either advocate one or the other, when perhaps it’s balance that is needed more than anything. I would casually note as well that Harris’s essay brings up another often neglected facet of this debate, in that there is a difference between religious faith, and religious experience.
All in all though, very nice to see someone like Harris exploring these issues, rather than spouting the usual dogmatic utterances against the evils/delusion of religion.