Friday, January 17, 2014

A Review of Sam Harris's Lying

 I remember back in general philosophy class of how Immanuel Kant would deal with the scenario of a person pursued by an ax murderer. If you were sheltering the person in your house, and the murderer showed up at your door inquiring as to the whereabouts of his intended victim, Kant believed that you would be morally obligated to tell him the truth. Our conclusion in class? If pursued by an ax-murderer, don't go to Kant's house.

Like Harris's Free Will, this book was originally published in ebook form, then came out as a slight volume, this time in hardback. When I first read about this title on Harris's blog, I had the impression that Harris's position was essentially the same as that of  Kant, who famously (or rather infamously) believed in absolute morals--really absolute morals.

Fortunately, however, if one were chased by an ax-murderer, Harris's house would be a much safer bet. He presents a like scenario, in which you are harboring a boy being pursued by a murderer, and he inquires as to the whereabouts of his intended victim. In such a case, according to Harris, telling the truth would not be obligatory, as in such a case you would be dealing with an individual who was not open to rational discourse. It is arguable even taking a human life, (if doing so to save the life of someone else, for example) may be morally justified in some unlikely scenarios. And so it is with lying. However, Harris also cautions that in such a situation as this, if the murderer were not confronted, he will likely go on to victimize more people. A more effective result might occur if one were to say to him, according to Harris, might be, "I wouldn't tell you where he was if I knew, and if you take one step closer, I'll blow your brains out!"

 Notice that this isn't a lie! Of course, he also takes into account that not all of us would have the strength, guts, or resources for such a confrontation, but tells us that the murderer must be eventually be confronted by someone who does, sooner or later.

A few years ago, I made a few posts on sabbath-Keeper's Forum, a site run by a pastor Harold Kupp and his forum. Kupp happened to be in agreement with Kant that lying was always and invariably wrong, as it was one of the Ten Commandments. I've noticed, by the way, that many of the teachings of the Bible were not meant to be adhered to in every single case, though often it is taken as though they are. At any rate, I presented to pastor Kupp the classic scenario of a Jew hiding in attic and Nazis at the front door. Amazingly, he still insisted that in such a case telling an untruth, even to individuals clearly beyond rational discourse, would be wrong. However, he also believed that lying is never essential for the best outcome, and that other options would be made available in such a case. I'm not quite that confident, but here Kupp's position was a bit nearer to Harris's. Still, if one had not the resources, and simply refusing to tell the Nazis about where the said Jew was hiding would likely give that information away, it is difficult for me to see what the other options would be.

Aside from such uncommon moral dilemmas, however, Harris deals with the "white lies," and seeming inconsequential untruths that many of us tell on a frequent basis. He shows how telling even seemingly trivial lies have unfortunate consequences if they are discovered. Among the examples he gives of this are two rather amusing incidents in which adults told small lies to cover their tracks, but a child in attendance spilled the beans. He also observes, as I have, that many people think that "white lies," in response to questions such as: "Does this dress make me look fat?" are actually a moral good. A person asking such a question, however, is seeking information about her appearance in the dress, and deceiving her is not doing her a favor. And if the deception were discovered, well, she probably wouldn't ask that person's advise again. Harris gives a personal account of how he reviewed a book manuscript by a friend, which he thought was terrible. He truthfully communicated his opinion to his friend, and regardless of any hurt feelings that might have resulted, the friend was able to revise his writing, and is now a successfully published author. 

Harris adequately relates the actual problem of lying. Most of us accept this as generally being true, but the author deserves credit for going to depth as to actually why it is true. He shows, therefore, that there definitely are moral truths to demonstrating the harm to ourselves and to others which result when moral truths are cast aside. A very Christian position actually, whether Harris realizes it or not.

Review of Sam Harris's Free Will

This is a slim volume by noted atheist Sam Harris that was first available on Kindle and was then released in paperback.

I have a few rather serious thoughts about it, as it presents a dreaded scenario of the type when scientific findings are odds with one's religious convictions. 

Harris's position, as is suggested by the cover, is the free will is essentially a fraud. Everything anyone ever does or says has been predetermined by our subconscious mind, before our conscious mind is aware of it--and he backs this position up with hard scientific facts.

That is not to say that Harris's conclusion is not still a matter of scientific dispute. I recently spoke with an unbeliever who did not agree that free will is nonexistent. This is not necessarily an atheistic position at all, of course, though Harris happens to be an atheist. In fact, one of the most disturbing things about the non-existence of Free Will is its close proximity to Calvinistic dogma. In fact, th scenario Harris presents would fit very squarely into the tenants of Calvinism.

I once attended a congregation that was predominately Calvinist, among whom I got along well, and a pastor who once stated that Calvinism was "the only truth of God's word."

Needless to say, I disagree, at least in principle, with virtually everything in Calvinist doctrine, and this is why reading Free Will without bias was such a challenge for me. I have to say, though, that some of the things Harris says about our lack of free will have encouraging things to say for Christian worldview. One of them is that recognition of this is liable to result in a far more Christ-like response to the deviants and conformists among us. This is even, perhaps especially, true in the case of those who commit heinous crimes.

Looking at the case of a monstrous individual who has victimized an innocent person--I really don't want to discuss any actual case here(Harris himself describes one very disturbing case in The Moral Landscape), we generally are prone to cry out for terrible retribution against the perpetrator. Such feelings are difficult to do away with, and indeed I myself once held the position of "an eye for an eye." I also write fiction, and I admit to devising appropriate comeuppances for the villains of my stories on many an occasion. This attitude is rooted firmly in our desire to see justice done to evildoers, and partially in our compassion for the innocent.

But in a Christian context, taking revenge is just plain wrong. It will only lead to the further perpetuation of evil. Responding with love to vilest among us is certainly challenging, but it also happens to be Christ's command. And recognition that even the vilest are victims of their own subconscious should invariably enable us to respond in the morally correct way. Harris himself has observed something that we all must admit: that it is terribly bad luck to be born with the mind of a psychopath. Therefore, the psychopath is himself a victim, at least to that extent.

On the other hand, the whole notion of the non-existence of Free Will just isn't very palatable to me, especially from the point of view that our own choices determine, at least in part, the relationship we have with Christ. God would necessarily be unjustified in judging us, if free will did not exist at all. And getting back to the most evil among our species, Harri's position would strongly suggest that even the worst mass murderer is, at base, no more accountable for his crimes than a newborn is for inheriting a selfish nature. This would seem to negate the special moral status many of us recognize in infants and children.

For my own part, whatever the science regarding Free Will, I will attempt to live my life as though I have a choice, even if Harris's position proves correct.

A Review of Mary Eberstadt's How the West Really Lost God


It is often rhetorically asked, especially by  secularists who are critical of religion, questions such as:

Why would a supposedly omnipotent diety who created the universe and all its myriad wonders, care a wit about who sleeps with whom?

Why does the God promoted by the conservative right seem to have such an obsession with human fertility and birth control?

One might also question why such a powerful being  would be concerned with the trivialities of human existence at all. But so long as you agree that God desires followers who worship him, and attend church regularly, and carry the faith from one generation of believers to the next, then this book will explain the answers.

I finally have some time to post some new articles on my blog--even though I doubt there were ever many folks out there. This is a book I read last year concerning the sorry state of organized religion in the West, especially in continental Europe and the UK, and increasingly in the US as well. However one feels about this, whether one is an atheist, a fundamentalist Christian, or a more moderate believer (which, I suppose I am one), there is little doubt but what faith is in crisis. I've discussed the matter before here, notably when I discussed Ken Ham's book, Already Gone.

Eberstadt takes an unusual position in her observation of the decline in faith: that the decline of the birthrate in the West, resulting in the decline of the nuclear family, is at the core of the decline in religiosity. As she points out, most other author's generally assume that religious faith comes first, followed by the family unit, which functions to hold the faith together. Eberstadt demonstrates, through argument and from example, that it actually works both ways: family leads to faith and faith leads to family. She traces the history of the Christian Church in Europe throughout the previous century, and uncovers some starling results: whenever the populace experiences a decline in the birthrate, a corresponding decline in religiosity inevitably follows.

It seems, therefore, virtually inescapable that children drive people to church. It remains uncertain precisely why this is so (perhaps the "miracle" of children awakens people's faith in a divine creator, as Eberstadt suggests at one point?) A friend of mine who works with the Salvation Army actually has his doubts as to the declining birthrate as the core of the problem, as he works with many adults who keep having children and show no interest in the Lord at all. He is of the opinion that the "Fat and Happy" scenario, one of the many explanations that Eberstadt debunks as the root cause, is a far more likely explanation.

But if Eberstadt's findings are to be believed, and she presents considerable data to indicate that they are, then we have good explanation why conservative Christians take the increasingly un-PC positions that they do. Taking into account the decline in the birthrate in the West, it suddenly becomes very obvious why conservative Christians care so fervently, not only about abortion (about which the Bible itself holds no position), but about contraception and birth control as well. It also explains why conservatives are concerned about these things, not merely among Christians, but among the general populace as well. I once believed that if atheists really wanted to eradicate faith, their best approach would to be to abandon autonomous birth control, at least as it applies to themselves, and produce as many offspring as possible--in other words, out-breed the competition. But greater numbers of children, even among the committed secularists, would inevitably result both in some children eventually choosing Christianity, and even some parents being driven closer to God. Also, from what I've read on the subject, atheists are not nearly as tradition-oriented as believers. even though they generally tend to pass on their non-belief. Children of atheists are more likely to be encouraged to choose their own worldview.

Then there is the gay issue. It seems that CCs have every right to fear marriages that do not result in children. Words like "bigotry,""intolerance" and "homophobia" frequently come up among liberals whenever the attitudes of the religious right are discussed. But the actual concern that CCs have about GLBT couples has nothing to do with hatred, intolerance, or fear of the "different." It is simply about the survival Western Christian culture against the rising tide of secularism.

And although they are not directly related to reproduction, essentially the same should be said of Creationism and the Hell doctrine, both of which are strongly promoted by the right. Most creationists, by the way, are are far from ignorant in regard to science, and most seem very much brighter than average. What creationism really is, is a symptom: very like the curling of the corn in a withering summer drought. Were it not for the encroaching tide of Western secularism, we would not see people like Ken Ham pouring millions into the construction of a Creation museum.

All this leads to a very problematic situation: in the past, I've been fairly critical of "culture war" Christianity, especially in its tendency to idolize tradition over Christ Himself. This is all a very far distance from the actual teachings of Christ, who commanded that we deny ourselves--and even our family's--to follow him. Tradition, you see, is all firmly rooted in THIS WORLD. Christ's kingdom is NOT of the world we know.

Yet at the same time, as Eberstadt's book demonstrates, CCs appear to have every reason to worry about the future of the Church, especially in regard to the birthrate and the family unit. One of the most disturbing things that she shows are the cases in which a certain congregation, out of the desire to be fair and tolerant, relaxed its standards concerning divorce or homosexuality, and ended up closing its doors after a generation. The churches that currently appear the most healthy, full of vibrant, thriving families, tend to be those who have stuck to their theological guns. I happen to notice this myself: the church I currently attend is one such healthy church, and it is conservative to its core. In contrast, the liberal church I grew up in is now attended chiefly by seniors.

So what really is the answer? There is much to criticize about organized faith, the "religion" part of Christianity. But if it continues to decline, won't Christianity itself--a living relationship with Jesus Christ among His followers--dissipate as well?