Religion and Choices

Recently I’ve been reading Sam Harris’ “The end of Faith” and I decided to search youtube for some of his public addresses. I’ve seen a handful of these already, but wanted to see if there were any videos I haven’t seen yet.

His debate with Reza Aslan is an interesting one. Reza, while presenting some good points, is a terrible debater and does nothing to back up his positions. He also uses a lot of the logical fallacies I talked about a previous blog post I made.

The one point that he makes, but doesn’t communicate well, or back up with evidence, is that Religion is often the context through which people justify outrageous or anti-social behavior, but it is not the reason they commit this behavior. He says that there are a variety of reasons that people act this way, and religion is often the most convenient justification to put on this behavior by both the perpetrators and the victims of this behavior, but it can’t be said that it’s the principal reason.

Reza seems to be missing a lot of the points that Sam is making, chief among them for this conversation is that beliefs change your world-view, and when you have beliefs that are held sacrosanct and beyond question, you dismiss a vital aspect of what makes people act the way they do. While a particular religious belief may not be the primary motivation for a particular bad action, the overall world-view of that person contributes to all of their actions, whether they be political, social, moral, etc.

One of the points that Sam made in another interview is that a lot of people project the intensity of their beliefs onto others. More moderate religious believers tend to think that religion plays the same role in their lives that it does in the lives of those who are more fundamental. They believe that their more fanatical actions are driven by other purposes, and justified with religion.

I grew up in a small rural community that was dominated my fundamentalists and evangelicals. And let me tell you, religion played a very large part in their lifes. Reza contends that at it’s core, religion is merely a language that people use to understand our experiences with the transcendent. I strongly disagree. I do believe that is one aspect of religion, but hardly its core. Religion is heavily tied into concrete actions taken by its believers and prescribed by its leaders. It is not merely a lens through which we understand the world, but a system of prescribed actions through which you interact with the world. That’s what makes it dangerous in some cases, and what makes Reza’s description of religion short-sighted.

Reza makes the off-handed comment that religion is most misunderstood by the religious. And this kind of argument, that “those who themselves define the thing I’m talking about should be discounted as its measure, and you should instead accept my definition” drives me insane. If we aren’t allowed to judge a religion based on its outcomes i.e. the people who subscribe to its beliefs, we remove any way of evaluating its worth as a human institution. Reza would like us to judge religion according to his own criteria, which seem to have nothing to do with the people who actually practice the religion.

Reza also says, and reveals much by doing so, “Science may have a monopoly on facts, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on Truth”. Sam lets that one go, and mentions that he didn’t contend that it did. I’m not so willing to let this rhetoric slide.

Firstly, science doesn’t have a monopoly on facts. Facts just are, that’s why they’re facts, they don’t depend on us to make them so. Science is just one of the better ways of uncovering and documenting them. As Sam says in another youtube clip, it’s more about intellectual honesty than about science. Science just happens to promote intellectual honesty because of a good process, and a system of fierce competition within the marketplace of ideas. Something we don’t have in religion.

Secondly, Truth as used here, is so nebulous as to be meaningless. When truth is divorced of fact, what does it actually mean? If we’re talking about personal subjective truth, what is it you’re trying to say? I’ll give you my guess, and why I find the comment so revealing. What I read between the lines here is “My beliefs (and the experiences that lead to them) are meaningful, even if not validated and supported by fact or reality. I feel threatened by the proposition that the standard for acceptability in society might be raised to require that validation and support.”

And my question to him is, in what way are they meaningful? What makes them meaningful? And here lies what I think is the great schism between people like Sam, and people like Reza. Some people are okay holding beliefs that are, to them, meaningful in and of themselves. While others require a standard for meaningfulness that somehow correlates to something outside themselves that isn’t subjective.

Funnily enough, Reza mentions that much of the “spiritual experience” that people have has been linked to chemical processes in the brain, and protests very loudly that this does not prove they are not real. At least not any less real than any other experience we have because every perception we have of the world is passed through a neuro-chemical process of some sort.

Sam let this one go as well, and it’s another one I would challenge if for nothing else but principle. Real is another one of those words that can mean anything these days. What do you mean by real? Most other things that we experience while interacting with the world can at least be experienced by others as well, and documented. If you go for a walk with a friend, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re happy or depressed, you can both agree that you went for a walk, you may have been seen by other people on the street, been seen by cameras, have rubber worn off the bottom of your shoes, etc, etc. We have a mountain of evidence that you went for a walk. Some people would require evidence that it happened as a requisite for saying it’s real. Now when you talk to jesus in your head, there is a neuro-chemical process happening, we can verify that. But we can’t currently establish causation. We can’t say for sure that the chemical process is simply causing a hallucination, or if the process is a by-product of some connection with the divine. We can replicate it though, we can stimulate the mind in such a way as to induce a spiritual experience. Sure, maybe we’re just forcing open that god-doorway, but Occam’s razor would suggest otherwise. We have no evidence you talked to Jesus, we only have evidence that something happened in your brain. The exact same amount of evidence that we have to substantiate alien abductions. To compare the reality of our everyday neuro-chemical responses to stimulus from our external environment to the kind of things going on in the brain during a spiritual experience is incredibly intellectually dishonest.

I wasn’t planning on writing about this, but today I found a good example of just how profound the consequences of religious belief can be: Read through this article about christian evangelism at the Air Force Academy. Page three contains this fun quote:

West Point graduate and evangelical Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, involved in the investigation of Tillman’s death, stated publicly that Pat Tillman’s family was not at peace with his death because they are atheists who believe their son is now “worm dirt.”

What we can surmise from this quote is that Lt. Col. Kauzlarich is “at peace” with Tillman’s needless death at least partially because he believes that Tillman is resting comfortably in heaven. One has to wonder if our nation’s leaders would be less cavalier with the deaths of thousands of our troops and a million Iraqi civilians if they really believed that death was the end of existence, rather than the beginning of an eternal paradise.

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