Sunday, December 22, 2013

21st Century Conversation

I’ve mentioned “21st century conversations”, a term Sam Harris coined. This talk is one of those. I’ll provide a few notes on it.

Sam knows religion and has practiced Buddhism. In this video he discusses, among other things, that many Buddhists are open to empirical inquiry. The Dalai Lama has said that if principles of Buddhism are shown to be incorrect, then he will accept that.

Sam contrasts this with the current debate going on within Christianity about the use of contraception. If the Catholic Church makes it official that a married couple can use a condom when one partner has AIDS, this will not be an example of religion leading the way to a healthier world. The same could be said about the controversy over homosexuality. Religion has not led the way to accepting that two people are allowed to express their love for one another, psychiatry and modern science have.

We can fixate ourselves in earlier centuries, as late as the 6th if you include Islam, or much earlier if you go back to the Axial Age, or we can include all the wisdom of the world. We have effectively jettisoned much of the old dogma. Very few people defend the 600 some laws in Leviticus. The New Testament made a few improvements to slavery but did not lead directly to abolition. We have slowly moved toward treating scripture equally to modern philosophy but we have some big steps yet to take.

One of our big hang-ups seems to be the issue of respect. People are deeply hurt when their religions are attacked or even questioned. Even pointing out their central tenets, like the Golden Rule are equally represented in other religions, can be a sore point. The problem is when respecting a culture means respecting their abuse of women or their violence toward other cultures. When that line of violence is crossed, there is more agreement, but what lies and manipulation led up to that violence? Is there something inherent in religion that allows for it?

As Sam says, when it comes to something like physics, we don’t ask for beliefs to be respected, we ask for reasons to be evaluated. What I like about Sam is that he is usually careful to state the other influences on people and the degree to which each is important. He highlights the issue of the double standard for religion. No other discipline would be accepted as justification for the types of irrational behavior that are promoted by religion. Somehow religion gets a pass.

Sam is very good at asking the right questions. He notes that Tibetan Buddhists come out of years of torture in prison and do not turn into suicidal terrorists. This can be explained partially by their approach to their religious practice. The political considerations are very similar, so we need to ask why Muslims choose the actions they do. Counter examples can be found on either side, there are many peaceful Muslims and a few militant Buddhists, but we need to focus on the real societal problems and their sources.

Scott Atran is shown in this video, but his parts are cut off. He provides some counter balance. If I find it, I’ll do a part 2 for this. Scott has studied influences on individual terrorists with some very interesting results. But I’m not sure why he has so much trouble with what Sam is saying.