Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Among the many feeds I read is the TED blog, which brims over with delicious esoterica and occasionally over-precious cutting edgeness. This last week, I watched an interesting presentation by Sam Harris, the atheist whose "Letter to A Christian America" I had such fun deconstructing a year or two back. In his speech to the gathered intellectual glitterati, the good Mr. Harris presented the core thesis that science can, in point of fact, provide a foundation for moral and ethical discourse.

Having watched it, and then watched it again, I'd have to say that while he and I have some major differences, some of his core theses are rather impressively simpatico. In particular:
  • I agree with his assertion that the idea that morality is not relative, but is in fact consistent across individuals and cultures. What is good and right for sentient beings isn't mediated by cultural biases or preconceptions. Meaning, just because something is viewed as "right" in a society does not mean that it is, actually, good. When a member of the Taliban or a Stalinist says they know what is "good" for humanity, they are materially and objectively incorrect. Harris admits that this assertion of the good is something he shares with religion, even in it's more oppressive forms.
  • Harris identifies well-being and happiness as the central purpose of sentient life. Not just one's own happiness, mind you, but the happiness of other beings. We who are aware favor the well-being of other beings who are aware. It's a defining feature of the good.
  • When presenting exemplars of the "good," meaning images or sample individuals who represent commonly known archetypes for what Harris defines as "good," Harris uses two. The first is the Buddha. The second is the Dalai Lama. Yeah, they're not Jesus. That would be rather remarkably out of character, and too risky for an atheist in a Christian culture. But they are representative of a faith tradition for which Harris clearly has respect. Meaning, he's not dogmatically anti-faith. Just mostly so, particularly if that faith is Abrahamic/monotheist. This seeming openness has gotten him some occasional flak in the atheistic community, perhaps because by using exemplars who reach his "rational" ethic through ecstatic means, he leaves the door open to faith being...well...not a bad thing. Ah well.
  • Harris views the goal of human existence as radical well-being, and suggests that it is appropriate to describe that highest peak state of human knowledge of the good as "spiritual" or "mystical." Given his exemplars, this is not surprising. But hearing a vanguard "militant atheist" use these terms...not redefining them or insulting them, but respecting them in refreshing.
Though there are many areas in which I'm happy to disagree with Harris, and I have a teensy little quibble with the idea that religious experience and practice is somehow less capable than reason in guiding us towards knowledge the good, this was a surprisingly affirmative little talk.


  1. I am also pleasantly surprised to hear that you had such a positive reaction to this talk. I was wondering what your take would be.

    I always found your contempt for Sam Harris' obvious interest in "spirituality" to be hard to understand. I didn't find his "secret crush on the Jains" to be very secret, nor to seem so superficial as a crush. In Letter to a Christian Nation, he's saying that the principle tenets of Jainism are a vast improvement over the Ten Commandments. And what has always seemed odd to me is that you seem as if you wouldn't really disagree with that. So I was confused as to why you were so angry about it.

    Also, I would be curious to know what you thought of Christopher Hitchens' current project to revise the Ten Commandments. Sure, it's predictable. For example, he'll do away with a commandment to observe the Sabbath in favor of one explicitly against slavery. (An oversight in the original.) But do you find yourself feeling hostile towards such ideas?

  2. @ Browning: It is, perhaps, not even spirituality with quotation marks around it.

    The Jains were compassionate, and radically so. I like 'em. Couldn't ever actually be one...far too rigorous for my lazy bones. But I appreciate them as fellow travelers, although I do cringe a bit at the primary symbol of their faith. It isn't their fault that Hitler adopted the swastika, but I still have trouble looking at it and not having a negative response.

    What challenged me about Harris' willingness to cede that Jains have a viable moral system is that, quite frankly, Jesus also articulates the nonviolent ethos he praises. As I recall...let me look back...yup...what bugged me was that there is conceptual harmony between Jain ethics and Christian ethics. It's evident to me as a Jesus follower, and has been evident to those who share the worldview of the Jain teachings. But for Harris, that connection was willfully in absentia, up to the point of him feeling obliged to assert that the nonviolence practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. didn't *reaaaaly* have anything to do with what Jesus taught. In that book, at least, his capacity for rationality got lost in his polemic. This speech was far more thoughtful and thought provoking.

    As for Hitchens and his tablets, meh. I find Hitchens entertaining as a persona, but it's a stunt. It's also not a very well informed stunt, having read his piece in Vanity Fair. If you're going to go after the etymology of the 10 Commandments, then it might be a smidgen helpful to do so in Hebrew.

  3. @David.

    Here is the problem as I see it about what you are saying.

    1. Letter to a Christian Nation is explicitly addressed, not to you, but to your less progressive co-religionists. This is spelled out at length in the second and third paragraphs of the book. You are excluded from the addressees of the book, as I see it, because you are able to reject the moral truth or relevance of nearly all the same parts of the Bible as Sam Harris does. In other words, you practice Christianity by winnowing it down to the parts that Harris admires about it. (Or near enough.)
    2. I disagree with your interpretation of Harris's take on Dr. King. Speaking to his intended audience, Harris says that "the doctrine of Jainism is as objectively better guide to becoming like Martin Luther King, Jr., than the doctrine of Christianity is." That is, Jainism gets you there more easily than Christianity -- not Christianity as you practice it -- but as his intended audience practices it. This strikes me as an assertion that you should agree with. In other words, your reaction to Harris should not be to scoff at him for admiring the Jains, but to turn to your co-religionists and say, "I know he's an irritating atheist, but he makes a good point. You guys are doing it all wrong."
    3. Yes, your take on Christianity is sympatico with Jainism, but I disagree that Harris is willfully ignoring that connection. In fact, he explicly acknowledges it. What he is willfully refusing to ignore are the ways in which the Christian tradition is often NOT sympatico with all that (which are many). And, much to your annoyance, he lists several. He has two objectives here: (a) to educate his audience about aspects of their own tradition they may be unaware of and (b) to criticize precisely the same aspects of the faith that YOU criticize. There may or may not be some willful ingnoring going on here, but if there is, Harris is not the guy who is doing it. He is not hiding. He's revealing.

    As for Hitchens. Yeah, it's a stunt. But it is a necessary and thought-provoking stunt. Many in our society like to lazily assume that the Ten Commandments are the clearest distillation of human ethics and the bedrock of our legal justice system. Hitchens is provoking a conversation about them to reveal how flimsy the justifications are for such a belief. We can do better, he says. I think your vague allusions to unnamed quibbles with his etymology are a red herring. You know in your heart that he's right -- that we can do better -- but you don't like to be put in a position to have to agree with him.

  4. @ Browning: Actually, what Harris specifically said was that I and those who practice a more gracious and centered Christian faith are not, really and truly, Christian. I, using his words, " not understand what it really is to believe in God." This is unfounded, dismissive, and materially incorrect. By "defining down" faith to fundamentalism, Harris is just being intellectually lazy.

    Our conversation about Harris and Hitchens reminds me of something...didn't Harris do exactly the same thing with the 10 Commandments in Letter to a Christian Nation? I don't have the book handy, but I'm pretty sure Hitchens is going over exactly the same ground covered by Harris. The Vanity Fair article, in fact, seems to use a series of paraphrases of things Harris said.

  5. @David. That sentence fragment of Harris does not ring true to me. It doesn't sound like something I would say, and it does not sound like something that I think Harris would say. I am willing to be proved wrong, of course, but that sounds like something taken out of context and woefully misconstrued.

    (Of course, if you do dig up a quote that says that says that -- indisputably, in context -- then I can always just follow your example, and say that it is merely part of the Harrisian tradition that can only be properly understood by viewing it through the purifying lens of his core ethic, and then we can "set is aside.") :)

    Re: Hitchens. As I understand it, he is writing a book about the Ten Commandments in which the conceit is to upgrade them and make them more compatible with actual ethics that human beings can use. Harris didn't go that far in his book. He merely observed what is obvious to anyone who thinks about it: the Ten Commandments overemphasize some trivial, provincial or philosophically dubious "shalt nots" while completely overlooking some rather more pertinent ones. So, yeah, the ground is the same -- and hardly new -- but Hitchens plans to build something a bit more substantial and provoking on it.

    I actually love this idea. Sometimes I think about doing something similar with other Judeo-Christian myths. For example, what if the the story of the Binding of Isaac were written from the perspective of someone with a human conscience and not a psychopath?

  6. @ Browning: The challenge with the deconstruction that Harris presents, and that Hitchens also pitches out, is that the "shalt nots" are not trivial, provincial, or philosophically dubious. Resisting the first two is necessary from an atheistic standpoint, of course. Number 3 could be construed as iconoclasm, but is also outside of the atheistic paradigm. Number 4, while phrased in theistic terms, asserts the need for rest and balance, which Hitchens himself admits is a valid human concern. The primary critique of the remaining six is that they are self-evident. Why not just found them in reason? There's also a bit of wordsmithing here and there...but the essence of the last six isn't effectively refuted.

    Yeah, there's stuff you could add. There might also be ways to condense it into a clearer ethic. But the criticisms are picayune...and just part of the stunt.

  7. #4 is trivial. Yes, it's a valid concern. But in the context of the bedrock of human ethics, it is (to borrow your word) picayune. Why not a have commandments to get a good night's sleep, to eat a balanced diet, and to wash up after using the toilet? Because we have bigger fish to fry, and so long as we have not yet said anything about slavery, rape, or child abuse, we have no business micromanaging people's work schedule, do we?

    #10 is philosophically dubious in part because it represents thought crime. It's not clear that it's actually possible to obey prohibitions against thought crimes, especially when they seek to constrain natural human emotions or desires. I mean it may be advisable not to let your envy of your neighbor's car consume your thoughts, but you can't make it illegal. It also treats humans as property and seeks to protect the property rights of the haves at the expense of the have-nots. If your goal is to discourage materialism, a better commandment would be one that encouraged sharing, and lack of attachment from one's own possesions. This one by itself obviously encourages maintaining the economic status quo no matter how inequitable. Don't you agree that that is not a good goal for the optimal ethics?

    #1 is provincial. It's the assertion that one tribe's God is the God of everyone. Now, you may believe that, but it is clearly not the basis for a pluralist secular society such as ours. Do you think that Buddhists should be forced to convert to Judaism or Christianity? Do you think that Gandhi should have been? No? Then this commandment has nothing to say to them. Just as (you acknowledge) it has nothing to say to me. It is provincial. It does not belong in the basic ethics of a society such as ours.

    I'm sure you will find lots of quibbles with my arguments here. But frankly that's not important to my larger point. I merely have to ask you if you think the Ten Commandments as written represent the bedrock of all human ethics or not. Are the things that you acknowledge you "could" add less important than the ones that are already there? Of course not. Only a fool could claim otherwise. No one is his right mind can claim that observing the Sabbath is more important to human ethics than refusing to tolerate anyone owning anyone else as a piece of property. And yet many in our society, perhaps even the majority, go on assuming and claiming such things about the Ten Commandments. And if it takes a "stunt" to make them question those assumptions, then that is actually a not a picayune exercise at all, but a necessary incitement for some Americans to think -- for once, at long last -- about what they claim to believe.

  8. @ Browning: Oooh! I can quibble? Sure thing!

    #3 is hardly trivial...particularly in the context of a world in which economic power imbalances force many into debt slavery and servitude. Constant, churning busyiness is also the enemy of rationality AND contemplation. If you're working three jobs and constantly exhausted, your capacity to engage in critical thinking or discern and resist the underlying causes of injustice are significantly reduced. Without Sabbath, there is no progress. Or justice.

    As to #10, this is foundational ethics we're talkin' 'bout here, not the particularities of a legal code. Thought-crime? Heh. That's cute. But, honestly, AAAAAIRBAAALLLL, as I used to hear whenever I'd get onto the TKE basketball court.

    #1 is not provincial. Quite the inverse. It's universalistic, as is all authentically held monotheism.

    My answer is, sure. It is a valuable articulation of the central rationally justifiable and positive ethic for humankind. I prefer the higher-level summation provided by the Great Commandment, of course. But the two are, in essence, the same.

  9. You can't be serious. Seriously? You think designating every seventh day as a breather is more important than prohibiting slavery?

    And you are in favor of thought crime too, huh? Is this a position you arrived at rationally, or did you just check in with the Holy Spirit? Oh, that's right. Jesus said it so it must be true. Well, I guess that will just have to be good enough for me then.

    I should warn you that, in most circles, yelling "AIRBALL" is not considered a valid counter-argument. Allow me to demonstrate:

    "Authentically held monotheism" is "universalistical," huh? Hee, hee, hee. That's adorable. AIIIRRRBALLLL!

    See how annoying and unconvincing that is? Is this your way of saying you are tired of playing? That's cool. I got other stuff I could be doing too. Though it saddens me to think that maybe we have less in common than I thought.

  10. @ Browning: I'm just being a doofus, dear frater. In that particular circle that we share, I think we can occasionally dispense with courtside discussions of relative human capacities to perceive mass and trajectory, or the inherent meaninglessness of sport as a ritualized form of combat.

    It isn't that I'm tired of playing. Just, ya know, being playful. Sticking out my tongue, and making a PPPFFFFFT noise, just 'cause it's entertaining to do that now and again to folks who get overly earnest. My sons do that to me all the time.

    Oh, and the conceptual substance of my critique was in the first sentence of that paragraph. Just so's ya know.

  11. Just so we're clear: "A valuable articulation of the central rationally justifiable and positive ethic for humankind" does not prohibit slavery, but does suggest that you refrain from coveting your neighbor's slave.

    Is there any way you can defend that statement without resorting to moral relativism? (Or blowing raspberries?)

    I know how your fundamentalist brethren try to do it. They claim that it wasn't "slavery-slavery," just as Whoopi Goldberg claimed that what Roman Polanski did to a thirteen-year-old girl after he fed her champagne and quaaludes all night wasn't "rape-rape." In Biblical times, it was Slavery Lite, so what's the big deal?

    But I am assuming that you are better than that. Am I really wrong?

    I guess, it's like the hell thing. I can't really believe that I understand you.

  12. @ Browning: I'll take it by your artful redirection that you have recognized the point I was making about ethics and the "thought crimes" accusation.

    Yes, slavery is bad. So is greed. You wish to argue, however, that the omission of slavery represents a great failing of an ethical code. Yet if you'd asked the guy whose picture sits at the top of this blog, I think he'd have found the 10 commandments quite satisfactory.

    The Jain tenet of aparigraha, which counsels against possessiveness and material desire, serves a comparable ethical purpose...and also makes no explicit renunciation of slavery. Does that devalue it as an ethical statement, and an excellent norm for human behavior? No.

    That it does not explicitly occur in the commandments does not make for a reasonable argument against them as a set of valid ethical principles, any more than their lack of a clear position on carbon neutrality.

  13. "You wish to argue, however, that the omission of slavery represents a great failing of an ethical code." Yes. Precisely. You say that like it's a bad thing.

    I think it's telling that the author of this list doesn't just neglect to mention slavery at all, but mentions it in passing, as he is prohibiting certain kinds of thoughts or wishes. He takes it for granted as ethically neutral. "Do not covet a man's house, animals, wives, slaves, or other posessions" is a rule with roughly the same moral aptitude as one that says "Respect the privacy of a man when he is eating dinner, sleeping, or having sex with his wife or children." Someone who claims that such rules as these are counted among the fundamental axioms of a just society disqualifies himself from any serious conversation about morality. He is just morally stupid.

    Your point about the Jains is irrelevant. (1) I am not claiming that every moral statement needs to be all-inclusive, but as long as you are making a list of things that are supposedly essential to the foundations of justice, you don't leave slavery off to make room for weekends (and certainly not weekends enforced by the death penalty). (2) I have no particular allegiance to the Jains. If you say, "They botched it too," I say, "So what?" (3) The Jains enter this conversation at all because Sam Harris notes, correctly, that Mahavira did far better than author of the Ten Commandments when he said "Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any living being." That is, the Jains apparently were nearer to a more perfect ethics because they were explicitly opposed to slavery (in a way that Jesus never was) 500 years before the birth of Christ.

    No, I do not concede your point about thought crimes. I mean, I could try to argue it now, but if I can't even get you to admit that there is something deeply wrong with the Ten Commandments' stance towards slavery, then I have to wonder: what's the point? I am not so much interested in trying to change your mind as I am in understanding how you really think. You see nothing philosophically dubious with the concept of thought crimes, so long as they are only enforced supernaturally. I do. Fair enough. Let's drop it.

    (Actually, I have no idea whose picture that is at the top of your blog. Often wondered. Is this some gaping hole in my cultural literacy? Am I supposed to admire him? He looks unhinged. I always figured it was an ironic image of a fire and brimstone preacher.)

  14. @ Browning: So I am mistaken. Evidently you didn't get it. Ah well. We'll talk about ethics, morality, norms and the "thought-crime" thing some other time. Suffice it to say, it's not something you grasp quite yet. Not sure if we'll ever get there, but I'm sure we'll have fun trying.

    Make sure to articulate your disdain for the triviality of "weekends" the next time you talk to a sweat shop laborer in Thailand. Even Hitchens didn't stumble over that one the way you seem to be. Overstating one's case is not particularly helpful.

    Oh...the picture is John Brown, from an "iconic" mural. You are hardly remiss for not recognizing it. Honestly, it was selected only for his beard, the juxtaposition of flag and Bible, and an interesting color palette.

    Enjoy tomorrow! It'll have hopefully warmed up a bit, and you can get outside and play with your daughter.

  15. Hey, I love weekends. All for weekends. Just not as much as I hate slavery. I guess that makes me insensitive. Or something.

    Yeah, you're right. I am never going to "get it." Just too thick probably.

    But you have a great tomorrow too. (Just don't gather any wood, okay?)