What Sam Harris gets Wrong about Religion

I’ve just watched a marathon of all four conversations/discussions between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, held in 2018. Each one is about 2 hours (so 8 hours in total!). The first two were in Vancouver, the third one in Dublin, and the fourth in London. In the 02 Arena, no less, which makes me happy as philosophy and honest discussion on the topics that matters most can fill a stadium, as Sam says ”without Justin Bieber coming out to perform halfway through”.

Sam Harris is an interesting person because he is part of the New Atheism crew called The Four Horsemen (the other three being Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennet and Christopher Hitchens). But unlike his fellow riders he wants to reserve some space for spirituality, but without buying into organised religion. A mission he lays out in his book ”Waking Up” to great effect. Both the intent and execution of the book is rather excellent. But there are a few things that Sam Harris gets wrong. And unfortunately much of what he gets wrong I learnt under my first two semesters of Religious Studies, so they are in a sense quite basic. Before going into the details of this, I want to describe Jordan Peterson as his conversation partner.

At some points during these conversations Harris openly complains about Peterson’s elaborate, allegorical readings of the Bible. Peterson approaches the Bible from a vantage point of it being filled with archetypal narratives that has something to teach people, if we can figure out what that is, more or less precisely. Harris complaint is that ”not many people read and understand the Bible in the way you just laid it out”. At another point he asks ”so, how many people do you think understands the Bible this way?”. Peterson gives him an honest ”I don’t know” but adds ”but when I talk about these things millions of people listen”.

Harris is fond of offering caveats when he speaks on certain topics, so I should do the same. I like Sam Harris. I think he has maybe the most interesting and worth while podcast out there that I know of. And man, are there many podcasts! And like I said, I think that his book on spirituality vs religion is brilliant in a great many respects. And it certainly boosted me on my own meditative journey (as meditation is the spiritual practice that he is most fond of).

So then. What is the error of Harris? When he asks Peterson how many people believe or see their (perhaps not so) holy book in the sense Peterson does, it seems as though he implicitly thinks that the answer is ’hardly no one’. The same goes for when he briefly brushes by mystics and contemplative traditions in the Abrahamic religions. Hardly anyone has that kind of belief, right? Well … Mysticism and contemplative focus is portrayed as a fringe movement in each religion. When looking at the numbers of Christians in the world, and their affiliation, according to gordonconwell then it doesn’t list mysticism as a separate Christian tradition, so we can’t really know for sure. But what we do know is that is and has always been a part of pretty much every Christian tradition. So let’s say for the sake of argument that mysticism and contemplative focus is indeed a fringe movement within Christianity and Islam. Let’s say a fringe movement that accounts for 10% of the world’s Christians and Muslims. According to the data (linked above) there are 2,5 billion Christians worldwide, and about 1,9 billion Muslims. If those inclined towards the mystical and the contemplative is roughly 10%, then that would mean 250 million Christians, and 190 million Muslims, all in all 440 million people. This number can be compared to the atheists totalling at 147 million.

It should also be added that hardly all who make up Peterson’s audience are mystics and contemplatives, but merely people who like and find religion somewhat useful. How large is this group? Here is a rather common fallacy, both in the present but even more so historically. We tend to think that people were very very religious in the past. But the fact that there was social coercion that forced you to go to church is not the same thing as that one’s religion really matters. In fact, there is no historical indication that people either cared more or knew more about their religion in the past. You just had to show up to church on Sunday or you’ll get in trouble. But the mass was conducted, until protestantism, in … wait for it … Latin. In small perishes out in the country side, with mainly farmers, it was the same thing: Latin. Yey. Can I now please just get back to plowing my field with my ox?

In Harris’ podcast with Ricky Gervais, Ricky says that he sometimes has gotten the question ’why don’t you talk about the reasonable Christians instead of just the crazy ones’. And Ricky, being the brilliant comedian he is gives the straightforward, honest and totally acceptable answer ”we’ll, they’re no fun to make fun of”. For a comedian, that’s all the justification you need. For a public intellectual on the other hand pricing honest conversation and free speech, it is less so.

There are indeed what Harris’ calls ”Bible thumpers”, holding on to fundamentalist dogmas for dear life, it seems. My good friend and music producer Martin ’Atjazz’ Iveson calls these people Christian Plus. I think it’s a hilarious term, but it’s also true. They are not Christian, they are Christian Plus. And for some reason they have decided to congregate in abnormally large numbers on the same continent as Sam Harris. Poor Sam.

Given the context, I understand that Harris is worried about the religious people he sees. But then there are the ones he doesn’t see. Those not picketing outside Planned Parenthood, those scientists, doctors, philosophers, lawyers, and grocery store employees who have a taste for the metaphorical, philosophical and metaphysical, who can hold an intelligent conversation without feeling the need to do any ’Jesus smuggling’ in it, those are kind of invisible. They are also capable of aligning themselves with political causes and party’s all over the political spectrum, certainly not just with the conservatives.

In the conversation between Peterson and Harris one thing that came up was the power of story. And that there is perhaps a problem residing in that atheist, secularist rationality (although it has many things going for itself) doesn’t have a tapestry of good stories. The power of a good narrative is that it makes you care enough to move … at all. But it doesn’t mean that the impulse to move is so great as if it was a jetpack strapped to your back that just have to propel you forward towards ’The Cause’. In fact, religion gets people to do things. But again – reverting to my early days of Religious Studies – sociologically and psychologically, religion is what is called a dependent variable. That simply means that religion is more impacted by its surroundings than the surroundings are impacted by it. This holds true on the micro, meso and macro level. Sure there are outliers, but the generality of the claim is certainly supported by enough data that it ought to lay Harris’ worries to bed. For religious people with an attachment to Jesus or Krishna or Buddha, this is a tough pill to swallow, but it shouldn’t be for Sam.

The next question now is perhaps – how should Sam Harris strike up a conversation with one of the (maybe) 400 million  mystics and the contemplatives out there? Well, I’m available Sam. 🙂

/Jonatan

 

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