Sam Harris on the Value and Limits of Atheism

My previous post mentions Sam Harris’ UTube talk on death and religion. In that lecture, Harris admitted that atheism offers no positive agenda. Atheism has various positive and negative aspects, of course, but denying the reality of deity does not in itself say how we should live or even how we should conceptualize the universe. And in reality, there are probably as many ways of being an atheist as there are of being a theist.

Harris’ key point is that even though atheism does not affirm any particular life-stance, it is a way of “clearing the space for better conversations.” Rather than discussing metaphysical speculations about invisible realms beyond this cosmos, we can focus on this life that we know. We are who we are. The world is what it is. So what shall we do?

I’ll offer one quibble. People should not have to abandon all talk of deity to engage in this “better conversation.” Harris says that “to not believe in God is to know that it falls to us to make the world a better place.” But those who see God as part of nature instead of as something over and above the physical universe can agree with Sam – we shouldn’t depend on a supernatural bailout. And even those who believe that God helps us can join in this discussion, if they also believe that humans are responsible for making this a better world.

On the other hand, as I point out in Bridging the God Gap, some theists say life on Earth is trivial. An old hymn by Albert E. Brumley claims that “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.” And in God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism, Anthony Freeman quotes a standard funeral prayer: “‘We give thee hearty thanks, for that it hath pleased thee to deliver this our brother out of the miseries of this sinful world’ . . . The whole theme of the service is summed up in one of its sentences: ‘Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery’” (pp. 52-53).

This sentiment can affect people’s opinions about public policy issues. Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury, stated that “The hydrogen bomb is not the greatest danger of our time. After all, the most it could do would be to transfer vast numbers of human beings from this world to another and more vital one into which they would some day go anyway.” By this logic it’s really no big deal if we all blow ourselves up, obliterating humanity in a thousand Hiroshimas. (See http://www.hillmanweb.com/reason/piousquotes.html.)

I am drawn to Harris’ idea of clearing a space for a better conversation. Many atheists are good at that. But we need not exclude every person who uses theistic language. Look beyond words and labels, and widen the circle.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Sam Harris on Death and Religion

I attend a monthly discussion group that often considers philosophical topics. Our host recently sent us a link to a UTube video of a talk by Sam Harris. Some group members said it was terrific, so I decided to have a look. I have appreciated many of Sam’s ideas, but I thought The End of Faith further polarized communication about religion. However I was extremely impressed with his talk about religion and death:

I invite you to watch it yourself when you have about half an hour. I’ll share more detailed reactions in another post, but for now I’ll just make one comment. Sam’s remarks about the power of religion to reassure people who have lost loved ones to death are both empathetic and respectful. Despite the fact that Harris thinks religion is mostly malarkey, he clearly understands its psychological value.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Theists, Atheists, and the Holiday Season

During the holiday season, family members with diverse opinions about theology are often thrown together in religiously-themed celebrations. This web site includes five entries that focus on this challenge:

November 25, 2011: “How Was Thanksgiving with Your Religious Relatives? Or Your Atheist Relatives?”

November 29, 2011: “A Highly Recommended Article – ‘Holidays: Time for interfaith dialogue with your parents.’”

December 16, 2011: “Do You Dread Christmas Because of Religious Disagreements?
Perhaps It’s Time for ‘The Positive Dodge.’”

November 16, 2012: “Family Time at the Holidays: A Challenge for Theists and Atheists .”

November 26, 2012: “A Song for the Holidays.”

If you can’t access any of these I’ll be happy to send you the link. Generally if you just keep scrolling downward, all 121 entries will eventually appear.

May the remaining days of December offer memorable moments of love, insight, and fulfillment, sending you into 2015 with confident anticipation.

Roger Christan Schriner

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An Upsurge of Skepticism about Scientific Research

This year I’ve been single-mindedly focusing on finishing my book about consciousness, but now I’m re-connecting with other projects, including this blog.

Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground is dedicated to discovering both practical and conceptual common ground among theists, atheists, and agnostics. Today’s posting may seem unrelated to this subject, but I’ll explain the connection shortly.

These days epistemology is a hot topic in several fields of study, including medicine and nutrition. Skeptical scholars have pointed out serious weaknesses in the data that guides our dietary and medical choices. John Ioannidis, for example, looked at 49 highly influential research studies, each of which has been cited over 1000 times in the medical literature. Out of these prominent studies, 16% were contradicted by subsequent studies and 16% showed effects that were quite a bit stronger than those of later analyses. In 24% of the cases there was little or no attempt to replicate findings. Bottom line: Just 44% were successfully replicated (Journal of the American Medical Association, July 13, 2005, pp. 218-228).

Other disturbing articles include “It Ain’t Necessarily So: Why Much of the Medical Literature Is Wrong,” by Christopher Labos (http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/829866) and John Ioannidis’ “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” (http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0020124). That’s an unsettling title!

I’m not an expert in research design, but several points made in these and other articles seem very troubling. For example, the article on why most findings are false points out that “As research efforts are globalized, it is practically the rule that several research teams, often dozens of them, may probe the same or similar questions. Unfortunately, in some areas, the prevailing mentality until now has been to focus on isolated discoveries by single teams.” Of course, we should be looking at the overall pattern of findings, not isolated reports that may be outliers. He also notes that many studies are motivated by the desire for tenure or a promotion. These objectives create a built-in bias toward finding something positive to write about. Who wants to conduct a study and admit that it produced no substantive findings?

As Labos notes, “There is a way to guard against such spurious findings: replication. Unfortunately, the current structure of academic medicine does not favor the replication of published results …”

The same is true in many other fields. I have read many studies about theological attitudes, and I find that many scholars cite single reports as if these findings are conclusive and replication is unnecessary.

Atheism and agnosticism are especially under-investigated. I recently read that among self-identified atheist and agnostics, 16% were women in 1993, and 43% are today (Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service, Oct. 24, 2014, http://ncronline.org/news/people/secularism-grows-more-us-christians-turn-churchless). That is a huge change in just two decades. Is it true? False? Basically true but exaggerated? Without replication, it’s hard to know.

Those who do believe in God have been more extensively studied, but many research projects are weakened by the use of an extremely vague definition of “God,” or no definition at all.

So the next time you see a headline with an amazing new factoid about religious attitudes, hum a few bars of that old Gershwin classic: It Ain’t Necessarily So.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Checking In

I’ve finally completed the book that has consumed an astonishing amount of my time for the past three years – Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. It’s about contemporary philosophy rather than theology, but I suspect that many who have been interested in Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground have also wondered about the amazing phenomenon of conscious experience. I’ll paste text from the book’s back cover below my signature line.

It may be a few weeks before I catch up enough with mundane matters to get back to blogging, but I look forward to resuming this blog and my other two:

Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible

http://didgodreallysaythat.wordpress.com

The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters

http://mysteryofconsciousness.wordpress.com

Roger Christan Schriner

Your Living Mind was written for several kinds of readers.

Do any of these statements fit for you?

❁ You want to develop a well-crafted personal philosophy of life. Understanding consciousness is part of that quest.
❁ You want to learn about yourself, to know who and what you are.
❁ You have been interested in the “big questions” of philosophy and psychology, and you’d like to revisit this sort of reflection.
❁ You find it fascinating to learn about the mind and the brain.
❁ You have already explored contemporary consciousness studies, and you enjoy playing with new ideas about “philosophical zombies” and other enigmas.

This book confronts the most bewildering puzzles in philosophy of mind. You will find out how dedicated scholars have struggled with these riddles, apparently without success. You will also have opportunities to reflect and experiment yourself, and to evaluate the author’s proposed solutions. Your Living Mind explains subtle ideas in straightforward language, minimizing technical jargon. Issues are clarified with illustrations, diagrams, and specific examples.

Available on Amazon.com:

I’ll Be Back

I’ve been taking a break from this blog which has lasted longer than I anticipated. I’m completing my new book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. I’ve also been distracted by extraneous factors, such as glitches in setting up a new computer. Your Living Mind should be out later this summer, and then I’ll return to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground.

In the meantime I encourage interested readers to explore this site. This is my 118th post, and I’m happy to respond to comments about any of my previous entries.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.