A Response to Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape

This post is in some regards a continuation of my prior Atheists and Religion, in which I examine the culture of contemporary, popular atheism and justify the existence of religion as a social and civilizing convention. I feel like I should expand upon this premise as an easy misreading might suggest I am somehow in full support of traditional religion as a convention while this is not the case.

In Sam Harris’ recent The Moral Landscape the author argues that there exists an empirical science of well being in it’s infancy that will one day replace the “provincial” moralities of religion. Harris draws by force of metaphor the image of a landscape with various peaks and valleys conveying the heights and lows of potential human wisdom regarding well being, suggesting that some cultures like those imposed by the Taliban are rife in misunderstanding what benefits a people while others are more aware of the case. For those interested in this topic there is an excellent talk on YouTube which was given by Harris at Oxford in May of last year. It must be noted that I am primarily reproaching Sam Harris the activist/philosopher/speaker rather than Sam Harris the scientist as I am ignorant in his field of study.

While Harris’ premise may very well be true, and I tend to agree with it, it has two notable faults.

One, it confuses truth with well being – suggesting that those who believe in superstitious nonsense cannot be good. This is simply not the case: simple minded people can live good and virtuous lives while simultaneously believing in factually incorrect assumptions about the universe. The mere historical functioning of Abrahamic societies demonstrates this fact: Abrahamic religions by canon are rife with superstition and inhumanity and yet the accidents which accompany those religions still instruct a basic morality at the bedrock level. As I pointed out in my aforementioned post, the accidents of religion can be very useful to those who lack the initiative or ability to forge their own moral codes. It is a fact that not all minds are created equal: some individuals just need to be told what to believe and how to behave. The mode of transmission of these mores is irrelevant: one need not be pedagogically authoritarian or dictatorial to transmit these values yet they nevertheless must be instructed. Gymnasium, public institutions or mentoring are sound alternatives in instruction.

Two, someone like a Sam Harris, a Richard Dawkins or myself might spend years of contemplation studying poetry, philosophy, literature and history to create a firm moral base. We are scholars and we are nothing like the society at large. Most people have no interest (and more immutable and relevant: the ability) in deeply studying the esoteric mysteries of the Bhagavad Gita, the sayings of Sima Qian, the writings of Marcus Aurelius or the Platonic dialogues to arrive at an original moral code. It stands to reason that religion must remain to instruct a baseline morality to society at large. Whether we call this religion or not is irrelevant, but the sort of religious experiences which are common to religion are essential to human happiness. Whether we call it culture, religion or government – it matters not, but a child must come into the world with a society which instructs virtue, honor and order, a devotion to and love for the common good and makes sacred ritual of the human relationship to social rites of passage, duties and the greater universe. Something like Confucianism, which I would argue is one of the best configurations for a harmonious civil society, might very well stand-in for “religion” – but ultimately something must replace it in function and place.

Furthermore, not everything in life can be empirically sound and there is no “perfect” morality. Two civilizations can flourish simultaneously and promote different values; at some level the myths, allegory, national character and virtues of a civilization are arbitrary. Take the Germans for instance: they pride themselves on being “industrious.” Is there anything objectively virtuous about being industrious? What if your society did not believe in the good of material things and instead of valuing industriousness valued the ability to detach from distracting worldly possessions? Is one inherently more “moral” for being industrious versus being detached from industry? Of course not. Now, that being said I do agree with Sam Harris in that it is possible to arrive at a fundamental morality through science and rationality. Clearly it is never good for a person to live in a state of constant psychological torment at the prospect of burning in hell, to be whipped for disagreeing with a husband or to be hung or beheaded for having sexual orientations which are not statistically normal. While it may be possible to arrive at a basic morality by science by simply considering stressors and health penalties of various ways of living this does not answer the pedagogic predicament, and it does not answer the problem of instructing a social bedrock or a complete, heroic morality.

Sam Harris does not comment seriously on what should replace religion and in interviews tends to do as his colleague Dawkins does, skip around it by saying that one can draw from literary sources and philosophy. Great, that works for you, does it work for a society at large in educating the young and creating a stable and consistent social bedrock? I would argue that while contemporary Christianity can barely accomplish that now, it is still better than popular atheism.

And what do I mean by popular atheism? I am not referring to myself, Dawkins, Harris, Dennet, Hitchens or the like – I am referring to those in my age group (teens-30s) who by convenience and common reason do not believe in God. While the religious tend to take their faith very seriously, even if they often misunderstand it and believe in it by contemporaneous applications of their own reason,  the atheist’s only faith is in his defiance of religion and his defensiveness when being proselytized to. As I pointed out in my previous post, nothing replaces religion in their lives, and they often become nihilistic hedonists. Nihilism and hedonism (I do not refer to Epicurus, but Sex and the City) are not healthy philosophies of life, neither at the personal level or the public level: how could such selfish philosophies instruct self-sacrifice, public service and restraint necessary for conduct in the commons? Sure, a small percentage of atheists become moral philosophers – as every atheist should, but they lack the framework and organization to bring any wisdom they have compiled to the masses. Masses which believe in nothing except the self. For a civilization to flourish it must have a conception of the hero, of myth, virtues, duties of relationship and most importantly: something greater than the self.

Harris does not help: he seems obsessed with destruction of religion but restrains from offering or even fully acknowledging the need of a substitute for it. What’s worse is the hypocrisy: I recently saw a talk in which Sam Harris convinced the audience to do 15 minutes of Vipassana meditation, a practice deriving from Buddhism, in order to enhance their awareness and well being. At no point did Sam Harris identify the religious practice he was tricking his audience into partaking in – as identifying an element of religion as not only helpful but essential to life would not fit into the worldview of that audience. My point is this: these sorts of excursions can not be private and society will not flourish if a few atheistic parents teach moral philosophy to their offspring; there needs to be something at large which instructs the operation of life.

How would I do it? I like the idea of a passage of the youth in training to become a responsible citizen. Something like the Boy Scouts (sans the contemporary bigotry) immediately comes to mind in the same way sending off one’s children to the church in yesteryear resulted in them becoming educated, virtuous and of firm moral character. Children must be involved in an organized mentoring institution which has virtuous role models ensuring the healthy operation of the students: body and civic character. In ancient Greece this was done in the Gymnasium: older men would take on younger boys and teach them everything about what it meant to be a virtuous, well-educated and responsible citizen, as well as instilled in them a reverence of the Gods (in our place: nature). In Buddhism there is a conception of a teacher and student relationship, in which a student becomes a charge of a teacher is thus instructed in the dharma, the state of nature as it is, and the way of a skillful (wise) individual who is compassionate and virtuous. Children could be involved in martial arts programs instructed by morally straight, inspirational role models. Children and young adults need constant intervention by organized moral forces in their life, otherwise they risk becoming rotten adults. While today some turn to the church, the nihilistic forces at large have a potentially corrupting influence, and wise parenting will only engender good nature so far along.

Another way in which religion can be replaced is by proper philosophy education in the schools. Currently philosophy is instructed as either a diversion or as a means of knowing technical truths. This is not the good or the historical meaning of philosophy as Pierre Hadot spent the whole of his life demonstrating, and to which I have written of extensively in my undergraduate thesis. Philosophy is a guide for applying wisdom to life and is a way of living that might be confused for religion by the contemporary observer who more likely has come to understand it as an academic and far-removed pursuit. If philosophy as a way of life was taught in schools in parity with mathematics or English – not as an elective course that one might take as a senior in high school, much of our problems would be mitigated. Studying moral philosophy is the one reliable means of developing our inherent sense of morality to heroic and magnificent heights: Harris’ resources of empirical science are a malnourished stock compared to something like the Discourses of Epictetus. It must be noted that such teachers of philosophy must be philosophers themselves: they must embody and practice their philosophies, not merely be instructors in them, else the student shall not imitate. For the particulars I refer to the obscure but excellent treatise Musonius Rufus and Education in the Good Life: A Model of Teaching and Living Virtueby J.T. Dillon, which outlines the classical mentoring relationship between a philosopher and his students.

Lastly myth and allegory are incredibly important. A civilization must have a clearly defined conception of hero, a wealth of wholesome allegorical figures to contemplate and moral parable to share in a common study. We need something like a Bible, an Iliad, a Bhagavad Gita or a Kalevala. The content of said canon must instruct a civilization’s virtues, values and present materials to uplift and build the character of the reader. There is nothing wrong with contemplating on an allegorical deity or mythical figure if it uplifts us, engages the mind and promotes imitation of that allegorical good. Moral stories should accompany such a book, easily comprehensible by the common man, and demonstrate basic truths about the universe and of moral conduct. A.C. Grayling attempted to create such a work in his The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, omitting all mention of God but nevertheless attempting to compile a powerful canon of moral rectitude, while William J. Bennet inscribed a similar work, although at times mentioning God, in The Book of Virtues. Whatever the process or contents, what is true is that the proliferation of such a canon is essential to the flourishing society. While the Abrahamic sources lack a great deal of wisdom and are rife in genocide, racism, misogyny, ethnocentrism etc they also do contain a few gems of wisdom which have been cherry picked by believers to live moral and good lives. I do not dare mock these believers, but instead respect them for their attention to focusing on what is the essence of life: being a morally aware and responsible citizen. For more on religion after religion, see Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists - that work covers this topic in wonderful breadth while I merely mention my own suggestions.

Ultimately whatever follows religion must be organized and these issues must be seriously considered before the complete abandonment of religion. The provisional lifestyle many atheists have adopted in the stead of religion does not appeal to me as a sound way to further the goals and health of a civilization. Unfortunately the millennial generation is rapidly becoming atheistic and nothing awaits them except the nothingness of their iphones and adderall. While I am glad to see a decrease in superstition and of belief in imaginary sky creatures – I also caution those “coming out of the closet” to not abandon the accidents of religion: that of living a respectable, moral life, bound by a calling to something greater than oneself.