Pictured above are the members of the inaugural Mind on Fire reading group (not included is Dave, the volunteer cameraman)–a motley mix of brilliant and articulate Mormons, Quakers, Christians, recovering Catholics and Mormons, agnostics and atheists (almost more labels than persons!). In my hands is the focus of our conversation, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith.
We had a lively conversation. I was tempted to take notes, but I didn’t, so am unable to make a detailed report. From my perspective, the general consensus was that Harris was mean and nasty and his arguments were flawed, but his main critiques of religion were either valid or at the very least worth examining. Some of us were convinced (in spite of his presentation) that dogmatic religion in particular is a danger in our modern world. I hope that those of you who participated can share your highlights and what you brought away from the dialog.
I am grateful that Matt forced us to seriously consider the ideas driving Harris’ polemic. The discussion that followed reinforced my sense that in an age of global warming and WMDs, unyielding, dogmatic belief is a threat to civilization and needs to be exposed to criticism. I left the group happy that we could have such a frank, respectful, and thought-provoking discussion in spite of the spectrum of belief and practice and wishing that this could be the norm in the U.S. and around the world.
*hat tip to JW for the “meatspace” reference.
Richard Dawkins (yes, that Richard Dawkins) will be speaking on his latest book, The God Delusion, this Saturday (10/28) at 2pm at CalTech. I will be there (if tickets haven’t sold out by 10am tomorrow). Contact me if you want to do coffee or supper afterwards in the Pasadena area.
[Update (2:00pm): I just learned (from a Friend) that the tickets are sold out (I bought one of the last ones earlier today).¬ CalTech is planning to sell return tickets at the door, and will set up speakers outside of the venue for those who don't make it in.]
One of the problems with controversial movements is that they tend to be defined by their enemies. By this I mean that the common perceptions are crafted by those who feel most threatened by these groups. Think of stereotypes of illegal aliens, feminists, gays, and devout Muslims in our society. This especially applies to atheists in American society.
Most atheists I know barely acknowledge themselves as such. They rarely think about God or religion, but go about life, making an honest living, loving their partners and families, volunteering and voting. Yet in conservative Christian rhetoric, I hear that this minority is a threat to our society, more closely allied to Stalin and Hitler than Lincoln or Jefferson. A recent Gallup poll shows only 14% of Americans think that the country is ready for an atheist president.¬ Although only gays ranked lower in the poll, there are more “out” homosexuals in prominent elected offices than there are “out” atheists.¬ Clearly, atheists have a serious image problem in our country.
Their situation isn’t improved by the prominent atheists. When you have public skeptics like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins who deliberately provoke the religious and who have a tendency to group all of the billions of believers in the same category of stupidity, there is little wonder that atheists are vilified.¬ I feel a visceral reaction whenever I hear fundamentalists label me and my fellow skeptics as the source of the world’s evils and worthy of eternal hellfire. You don’t win friends and influence people by questioning their integrity and morality and by explicitly making a demon out of a person for their world view.
I realize that Dawkins and Harris aren’t out to make friends, at least not with believers. But I think that they should be. Skeptics are a tiny minority in a democratic society dominated by people who believe in God. I’m not saying that non-theists shouldn’t be uncompromising in our beliefs, but we can certainly be more diplomatic in our critiques of religion. We need to look to the religious left as allies.
First of all, liberal believers have more in common with most atheists and agnostics than they do with the fundamentalists in their respective traditions. Skeptics and left-leaning believers share fundamental values. Both groups realize the need for the separation of church and state and the importance of free speech. We all have a deep respect for the tolerance and pluralism that form the basis of our civil society and the science that has both empowered humanity and transformed our perspective of the universe and our place in it.
The fundamentalists, Biblical literalists, and Christian dominionists who wield so much power in our society do not share these values with the spiritual left. They share some words (“God” and “salvation”) and stories (Christians all share the Bible, though there are many variations and translations), but these are interpreted so differently that sometimes they might as well be speaking different languages.
I am not saying that atheists and other skeptics should compromise their beliefs and integrity. But we have much to gain by differentiating between many shades of religiosity and reaching out to those who share many of our most cherished values.
As an atheist, I have to say that I feel comfortable with many of the arguments that Sam Harris sets forth in The End of Faith (I’m about 100 pages in). They are old friends that set me to questioning my most cherished, deeply entrenched assumptions. I used to attend the Church of Harris, and it feels good to go back on occasion for a visit. As Jonathan observed in his overview, Harris is preaching to the choir. Although his brimstone is aimed at moderate religionists, few are within striking range.
I’m particularly glad that Harris is poking sharp sticks at the sanctity of belief. He indicates that “criticizing a person’s faith is currently taboo in every corner of our culture” (p.13). Conservative religion regularly beats up on secularism (Pope Benedict’s recent, controversial speech is one example) and the rational/scientific worldview–as precious to me and as central to my ethics, my existential security and my view of the universe (and my place in it) as the Qu’ran is to many Muslims.
Traditional believers have every right to critique and attack my core beliefs. But it’s not fair for them–or tolerance advocates–to cry foul when the critique is returned. And I agree with him that religious moderates are responsible for reigning in the extremists within their traditions. Too often we let the extremists set the tone.
This is one reason why Harris’ fight is not my fight. Perhaps I am a moderate atheist. I see a need for skeptics and believers to enter into dialogue and to work towards common causes. Progressive Christians in the United States are just as eager as the atheists to maintain separation of church and state and to keep creationism our of our curriculum. I believe that we have much to learn from one another, and we’re more likely to do so if we’re not at each others’ throats. Harris acknowledges that “the deepest concerns of the faithful are [not] trivial or misguided” (p. 16). I would like to add that we skeptics share those ultimate concerns.
MindOnFire is an experiment in creating a space where skeptics can learn spirituality, and where believers can learn to value their doubts. I’d like to think that I practice a compassionate atheism.
If you find a particularly insightful quote (or pithy, well-written prose) that you’d like to share with others, post it in the comments.¬ Please remember to include the chapter and page number.
For the month of October (and the last little bit of September), mindonfire.com is hosting a reading group for the controversial book by Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. I will use this space to announce information relating to the book group.
[Latest Update: 10/2] If I missed a post related to this book group, please email me or comment below.
News and General Web Resources:
- The religion section in the LA Times has yet another article on Harris. This interview portrays him as a controversial yet enigmatic public figure.
- 9/27: Watt Mahoun asks if religions kill people (starring nuns with guns!) at Mormanarchy.
- 9/26: Elise posted a critique of Harris’ stereotyping and belittling of believers on her blog.
- 9/24: Dave at Dave’s Mormon Inquiry sizes Harris up and finds him lacking (at first glance).
- 9/24: Jonathan of Truth and Purpose writes a well-organized overview of the book (in preparation for a more in-depth analysis).
- 9/28: John’s first response: Harris, Why You Gotta Be Such a Hater?
- 9/25: This will be a collection of the most hateful quotes from the book.
- 9/25: You can submit and read the most enlightening quotes here.
- 9/15: The winning book is proclaimed via YouTube.
- 9/9: The book group is announced and the voting begins.
[posted on 9/22:]
The book group will have the following components:
- There will be weekly posts related to the book and its author on Mind on Fire. They will provoke thoughts, it is hoped.
- Several other bloggers have agreed to provide brilliant, pithy commentaries about the book on their sites. I will include links to their posts here.
- There will be a Real Life book group (religion nerds of the world, unite!), where we will separate ourselves from our keyboards (unless we bring our laptops) to meet face-to-face to discuss the book.
- There will be links to other webular resources relating to the book and to Sam Harris.
If you’re interested in any of these, please contact me: my email is john at the domain name of this site (you can also comment on this post). If you write a post about the book and would like me to include a link to it, please let me know. I will be sending a broadcast email to everyone who specifically expressed an interest in the face-to-face book group in Southern California (using the addresses you provided in the comments) so that we can decide on a time and swank location (again, if you’re interested, let me know!).
Ladies and gents, start your reading!
There’s an entertaining post by the newest contributor to the Sunstone Blog, Matt Thurston. He describes his ironic first encounter with a controversial biography of Joseph Smith while serving as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan. He then asks his readers to share their own first encounters with troubling Church history.
Try as I might, I can’t remember when I lost my Church-history-virtue.
I have a hard time relating to my LDS friends when they spin their wheels on Book of Mormon authenticity, post-Manifesto polygamy (i.e. continued practice after the Church officially disavowed it), and Joseph Smith’s problematic character.
For me, uniquely Mormon doctrines are all window dressing on belief in God and Christ.¬ My conversion to Mormonism was significant in that it transformed me from an agnostic to a theist.¬ When my faith and trust in the core eroded, the periphery was of little consequence (except socially). ¬ I don’t want to discount the very real pain and dissonance that my Mormon friends experience.¬ I’m just saying that there is something decidedly un-Mormon about my deconversion.¬ Where many Latter-day Saints wrestle with the Book of Mormon, I struggled with the New Testament.¬ My complaints weren’t with Joseph Smith but with his superiors.¬ I find that I can relate better to post-modern and even atheist Christian theologians (e.g., Tillich, Altizer).¬ They speak to my concerns.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this post.¬ I’m still introspective after Sunstone, and reflective upon the nature and purpose of this blog.¬ I find it heartening that those of you who are kind enough to comment are members of such a diverse group, coming from a variety of religious backgrounds, with eclectic spiritual and rational interests.¬ I’d like to think that we are trying to work out similar problems, and that we have a common respect for the truth.¬ We value spirituality and integrity.¬ We trust, perhaps blindly, in our ability to discover the great answers (or at least to ask the great questions), free from the fetters of dogma and orthodoxy.
It’s hard to give up certainty and security for doubt and questioning.¬ But it’s easier when you are surrounded by a few others like you.¬ Thank you.
I just read the sad, sad news story of Destiny Norton, who was kidnapped and killed in Salt Lake City last week, within a few blocks of where we lived when we first moved to Utah. Jana mentioned that her father was baptized into the LDS Church the day before his daughter’s abduction and murder, and this compounded my grief for him. No parent should have to suffer the loss of their child, especially in such a senseless way, but here was a man who was trying to do everything right–apparently he was a part of a group of people who had lived on the street and were cleaning themselves up.
I’m drawn to the faith dimension of this story. I’ve sat through dozens of talks where people thank God for blessing them with material wealth because they paid their tithing, good grades because they fulfilled their Church calling, etc. I’ve heard some believers suggest divine justice when illness or other calamities befall wayward members. I understand why people do these things. They’re simply trying to fit events into their understanding of the world–a world in which God cares about even the trivial things, such as what we wear and eat and read. But I often wonder if this isn’t an overly simplistic view of the world, and this tragedy argues the same: a man cleans up, a man follows Jesus into the waters of baptism, the next day a man’s little daughter is brutally murdered.
As a father and as one who has struggled to reconcile the cruelty of life with belief in a compassionate God, my heart goes out to Ricky Norton. I hope he finds comfort in his newfound faith. But if he rages against God, I will understand as well.
and the Supreme Court shall have no appellate jurisdiction, to hear or decide any question pertaining to the interpretation of, or the validity under the Constitution of, the Pledge of Allegiance
First: since when does the legislative branch step in and limit the powers of the judiciary? If this bill passed into law, it would be a terrible precedent. It would encourage the House to “protect” any issue the courts might declare unconstitutional. This seems terribly short-sighted. Those 260 representatives who voted for it may care a lot about God (or may want to look like they care about God) but the Constitution seems to rank pretty low on their list of priorities.
While we’re on the subject of the Constitution, remember the Bill of Rights? Supporters of the “under God” clause seem to overlook this one little phrase, affectionately refered to as the establishment clause:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion
The framers of the Constitution thought it important enough to include this in the first sentence of the first amendment of the Bill of Rights. It’s ironic to me that the a pledge that highlights “liberty…for all” violates one of those chief freedoms. It’s not surprising to me, however, that the reference to God was inserted in the tail end of the McCarthy era–certainly a period not known for its respect of individual freedoms. Its inclusion during this period of blacklists and Senate investigations against suspected communists reminds me of the ancient Christian creeds that were established not to create community or to affirm belief, but to ferret out the heretics. The Pledge is America’s Judeo-Christian creedal statement.
Tell me, what does belief in God have to do with being American? Thomas Paine was an atheist, and the distant deistic God of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington didn’t give a damn about nations and constitutions and pledges. I’m an atheist, and I obey the laws, pay my taxes, engage in public debate, and vote. I could say the same for most other American humanists, atheists, agnostics, non-theistic Buddhists and New Agers, and polytheistic Hindus, Pagans and Mormons. Very few non-Hindus would feel comfortable pledging allegiance to “one country, under Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.” Why should they pay fealty to the one God, the jealous God, of Jews and Protestants and Catholics? The unified God of American civil religion is not the God that most believers have in mind: there is no way to reconcile the Elohim of Mormonism, the trinitarian God of Christianity, Islam’s Allah, Judaism’s Yahweh, Zorastrianism’s Ahura Mazda and others like Krishna, Gaia, etc. Why keep up the fiction?
I know you’ve probably heard this all before, but I had to say my piece. One question for those who support the pledge as it stands–how do you defend it constitutionally, especially considering that most conservatives lean towards stricter interpretations of the Constitution?
Reading material for my week-long family-reunion/vacation:
- My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.
- No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women by Estelle Freedman
I read Potok’s The Chosen on a reunion trip to Colorado a few years ago, and it was life-changing. Several friends list My Name is Asher Lev as one the most influential in their lives. I found it more affirming than revolutionary, perhaps because I was already transformed by The Chosen. I recommend it to struggling artists and those who feel weighed down by religious orthodoxy.
I’m deeper into No Turning Back, but am proceeding slowly because I keep wanting to write about what I’m reading before moving forward. Freedman’s main assertion is that gender inequity is interwoven with class and ethnic/racial concerns. What’s more, she writes in a highly accessible manner and every assertion is illustrated with memorable historical anecdotes.
For the return trip, I ransacked the Chapel Hill Borders bookseller and pillaged its magazine stands. I like magazines. They’re pretty and you can actually accomplish the reading of an article in between in-flight drink service and when the passenger in the window seat has to climb over you en route to those vertical coffins they call restrooms. My booty included:
- kitchen sink: for people who think too much: I think too much. This was obviously a magazine for me. Edgy short-stories and smart musings on pop-culture. Decided to switch after realizing that my neighbors could probably read the bold-print profanity as well as I could (one of my neighbors was my grade-school daughter). Then I pulled out
- bitch: feminist response to pop culture. I am slowly abandoning Bust: For Women with Something to Get Off their Chests for Bitch. Decided to put it away before my daughter asked about the ribbed, knobby vibrators in the ads. Instead I decided to read about “Bonobo Sex and Society” in
- Becoming Human: Evolution and the Rise of Intelligence (Scientific American Special Edition). Ironically (or appropriately?) this was essentially a feminist article that demonstrated how “the behavior of a close relative challenges assumptions about male supremacy in human evolution.” Apparently females are the primary social links in egalitarian Bonobo communities (chimp society, on the other hand, is dominated by male hunters), and replace aggressive behavior with lots of sex.
- Sojourners Magazine: I read from this liberal Christian magazine as well as from
- Tikkun, its Jewish counterpart, but I’m going to devote an entire post–no, a whole series of posts–inspired by thoughts from Tikkun’s editor, Rabbi Michael Lerner. The highlight, however was an article in
- the Humanist: a magazine of critical inquiry and social concern called “Creative Controversy: Overcoming Antagonistic Atheism to Recast the Image of Humanism.” I probably annoyed fellow passengers with my audible yeses, and it was tricky to underline and take notes even in mild turbulence.
This article validated much of what I’m trying to do with mindonfire.com and in my involvement in ecumenical outreach. It condemns the more antagonistic and disrespectful atheists for harming the causes of freethinkers. Contrast these two approaches to the creationist controversy in American public schools: some atheists publicly berate the stupidity and irrationality of Christians (thereby alienating many of those who aren’t creationists); on the other hand, one atheist gathered 10,000 signatures from clergy who called on school boards to support the teaching of evolution in science classrooms.
Near the end of the article was the following gem:
One would do well to recall that the lesson of the Enlightenment wasn’t that the enemy of reason is belief in God. It’s that fanaticism, be it religious or secular, is the bane of humankind and the true enemy of rational minds.
This speaks to me and my personal mission. There’s far too much exclusion, vilification and alienation in our society, and I disdain it when it comes from secular zealots as well as religious fanatics. I’m not a supporter of traditional religiosity, but I am committed to building on shared values rather than emphasize differences.
- Even the most fervent believers acknowledge doubt as a virtue (in others)–if it takes you in the right direction.¬ From my own experience as a missionary, I was pretty happy when I encountered a potential convert to Mormonism who had profound doubts concerning their childhood belief system.
- Every major religious founder had the impact they did because they questioned the prevailing beliefs and customs of their day.¬ (please provide counter examples if you can.)
- We valorize people like Socrates, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., and Gandhi for having the courage to question and challenge the status quo (granted, there are many others we don’t put on pedestals).
- I often feel disapproval (and occasionally ostracized or vilified) for doubting, questioning and speaking my doubts.¬ Then I think of people like those I listed above–all of whom were persecuted for following their conscience.¬ I feel like I’m in good company.
- It’s more difficult to pioneer your own trail than to follow a clearly marked, well-trodden path.¬ It’s easier to get lost and to despair.¬ But if you’re convinced that the road you were walking doesn’t lead where you want it to go (or where you thought it went), then you may be left with little choice but to navigate by the stars.
- I feel lucky to have encountered other trailblazers in the wilderness.¬ I enjoy sharing experiences with them.¬ Sometimes our paths join and we journey together for awhile.¬ Once again, I feel that I’m in good company.
Mind on Fire now has it’s very own podcast! I christened it An Atheist’s Prayer (the title is loosely taken from a talk I gave at Sunstone a couple of years ago called “A Skeptic’s Prayer” (Adobe PDF link)).
I decided to create the podcast when I had a difficult time finding ones that fit my interests. Most casts seem to come from within a tradition, and although there are some really good ones (Mormon Stories and SunstonePodcast are two of my favorites), I wanted to hear ones that dealt with a variety of approaches to both religion and spirituality in a thoughtful and critical manner (there are a lot of critical shows out there as well, but they seem to have nothing positive to say about religion).
In my vision for the show, An Atheist’s Prayer dwells in a place full of tension. There’s the security of religious community and the private call of the spirit/conscience and the ongoing struggle between belief and doubt. I plan to do a show that looks at Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and others as skeptics, heretics and radicals, and another one that looks at what science has to say about mystical experiences. The listeners I want to target are believers who feel constrained by tradition and skeptics who want to know how they can access the sense of connection and community that religion can provide, without giving up their integrity and autonomy. Like the mind on fire blog, it’s also part of my pilgrimage (I’d like to record one or two OC Pilgrimage visits to the podcast as well).
The first podcast was fun to produce, in part because this was a new thing and there was much to learn, but mostly because Jana and I were able to work on it together. She’s starting to listen to more podcasts now, and I’m hoping that between the two of us (and others we may
con recruit), we’ll be able to get some good shows going. Because it is our first, it’s pretty rough, but I think that the quality of both the sound and our presentation will increase with each new show.
My goal is to put a new one out each week. Please listen, and post your feedback!