“Total Consolation in the Face of Death”

Today I’ll say a little more about Sam Harris’ lecture on death and religion, which is available on YouTube. According to Harris, one reason theists are uncomfortable with atheists is that atheism denies the afterlife. Atheism seems like a “death cult,” he says, because it’s the only view that admits death is real.

I believe the contradiction between theism and atheism is overdrawn, and this is one example. Many naturalistic theists and impersonal theists, as well as some who espouse process theology, deny that our individual consciousness survives death. And I’ve talked with atheists who believe in reincarnation! What’s more, many who believe in a personal God are open to doubt and a sense of mystery. “Yes,” they may say, “I expect that I will survive the grave. But nobody knows for sure, and I realize that this life on Earth may be all that I have.” (See Bridging the God Gap, Chapter Eleven, “God and Mortality.”)

But even if Sam is a bit off base, he’s in the right ball park. In America the vast majority of those who believe in a supreme being also say that this deity will preserve us after death (for better or worse, if you believe in heaven and hell). And Harris is spot-on in maintaining that “the thing for which there is no substitute is total consolation in the face of death.” He does not look to science to provide such consolation, except insofar as science can influence human psychology. We won’t learn to accept death by getting more information. “The answer is a change in attitude.”

To bring about this attitudinal shift, Harris has explored spiritual disciplines with more commitment than most churchgoers. He has gone on Buddhist retreats for months at a time. In his presentation on death and religion, he guides an audience of atheists through a meditation that involves learning “to pay attention to the present moment … not doing anything with it,” just noticing what you experience now … now … now.

[Added on March 1:] How does becoming aware of the present moment produce an attitudinal shift about mortality? The YouTube lecture doesn’t spell this out, but poets have given us some clues:

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.” – William Blake

“Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length.” – Robert Frost

Also, my thanks to “Levi” for calling my attention to a 27-minute guided meditation by Harris:

For Levi’s comments on Harris’ book, Waking Up, see:

https://leviathanbound.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/waking-up/ [end of March 1 addition.]

On Monday I’ll be another year older. Changing my attitude about time and mortality becomes increasingly important. I appreciate Harris’ reflections on this issue. For his talk see:

Roger Christan Schriner

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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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Thoughtful Atheist Essays

These days when people think of atheism, the “new atheists” often come to mind – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Of these, all but Dennett are intensely anti-religious. Hitchens, for example, wrote a book entitled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. But I’ve just discovered a book in which atheistic philosophers reflect on religion. In browsing through this volume I was impressed by the diversity of opinion expressed, and the general tone of respect for faith traditions.

The book is called Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Antony, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Many of its essays express positive feelings about various religious traditions, even though the authors do not accept the doctrines of these organizations. Contributors include several whose work in philosophy of mind I have appreciated – Joseph Levine, David Lewis, Georges Rey, Kenneth A. Taylor, and Daniel Dennett himself. I look forward to reading these papers in detail, and I’ll share my reactions in a future post.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Baggini’s “Heathen’s Progress” 10/21/11 – 11/7/11

I’ve been reflecting on Julian Baggini’s recent series in The Guardian, called Heathen’s Progress. Here are comments about some of his earlier postings:

October 21: Baggini cautions atheists against seeing science as “our savior.” It is not “the source of all the knowledge and wisdom we need to live,” and “The most egregious recent example of this is Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, with its subtitle ‘How science can determine human values’.”

I haven’t read Landscape, but I don’t see how science can “determine” our ultimate core values. Even so, once we define these basic values, science can help us attain them. If you have read Harris’ book, what do you think? Does he justify his subtitle?

Many secular humanists in Western nations base their moral judgments on typical progressive/left-leaning political opinions. That’s OK with me, but let’s not forget to reflect on the basis of our moral commitments. Regardless of their political inclinations, few people seem to have thought much about how we ground our values.

October 28: Even though Julian is trying to cool down the overheated theist-atheist debates, he cautions against going to the opposite extreme, which he calls dogmatophobia, the fear of having any definite beliefs at all.

My favorite quote from this post: “Unfortunately, the middle ground in the God debate is occupied by too many people who screw up their eyes to create the illusion of a mist when the view is really clear.”

So Baggini warns us against both idolizing science and worshiping uncertainty.

November 7: Julian points out that even though we shouldn’t criticize a religion without understanding it, greater understanding does not automatically generate more accurate beliefs. I agree. I do not need to comprehend a particular religion as well as an adherent of that faith, in order to critique it. The devotee and I see from different angles. S/he can see things I cannot, and vice versa.

In this post Baggini once again prods both theists and atheists. Religion at its best, he suggests must “have a big fat mystery at its heart…. If there is a God, it must surely passeth all understanding.” Many of his fellow atheists will find that comment challenging.

And here’s his challenge to theists: “Too often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively. Believers … have a list of doctrines as long as your arm. It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother.”

Do check out Heathen’s Progress for yourself: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/series/heathens-progress.


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James P. Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief, Part Three

In the first two parts of this series on The Religious Case Against Belief (Penguin Books, 2008), I’ve considered James P. Carse’s idea of a “higher ignorance,” the humility which some people achieve when (after years of study) they realize how much more there is to learn. As Socrates, one of the most brilliant minds of his time, put it, “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance” (http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Socrates).

Although Carse sometimes expresses himself with great confidence, he invites readers to critique his work: “… the argument presented in these pages must provide the basis for its own rejection” (p. 213).

Both theists and atheists will find themselves challenged by The Religious Case Against Belief. Many theists will be disturbed by his claim that holy scriptures do not provide information about how Earth was made, why we’re here, why we so often do evil, and how we can be saved. Despite the fact that religious texts contain many thousands of words, Carse maintains that, “like poetry they say nothing. There is no point to any of them” (p. 104).

Although atheists may appreciate this rejection of Biblical literalism, Carse criticizes the “new atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for attacking “a hasty caricature” of contemporary God-concepts” (p. 2). “Typically, the god unbelievers are rejecting is one found nowhere within the living religions” (p. 31).

Several other writers, including Karen Armstrong, have made similar comments, but I find it utterly baffling to imagine that religious texts have essentially zero factual content. Certainly many Christians emphasize factual statements about deity. Surveys show that in the U.S., a great many religious people believe in highly traditional beliefs about God. For example, about 80% of American Christians believe that Jesus will return to Earth. (See http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/287.pdf.) “A new poll from the Pew Research Center finds that roughly four in 10 Americans believe the Second Coming will happen by 2050” (Tom Krattenmaker, USA Today, August 23, 2010, p. 9A). It seems perfectly reasonable for atheists to critique the merits of these widely-accepted doctrines.

Carse also denies that churches should preach a literal belief in an afterlife, partly because he says it’s a horrible idea. Like the Christian theologian Paul Tillich, he thinks that an unending afterlife would be hell. Endless personal consciousness, Carse maintains, would drive us mad with boredom (p. 169). He also concurs with Karen Armstrong’s suggestion that ancient religions did not focus on eternal life (p. 173). But ancient stories from all over the world mention visitations from the dead. Traditional cultures have typically assumed that we do go on in some form. Thus the Bible would not have announced the afterlife as an astonishing revelation. It was taken for granted.

Although I don’t agree with everything in The Religious Case Against Belief, I recommend this compact little volume as a meditation on how little we know and how many ways we can interpret what may at first seem like clear and straightforward religious doctrines. “The higher ignorance” is, indeed, the beginning of wisdom.


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Stephen Prothero’s “God Is Not One”

Since completing Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, I have read a book that might interest both theists and atheists: Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter.

When Americans talk about spiritual matters they tend to focus on the majority religion, Christianity. However I have found it helpful to look at religious issues from a long-term, world-wide perspective, and reading Prothero’s book is a fine way to do that.

God Is Not One is well-researched and well-written. I have studied comparative religion for some time, but this book taught me new things about traditions such as Islam, Confucianism, Daoism, and the African-born Yoruba faith.

One of Prothero’s insights is that “What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world” (p. 11). That makes sense, and I find that theists, atheists, and agnostics can often agree about what is most challenging about the human condition. Furthermore there is often quite a bit of agreement about how we should treat each other, as Prothero observes: “The world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics” (p. 3).

I was also enlightened by the book’s discussion of Hinduism. I had thought that Hindu concepts of deity tend to be impersonal, describing God as an It rather than a Thou. I knew that Hindus who lack formal education often view God in personal terms, but I thought this contradicted mainstream Hinduism.

Prothero says that at one time Hindus did worship an impersonal deity. “Philosophical Hinduism was functionally atheistic; while the gods existed, they were largely irrelevant to the task at hand. [Liberation] was something you achieved by yourself, not something handed to you from on high” (p. 152). But today Hinduism emphasizes bhakti yoga, meaning loving devotion to one or more gods. For Hindus, “The notion that God is impersonal and ineffable is now confined to the rare philosopher” (p. 153).

The book also includes “A Brief Coda on Atheism,” dealing mainly with science-oriented atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. The author is quite critical of this approach, and he sometimes makes sweeping, stereotypical statements, e.g., “Atheists argue that the human problem cannot be solved by religion, because religion itself is the problem” (p. 318). That’s true of Dawkins and Harris, but I have known many atheists who would deny that religion is “the” core problem. To his credit, however, Prothero says there are many different approaches to rejecting God’s existence, and not all atheists are angry and rigid. Taking a swipe at Dawkins et al., he notes that ” . . . most atheists today are far less dogmatic than the high priests of the New Atheism” (p. 327).

I thank Stephen Prothero for this eye-opening survey of the world’s faith traditions, a book that gives us the gift of greater understanding.