Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Reply to Sam Harris’ “An Atheist Manifesto”

Sam Harris has written an essay title "An Atheist Manifesto" that is available on line at

First, a somewhat sophomoric joke:

Q: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with an atheist?
A: Someone who comes to your door for no reason at all.


There is a meaning in the madness of that joke for those with ears to hear. Who comes to your six doors and for what reason?


This is a response from a Buddhist who feels that both theism and atheism are one-sided views, both part correct from their sides but both therefore part wrong.

I certainly agree with Sam Harris about some of the inconsistencies of religious belief and the downright violence of conduct based on the absurd premise of taking religious myth as fact, still, in my mind he goes too far in throwing out the baby of reality with the baptismal bath water. Yes it is obvious to me, as he says, “that much of what passes for public policy in our country conforms to religious taboos and superstitions appropriate to a medieval theocracy,” still that does not confirm any atheist conviction nor does is guarantee that atheists know any better how run a country or avoid atheist taboos and superstitions.

The core problem is that both theists and atheists don’t speak the same language. When either theists or atheists get control of state power, if they are zealots and fundamentalists (yes there are fundamentalist atheists such as totalitarian-minded communists) they will use that state power to oppress others who disagree with them. This connection between fundamentalist theists and atheists can be seen in Harris’ comment, “While fundamentalists justify their religious beliefs with extraordinarily poor evidence and arguments, at least they make an attempt at rational justification.”

Atheists believe that rational language is all that is needed, so they ignore the sources of conflict in the human imagination that arise from the deep image-making roots of consciousness. Theists on the other hand tend to believe that irrational feelings, along with the imaginings that make sense of those feelings, may be taken literally as presented to their consciousness, and not only taken literally by oneself, but should be adopted by others who may even be being moved by their own feelings and imaginings in other directions.

By saying “One wonders just how vast and gratuitous a catastrophe would have to be to shake the world’’s faith.” Harris shows that he doesn’t understand the well springs of faith nor does he seem understand the difference between faith and beliefs. Beliefs can be shaken and changed or given up. But faith is lost or found in a different context than belief. Faith is what leads a person to consider what is going on in life on the basis of birth and death. Faith is what leads a person to question catastrophes and their meaning for human life. If that questioning doesn’t lead to an experience of awakening, then it is the fault of beliefs getting in the way, not the faith.

For example, Harris says,”people of faith regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering.” That is erroneous. It is people of belief who assure one another that God is not responsible, because that is their belief. People of faith don’t have such assurances about God and their faith leads them to search while in the condition of not having any assurances. Belief creates assurances, faith opens the mind regardless of or in spite of the assurances of belief. People of faith experience what God’s responsibility means without any assurance that God will meet or satisfy their picture of the characteristics for God. Faith is why the mystics of all religions have no quarrels, belief is why the true believers have quarrels with other religions or with atheists.

The Biblical God is definitely a fiction, but it is a mythic fiction that arises from the inherent archetypes of the mind, including the dark, mysterious, and profound areas of the mind called the unconscious. Any atheist who thinks such a fiction can be taken off the air like a T.V. sit-com or drama knows nothing about the grip of the archetypes on the emotions and imaginings. Harris wants to reassure himself by saying “As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor” but that statement is simply not true as for “we all”. It is a flippant denial that presumes the God of Abraham is not Zeus or Thor. It doesn’t recognize the tremendous archetypal influence that the “father God” has even today though he goes by a different name in Christian, Jewish, or Islamic circles. Simply changing the name doesn’t make the God go away or make him into a different God. To paraphrase Jesus, to know a God you have to look beyond the name to the fruits, that is, to the function and activity the God takes in the realm of human dynamics and relationships.

Harris assumes that “The incompatibility of reason and faith has been a self-evident feature of human cognition and public discourse for centuries.” However, as Siddhartha Gautama Buddha demonstrated 2500 years ago in his explorations of human cognition, there is no fundamental incompatibility of reason and faith. The incompatibility is between reasonable and unreasonable beliefs, or diametrically opposed beliefs that both seem reasonable to their bearers. Harris confirms this by saying, “Either a person has good reasons for what he strongly believes or he does not.” Of course, Harris is the arbiter and judge for what is a “good reason.”

Harris correctly notes a dangers in the observation that “Religion is the one endeavor in which us-them thinking achieves a transcendent significance.” Still this confuses religion with transcendence. For example, the transcendent significance of nationalism and patriotism are ignored.

Essentially, Harris presumes that religion has either no reasons or bad reasons for its belief and atheism has all good reasons for its beliefs because he defines what is or is not reasonable to meet his criteria. This type of self-serving premise is unreasonable as it assumes the conclusion..

As stated earlier, in the social realm the conflicts between beliefs arise when someone believes their beliefs should be socially enforced on others. In other words, when someone doesn’t accept that pluralism is the reasonable basis for society. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has said what makes clear sense to me: that in the social context, religion should be a personal affair and governing society should be on humanitarian pluralist grounds that do not oppress the individual’s religion. Here’s how he says it.

“Therefore, for the individual, the concept of one religion and one truth is very important. Without this, one cannot develop genuine faith and follow it faithfully. With regard to the community, we obviously need the concept of several religions and several truths — pluralism. This is both necessary and relevant. This is the way to overcome contradictions between several religions and several truths and one religion and one truth. Thus, I believe that one has one religion and one truth on the individual level, and one has several religions and several truths on the community level. Otherwise it is difficult to solve this problem.” (from Live in a Better Way by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, pp. 132-133.)

The countries that Harris praises as least religious are in fact pluralistic societies that allow for the variety of the nonreligious as well as the religious, which reasonably accounts for their successes, rather than their being nonreligious countries.

Yes, I agree with Harris that “If we want to uproot the causes of religious violence we must uproot the false certainties of religion.” That is a logically circular argument. Likewise if we want to uproot the causes of violence having nothing to do with religion we must uproot the false certainties having nothing to do with religion. It is false certainties framed in us-them contexts of every kind, e.g., religious, tribal, ethnic, national, etc., that lead to violence, not religion per se which is only one arena where false certainties are the cloth that people wrap themselves within.

When someone comes to the door of your senses what false certainties do we have about them? Perhaps the certainty that they are an “other” is one that is false? Do we presume that God or Buddha will look like one thing or another and fulfill our expectations? If the knocker at the door doesn’t meet that picture do we reject God or Buddha? What if the greatest mistake we make as human beings is to presume with false certainty that God or Buddha is an object outside the door who comes knocking for a reason?

God or Buddha isn’t a person with characteristics to be identified like a suspect in a line up. Faith and reason are at home together when we don’t turn to an image of God or Buddha outside of ourselves by which to identify ourselves, but we turn to our mind to discover the identity of the one who is within the doors hearing the knocking.

1 comment:

Cur Deus Homo said...

Well written, but you use the name "Smith" quite a bit. I assume you're talking about Harris.