By Andrew Murphy
The pugnacious Sam Harris has written a rather extraordinary book, The Moral Landscape which tries its best to lay the foundation for a moral and ethical 21st century without the need of religion or religious based ethics. Harris is certainly not the first nor the last to try and take on such an audacious endeavor however, much like any attempt to try and forge a ‘New Man’, Sam Harris’ recommendations could lead serious and troubling issues.
However, it would seem the Sam Harris that wrote the End of Faith is not the same Sam Harris that wrote this book. In the End of Faith, Harris devoted an entire chapter waxing about the virtues of Eastern religion even going so far as to claim that religions like Buddhism are not really religions. Harris also endorsed Jainism as well. In this book Harris on pages 160-176 devotes much time and effort to condemning Dr. Francis Collins. Here is what Harris writes on page 162
“Is it really so difficult to perceive a conflict between Collin’s science and his religion? Just imagine how scientific it would seem to most Americans if Collins, as a devout Hindu, informed his audience that Lord Brahma has created the universe and now sleeps; Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA…………….Is there any chance Collins that Collins would be running the NIH if he were an outspoken polytheist?”
Perhaps we all would take a deep breath if Dr. Collins was indeed a Hindu but the one person who seems to be intrigued by eastern religions is Sam Harris, not Dr. Francis Collins. Harris wrote this in 2009,
“In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). This spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.”
Of course the other issue is that Harris seems to want to find Dr. Collins guilty and the good doctor must prove his innocence. Because he is a Christian, Dr. Collins must be sacrifing science to his faith. If Harris can find documented evidence of this, then he should go for it otherwise, gives us proof, Sam. Perhaps if Dr. Collins had a Lama prayer wheel in his office next to a copy of the Buddhavacana, he would cut the Doctor some slack?
Harris’ flirtation with Buddhism makes his atheist fundamentalism even more puzzling. It is hard to tell if Sam Harris wants to be the Bertrand Russell of our era or if there is a frustrated Buddhist monk screaming to come out under his suit jacket.
Besides endorsing a crude form of Benthamite utilitarianism as a moral ethical code in Moral Landscape (suffice to say, see Benjamin Disraeli and James Fitzjames Stephen’s critiques of utilitarianism), Harris endorses a rather bone-chilling idea, the elimination of prohibition of compelled testimony against oneself in a court room (p.135) but also endorses the proliferation of lie detectors everywhere to make sure everybody from ordinary citizens to politicians are not lying.
Harris doesn’t like the Fifth Amendment and wants to eliminate it because it is religious based. Claiming that it was originally based on a superstition that if you lied under oath in court, you were damning yourself to hell. The problem for Harris is that much of Anglo-Saxon law is religious based, should we also eliminate for example the need for two witness to a crime since that comes from the Mosaic law?
“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”
The idea of lie detectors everywhere is positively Orwellian in its scope and really needs no further critique on this end except to say that sometimes lying is not always wrong. A family hiding Jews in their cellars in Nazi occupied Europe and telling a Gestapo agent at their door that they have not seen any Jews nor are they hiding any is not a shameful act. Or even the mundane situation of a married man being asked by his 7th month pregnant wife who has gained 20 lbs since the pregnancy if he thinks she has gained any weight, only Sam Harris would suggest a man should not lie under those circumstances.
Likewise, Harris in his book continues to burn any bridges he could possibly build. His Us vs. Them mentality where only atheists are smart, scientific people and anybody who is remotely religious is on the same level as Osama Bin Laden and Rev. Fred Phelps. Harris is rightly concerned as are most educated Americans at the scientific illiteracy in our country. The Young Earth Creationists and the Intelligent Design folks do not speak for most religious Americans. Harris could be building an alliance with Christians, Jews and Muslims who believe in evolution but instead chooses to lump them with the creationists. Even Richard Dawkins is willing to extend an olive branch to Christians who support Darwin’s theories, see this wonderful interview with Dawkins and Father George Coyne of the Vatican Observatory.
Harris thinks that if a New Man can arise and throw off his shackles of religion (but not Buddhism, I guess) the world will be a land of milk and honey and so much of the violence in the world would cease. Unfortunately for Harris, the ‘blame religion for all wars’ is a bit of an over statement. According to Encyclopedia of Wars, written by Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, ideology and greed have started more wars then religion. Less then 10% of all the 1800 wars surveyed by the authors throughout history were found to be religiously motivated. So even if Sam Harris could wave a magic wand and eliminate religion today, tomorrow there will still be wars and evil men will simply use something else as a cover for their actions instead of religion.
Sam Harris is really good at exposing the pitfalls in creationism, liberal moral relativism and he obviously knows a thing or two about neuroscience. However, he should stick with what he is good at.