Sam Harris: It’s not about atheism, it’s about reason and genuine respect for the well-being of others
Having just watched the recent Sam Harris + Rabbi David Wolpe debate on the existence of God, I was reminded of Sam Harris’ very important and agreeable position that a big part of the cultural struggle being fought be secularists should not be about atheism specifically, but about reason generally. Now, the subject of religion surely earns very special consideration in the struggle because it is one of the few, if not the only, domains in which people are not pressed for evidence for their beliefs, and are often even treated favourably for holding these beliefs in the absense of evidence. And of course, there is also the aspect of the secularist movement which is pushing for the raising of consciousness with the respect to the fact and inappropriateness that atheism is apparently one of if not the last hot button social characteristics for which it is still fairly socially acceptable for one the display overt bigotry toward. So definitely, given all of this and the great political import, considerations of religion remains the highest individual priority for the movement. However, at its core this movement needs to be more generally about anti-dogmatism and open-minded and genuine respect for the well-being and freedom from suffering of others.
I think that a necessary set of features for a stable and humanitarian society are lack of attachment and mindfulness. Lack of attachment is important because attachment to things outside of the self can corrupt reason and compassion by virtue of the creation of an insecure state of dependence. If one is attached to a particular set of beliefs to the point where one would feel great psychological discord in considering that the belief may be errant, one can become highly motivated to engage in irrationality, self-deception, dishonesty, and social fragmenting from those who believe otherwise. If one is attached to their social status, they can come to view their peers as rivals. If one is attached to their possessions and wealth, one can become greedy and uncompassionate to those who have less and envious of those who have more. And if one is so attached to other people (e.g., friends, lovers, etc.) to the point where one feels that they could not live happily without them, one becomes limited in one’s options (e.g., where to live, what to do) and creates for themselves a mindframe of insecurity. In all of these cases, one is localizing their locus of control, happiness and security outside to a large degree outside of themselves. They are putting their stock in factors that are to a great degree outside of their own control. Often people will try to exert control over these uncontrollables in order to hold down the fort, and this is a source and manifestation of anxiety as well as social discord, as it involves trying it often involves attempting to control or demonstrate strong dependence on others. Having a locus of internal stability that is so significantly outside of the self will necessarily create great insecurity that is obviously personally destructive and can be very socially destructive when it comes to trying to protect one’s beliefs, status, wealth and possessions, and other elements of personal security against others attempting to do the same thing. It can become antagonistic and/or overly demanding of others.
Now, one may rebut that to some degree some of these factors are pretty much demanded. We all want loved ones, a certain measure of status, a certain variety of possessions, and so on. This indeed may be the case. But I think it’s important to do our best to internalize our locus of control, happiness, and security as much as possible so that we minimize these personally and socially destructive sources of discord to the greatest degree possible. Mindfulness, I believe, is key to this. Through the practice of mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy, we can learn that we are not the same thing as our social identity, as our beliefs, as our possessions, as our careers, and so forth. And we can realize the same about others. By learning to distinguish ourselves from these attributes of our lives, we can help decrease oursense of dependency and increase our appreciation for the experience of life both in ourselves and in others. A commitment to mindfulness for the sake of the cultivation of wisdom, autonomy, and appreciation for wellness and suffering can only help promote secure individuals and societies. Mindfulness is also key for keeping scope of the big picture. Is living a life largely fixated on leading the pack in the rat race really a well-spent life? Is living a life that is so constantly enshrouded with anxiety, competitiveness, deadlines, distraction, and narrowness of experience and focus really the best way to go? Is living a life in which we view others as competitors and life as some sort of a race to the top really the path to enrichment? How many hours do so many of us spend in fierce competition? How many of those may have been wellspent in tasks such as meditation, interacting with people from different walks of life, and doing other things that will help one learn, connect, grow, and help others do the same? Is having the respect, admiration and envy of others, and feeling that one is high-ranking worth so severely narrowing the scope and experience of this one life? Is this sort of dependence on external rewards (e.g., status, possessions) worth the time spent away from the development of personal development and wisdom, and the establishment of a relatively cold egoistic antagonist hyper-individualist culture?
By having a more stable internal locus of stability, control and happiness, one can be more impartial, honest, open-minded and compassionate when it comes to evaluating propositions, be they religious, political, or whatever. This is of critical importance for individual and social wellbeing. It can contribute to a world in which we compete less and collaborate more in the pursuit of wisdom and wellness for ourselves and others.
I will close this write-up with a consideration of an argument of Harris that points out the need to promote reason reaches beyond religion. A criticism often launched against atheism is the behaviour of persons like Stalin and Mao. These people were atheists who did horrible things. As Harris points out, it was not their atheism that led them to engage in their socially abhorrent behaviours. It was not a lack of belief in a deity that did this. Sure, perhaps the fear of a God’s wrath may have stopped them from acting this way, but it also may not have; humans have historically been able to square horrible acts with their religion. But even if the fear of God would have persuaded them to not engage in such behaviours (a charitable assumption), the lack of belief was not the motivating factor. How does a lack of belief in something lead one to a particular course of morally-relevant action? How does one’s lack of belief in God serve as a motivating factor for horrific crimes against humanity? These people may have been atheists, but they surely were not the kind of people that Sam Harris or I would want in any type of power. They were people who had demonstrated nontheistic dogmatisms and an astonishing lack of willingness to consider other views and value the humanity of a certain subset of humanity. This is a demonstration of how the secularist movement should be about far more than theism. It needs to be about reason generally and a genuine appreciation for the wellbeing and freedom from suffering of onself and others. It needs to be about prioritizing reason and wellness above all else. Creating such a world is not going to be easy. In fact, it is anything but probable. This kind of world cannot be forced upon people. It requires the buy-in of the masses. I see no task to be of greater importance than this.