Saturday, November 20, 2010

All religions suck ... except Jainism

Militant atheist Sam Harris has been making quite a stir lately with his best-selling polemics against religion and his in-your-face public appearances:

… [while] debating a former priest before a packed auditorium… he condemns the God of the Old Testament for a host of sins, including support for slavery. He drop-kicks the New Testament, likening the story of Jesus to a fairy tale. He savages the Koran, calling it “a manifesto for religious divisiveness…” [Link]
He goes beyond the usual attacks on fundamentalists to attack moderates for being “enablers” and apologists for more extreme actions:
Religious moderates, Harris says in his patient and imperturbable style, have immunized religion from rational discussion by nurturing the idea that faith is so personal and private that it is beyond criticism, even when horrific crimes are committed in its name.

He sees all religion as fundamentally dangerous, especially in the post 9/11 world:
… he demonstrates the behavior he believes atheists should adopt when talking with Christians. “Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you,” he writes, addressing his imaginary opponent, “dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well - by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God…”

The worst part, Harris says, is this: Because Christians and Jews cling to their “delusions,” they are in no position to criticize Muslims for theirs. And, as he italicizes it in his new book for maximum effect, ” most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith. ”

Despite his deep and abiding enmity to all religions, he finds one acceptable:
He endorses Jainism, a religion-philosophy from India that finds God in the unchanging traits of the human soul. But everyone who organizes his or her life around an ancient text that purports to convey the words and sentiments of God — Harris would like you to surrender your prayers, history and traditions. You are welcome to check out Jainism, but Harris recommends that you accept his conclusion, which is that we live in a universe without God. Deal with it.

Somehow I don’t think that the Jains are going to get an influx of converts. And that’s OK with him:
It is, of course, taboo to criticize a person’s religious beliefs. The problem, however, is that much of what people believe in the name of religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable, and incompatible with genuine morality. The truth is that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings.

How exactly the faithful will transition to a godless, Good Book-less cosmology is not exactly clear. Harris isn’t sure it will ever happen. But he is heartened by countries such as Sweden, where he claims 80 percent of the populace do not believe in God.

My very favorite part of this story? The fact that his (un)faith came to him in a vision of secular humanism:
At age 19, he and a college friend tried MDMA, better known as ecstasy, and the experience altered his view of the role that love could play in the world. (“I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively.”) He dropped out of Stanford, where he was an English major, in his sophomore year and started to study Buddhism and meditation. He flew around the country and around the world, to places such as India and Nepal, often for silent retreats that went on for months.

I’m curious as to why Buddhism doesn’t pass muster with him any more. Does he not consider it a religion at all, or does he have a beef with it to?

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