07 November 2010

Sam Harris at Changing Hands . . .

Posted by at 1:26 AM

I attended an appearance by Sam Harris at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe last night. He is in town to partake in a panel discussion at Gammage Auditorium (which took place today) and to promote his new book, titled The Moral Landscape. The audience was fairly variegated with an average age of about thirty-five (my estimation). At the start of this well-attended talk (about 250 people sat — another fifty or so stood) he admitted that it was his first ever bookstore speaking event. Despite this, however, he seemed very relaxed and quite comfortable throughout the lecture. 
He wrote the book as a kind of response to those who would claim that a morality devoid of a religious or theological source quickly dissolves into an unintelligible subjectivism, a view popular with some religious apologists and best encapsulated by Ivan Karamazov's (a Dostoevsky character) contention that if there is no God, everything is permitted.
Harris maintains that a sense of morality can, and should, instead be simply based on a commitment to the promotion of human well-being and on a corresponding commitment to the elimination of human suffering. He notes that certain (not all) religious traditions needlessly erect obstacles to this goal. To illustrate this, he related an anecdote in which he was approached by a woman after one of his recent lectures who had taken offense at his censuring of the Taliban for their insistence— on pains of severe punishment or even death— that women be completely covered from head to toe while in public and subservient in all matters to the rule of the men in their lives at all times. The offended woman thought Harris was being a bigot in reproaching this practice. Harris suggested to her that the subjugation of half of the population of a nation into a constant state of terror was counter-productive to human well-being at its core and was therefore indeed empirically reproachable. The woman responded with, 'Who are you to judge a religious tradition like that?' Harris tried another tack, one that because more extreme would reveal the inhumanness of such doctrines. 'OK, suppose that it was required by a culture that every third child must have its eyes plucked out, would this practice seem like a reasonable one?', he asked. 'It would depend on why they were doing it,' the woman countered. Astonished, Harris continued, 'Well, maybe they have some sacred book that has a verse that states that every third child shall be in darkness or something like that.' The woman then said that in that case the practice would be justified.
Alarming as this way of thinking is, it became downright horrific when Harris revealed that this woman was no religious simpleton, but instead was a highly intelligent and distinguished scientist in her own right, who is now one of thirteen people serving on a commission that regularly advises the current president on religious matters. (He regrettably did not give her name, however.)
It is profoundly ironic that one would base her sense of morality on strict submission to the dictates of a divine being that could vicariously endorse such inarguably immoral acts. To simply claim that the divine being's ways are too mysterious for humans to comprehend is but an escape-hatch kind of reasoning which, instead of addressing the suffering and evil involved, simply sweeps it under the rug like some unsolvable dilemma.
Harris argues that we know how to distinguish that which is good from that which is bad, empirically, without need of theological concerns, and that we should be able to establish rules of conduct that correspond with this knowledge.
I am only scratching the surface of the topic here. I have already read his two previous books and find him to be a sober, eloquent, and parsimonious writer and thinker, so I plan on reading and absorbing this new book soon.

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