Posts Tagged ‘letter to a christian nation’

Ukip Shipping Forecast

21/01/2014

SilvesterFloods

Further to my recent post challenging some of the country’s “top” theologians to say a word in public to denounce Ukip’s David Silvester’s decidedly Old Testament take on the recent storms and floods that have been battering the country, you can listen to a very amusing spoof edition by Nicholas Pegg of the Shipping Forecast here.

Ukip councillor David Silvester displays a disgraceful lack of ‘scholarship’ in the face of Britain’s recent floods. But will the ‘scholars’ actually correct him on it?

19/01/2014

SilvesterFloods

Ukip councillor David Silvester has recently drawn a link between meteorology and morality by publishing a letter saying that he warned prime minster David Cameron last year that Britain would face a spot of the old divine judgment for passing gay marriage laws that fly the face of the Bible’s teachings of a kind that The Right Reverend Graham Dow drew in response to the flooding in his North Yorkshire constituency in July 2007.  Silvester’s comments have been widely reported by the World’s media: BBC News, ITV News, Channel 4, The Daily Mail, Toronto Sun, London Evening Standard, The Huffington Post.

This from The Daily Telegraph’s report:

David Silvester, who defected from the Conservatives in protest at David Cameron’s support for same-sex unions, claimed he had warned the Prime Minister that the legislation would result in “disasters”.

The Henley-on-Thames councillor said that the country had been “beset by storms” since the passage of the new law on gay marriage because Mr Cameron had acted “arrogantly against the Gospel”.

In a letter to the Henley Standard he wrote: “The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war.

“I wrote to David Cameron in April 2012 to warn him that disasters would accompany the passage of his same-sex marriage bill.

“But he went ahead despite a 600,000-signature petition by concerned Christians and more than half of his own parliamentary party saying that he should not do so.”

Blaming the Prime Minister for the bad weather, he added: “It is his fault that large swathes of the nation have been afflicted by storms and floods.

“He has arrogantly acted against the Gospel that once made Britain ‘great’ and the lesson surely to be learned is that no man or men, however powerful, can mess with Almighty God with impunity and get away with it for everything a nation does is weighed on the scaled of divine approval or disapproval.”

In my recent post deriding theology as a proper academic discipline, I drew on my review of Christian apologist Peter S Williams’ response to the New Atheists, A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism and criticised the theologians for being all theory and no practice:

Avoiding the real issues

Williams’ contribution is fatally flawed along with the other “flea” books by self-proclaimed “scholars”, because it only addresses barely a quarter of the arguments of the Four Horsemen, namely whether or not God exists, without saying a word in defence of the effects of organised religion on the world.

Unfortunately, religion is not just about the sophisticated ponderings of scholars in ivory towers debating the finer points of the Trinity.  It has an effect on every single one of us, whether we like it or not.

(…)

Like all theology and religious philosophising, Williams’ new book is all theory and precious little practice.  Accordingly, there is nothing about the foul rantings of Falwell and Robertson, the teaching of junk-science in schools classrooms, the destruction of the Twin Towers, the abuse of children by hell-fire preaching clergymen and the discouraging of condom use by the Catholic Church in sub-Saharan African where c. 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS each year.

The simple fact is that Williams’ subtle brand of nuanced religion has very little impact on the way that religion is actually practised.  Alistair McGrath got his feathers all ruffled in response to Dawkins and bleated on (at probably more speaking engagements than he was invited to in his career preceding publication of The God Delusion) about the importance of challenging those who take an overly literalist approach to the scriptures.

Yet when, in July 2007, the Bishop of Carlisle informed us all that the floods in Northern Yorkshire were divine retribution for laws permitting homosexual marriage did McGrath say a word in public to admonish the Right Reverend Graham Dow for his unsophisticated take on matters?  Like hell he did!

I believe that comments of the kind made by the Bishop of Carlisle and David Silvester would be perfect opportunities for “serious scholars” to confront head-on the “extremists” of their own faiths and show that they are prepared to police their religions rather than leaving it up to the godless heretics to do so in their “shrill” and “strident” fashion.

I have therefore sent the link to this post to four of the “fleas” who railed against the New Atheists for their supposed failure to engage with the best of Christian “scholarship” in their books: Alister McGrath (author of The Dawkins Delusion?), David Robertson (author of The Dawkins Letters), John Cornwell (author of Darwin’s Angel) and Peter S Williams (author of A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism), inviting them to issue a public denunciation of Silvester of the kind they singularly failed to do in the face of the then Bishop of Carlisle’s shockingly unsubtle, Old Testament take on the situation.

I have also forwarded the post to the host Premier Christian Radio’s sceptical debate show, Unbelievable?, Justin Brierley and former opponents, Andy Bannister and Peter Harris.

My covering emails are in the comments section and I will publish any response I receive.

“Scholars”: Please prove me wrong so I can find another pastime.

Against Theology

20/12/2013

This draft has been sitting in My Documents folder for quite a while.  Since I have recently been chided for my lack of serious “scholarship” (note the scare quotes) while debating on David Robertson’s blog on the question of whether Stalin was influenced by Darwin and evolution and my reply involved delving into this draft and copying any pasting the links and quotes, I thought that now would be as good a time as any to complete and publish the draft.

Some of most entertaining articles I have ever read have been those debunking theology.  There’s something so pompous and self-important about all theologians I have encountered.  When I first started reading the reactions to Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion, one of the more stinging comments was that he has not engaged in any serious Christian or Jewish theology.  No discussion of the finer details of the Trinity.  No dissection of the Transubstantiation.  As US evolutionary biologist, H Allen Orr, put it in his lengthy review:

[T]he result is that The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents.  You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?)…  Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow.  Dawkins’s intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science populariser.

Richard, what were you thinking committing such a gapping hole in your research?

Nevertheless, Dawkins has hit back at this criticism both before and after the publication of his book.   Dawkins’ response to Oxford University’s Christian theologian Alister McGrath’s criticisms that he has a poor grasp of theology in his 2004 book, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes And The Meaning of Life:

Yes, I have, of course, met this point before.  It sounds superficially fair.  But it presupposes that there is something in Christian theology to be ignorant about.  The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject.  It is empty.  Vacuous.  Devoid of coherence or content.  I imagine that McGrath would join me in expressing disbelief in fairies, astrology and Thor’s hammer.  How would he respond if a fairyologist, astrologer or Viking accused him of ignorance of their respective subjects?

The only part of theology that could possibly demand my attention is the part that purports to demonstrate that God does exist.  This part of theology I have, indeed, studied with considerable attention.  And found it utterly wanting.

Spot on.  Ninety-nine percent of all theology simply assumes that God exists; the content of the Bible is literally or metaphorically “true” and proceeds from there.  For an atheist to start arguing against the Trinity and assert that God is not one in three, but one in five would be to accept God’s existence implicitly and therefore contradict their core position!  Learned theological treatises among Christian theologians (and those of any other religion for that matter) have no more scientific or intellectual content than the discussion of Norse-like gods between Conan and his companion, Subotai, in Conan The Barbarian at the beginning of this post.  The cue to Basil Poledouris’ (wonderful) score is even called “Theology”!

Science blogger Jason Rosenhouse’s reply to Orr’s review, “Orr On Dawkins”, elaborates further:

Dawkins provides no serious discussion of Jewish or Christian theology?  Of course not, because such theology is mostly irrelevant to how religion is actually practiced.  Theology is an academic pursuit, and like many such pursuits it concerns itself primarily with esoterica far removed from people’s actual lives. Much Christian theology in particular tends to take the form of viewing the Bible as a complex cipher, one that requires years of training to understand properly.

And since Orr is criticizing Dawkins’ superficiality, it is a bit rich for him to reduce Augustine’s views to the slogan that he rejected biblical literalism.  Augustine did take the view that the Bible should be interpreted in as literal a way as possible, and in some of his writing he even endorsed a young-Earth position.  He was willing to countenance a somewhat allegorical interpretation of Genesis, but that was only because he felt the Bible should not be read in a way that contradicts what clear scientific evidence is telling us.  A worthy sentiment, certainly, but not one that finds much theological justification.

At any rate, Dawkins is perfectly aware that many serious Christians do not accept Biblical literalism.  So what?  Dawkins’ book is primarily about the reasonableness of believing in a creator God, and on the social impact of widespread religious belief.  The minutiae of different schools of Christian thought just isn’t the concern of this book.

The rest of this post will provide further resources and pithy sound bites giving this pseudo-intellectual non-subject that is needless contributing to the destruction of the rainforests and the worsening of climate change the respect it deserves.

Thomas Jefferson (quoted in The God Delusion [London: Transworld Publishers, 2007, p. 55]):

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity.  It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ:

Anyone with theologian blood in his veins will approach things with a warped and deceitful attitude.  This gives rise to a pathos that calls itself faith: turning a blind eye to yourself for once and for all, so you do not have to stomach the sight of incurable mendacity.  This universally faulty optic is made into a morality, a virtue, a holiness, seeing-wrong is given a good conscience, – other types of optic are not allowed to have value any more now that this one has been sanctified with names like “God”, “redemption”, and “eternity”.  I have unearthed the theologian instinct everywhere: it is the most widespread and genuinely subterranean form of deceit on earth.  Anything a theologian thinks is true must be false: this is practically a criterion of truth.

Sam Harris defines the God of the religious community at large:

We can talk about religion as it is for most people most of the time, or we can talk about what religion could be, or should be.  Or perhaps what it is for the tiniest minority of people…

If we talk about consciousness and the laws of nature, we won’t be talking about the God that most of our neighbours believe in, which is a personal god, who hears our prayers and occasionally answers them…

The God that our neighbours believe in is essentially an invisible person.  It’s a creator deity, who created the universe to have a relationship with once species of primate.  Lucky us!

He’s got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to but he’s especially concerned with what we do, and he’s especially concerned with what we do while naked.  He most certainly does not approve of homosexuality.  And he has created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity.  And the test is this: Can you believe in this God on bad evidence, which is to say on faith.  And if you can you will win an eternity of happiness after you die.

And it’s precisely this sort of god or this sort of scheme that you must believe in if you are to have any kind of future in politics in this country, no matter what your gifts.  You could be an unprecedented genius, you could look like George Clooney, you could have a billion dollars and you could have the social skills of Oprah, and you are going nowhere in politics in this country unless you believe in that sort of God.

So we can talk about anything we want – I’m happy to talk about consciousness – but please notice that when we migrate away from the God that is really shaping human events or the God-talk that is really shaping human events in our world at this moment.

Harris damns all theological discourse in Letter To A Christian Nation: A Challenge To Faith [London: Transworld Publishers, 2007, pp. 65 - 66]:

Consider the recent deliberations of the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of limbo.  Thirty top theologians from around the world recently met at the Vatican to discuss the question of what happens to babies who die without having undergone the sacred rite of baptism.  Since the Middles Ages, Catholics have believed that such babies go to a state of limbo, where they enjoy what St. Thomas Aquinas termed “natural happiness” forever.  This was in contrast to the opinion of St. Augustine, who believed that these unlucky infant souls would spend an eternity in hell.

Though limbo had no real foundation in scripture, and was never official Church doctrine, it has been a major part of the Catholic tradition for centuries.  In 1905, Pope Pius X appeared to fully endorse it: “Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either.”

Can we even conceive of a project more intellectually forlorn than this?  Just imagine what these deliberations must be like.  Is there the slightest possibility that someone will present evidence indicating the eternal fate of unbaptized children after death?  How can any educated person think this anything but a hilarious, terrifying, and unconscionable waste of time?  When one considers the fact that this is the very institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child molesters, the whole enterprise begins to exude a truly diabolical aura of misspent human energy.

To finish with Sam Harris, here’s his summary of religious scientist Francis Collins’ true beliefs:

1.  Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days.

2.  He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven”—where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings.

3.  Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and skeptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos.

4.  Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will be consigned to a far less desirable fate, best left unspecified.

5.  In the meantime, God/Jesus may or may not intervene in our world, as He pleases, curing the occasional end-stage cancer (or not), answering an especially earnest prayer for guidance (or not), consoling the bereaved (or not), through His perfectly wise and loving agency.

How many scientific laws would be violated by such a scheme?  One is tempted to say “all of them.”

Richard Dawkins, “Let’s Hope It’s A Lasting Vogue”:

Athorism is enjoying a certain vogue right now.  Can there be a productive conversation between Valhallans and athorists?  Naïve literalists apart, sophisticated thoreologians long ago ceased believing in the material substance of Thor’s mighty hammer.  But the spiritual essence of hammeriness remains a thunderingly enlightened revelation, and hammerological faith retains its special place in the eschatology of neo-Valhallism, while enjoying a productive conversation with the scientific theory of thunder in its non-overlapping magisterium.  Militant athorists are their own worst enemy.  Ignorant of the finer points of thoreology, they really should desist from their strident and intolerant strawmandering, and treat Thor-faith with the uniquely protected respect it has always received in the past.  In any case, they are doomed to failure.  People need Thor, and nothing will ever remove him from the culture.  What are you going to put in his place?

Richard Dawkins, “The Emptiness of Theology”:

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?  When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious?  I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them.  I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false.  If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming.  If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference?  Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work!  The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything.  What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?

P Z Myer’s, “The Courtier’s Reply”:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship.  He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat.  We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all.  He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D T Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed – how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry – but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste.  His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

Paula Kirby, “Fleabytes”, (Special Topic: The Bible):

We are all familiar with PZ Myers’ inspired “Courtier’s Reply” to allegations of inadequate understanding of the Bible and theology, but there’s another angle to this issue, too, it seems to me, and that is that Dawkins and other atheists are deliberately refusing to take the Bible at anything more than face value.  At first glance this may seem deliberately obtuse but actually it is all part of stripping away the special treatment that has been accorded to faith in our societies.  We are just no longer prepared to read “Show him no pity.  Do not spare him or shield him.  You must certainly put him to death.  Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.  Stone him to death because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 13: 8-10, NIV) and pretend it means “God is love, God is good, God is moral.”

Likewise, when Dawkins argues that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually exclusive (thus provoking shrieks of indignation and scorn from Robertson in this letter), he is simply refusing to engage in the sort of wordplay and casuistry that allow theologians to twist and turn and claim “Ah yes, well, that’s not really what omnipotence means in this context.”  How many theologians have been kept gainlessly employed, how many trees have been felled, to produce and disseminate such sophistry?  And why should a book that requires such reams of debate, disagreement and interpretation before it can be held to make any sense be considered to be the Word of God, for goodness’ sake?

As a result, you don’t need your words to be interpreted, translated, or otherwise made comprehensible by even one go-between, let alone whole university faculties of them.  You are God, for God’s sake – you are perfect and omniscient and omnipotent.  You have the ability to create a book that will light up the world with its goodness and truth and unmistakably divine insight.  A book that will speak directly to any human being in whatever age they live.  A book that speaks incontrovertibly to the heart and mind of any being that opens it – and here’s the thing: EVEN IF THEIR THEOLOGY IS SHOCKINGLY BAD.

If it is necessary to read the Bible in a certain way, through a certain kind of lens, with a willingness to allow words to mean what they do not mean, and not to mean what they do mean; if it can only be made to be not offensive, not repellent, not meaningless after years of in-depth theological study, then your benevolent, all-powerful and all-knowing God cannot have viewed it as a particularly important way of getting his message across.  In which case, it’s hard to see why “evidence” based on it should be taken very seriously.

To conclude with my own contribution to this issue;reviewing Peter S Williams’ reply to Dawkins & Co., A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism:

Avoiding the real issues

Williams’ contribution is fatally flawed along with the other “flea” books by self-proclaimed “scholars”, because it only addresses barely a quarter of the arguments of the Four Horsemen, namely whether or not God exists, without saying a word in defence of the effects of organised religion on the world.

Unfortunately, religion is not just about the sophisticated ponderings of scholars in ivory towers debating the finer points of the Trinity.  It has an effect on every single one of us, whether we like it or not.

I could concede every single word of Alvin Plantinga and say that there are good reasons to believe in God and Christianity and Christians are perfectly justified in doing so.  Hell, I could even go the whole nine yards and say that I actually do believe in God!  That I think that the virgin birth and the resurrection are as true as Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Hitler carrying out the Holocaust and Armstrong landing on the moon!

That still does not in any sense allow Christians to force their beliefs on others.  I cannot deny the existence of Joseph Stalin and Kim Jung Il, but at least I am not forced to obey them.  Even if the Christian doctrine was true, even if the evidence for it was much better, what right would that give Christians to force their beliefs on others?  Exactly the same right as liberals, conservatives and fascists: none whatsoever.

Although the theologians are called to defend religion at the debater’s lectern, ironically, they are not the people with whom I have my main quarrel.  If the theologians ran religion, it would be a far more benign entity and one that perhaps I could live with happily.  It’s not so much belief in ancient myths and fairy tales that angers me; it is the severely negative consequences that these unfounded beliefs have on the world.

If someone wants to believe in the Bible and live according to the teaching of Christianity I can’t stop that.  If they want to encourage other people to share in these beliefs, then I suppose I can’t stop that either.   What I do resent is the effects such unfounded beliefs have and their utter lack of negotiability.  If stopping the effects of religion means cutting it off at the roots and spoiling believers’ blissful ignorance and indulgence in ancient fairytales, then so be it.

Like all theology and religious philosophising, Williams’ new book is all theory and precious little practice.  Accordingly, there is nothing about the foul rantings of Falwell and Robertson, the teaching of junk-science in schools classrooms, the destruction of the Twin Towers, the abuse of children by hell-fire preaching clergymen and the discouraging of condom use by the Catholic Church in sub-Saharan African where c. 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS each year.

The simple fact is that Williams’ subtle brand of nuanced religion has very little impact on the way that religion is actually practised.  Alistair McGrath got his feathers all ruffled in response to Dawkins and bleated on (at probably more speaking engagements than he was invited to in his career preceding publication of The God Delusion) about the importance of challenging those who take an overly literalist approach to the scriptures.

Yet when, in July 2007, the Bishop of Carlisle informed us all that the floods in Northern Yorkshire were divine retribution for laws permitting homosexual marriage did McGrath say a word in public to admonish the Right Reverend Graham Dow for his unsophisticated take on matters?  Like hell he did!

That is all.

Sam Harris: It Is Always Now

10/11/2013

Sam Harris has recently invited the World’s YouTube auteurs to create a montage based on an audio file of his first rebuttal from his debate on morality against Christian apologist/hack/con artist William Lane Craig in 2011.

The above video is taken from Harris’ speech at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne called “Death and the Present Moment”, and is a soothing meditation on the meaning of life to which I have listened more than once in the last week.

Sam Harris: The Ultimate Elvis Presley Gambit

22/09/2013

My final post on Sam Harris’ finest moments before re-examining his 2011 debate on morality against Christian apologist William Lane Craig is quite simply the best put-down I have ever heard in response to religious pseudo-mysticism about personal experience being an argument for God’s existence.  Harris debated Jewish apologist David Wolpe at the American Jewish University, Los Angeles on 6 November 2007 on the topic “Does God Exist?” which in reality turned into a discussion on whether religion was good for the World.

Partway through the debate, Wolpe, to atone for the rather awkward fact that he does not have any evidence for God’s existence, starts harping on about “deepities” such metaphysical reality and everyone having something more in them than they realise.  Harris delivers like Bertrand Russell doing stand-up:

People do this all the time.  You can broadcast this.  This is constrained by our common sense in every other domain of discourse.

Just take, for example, the people who think Elvis is still alive.  What’s wrong with this claim?  Why is this claim not vitiating our academic departments and corporations?

I’ll tell you why, and it’s very simple.  We have not passed laws against believing Elvis is still alive.  It’s just the problem that when anyone seriously represents his belief that Elvis is still alive in a conversation, on a first date, at a lecture, at a job interview, he immediately pays a price [Audience laughs].  He pays a price in ill-concealed laughter.  [Audience laughs louder].

That is a good thing.  Then he could rattle on about, “This is not a scientific claim.  This is a matter of faith.  You know, when I look at you.  I see you.  You might be Elvis.”  He could do this!  [Audience laughs uproariously]

Magic!

Full Debate Video

Full Debate Audio

AllSamHarrisContent: Video Edited to be Only Sam Harris Speaking

Sam Harris: Spirituality for atheists

20/09/2013

As I continue my trawl through the works of Sam Harris in preparation for my posts on his 2011 debate on morality against Christian apologist William Lane Craig, I now turn to Harris’ thoughts on consciousness, for which he has received much criticism from both atheists and theists, some of whom exaggerate his views by making the false allegation that he believes in reincarnation, extra sensory perception (ESP) and telepathy.

The above video is an edited except taken from Harris’ speech to the Atheist Alliance International Conference 2007.  His thoughts on consciousness begin around the 23 minute mark and you can read an edited transcript of his speech on his website:

Those of you who have read The End of Faith, know that I don’t entirely line up with Dan [Dennett], Richard [Dawkins], and Christopher [Hitchens] 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 emails I receive from my brothers and sisters in arms suggests that many of you find my interest in these topics problematic.

First, let me describe the general phenomenon I’m referring to.  Here’s what happens, in the generic case: a person, in whatever culture he finds himself, begins to notice that life is difficult.  He observes that even in the best of times—no one close to him has died, he’s healthy, there are no hostile armies massing in the distance, the fridge is stocked with beer, the weather is just so—even when things are as good as they can be, he notices that at the level of his moment to moment experience, at the level of his attention, he is perpetually on the move, seeking happiness and finding only temporary relief from his search.

We’ve all noticed this.  We seek pleasant sights, and sounds, and tastes, and sensations, and attitudes.  We satisfy our intellectual curiosities, and our desire for friendship and romance.  We become connoisseurs of art and music and film—but our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting.  And we can do nothing more than merely reiterate them as often as we are able.

If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for about an hour, or maybe a day, but then people will begin to ask us “So, what are you going to do next?  Don’t you have anything else in the pipeline?”  Steve Jobs releases the iPhone, and I’m sure it wasn’t twenty minutes before someone asked, “When are you going to make this thing smaller?”  Notice that very few people at this juncture, no matter what they’ve accomplished, say, “I’m done. I’ve met all my goals.  Now I’m just going to stay here eat ice cream until I die in front of you.”  Even when everything has gone as well as it can go, the search for happiness continues, the effort required to keep doubt and dissatisfaction and boredom at bay continues, moment to moment.  If nothing else, the reality of death and the experience of losing loved ones punctures even the most gratifying and well-ordered life.

In this context, certain people have traditionally wondered whether a deeper form of well-being exists.  Is there, in other words, a form of happiness that is not contingent upon our merely reiterating our pleasures and successes and avoiding our pains.  Is there a form of happiness that is not dependent upon having one’s favourite food always available to be placed on one’s tongue or having all one’s friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or having good books to read, or having something to look forward to on the weekend?  Is it possible to be utterly happy before anything happens, before one’s desires get gratified, in spite of life’s inevitable difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?

Harris is a philosopher and a neuroscientist and a harsh critic of organised religion in his books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.  However, he recognises the range of extraordinary mental experiences that people of religious faith profess to have when praying and meditating.  Harris himself has gone on meditation retreats and practised mindful meditation for up to 18 hours a day.

Harris accepts that Jesus, the Buddha and many gurus, yogis and mystics were/are “spiritual” geniuses due to their inspiration and cultivation in their followers of feelings of self-transcending love, awe and ecstasy.  These experiences are available to everyone regardless of their religious faith and ought to be taken seriously by atheists and studied by mainstream science.

Harris is so impressed with the contemplative literature that while he is not an outright “dualist” in believing that the body and the mind are separate and divisible and that we have a “soul” that is capable of surviving death, he has not ruled out the possibility that consciousness can exist outside of the brain.

Harris also gave a speech at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, 2012 called “Death and the Present Moment”, which I highly recommend as an introduction to the concept of mindfulness meditation.

Harris’ ideas on “spirituality” recently persuaded me to go to a meditation and mindfulness class studying the book Going Home: Jesus And Buddha As Brothers by Thich Nhat Hanh; a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has been heavily involved in the peace movement throughout his life and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr.  While I attended all but one the 10 sessions and have gained much from them, I have found certain elements of Hanh’s book frustrating and have been unable to get behind the meaning.  Perhaps my atheistic naturalism and material means that I am unable to let go of my mind as readily as religious believers in the group.

During the course, someone emailed us this TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor from 2008 called “My stroke of insight” where she recounts visiting nirvana upon suffering neural haemorrhaging.   It is an interesting talk and well worth watching.  It reminds me of a recent news story about a man called Malcolm Myatt who had a stroke that completely eliminated his ability to feel sadness, which in turn reminds me of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.  The film’s “high concept” is a medical agency that manipulates and eliminates a person’s memories so they can get over a relationship break up by forgetting the entire relationship and thereby taking away the emotional pain.

This has been a tempting option for me on more than one occasion after a relationship break up and I have researched the possibility of undergoing hypnosis to eliminate the memory of an ex-partner.  However, the general consensus is that it would not work and may even have undesirable consequences.  We (our “selves”) are products of our memories and that is how we learn to live in the World.

It seems lamentable that Jill Bolte Taylor has to have a stroke in order to experience nirvana, while Malcolm Myatt has one to eliminate sadness from his life, and that many other people have to alter their chemical composition of their minds with recreational drugs to achieve a higher level of bliss that is temporary and ultimately false.

Work like you don’t need the money,
Love like you’ve never been hurt,
Dance like nobody’s watching,
Sing like nobody’s listening,
Live like it’s heaven on earth.

- William W. Purkey

I see the above quote cut and pasted on people’s blogs and Facebook pages and it seems a trite and impossibly optimistic statement given how difficult it is to disconnect ourselves emotionally from our memories.

However, in the last few days, a small change has taken over me.  As I will hopefully soon discuss in my upcoming review of Oliver Burkeman’s wonderful anti-self-help guide, The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, happiness (and therefore perhaps nirvana as well) is a concept that all too often considered to be something that will happen to us in the future as long as we eliminate all negative thoughts from our lives and invest as much time, effort and money as we can in our “preferred version of the future”.

Now, I am more mindful of my surroundings, down to the texture of the keys on my laptop as my fingers touch them, the sound of the rain outside my study window, the sounds and smells of my food as I cook it and the feeling of the clothes on my body.

And for my next holiday, whenever that will be, I will look at going away on a meditation retreat in order to learn to focus on the present moment every waking hour of the day.

Sam Harris: Free Will

10/09/2013

HarrisFreeWillCoverI am currently researching an epic pair of posts re-examining Sam Harris’ debate on morality against William Lane Craig from April 2011 at The University of Notre Dame and in particular Craig’s wilful misrepresentation of Harris’ written work.  This has necessitated me engaging in the mammoth – albeit wonderfully rewarding – re-reading Harris’ books, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape and Free Will.

I have always loathed the faithful’s concept of “free will” but have never had the means to tackle it head-on.  I invariably put the term in scare quotes to signify my distain.  It is part of the disgusting branch of theological “thought” called “theodicy”, aka making excuses for your imaginary best friend’s failure to do anything about all the evil and suffering in the World.  Theists argue that God have given us “free will” to act how we please and to believe in him or not and our rejection of him.  However, poor old God’s heart is broken when we abuse our “free will” to reject his boundless love and commit atrocities against our fellow man.

For me, this concept is philosophically and semantically incoherent to the point that I had no idea how to mount an argument against it.  How can you have a choice not to believe in God?  Taking the coward’s way out with Pascal’s Wager is at best feigning a belief in God.  There are plenty of facts about the World that I do not especially like – such as the existence of famine, genocide and the wonderfully designed AIDS virus – but have to accept because there is plenty of evidence for their existence regardless of whether or not I find them comforting.

If presented with sufficient evidence for God’s existence – such as a big face and a booming voice sticking out of the clouds striking sinners down with fire and brimstone rather like the God of the Bible I was made to learn about in school – I would believe.

Harris –v- “Free Will”

In his gem of a short book Free Will, Harris explodes the concept of “free will” as philosophically incoherent and scientifically unsupportable; our thoughts and actions are entirely deterministic.  Here are some of Harris’ key points:

  • You are no more in control of the next thought you think than the next thought I write.  Thoughts appear in your head at random and you have no control over them.  As you try to concentrate on one of Sam Harris’ lectures to which I link below, you may well suddenly think, “Gosh, he does look a bit like Ben Stiller!”
  • You are not free to choose options of which you are not aware.  For example, if someone asks you to think of a film, you would not be able to choose The Maltese Falcon if you have never heard of it.
  • Modern neuro-imagining shows that our brains have formed our decisions seconds, sometimes minutes, before we are aware of them.
  • All of our thoughts and actions are governed by a string of prior causes over which we have no control: genes, upbringing and environment.
  • Even people who believe in “free will” accept that certain medical conditions will affect a person’s thoughts and actions such as depression, diabetes and brain tumours.  Therefore, you have as much “free will” to be a homosexual as you have to be black or white skinned.
  • Compromise positions on “free will” such as “compatibilism” that concede that our thoughts and actions are influenced by prior causes over which we have no control amount to saying “a puppet has free will as long as it loves its strings”.
  • As counter-intuitive as it seems, it makes no more sense than to hate a psychopath who has tried to cut you up with an axe than to hate a grizzly bear who has tried to eat you.
  • Retribution and personal hatred of people makes no sense as we are punishing people for acts for which ultimately they are not responsible.  Our criminal justice should be geared towards protection of the public at large (which does include incarceration) and rehabilitation but not retribution and revenge.
  • If we developed a pill that could cure psychopathy with no side effects, it would make no sense to withhold it from a violent psychopath as a punishment for what they have done.
  • Swallowing determinism whole by “throwing the oars out of the boat” and doing nothing but drift through life and seeing what happens is a course of action over which we have no control and is therefore impossible.  Just try staying in bed and waiting for something to happen: very soon you will feel the urge to get out bed and do something, like eating or going to the loo!
  • Good and evil, morality and happiness do not depend on the existence of “free will”:

In my view, the reality of good and evil does not depend upon the existence of free will, because with or without free will, we can distinguish between suffering and happiness.  With or without free will, a psychopath who enjoys killing children is different from a paediatric surgeon who enjoys saving them.  Whatever the truth about free will, these distinctions are unmistakable and well worth caring about.

  • Personal effort and choice do still count even on a deterministic view of “free will”:

Might free will somehow be required for goodness to be manifest?  How, for instance, does one become a paediatric surgeon?  Well, you must first be born, with an intact nervous system, and then provided with a proper education. No freedom there, I’m afraid.  You must also have the physical talent for the job and avoid smashing your hands at rugby.  Needless to say, it won’t do to be someone who faints at the sight of blood.  Chalk these achievements up to good luck as well.  At some point you must decide to become a surgeon—a result, presumably, of first wanting to become one.  Will you be the conscious source of this wanting?  Will you be responsible for its prevailing over all the other things you want but that are incompatible with a career in medicine?  No.  If you succeed at becoming a surgeon, you will simply find yourself standing one day, scalpel in hand, at the confluence of all the genetic and environmental causes that led you to develop along this line.  None of these events requires that you, the conscious subject, be the ultimate cause of your aspirations, abilities, and resulting behaviour.  And, needless to say, you can take no credit for the fact that you weren’t born a psychopath.

Of course, I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort.  But can you take credit for your disposition to make that effort?   To turn the matter around, am I responsible for the fact that it has never once occurred to me that I might like to be a surgeon?  Who gets the blame for my lack of inspiration?  And what if the desire to become a surgeon suddenly arises tomorrow and becomes so intense that I jettison my other professional goals and enrol in medical school? Would I—that is, the part of me that is actually experiencing my life—be the true cause of these developments?  Every moment of conscious effort—every thought, intention, and decision—will have been caused by events of which I am not conscious.  Where is the freedom in this?

  • Determinism does not undercut the human concept of “love”, yet assists in a better understanding of “hate”:

What many people seem to be missing is the positive side of these truths.  Seeing through the illusion of free will does not undercut the reality of love, for example—because loving other people is not a matter of fixating on the underlying causes of their behaviour.  Rather, it is a matter of caring about them as people and enjoying their company.  We want those we love to be happy, and we want to feel the way we feel in their presence.  The difference between happiness and suffering does not depend on free will—indeed, it has no logical relationship to it (but then, nothing does, because the very idea of free will makes no sense).  In loving others, and in seeking happiness ourselves, we are primarily concerned with the character of conscious experience.

Hatred, however, is powerfully governed by the illusion that those we hate could (and should) behave differently.  We don’t hate storms, avalanches, mosquitoes, or flu.  We might use the term “hatred” to describe our aversion to the suffering these things cause us—but we are prone to hate other human beings in a very different sense.  True hatred requires that we view our enemy as the ultimate author of his thoughts and actions.  Love demands only that we care about our friends and find happiness in their company.  It may be hard to see this truth at first, but I encourage everyone to keep looking.  It is one of the more beautiful asymmetries to be found anywhere.

Harris differs from Daniel Dennett, who defends “free will” simply by redefining its terms:

Fans of Dan’s account—and there are many—seem to miss my primary purpose in writing about free will.  My goal is to show how the traditional notion is flawed, and to point out the consequences of our being taken in by it.  Whenever Dan discusses free will, he bypasses the traditional idea and offers a revised version that he believes to be the only one “worth wanting.”  Dan insists that this conceptual refinement is a great strength of his approach, analogous to other manoeuvres in science and philosophy that allow us to get past how things seem so that we can discover how they actually are.  I do not agree.  From my point of view, he has simply changed the subject in a way that either confuses people or lets them off the hook too easily.

Sam Harris lectures on the illusion of free will

Caltech, 2012:

Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House, 2012:

Bon Mot Book Club, Vancouver, 2012:

Reddit.com Q&A, 2011:

Sam Harris debates Chris Hedges on ‘Religion and Politics: The End of the World?’

08/09/2013

Full Debate MP3 Audio

I am currently researching a pair of epic posts on Sam Harris’ debate on morality against William Lane Craig at The University of Notre Dame in April 2011, together with the latter’s misrepresentation of former’s written work.  This has lead me to re-read all of Harris’ books and re-watch many of his lectures and debates.

Harris encountered American journalist Chris Hedges, author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning and American Fascists: The Christian Right And The War On America at a debate hosted by Truthdig that was held at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) on 22 May 2007.  The debate was moderated by veteran (i.e. old as Methuselah!) journalist Robert Scheer, who swiftly became a de facto second opponent for Harris.

Since the debate was held, Truthdig have released edited video footage; the above video is the most complete version of the debate I have yet found.  However, I would strongly recommend you to download the MP3 audio and listen to the full debate.

Analysis

As I previously posted, I believe that Harris let off Reza Aslan rather lightly in their debate on the same topic a few months earlier.  However, I well and truly hand the Hedges (and Scheer!) debate to Harris.  He has never been one to tear his opponents verbally in half (Hedges was to suffer that fate at the hands of Christopher Hitchens two days later at Berkeley), but he skilfully refutes all his opponents’ charges with his cool, methodically delivery and satirical wit.

The deciding moments come towards the end of the debate around the 87 minute on the tape after Hedges has gone on a diatribe about his personal experiences in the Arab World in the aftermath of 9/11 when he pleads with Harris that the majority of Muslims are not jihad-sympathisers and honour killings “really aren’t all that common”.  Harris’ riposte is unplayable:

Happily, we do not assess public opinion by having New York Times journalists go out and live in the Muslim World, and make friends and get a vibe.

[Audience applause]

A single well-run opinion poll would be worth a thousand years of you wandering around the Middle East…

Scheer immediately interrupts Harris in disbelief preventing him from questioning Hedges further saying, “Wrong, wrong, wrong!  You can’t possibly think that way about polls…  The man’s lived there for 15 years fergodsake!”  An audience member quite rightly shouts out to Scheer, “You’re supposed to be the moderator!”

Harris finally asks Hedges how many people he asked whether they supported suicide bombing while he was living in the Middle East.  He then cites the 2002 Pew polls he examines in The End of Faith that asked 38,000 people in nine Muslim countries whether they supported suicide bombing [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006, pp. 124 – 126].  Hedges does not reply.

Scheer then misrepresents the question that Pew asked by stating that it was conditional on there being a foreign army in occupation that was causing harm to the country with no other weapons available, is suicide bombing a legitimate means of waging war.  Harris immediately corrects him: the question was explicitly religious in its formulation and was “Do you think that suicide bombing of civilian non-combatants in defence of Islam is justified?”

Scheer does not reply further but then tries to change the subject and engages in the kind of moral equivalence for which Harris lambasts leftist commentators such as Noam Chomsky in The End of Faith by asking whether there is a “fundamental moral difference” between 9/11 and the Vietnam War, the area bombing of Germany and the dropping of the A-Bombs on Japan by the Allies in World War II.

Harris replies by stating that he will not speak for a moment in defence of Vietnam or even the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “which could be given a plausible rationale for self-preservation”, that it is unlikely we could fight war like we did in World War II since we have learned from its horrors and this has prevented us from going casually onto the battlefield.

But yes, suicide bombing is morally worse as it should be impossible as it is the least rational thing and is made all the more appalling by the celebration of it by the family and neighbours of the perpetrators.  Furthermore, it occurs in conflicts that have nothing to do with America: in the Iran-Iraq War children were goaded out by their mothers to clear minefields.

You can tell a great deal about someone’s position by asking what would change their mind.  I wonder what would convince Hedges and Scheer that terrorists were motivated by their religion since they both bend over backwards to blame anything but religion.  As Harris pointed out earlier in the debate, he is simply taking these people at their word and they are telling us why they are carrying out these acts ad nauseum.  Suicide bombing is no more a secular activity than prayer or taking communion.

Aftermath

Since his encounter with Harris and destruction at the hands of Hitchens, Hedges went on a mission to discredit the New Atheists with his 2008 “flea” tract, I Don’t Believe In Atheists.  Following Hedges’ opening speech, Harris states that Hedges has misrepresented his views on torture, consciousness and spirituality.  After the debate, Hedges seems to have “made a career” out of misrepresenting Harris’ written work.

Hedges has accused Harris of supporting the torture of terrorist suspects and advocating a nuclear first strike against the Muslim World.  The most recent attack that Hedges made on Harris came in the form of an essay for Truthdig in 2011 where he accuses “secular fundamentalists” like Harris and Hitchens for the then-recent atrocities carried out in Norway by the deranged psychopath, Anders Brevik.

Harris responded with an essay tellingly entitled “Dear Angry Lunatic: A Response to Chris Hedges”, which linked to an updated version of a section on his website called “Response To Controversy” where he addresses the major criticisms of his work, including his true stance on the ethics of torture and “collateral damage” and his discussion (as opposed to outright promotion) of a nuclear first strike against the Muslim World.

I have discovered all too often in my discussions with the faithful over the years that they clearly do not read their atheist opponents properly or at all, but simply skim their work and take random passages from their true context to support their preconceived notions.   While perhaps they are not guilty of outright lying, their opinions are certainly disingenuous.  As Harris states during the Q&A during in this lecture on free will, one of the reasons why he publishes short books is because many criticisms result from people not reading past the first 100 pages of his longer books and therefore not reading his opinions on the topics for which they criticise him!

I submit that Hedges’ behaviour after his debates with Harris and Hitchens bear all the hallmarks of a dog who knows he has been whipped and he is man who is unworthy of further refutation.

Reza Aslan debates Sam Harris on religion and reason

03/08/2013

MP3 audio

Since Reza Aslan’s recent appearance/ultra-conservative, reactionary, right-wing hatchet job on Fox News discussing his new book on the historical Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has gone viral in the last week, I thought now would be a good time to re-examine Aslan’s debate with Sam Harris on religion and reason in the modern world in 2007.

The debate was held at the Los Angeles Public Library on 25 January 2007 and was moderated by American-Jewish lawyer, author and public commentator, Jonathan Kirsch, (who in reality turned out to be a second debating opponent for Harris!).

The outcome of the encounter is probably best described as a “draw” since I don’t believe a neutral observer would be persuaded by one commentator’s view over the other.  Obviously, I agree with Harris’ position and therefore would award the debate to him, but I don’t believe that he exposed the fatuity of Aslan’s views as he has done with other opponents.

Aslan is clearly an intelligent and well-read man; at times too intelligent for his own good.  He makes grandiose ad hominems against Harris’ method by accusing him of taking his view of Islam from “Fox News”, when in fact Harris has based his views on peer-reviewed sociological studies and opinion polls that prove “extremist” religious views are far more widely held than Aslan is prepared to admit.

Although Aslan holds himself out as a Muslim, deep down, I suspect that he is really an atheist who fits Daniel Dennett’s idea of someone who “believes in belief in God”.  Yet his thoughtful, allegorical approach to the scriptures is exactly the kind of religious moderation that Harris exposes as providing cover for the extremists and on a proper reading of the texts is intellectually and theologically bankrupt.

If Aslan’s subtle, scholarly, nuanced brand of religion was truly the mainstream; Harris would not have felt the need to write his books attacking religion and indeed the horrific acts which Harris decries such as 9/11 would not have happened.

Alas, not all religious people display such a profooowwwnd sophistication and experteese.

Sam Harris: On God

15/11/2010

manicstreetpreacher presents another gem from the master of the reductio ad absurdum

The beginning of the above clip is taken from ABC Nightline’s Face-Off from 23 March 2010 featuring atheists Sam Harris and Michael Shermer against sophist-merchant Deepak Chopra and believer in belief Jean Houston on “Does God Have a Future?”

Harris’ opening statement is a brilliant description of the basic characteristics of the Almighty creator of the universe adhered to by the vast majority of religious believers.  Stick this in your pipe and smoke it, all you sophisticated “scholars” of religion:

We can talk about religion as it is for most people most of the time, or we can talk about what religion could be, or should be.  Or perhaps what it is for the tiniest minority of people…

If we talk about consciousness and the laws of nature, we won’t be talking about the God that most of our neighbours believe in, which is a personal god, who hears our prayers and occasionally answers them…

The God that our neighbours believe in is essentially an invisible person.  It’s a creator deity, who created the universe to have a relationship with once species of primate.  Lucky us!

He’s got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to but he’s especially concerned with what we do, and he’s especially concerned with what we do while naked.  He most certainly does not approve of homosexuality.  And he has created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity.  And the test is this: Can you believe in this God on bad evidence, which is to say on faith.  And if you can you will win an eternity of happiness after you die.

And it’s precisely this sort of god or this sort of scheme that you must believe in if you are to have any kind of future in politics in this country, no matter what your gifts.  You could be an unprecedented genius, you could look like George Clooney, you could have a billion dollars and you could have the social skills of Oprah, and you are going nowhere in politics in this country unless you believe in that sort of God.

So we can talk about anything we want – I’m happy to talk about consciousness – but please notice that when we migrate away from the God that is really shaping human events or the God-talk that is really shaping human events in our world at this moment.

Full Debate Video

Full Debate Audio


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