Tuesday, December 13, 2005

With friends like these

Sam Harris is riding a wave of popularity very rare for an atheist. His book the End of Faith has even made it to the New York Times best seller list.

Although he has written some good articles on atheism,* he also has a couple of major problems. He is on a Hitchens-like, borderline genocidal, crusade against Islam and he not only embraces but prescribes spirituality and mysticism as a rational alternative to religion.

Indian biologist and philosopher of science Meera Nanda, who is particularly knowledgeable about the type of mysticism Harris recommends, takes Harris to task for both of these positions in Trading Faith for Spirituality: The Mystifications of Sam Harris.
Harris can barely curb his enthusiasm for George Bush's disastrous wars, announcing gleefully that "we are at war against Islam" not at war against violent extremists, mind you, but against the very "vision of life prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran" (p. 109). He finds tortured justifications for torturing suspected terrorists in America's Gulag...

The villains who are beyond the pale of reason and who deserve to die are all Muslims. While he has some harsh things to say about Christians and Jews as well, he spares them the wars and the torture, for unlike the Muslim barbarians, they have had their reformations and their enlightenments.

This bilious attack on faith only sets the stage for what seems to be his real goal: a defense, nay, a celebration of Harris' own Buddhist/Hindu spirituality. (He has been influenced by the esoteric teachings of Dzogchen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta and has spent many years practicing various techniques of meditation, Harris informs his readers). Spirituality is the answer to Islam's and Christianity's superstitions and wars, Harris wants to convince us. While he is quick to pour scorn on such childish ideas as the virgin birth, heaven and hell, the great rationalist has only winks and nods to offer when it comes to such "higher" truths as near-death experiences, ESP and the existence of disembodied souls, all of which he finds plausible. Our fearless crusader against faith puts his reason to sleep when it comes to the soul-stuff of the Eastern faith traditions that he himself subscribes to...

What I find particularly galling about spirituality is its pretensions of "higher" rationality, its false and dangerous claims of being "empirical" and "scientific" in the sense of being testable by "experience" (which invariably means non-sensory experience). Western converts to Eastern spirituality, along with Eastern apologists themselves, end up presenting an air-brushed, sanitized picture of the real thing. That is the reason why I felt that Harris' brand of rational mysticism had to be examined carefully and challenged.

The article is well worth a read. I just recently discovered the writings of Meera Nanda with her article Godless States, which compares the current dilemmas of secularism in India and America. I think she is emerging as one of the more important voices of modern secularism.
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* link via Pime Forest Collective, which excerpts the best parts.

2 Comments:

At 12/14/2005 10:23 AM, Blogger Comandante AgĂ­ said...

I have Harris' book but have only read the introduction so far. I could sense that he is mostly going after Islam, but he throws some heavy jabs at Christianity as well. Odd that he would champion Eastern religion as the answer.

I've been reading about Buddhism lately. I admire it for its practical philosophy but I ignore the supernatural elements. The similarities between postmodern philosophy and zen are rather interesting.

 
At 12/14/2005 6:50 PM, Blogger velid said...

I haven't read Harris' book yet. I'd be interested to find out what you think of it.

I do think Buddhism can be an interesting philosophy of life--an approach to dealing with the critical questions of how to live and what to do.

I am just a bit allergic to claims about mystical truths.

 

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