Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bill Maher Interviews "New Atheist" Sam Harris

I hadn't read/heard much of Sam Harris before watching this interview on Bill Maher's Real Time. Harris' book The End of Faith helped launch "New Atheism" movement... without even using the word "atheism." I enjoyed this Real Time segment and was impressed with Harris.

At the beginning of the interview, Harris says that atheism "has no content." I like how Harris is using the word to mean simply not embracing beliefs based on faith without evidence. He explains that we no more need to learn atheism than we need to learn how to be a non-astrologer.

video

I've watched a number of videos by fellow New Atheist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is more like a bomb-throwing evangelist for The Cause. This is less in tune with my own attitude. Theists make "God" and then believe in him, while Atheists (using the non-Harris definition) make God and then dis-believe in him. I'm more interested in the option of not making God.

That being said, Dawkins is insightful and entertaining. (A British accent adds fun to just about any lecture.) His site includes fine clips from his talk and Q&A at UC Berkeley. Here's a shorter clip of Dawkins from a Q&A at a college in Virginia:



(My two previous blog postings about Dawkins and Atheism, from last year, are here and here.)

11 comments:

Change said...

//Theists make "God" and and then believe in him, while Atheists (using the non-Harris definition) make God and then dis-believe in him. I'm more interested in the option of not making God.//

Well said!

mikenmar said...

I don't particularly like Dawkins, and not because of his atheism. He speaks in a way that is bound to insult other people, and so he does very little to advance the conversation.

I haven't read it yet (it is just now coming out), but based on the several interviews I've heard with her, I'd put Karen Armstrong's "The Case For God" up against Dawkins any day:

http://www.amazon.com/Case-God-Karen-Armstrong/dp/0307269183

mikenmar said...

BTW, Karen Armstrong has a British accent too!

Stuart said...

Thanks for posting, mikenmar. If you'd like, please post here an idea from Karen Armstrong that you think is particularly useful or insightful.

Former Berkeley Girl said...

Karen Armstong's "The History of God" is a fascinating study of how and why we humans have created various forms of deities. It is interesting to ready about how different ideas of God have replaced others at various points of history. In considering any type of spiritual "higher power," I think that Karen Armstrong's work is a good reference point about how we are shaping our own, the influences, etc.

Doug said...

I call myself a Buddhist, and believe there's some kernel of truth to the Buddha's teaching and all the millenia of accumulated Buddhist doctrine, but I take almost none of it literally. The Buddha and his spiritual descendants taught and teach very often via parable. So did Jesus for that matter. Were the parables literally true? I don't really care, that's entirely beside the point. It was a story used to illustrate a point, and value is in the point, not the story.

An interesting exercise, reportedly undertaken and nearly published as a book by Thomas Jefferson way back when, is to strip the bible down to only the words spoken by Jesus. No gushing testimonials, no accounts of miracles, just the words attributed to the man himself. There's some nuggets of goodness there that I can accept wholeheartedly.

Ghandi purportedly phrased it pretty well: "I do not reject your Christ, I love your Christ.It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ."

Stuart said...

Doug wrote...
I call myself a Buddhist, and believe there's some kernel of truth to the Buddha's teaching and all the millenia of accumulated Buddhist doctrine, but I take almost none of it literally.

That's why the metaphor of "a finger pointing to the moon" is so common and helpful. Buddhist doctrines point at something that we can perceive and experience for ourselves, just now. It's that "somthing" that matters... moreso than the finger or doctrine that points to it.

mikenmar said...

Nice little blurb from Armstrong in today's WaPo:

"Why did I write "The Case for God"? I was becoming increasingly concerned about the nature of the discussion that followed the publications of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam HarrIs and wanted to bring to the table some of the things that I have learned from my study of world religion during the last 20 years

First, on both sides, the discussion was often aggressive and antagonistic. To quarrel about religion is counter-productive and an impediment to enlightenment. When we are talking about God, nobody has the last word because what we call God lies beyond the reach of speech. It also violates the Western rationalist tradition: a Socratic dialogue was a spiritual exercise and, Socrates insisted, would not work unless it was conducted throughout with gentleness and courtesy. Nobody 'won' the argument: a Socratic dialogue always ended with participants realizing that they knew nothing at all, an insight that was indispensable to the philosophic quest.

Second, on both sides people were equating 'faith' with 'belief'. This is a recent aberration and one that is peculiar to modern Western Christianity. We do not find it in either Judaism or Islam. The Middle English 'bileven' meant 'love, trust, loyalty, and commitment' it was related to the German 'liebe' (beloved) and translated the Greek 'pistis' ('trust, commitment, engagement') in the New Testament and the Latin 'credo' which derived from 'cor do' ('I give my heart'). It was only in the late 17th century that 'belief' came to mean an intellectual assent to a rather dubious proposition. Just look up 'belief' in a good, historical dictionary!

At this time, truth was becoming more notional in the scientific West. We were losing the more traditional form of faith which saw religion as a practical activity. Like driving, swimming, dancing or gymnastics, you learn the truths of faith only by constant, dedicated practice - not by reading texts or adopting a metaphysical 'belief'. Like a myth, a religious doctrine is essentially a program of action. It makes no sense unless it is translated into practical action that helps you to dethrone egotism, selfishness and greed by practicing compassion to all living beings. In the book, I try to show how doctrines like the Incarnation or Trinity were originally a summons to selflessness and compassion and that we only discover their truth by making these qualities a reality in our own lives.

Finally, in the pre-modern world people knew that it was very difficult to speak about God, because God could not fit neatly into a human system of thought. People like Aquinas, Maimonides or Avicenna would find much of our modern certainty about God frankly idolatrous. They knew that we could not prove 'his' existence, that even revelation did not provide us with privileged information about the divine but simply made us aware of what we did not know, and that all our God-talk - even the language of scripture - could only be symbolic, pointing beyond itself to transcendence, because when we speak about God we are at the end of.what words or thoughts can do.

And this only sounds amorphous and vague if you are not a dedicated practitioner. If you don't 'do' religion - you don't 'get' it!"

Stuart said...

Thanks for posting the blurb from Armstrong, mikenmar. (Italicized stuff below are Armstrong quotes.)

When we are talking about God, nobody has the last word because what we call God lies beyond the reach of speech.

"God" is a name for what exists before words and thinking. So it's true that nobody has the last word... perhaps also true that nobody has the first word. Open your mouth, already a mistake.

a Socratic dialogue always ended with participants realizing that they knew nothing at all

Yeah. These discussions can perhaps help us understand that we don't know.

We were losing the more traditional form of faith which saw religion as a practical activity.

Absolutely, beliefs (including belief in God) can be helpful, depending on the situation. We can respect religion in the same way we'd recognize the usefulness of a tool or medicine.

Sometimes, instead of using religion as a medicine, we cling dogmas as if they were an absolute Truth. In response, people like Dawkins arise, to counteract this excess.

Like a myth, a religious doctrine is essentially a program of action. It makes no sense unless it is translated into practical action that helps you to dethrone egotism, selfishness and greed by practicing compassion to all living beings.

Yes, "practical action." When problems arise from religion, they come not from people acting together, but rather from thinking alike.

Zen practice involves group action, even sitting in the same posture and wearing the same robes. We act together, without any suggestion that we need to believe or think alike.

As Armstrong suggests, benefits of religion are found more in what we do, than in what we think or believe. We can be clear about this distinction. E.g., acting to help other people is wonderful, yet holding dogmas about helping is problematic.

If you don't 'do' religion - you don't 'get' it!

I see no problem with doing religion (going to a church, standing to sing hymns, kneeling to pray, etc etc). The idea that you "get" something from it... I'd be careful about that.

mikenmar said...

When she says "doing religion," I think she means "practicing compassion and selflessness", not necessarily going to church, kneeling, or singing hymns.

Stuart said...

mikenmar said...
When she says "doing religion," I think she means "practicing compassion and selflessness"

Thanks again, mikenmar. Surely some New Atheists have a problem with selflessness... but many do not. I like how Harris specifically makes clear that his objection to "Faith" or "Religion" isn't directed against practicing compassion. Harris says that if in fact, e.g., Buddha was "the Tiger Woods of compassion," it's something we ought to take interest in (in a reasoned way).

I'm going a step further. I'm not against selflessness, and not against following religious ritual. I think Armstrong is suggesting that the rituals of religion may sometimes lead to the practical result of compassionate action.

My own misgivings about religion are directed solely at one aspect: dogmatically clinging to beliefs transmitted by a group or an authority. It's sometimes useful to sharply question these received beliefs.