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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One thought on “Sam Harris on the Value and Limits of Atheism

  1. I agree Roger. There are many religious people willing to work with people of other worldviews to make this world a better place. The Dalai Lama is just one prominent example out of many others.

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