The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Rational to the End

May 16th, 2006 · No Comments · Uncategorized

Religion is a foul bane to the ultra-rational, and lo, how it grinds their nerves to witness otherwise normal humans submit to fantasy. I’ve read many attempts to convince the faithful of their irrational error, and have noticed that people continue to go to churches and temples. Sam Harris is very entertaining in this interview pluging his new book, as he takes up the time worn gauntlet.

Harris takes the position that all religion should be abandoned. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater, he says there’s room in 21st Century ethical discussions for any good idea from the past, implying that he wouldn’t spend a lot of time looking for them. He makes a number of good points, but he also uses some of the same rationalist arguments that I typically see used against astrology. Harris even uses astrology as one of the straw men, as if to emphasize that pedigree.

I can’t say that I disagree with his premise. I’m not so sure that the world wouldn’t be better off without organized religion. There are a couple of points that betray his general lack of understanding of religious experience in general, and this gives me some pause to consider whether this lack of understanding may have blocked a full examination.

Judeo-Christian theology is a beast built from the corpses of dozens of earlier cultures, and has become the modern hydra from which nearly all forms of Western religious expression spring. It is an impossible task to remove this from the edifice of culture, as it is the foundation and the columns supporting all that we know today. Even the suggestion that religion could somehow end or go away is strangely irrational.

Harris clearly discounts the spiritual side of spirituality as personalized psychosis, and so doesn’t understand the motivations or the expectations of the spiritually motivated. Using an example of some caricature of Christ physically manifesting as a bad reason to claim knowledge of the historical Jesus is an odd non-sequitor, and not one I’m familiar with in my studies. Frankly, I am not convinced Harris has ever had a spiritual experience that he didn’t rationalize away as hormones or indigestion.

Organized religion is one of many social manifestations of man’s natural tendency to discover patterns in things he otherwise knows nothing about. Science is a modern religion, with labs instead of churches, and a much more lucrative connection to the industrial-military complex. It’s a modern religion with new beliefs and new ideas; and it is full of true believers and apologists, saints and doctrine. What Sam Harris is arguing here is not for the end of religion, he is calling for the end of all religions but his own.