Religion, Secularism, and Mystery

To follow up on my early post Christopher Hitchens v. God, Jonah at the Frontal Cortex has some insightful comments on religion and secularism. The money quote:

When people like Dawkins attack wimpy agnostics or moderate believers, they forget that many atheists aren’t uber-rationalists. They carry around tarot cards, not The Selfish Gene.

Jonah also makes a good point that science and religion may not have irreconcilable differences:

It’s important to note that science isn’t necessarily in conflict with our need to believe in some sort of mystery. Modern science, after all, has discovered some of the craziest ideas around, from the principles of quantum physics to the fact that our head holds a trillion cells trafficking in minor jolts of electricity. These ideas are both materialist and mysterious, since they hint at a universe that exceeds the current capacities of our imagination. What Hamlet said to Horatio is still true.

This sort of analysis seems to me far more nuanced and interesting than that advanced by what I’ll call the “vulgar atheists” — Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, et al.


  1. None Jun 6

    “science and religion may not have irreconcilable differences”

    I think there’s some sort of confusion on the meaning of “religion”. Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, et al actually speak loudly especially about holy books, revealed religions, the judeo-christian god and monotheistic abramitic cults (that usually make claims at odds with science despite the supposed “non overlapping magisteria”). But they not only have absolutely nothing against the god of Einstein or Spinoza, Harris even endorses meditation and some form of spirituality in his books!
    You can spot quite a good selection of atheist in the “beyond belief 2006” videos:

    there’s some very inspiring stuff there, especially the Carolyn Porco and Ann Druyan talks, unanimously welcomed even by the “vulgar atheists”.

  2. adam Jun 6

    I admit that I’m not very familiar with Sam Harris. I did note in the interview with Hitchens (linked above), Hitchens apparently refused to admit any difference between fundamentalists who read the bible literally and more liberal and/or spiritual traditions. It seems that, to Hitchens, all “believers” can be captured in a single laughable category. Others may not treat the subject in the same “vulgar” way.

  3. N Jun 6

    Harris was probably the person in the beyond belief conference who most strongly violated his own requirement of intellectual honesty.

    His justification of why Buddhism is good based on “scary stories”, stuff which other authors wrote, lack of time to look through the evidence applies to anything.

    Scott Atran’s comments on Harris (and some of the others) being misinformed hit the nail right on the head. Most of their analysis (especially the rabid atheists) was based on hearsay and lack of evidence.

  4. Chris Cunningham Jun 7

    I don’t see why spiritualism and atheism are incompatible so long as one accepts that there’s some rational and eventually hypothetically sound explanation behind it all. It’s rejection of that which cannot be disproved which really defines rationalism.

    There’s mystery as in Scooby-Doo mystery, where at the end of the day all the ends can be tied up, and there’s mystery as in religion, where several of the ends just lead to this sort of buzzing sound. I find the former far more exciting.

    – Chris

  5. None Jun 7

    “His justification of why Buddhism is good […]”

    Well, Harris is not a Buddhist, he doesn’t believe in that stuff, i don’t exacly know how good he thinks it is, but i think too that it’s a lot better than most if not all of the organized religion.

    “Scott Atran’s comments on Harris (and some of the others) being misinformed hit the nail right on the head. Most of their analysis (especially the rabid atheists) was based on hearsay and lack of evidence.”

    i still think there was a lot of misunderstandings between the two crowds (the rabid and the softer atheists). Atran made some very good points on why religion may not be responsible for terrorism in middle east and other nasty stuff and told that we still know too little about spirituality and it’s relation to societies to part away with religiousity. But this still doesn’t mean that speaking loudly about the bad aspects of the main organized religions or generally about the dangers of blind faith in unfounded (if not clearly absurd) claims is a bad idea. It all comes down to (which part of) which religion we are criticizing, and the readers you are aiming for: i don’t know about you there, but here in Italy we are having quite a bit of problems lately with the church, and some good books written to wake up some bits of the vast mass of agnostics-but-officially-christian-just-by-tradition (otherwise willing to let the clergy impose their rules) are sorely needed. I really feel that these controversial books by rabid atheist, if not just useless, are much more a necessary defence than a frontal attack on islam or christianity.

Leave a Reply

(Markdown Syntax Permitted)