Sam Harris

From the Aspen Ideas Festival, transcribed by me.

"It's often imagined that atheists are in principle closed to spiritual
experience. But the truth is that there is nothing that prevents an
atheist from experiencing self-transcending love, or ecstasy, or
rapture, or awe. In fact there's nothing that prevents an atheist from
going into a cave for a year or a decade and practicing meditation like
a proper mystic. What atheists don't tend to do is make unjustified and
unjustifiable claims about the cosmos on the basis of those
experiences.

There's no question that disciplines like
meditation and prayer can have a profound effect upon the human mind.
But do the positive experiences, of say, Christian mystics, over the
ages suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even
remotely, because Christians have been having these experiences but so
have Buddhists, and Muslims, and even atheists. So there's a deeper
reality here and it makes a mockery of religious denominations.

The
fact is that whenever human beings make an honest effort to get at the
truth, they reliably transcend the accidents of their birth and
upbringing. Just as it would be absurd to speak about Christian
physics, though the Christians invented physics, and it would be absurd
to speak about Muslim algebra, though the Muslims invented algebra…it
will one day be absurd to speak about Christian ethics or spirituality.
Whatever is true about our circumstance, in ethical and spiritual
terms, is discoverable now, and can be articulated without offending
all that we've come to understand about the nature of the universe.
"

While I'm not sure the word "mockery" is appropriate, I do think that the ultimate truth of the world is much greater than anything we could come up with, and if it is ever revealed, we will all see how each religion is striving towards it but ultimately falls short.  And that "deeper reality" is exactly the God that I believe in.

I don't think this suggests that we should get rid of all religions, but that we should look at them very closely and be true to what this "deeper reality" seems to suggest.  We have no business proclaiming our ideas as absolute when the very reality we try to describe is beyond our grasp.  There are a lot of things wrong with the way religion is practiced today, but the removal of it is not necessary.  Instead, let us refocus with a humble and open attitude towards whatever opinions are brought to the table, rather than reacting defensively and close-mindedly.

"I don't see religious beliefs as distinct from any other kinds of beliefs. We represent the world in our thoughts, and all of us are in the business of hoping that our representations are accurate, or at least accurate enough so that we can successfully negotiate our lives happily. Nobody wants to be mistaken, profoundly mistaken, about their place in the world….we're not in the business of just deceiving ourselves just willfully.  And so religious beliefs are on all fours with all of our other beliefs, we're describing the world, we're trading in these descriptions through language."

Exactly.  Everyone is being honest to the best degree that they know how, but the thing we have to remember is that our ideas about the world are just that: ideas.  We can't confuse the ideas about the world with the world itself.  All we have are our representations, and representations are by definition *not complete*.  There really is no room for absolutism in our world views.

That, and we have to be open to the idea that someone else might just be trying to get across the same message as we are but in different terms.  We can't let language divide us when it doesn't have to.

Absolute certainty is dangerous.  But that doesn't mean our discussion has to end.  We can talk about degrees of certainty without necessitating absolutism.

Man, I'm really starting to like this guy.  He comes across as very sincere and honest.   Seriously, give the talk a watch/listen, especially the last half an hour.  He does particularly well during the Q&A period.

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  1. Exellent observations!Couple of suggestions: "There really is no room for absolutism in our world views." If that's true, you might want to rephrase this sentence because it is absolutist in nature."Absolute certainty is dangerous." How certain are you of this? See above.Have to say, from what you transcribed, Harris seems more like an agnostic than an atheist. I hope I have time to listen to the audio soon.

  2. Heh. Good points. ;)He is an atheist in that he doesn't believe in a supreme being…but I bet you it's pretty likely that he might like the panentheist perspective, but I'm not sure. He definitely likes mysticism, which makes me like him.

  3. My favorite quote from the speech, when Harris proposes a few improvements to the ten commandments:

  4. I really enjoyed this post. 🙂

  5. What you're left with is what Harris himself points to. Mysticism and the extinguishing of the illusory self.Of course, I differ from him only that once you come to the non-religious understanding of these truths, you can go back and understand them quite well through religion…things start to feel re-energized and true in a different way. But I do think it's necessary that we come to a set of universal non-dogmatic ideas which can then give us a good lens to view religion from.Absolutism is the biggest obstacle to that goal.

  6. Thanks! Good to hear from you! 😉

  7. I found this talk very
    fascinating and challenging. I believe people like Harris are necessary to help
    challenge people and keep the free exchange of ideas flowing.I believe Harris has many quality arguments that religious people need to consider and answer in order to be considered credible in today's world.Thanks for posting this! I had a nice, challenging, educational hour listing to Harris.

  8. I got the link from Stephen, so thank him. 😉

  9. Ok. Thanks Stephen! 🙂

  10. Thanks for posting this. I hadn't seen it. I've read both of his books and heard him on an interview the the Institute for Integral Spirituality and also read the interview in Newsweek with Rick Warren he mentions at the end of this clip (which is an absolutely excellent interview. I LOVE the way Harris handles Warren!) Ken Wilber's complaint about Harris, of course, is his unwillingness to integrate other world views into his own. The problem being if you try to tell those who believe in magic that they have to get rid of their magic, they are more likely to further entrench themselves in their beliefs rather than to entertain other possibilities. This is likewise Huston Smith's take on fundamentalism.. He says that we aren't actually listening to what it is the fundamentalists are saying. We just basically say they are crazy and wrong without understanding what is motivating them to hold the position they hold. If we want to get people to dismantle these beliefs, we have to do something about the sense of despair that motivates them. Fundamentalism doesn’t exist only in religion. It exists in every
    institution including those in the arts and sciences. We’ve become an
    argument culture rather than a conversational culture. There is very
    little middle ground. It is either/or. And there are basically two
    fundamentalisms in Western culture: that which is found in religion,
    and that which is found in secular modernity. The fundamentalist
    secular culture is every bit as demanding, vocal and combatitive as is
    fundamentalist religion. And it is secular modernism that has provoked
    religious fundamentalism. It is militant secularism that has created
    fundamentalism. It says that religion is simple-minded, backward-minded
    and bad while science is forward looking and good.The prejudice inherent in all fundamentalism: “We are right and you
    are wrong” is something we can find in every single one of us. We
    always have to make sure we understand the reasons for error and see if
    they might be involved with matters we are involved with. Because
    almost always, what we implicate “out there” is something that can be
    implicated within as well.We need to learn to listen and this is not at all the same as being
    tolerant. Tolerance is condescending. Understanding is far better.

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