I stumbled onto a YouTube video yesterday that I’ve just watched for the second time. It’s a talk given by Sam Harris on the nature of belief and its consequences, and I just think he makes a number of really interesting integrations. The gentleman who introduces Harris is a bit abrasive, but Harris himself is quite polite and sincerely tries not to offend. If you’re sensitive to criticism of religious belief, you should find this relatively mild.
With reference to the title of this post, he makes a very sound and important distinction between hope and belief that I think is not obvious to a lot of people all of the time. For example, religious belief is oftentimes expressed in terms of hopefulness. But, as Harris points out, your behavior will be quite different when you hope you’ve won the lottery versus when you believe you’ve won the lottery. Now, that may sound obvious, but consider it in a religious context. There are many who honestly are not certain about religious propositions as to the nature and origin of existence, yet find comfort in such "possibilities" and hope they are true. And yet, they are very unlikely to take actions specifically with respect to such hope that they would not have taken anyway, such as spreading goodwill amongst their fellow man. Contrast that with a strong belief in the literal truth of religious precepts, how such belief motivates actions, and how those actions affect the world in — really — history-altering geopolitical ways.
Of course, such influencing of history is indeed sought by many, particularly the fundamentalists, but as Harris points out, there are a number of books of origin, they don’t agree, and it’s a growing chasm. I think quite reasonably — given the current state of the world — Harris sees no reason why humanity will overcome its religious differences.
Another good point he makes is that we don’t respect beliefs; we respect reasons. This, again, is obvious. If I believe that a fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage, are you going to respect my belief, or ask me why I believe it? Of course, it will be the latter, so what you are doing is extending the benefit of the doubt, giving me a chance to provide my reasons, which you will either respect (agree with) or not (disagree with). But again, switch to a religious context, and suddenly, beliefs must be respected because they are beliefs. Indeed; and I would add that it is precisely because there are no good reasons that we are so admonished to be sensitive and respect such beliefs.
One of my favorite lines from that video is when he says: "The fundamentalists have actually read the books and they’re right about them." As a former born-again fundamentalist as a youth, I can vouch for that. Fundamentalists are really the only religious people with any integrity. The rest, I think, are compromisers; caught in the middle between a radicalism they know is absurd and the fear of uncertainty and ostracism. They are prisoners to a belief system, the fundamentals of which they were indoctrinated in as children by family, culture, and society. They have reason to be uncomfortable. It’s a lonely world out there for unbelievers.
I’ve been criticized by family, readers, and fellow unbeliever-bloggers for my very harsh tone in the past with respect to my "crusade" against religion. In some respects, I agree and I’m trying to set a different tone — and not, incidentally, only with religion but on the blog in general. However, what I’m right about, and what Harris speaks to, is the critical importance of this topic.
My good friend Billy Beck often says that the chief antagonism is between individualism and collectivism, and he’s right. But, that is a political antagonism. I believe there is an antagonism far more fundamental — metaphysical and epistemological in scope — which is between naturalism and super-naturalism and I sincerely do not believe that anything more narrowly integrated and identified can truly be resolved until that most fundamental of conflicts is resolved.
I’m going to be more polite about it going forward, but I’m not going to compromise on the facts.