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The only angels…

March 2, 2013

The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil’s masterpiece. (Sam Harris, End of Faith. Source: Wikipedia)

End of Faith, Sam Harris, Front CoverThis sums up the argument of Sam Harris in his book, The End of Faith. How far can we take such a view, and is it correct without qualification?

It is the standard view of religion these days within academic circles to take it as reducible to the psychologies of believers. I don’t doubt that so much of the history of religion can be explained in this way, if not all of it. But still, it remains something a bit different to apply this argument to ourselves here and now, as aware and existent beings.

Can we really claim to be the source of what is good in us, at the same time as acting out this goodness? Does this not lend itself to an arrogance and self-confidence that can lead to badness? Is it not in fact true that sometimes the best way to stay on a path of goodness is to not credit oneself with being the source of it, but to credit some higher spiritual power or force?

I am not suggesting that this is definitely the case, but it certainly seems to resonate with my personal experience. This is one of the difficulties with moral issues. Sometimes they seem to conflict with the true and the false, because morality is not just about a belief in a value, it is also about practical action consistent with that belief. Maybe it is historically true, that religious and spiritual feeling can be reduced to things in our own minds. But in the practice here and now of religion or spirituality, can we avoid reaching beyond what is contained in our own minds?

I am not sure that we can avoid this. To talk more about the book itself. I read it from a library a few years ago when it was a new book. Seeing his latest book in the book store earlier today, got me thinking again about it. Because, although I am sceptical about a science of morality for various reasons, some of which I have discussed on this blog in other posts. There does seem to me something a bit strange about the concept of faith specifically.

Why cannot love for something be enough? Why this added notion of faith? It seems to me often to be tied up with having to accept something as true for which there is no evidence, or which goes against are basic sense of reason and understanding of the world, as a kind of initiation ritual into a religious social group. A way of subverting your own intuition about truth to some higher authority.

Let us take the bible, I can read this book and have a love for it, have a great feeling for the people involved, and have a feeling of fellowship with other people who have had similar experiences of the bible. But what good does it serve to add in a faith in the bible? What does faith add to love that is of any value? I am not sure that it adds anything, and currently I am of the view that love without faith is all that is needed and required of me.

At the time of reading the end of faith by Sam Harris, I agreed pretty much with his whole project. I think there are some blind spots in it now, regarding the active importance of spirituality beyond merely being an adjunct to a rational world view. But on the basic issue with faith I still largely agree with him that it does not seem to add anything good or worthwhile to our moral acting and moral understanding of the world around us. I may come to change my view on this, but it is where I currently stand.

His latest book, the moral landscape: how science can determine human values, could be something for me to reserve now from the library. Though I suspect, the science of morals will come up against the usual limits I have perceived it to have. But still it is refreshing to read these things from someone who doesn’t jump in with naive swipes at people and social institutions that they clearly have no considered understanding of, as is the case with some others of this ilk who will remain nameless.

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