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Posts tagged ‘Sam Harris’

The Future Of Religion

Religious people, that is, people who say that religion is important in their lives, have, on average, higher subjective well being. They find a greater sense of purpose or meaning, are connected to stronger social circles and live longer and healthier lives. Why, then, are so many dropping out of organized religion?

Last year a team of researchers led by Ed Diener tried to answer this question. They found that economically developed nations are much less likely to be religious. On the other hand, religion is widespread in countries with more difficult circumstances. “Thus,” the authors conclude, “it appears that the benefits of religion for social relationships and subjective well-being depend on the characteristics of the society.” People of developed nations are dropping out of organized religion, then, because they are finding meaning and wellness elsewhere.

The real paradox is America, where Nietzsche’s anti-theistic proclamation went unheard. 83 percent of Americans identify with a religious denomination, most say that religion is “very important” in their lives and according to Sam Harris 44 percent “of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years.” In fact, a recent study even showed that atheists are largely seen as untrustworthy compared to Christian and Muslims.

Why does the United States, one the most economically developed countries in the world, deviate from the correlation between religion and wealth? One answer is that trends always contain outliers. As Nigel Barber explains in an article: “The connection between affluence and the decline of religious belief is as well-established as any such finding in the social sciences…. [and] no researcher ever expects every case to fit exactly on the line… If they did, something would be seriously wrong.”

Whatever the reasons, a recent article by David Campbell and Robert Putnam suggests that Americans are catching up to their non-believing European counterparts. According to Campbell and Putnam, the number of “nones” – those who report no religious affiliation – has dramatically increased in the last two decades. “Historically,” Campbell and Putnam explain, “this category made up a constant 5-7 percent of the American population… in the early 1990s, however, just as the God gap widened in politics, the percentage of nones began to shoot up. By the mid-1990s, nones made up 12 percent of the population. By 2011, they were 19 percent. In demographic terms, this shift was huge.”

A study by Daniel Mochon, Michael Norton and Dan Ariely bodes well with this observation. They discovered that, “while fervent believers benefit from their involvement, those with weaker beliefs are actually less happy than those who do not ascribe to any religion-atheists and agnostics.” It’s possible the “nones” Campbell and Putnam speak of are motivated to abandon their belief by a desire to be happier and less conflicted with their lives. This might be too speculative, but there are plenty of stories, especially in the wake of the New Atheist movement, of people who describe their change of faith as a dramatic improvement for their emotional life. In a recent interview with Sam Harris, for example, Tim Prowse, a United Methodist pastor for almost 20 years, described leaving his faith as a great relief. “The lie was over, I was free,” he said, “…I’m healthier now than I’ve been in years and tomorrow looks bright.”

What does this say about the future of atheism? Hitchens and others suggest that a standoff between believers and non-believers may be inevitable. “It’s going to be a choice between civilization and religion,” he says. However, grandiose predictions about the future of the human race are almost always off the mark, and it’s likely that the decline in religion will remain slow and steady. It’s important to keep in mind that this decline is a recent phenomena. It wasn’t until the 17th century, the so-called Age of Reason, when writers, thinkers and some politicians began to insist that societies are better off when they give their citizens the political right to communicate their ideas. This was a key intellectual development, and in context to the history of civilization, very recent.

To be sure, radical ideologies will always exist; religion, Marx suggested, is the opiate of the people. But the trend towards empiricism, logic and reason is undeniable and unavoidable. Titles including God Is Not Great and The God Delusion are bestsellers for a reason. And if Prowse’s testimony as well as Campbell and Putnam’s data are indicative, there is a clear shift in the zeitgeist.

How Science Can Inform Human Values & Morality

One of the most enduring themes in western thought is the separation of science and human values. It is often said that science is amoral, that it has nothing to say about what we ought to do, only what is. It’s understandable why people believe this; it is easy to think that human values cannot be measured in the same way that, say, gravity is measured. I think this is false. We now know from science that there are right and wrong answers about what we ought to value, what increases human well-being and flourishing, and what is or isn’t moral.

To begin, it’s important to understand human morality not as having single objective answers. It is best to conceive of it as having peaks and valleys – a moral landscape, as Sam Harris frames it – where there are multiple ways for human beings to thrive. Consider Harris’ analogy:

I would never be tempted to argue that there must be one right food to eat. There is clearly a wide range of materials that constitute what to eat. But there is nevertheless a clear distinction between food and poison. The fact that there are many right answers to the question of what food to eat does not tempt us to say that there are no truths to be know about human nutrition.

That is to say, understanding morality as having multiple truths, and as having multiple avenues to these truths, does not undermine the idea that there are no moral principles to be known. This is why it misses the point to ask questions like, “Is lying wrong?” or “Is stealing wrong?” Implicit in these queries is the false assumption that exceptions destroy the idea of moral truth. Lying and stealing can be right and wrong depending on the situation. Consider Harris’ other analogy:

If you’re going to play good chess, a principle like don’t lose your queen is good to follow. But clearly there are exceptions. There are moments where losing your queen is a brilliant thing to do. There are moments where it is the only good thing you can do. Yet, chess is a game of perfect objectivity. The fact that there are exceptions does not change that at all.

So how can science lead us to the peaks of this moral landscape? As these analogies illustrate, it can in many ways. For example, if you grew up before the 1960s, or if you’re a Mad Men fan, you’ll know that people didn’t know how unhealthy cigarettes were. What’s worse is that smoking was actually advertised as something that was healthy. Then scientists stepped in, looked at the data, and realized the truth – smoking kills. Not soon after, the government took action and began issuing warnings in various places to inform people of the ills of smoking. Fast forward a few decades and smoking is a taboo. Even in Europe, where smoking rates are higher than those here in the United States, more and more countries are banning smoking from bars and issuing mandatory warning labels on cigarette packs. Cigarette smoking is a case where science told us what to value (not smoking) and what we ought to do (not smoke), and this improved our moral landscape.

The problem is religion sometimes gets in the way. Consider the case of Robyn Twitchell, a two-and-a-half-year-old boy who in April of 1986, started vomiting and crying. Over the next few days, his inability to consume and hold down food became dangerously apparent. So, his parents took him to their local prayer group where they prayed for him and sang hymns to him. He cried and winced in pain for days, but his parents refused proper medical assistance because they were Christian Scientists. He died a few days later. An autopsy showed that Robyn died of an obstructed bowel – an easy surgical fix. The parents were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but the conviction was overturned.

Are there categorical differences between cigarette smoking and Robyn’s story? All admit that both cases are unhealthy. Yet, many believe that it is difficult to say that what Robyn’s parents did was wrong – at least more difficult than telling someone that smoking is wrong –  because it is impossible to determine if religious values are wrong, even if they have horrible outcomes. But who are we to pretend that what Robyn’s parent did wasn’t wrong? Science clearly shows that human beings are better off and human communities flourish more with better health care.

Unfortunately, religious values are untouchable. For example, in 2004, as Richard Dawkins explains, after appealing on the grounds of freedom of religion,”a twelve year-old boy in Ohio won the right in court to wear a T-shirt to school bearing the words: Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!” Likewise, consider that in February of 2006 the United States Supreme court exempted a New Mexico Church from using hallucinogenic drugs because members of the church said that they could only understand God by drinking hoasca tea, which contains hallucinogenics. Clearly, religion is the, “trump card,” as Richard Dawkins says.

When I claim that science can determine values and generate moral truths I am suggesting that it is possible to know what is best for a human being and a community. It is true that smoking is harmful, it is true that not seeking proper medical attention for an ailing child is harmful, it is true that wearing a T-shirt with hateful comments is harmful, and it is true that taking hallucinogenic drugs is harmful. We know, through science, that all of these things make us worse off. This is not to say that science has the answers, but it is to say that it has the best tools to maximize our lives and our society. There are truths to be known about values, and using science to find these truths will make us all better off.

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A Case Against Religious Moderation

Imagine that instead of, “In God We Trust,” dollar bills in the United States read, “In Zeus We Trust.” Or think what it would be like if Barack Obama ended his speeches with, “Apollo bless the United States of America.” And consider how strange it would sound if one of your friends told you that they recently found deep comfort in Poseidon. What’s absurd about comments like these is not the mentions of Zeus, Apollo and Poseidon, rather, it is that these Gods have the same ontologically status as the Judeo-Christian God that our money, presidents and friends take seriously. That is, there is zero scientific evidence to suggest any of these Gods are real, though most people overwhelming favor one.

Yet, for no real reason, we are quick to call someone who professes a deep faith for Poseidon crazy while we would never challenge someone who profess a deep faith in the Judeo-Christian God. This is a double standard. We should challenge both, not be so politically correct, and be able to scrutinize all beliefs against what we know about the natural world. But we don’t because we are too religiously moderate – our propensity to give people with a belief in God a free pass from legitimate criticisms is too strong. This is deeply problematic, and I’d like to outline three reasons for this, which I draw from religious critic and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

The first problem with religious moderation is that it is “intellectually bankrupt.” When it comes to any legitimate academic subject, we evaluate its findings rationally. That is, we carefully look and its reason, test its hypotheses and try to replicate its findings. This is how academic progress happens. Psychology, for example, shifted from Freudian psychoanalysis, to Skinnerian behaviorism, to cognitivism over the last hundred plus years by using the scientific method. Now we know more about brain and behavior. The same story holds in any other academic subject – knowledge increases when old beliefs are challenged. The same cannot be said of virtually all religions because they are set up such that challenging its tenets is sinful, usually paid for with eternal damnation. If religious beliefs are not subjected to the same analyses as scientific ones they will remain dogmatic, static and “intellectually bankrupt.”

The second problem with religious moderation is that causes people (liberal westerners mainly) to understand something like suicide bombing, the mistreatment of women or homosexuals, or honor killings incorrectly. As Harris explains, when religious moderates see a jihadist say “we love death more than the infidel loves life,” and blows himself up (or herself), they tend to think that religion didn’t have a lot to do with it by citing socioeconomic, educational and societal reasons. This is incorrect. As scary as it is, there are many well-educated people who live in well-established communities who believe that blowing themselves up in the name of God is a good idea. I’m not denying that difficult cultural circumstances could play a role in fundamentalism, but consider this paragraph from a New York Times article a few years ago:

We examined the educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists behind some of the most significant recent terrorist attacks against Westerners. We found that a majority of them are college-educated, often in technical subjects like engineering. In the four attacks for which the most complete information about the perpetrators’ educational levels is available – the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the 9/11 attacks, and the Bali bombings in 2002 – 53 percent of the terrorists had either attended college or had received a college degree. As a point of reference, only 52 percent of Americans have been to college. The terrorists in our study thus appear, on average, to be as well-educated as many Americans.

Religious moderates must realize that well-educated and well situated people have strong, sometimes deadly beliefs.

The third problem with religious moderation is that it gives cover to the fundamentalists. If people want to say that everyone has the right to believe what they want and practice their own religion, they are allowing people to believe that anyone who isn’t a _____ (fill in your religion) will be damned to hell. In other words, they opening the door up for a whole number of harmful ungrounded beliefs. For example, religious dogmas are keeping stem-cell research, an incredibly promising field surely beneficial to human beings, from happening. Likewise, they are forbidding the use of condoms in Sub-Sahara Africa where there are extraordinary high rates of people dying from AIDS. Religious tolerance is a good idea, as is respecting other people’s beliefs, but there should be a limit.

To review, I believe that religious moderation is bad for three reasons: It is intellectually dishonest – we should scrutinize religious beliefs in the same way we scrutinize academic beliefs; it causes us to be blind to how powerful beliefs can be; and it allows cover for fundamentalists. Hopefully, we can be less politically correct and begin to criticize God in the same way we criticize any other idea.

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