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small BOOK . . . BIG IDEAS
on January 21, 2011
After reading Dawkins' THE GOD DELUSION (374 pages of actual material) and Hitchens' GOD IS NOT GREAT (283 pages), I wondered how Harris' small book of 227 pages could possibly contend.
As it turns out, I felt that he often packed more punches per page than his fellow atheists.
Seeing anti-God, -Faith, and -Religion arguments from a point of view of someone learned in neuroscience was definitely an eye-opener, and I found that I agreed with him on quite a few points:
1) How certain religious beliefs (especially Islamic) can spell disaster for more--relatively--rational and peaceful countries and citizens.
2) The hypocrisy of the War on Drugs when so many other crimes essentially amount to a slap on the wrist.
3) The foolishness of a truly Pacifistic philosophy.
4) How "spiritual intelligence" can be found in almost anything if we look hard enough--even a Hawaiian seafood recipe!
All of the above arguments I found to be quite convincing and well-articulated. Despite his neuroscience background there were only a few parts difficult to grasp due to philosophical and scientific terminology and concepts. Most impressive was his well-documented Bibliography--a whopping ~30 pages! Indeed a LOT of research went into this book.
However, Harris also has a few arguments that are sorely lacking in arguments and evidence.
Harris--and indeed many atheists--contend that "We simply do not need religious ideas to motivate us to live ethical lives." (page 172).
He also states that "We are the final judges of what is good, just as we remain the final judges of what is logical." (page 226).
In general I agree with the first statement that people, even without religion, will have some sort of moral compass.
The problem comes in realizing that each individual's concept of right and wrong on issue X is going to differ, which then raises the question: If 5 people have a gut feeling that abortion is wrong and 6 people have a gut feeling that it isn't, which group is ultimately "right"? Is it the decision of Harris' "world government" (page 151) that he claims we need? But even there, government is comprised of individuals. If people can't come to a unanimous agreement on "right" and "wrong" it is quite possible that, ultimately, violence between the two groups could break out--whether it's punching each other in the face or crashing planes into each other.
His best guess to the answer of "who's right and who's wrong?" is this:
"There will probably come a time when we achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness, and of ethical judgments themselves, at the level of the brain." (page 175). So here stands mankind, thousands if not millions of years in the making, and even Sam Harris doesn't have an answer.
Finally, Harris criticizes the religious concept of any Afterlife, only to make the following admissions:
"But the truth is we simply do not know what happens after death." (page 208)
"We do not know what awaits each of us after death, but we know that we will die." (page 226)
"What happens after death is surely a mystery, as is the relationship between consciousness and the physical world." (page 288)
After reading such statements as these, it is apparent to me that the only way atheists are ever going to truly find out what happens one second after death, is to die and find out themselves. We can send a rocket to the moon, but we can't send test equipment beyond the land of the living and come back with evidence.
As I've shown, there are both good and bad arguments to be had here, but if there's one thing I've come to learn it's that perhaps nothing kicks the mind into high-gear faster than picking up a book written by an atheist, opening your mind and considering the possibilities.