Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris-- Thoughts on Chapter 4

     One thing that Harris does not comment on in his usual diatribe against religion is that it provides social connections and belonging that many find preferable to other forms.  Rodney Stark asserts that many religious groups provide important services for their members.  He points to this as the reason why some religions that seem to require more from congregants seem to be growing faster than more reforned groups that may require less.  Stark points out that the Latter Day Saints, while demanding tithes and very strict rules, is one of the fastest growing religions. Stark believes the popularity of such groups actually is a rational decision based on what the religious group actually provides for its members.  See Stark's book, Discovering God.

     In raw economic terms, if Stark isn't right, if religion isn't doing something for its followers, then why does it still attract so many people, especially groups that are more demanding?  Some luxuries provided  by the developed world may assist people in not succumbing to the "opiate of the masses", but as the case of the USA demonstrates, entertainment and high-tech will not satisfy everyone.

     Harris suggests that religion may simply be a genetic tendency.  These tendencies arise from "mental categories that predate religion -- and these underlying structions determine the stereotypical form that religious beliefs and practices take"(Harris, pg 138).  He also considers the possibility that certain people have brains that are more succeptible to religious style thinking:

"Religious thinking was associated with greater signal in the anterior insula and the ventral striatum."(Harris, pg. 141 Nookbook)

  Well, does it help their "well-being" to force them not to express this part of their brains?  I return to Brave New World and recall the mystical rites the inhabitants were required to intone: "orgy porgy Ford and fun, kiss the girls and make them one, boys at one with girls in peace, orgy porgy gives release".   Perhaps Huxley was on to something by having a form of mysticism in his future society.  Seeming to understand this Harris says:

"I should say at this point that I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many of the world's religions. Compassion, awe, devotion, and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have.  What is irrational, and irresponsible in a scientist and educator[here referring to Francis Collins], is to make unjustified and unjustifiable claims about the structure of the universe, about the divine origin of certain books, and about the future of humanity on the basis of such experiences."(Harris pp. 151-152 Nookbook)

So much for The Varieties of Religious Experience! 

     At this point it seems obvious that part of Harris's view of well-being is that people are, and should be, rational, that they are not taken in by unjustified claims and charlatans.  So, his notion of well-being is not one represented by the epsilon minuses in Brave New World who can barely think at all.  Does Harris somewhere, buried down in his psyche, have some set of Greek[i.e., Aristotelian] excellences he thinks we should strive to posess?  Otherwise, if religion makes people happy and is consistent with their brains, I can hardly see his argument against it. 

     I mean, what's more important, the "Truth" that religions are false, or the intra-psychic well-being certain people may experience by practicing their religions?  It is not clear at all to me that knowing the TRUTH is a prerequisite for well-being.  It depends upon what that truth happens to be.  In some cases, the truth might be an impediment to "well-being".

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