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Heaven, Hell and Sam Harris

By Valerie Tarico ~

In his latest book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris goes boldly where angels and demons dare not tread, and both end up supporting him.

Harris is not one to mince words. Reacting to the 9/11 attacks, he picked up a pen and strode onto the public stage with his bestseller, The End of Faith. In it he argued that, given current levels of interdependence and destructive capacity, we can no longer afford our traditional deference to religious faith, which he calls beliefs based on insufficient evidence. Moderate religion, he said, creates social acceptance for “belief in belief” which in turn allows fundamentalisms to flourish. In making this argument, Harris positioned himself against a broad range of believers and secularists who had been arguing that faith is compatible with science and civil society. They responded with scorn and fury, labeling him a “fundamentalist atheist,” whatever that means.

Then, after a year of collecting hate mail--mostly from Evangelicals--, Harris wrote Letter to a Christian Nation, in which he argued that orthodox Christian belief is not only ungrounded but immoral. He framed atonement theology, meaning the notion that Jesus’ death pays the price for human sin, as merely one in a long line of superstitious fascinations our species has had with human sacrifice. Way to make friends, Sam.

Now he’s up to it again. Harris’s latest, The Moral Landscape, seeks to persuade the reader that reason and empiricism, combined in the scientific method, offer a better basis for morality than does religion. This book, like the others, will infuriate people who are trying to make nice. Believers have insisted for centuries that without divine revelation there is no basis for morality. Secular philosophers have failed to resolve whether there can be moral absolutes in the absence of such a revelation. Anthropologists have promoted the idea of cultural relativism --that each culture’s moral code is as right as any other, and an outsider has no basis for passing judgment. Followers of Stephen J. Gould, in an attempt to attenuate religious hostility toward the scientific enterprise, have insisted that religion and science should occupy “non-overlapping magisteria”: Religion alone tells us what to value; science, which has nothing to say on the matter of values, tells us how to get from Point A to Point B.

Harris has issued a challenge to them all. He asserts that even without religion there are moral facts to be discovered, because morality can be only about the well-being of sentient creatures, and the scientific method, ranging from naturalistic observation to laboratory research is how we can discover what makes sentient creatures better or worse off.[1]

It would be easy to dismiss Harris as a provocateur if he weren’t so lucid. He has a remarkable ability to leave his debate opponents appealing to intuition or resorting to ad hominims, and the Moral Landscape tour offers no exception to the unapologetic, relentless logic that characterized early chapters of The End of Faith, or the whole of Letter. Harris establishes his foundational premise with two thought experiments (paraphrased below):

Imagine an entity that can have no effect whatsoever on the experience, positive or negative, of any conscious being. Now put it in a box. Can we agree that the contents of this box are of no interest in determining human values and morality? If so, we have agreed that morality is about the experience of conscious beings. (p. 32)

Imagine that every sentient creature that ever has existed or will exist suffers to the maximum it is capable of suffering for the duration of its existence. Can we agree that this is the worst possible bad? If so, we have agreed that good and bad are about wellbeing, and that all points on the moral landscape are, in one form or another improvements over this one.(p. 39)

If you can’t agree that the first of these is irrelevant to questions of good and bad, and that the second is the worst possible evil, then Harris says he doesn’t know what you mean by the terms, and there’s no basis for conversation. If you can agree, then he invites you to keep reading as he lays out his rationale for a science of morality that builds on these basic agreements.

Harris validates some of the deepest hunches of conservative Christians, and in turn orthodox Christian theology provides evidence for Harris’s proposition. I second the invitation. As a therapist I found that people don’t abandon old ways of thinking unless they have something better to replace them with. If there is any hope of people abandoning the iron age moral script that remains ascendant in much of the world, we have to generate a more credible alternative.

Ironically, some of Harris’s credibility on this topic comes from an arch-nemesis, religion. Specifically, Christianity. In his take on moral facts, Harris validates some of the deepest hunches of conservative Christians, and in turn orthodox Christian theology provides evidence for Harris’s proposition. Let me explain.

Evangelical Christians and their kin are profoundly concerned with what they see as the moral decay of our society. For example, Hollywood earns a living by surprising us, by breeching conventional boundaries—technical, artistic, cultural and moral. Christians may be along for the ride as much as the rest of us (Who would argue that the panoply of sexual, violent blockbusters is targeted at the fifteen percent of Americans who self-describe as not Christian?) But at least the conservative wing of the faith hates that stuff (or hates themselves for loving it.) While the rest of us dither about artistic freedom and whether we really have the right to keep children from witnessing—say gratuitous decapitation—Christian conservatives do their best to censor the stuff. Why? They may or may not have read the research about screen violence and real world violence, but they believe in their guts that some things are evil. In fact, one of the things they loath and mistrust most about the rest of us is that we wallow around in what they call “moral relativity,” meaning a world in which there is no right and wrong, only individual preference.

Secular liberals, by contrast, flinch away from the word evil even when it is applied to someone like Saddam Hussein. They tend to be profoundly uncomfortable about such basic questions as honor killings and involuntary genital mutilation as long as these are sanctioned by another religion or culture. They will argue that abortion is morally acceptable, but won’t admit that they think it is sometimes more moral than the alternatives, which would be admitting that they actually make moral judgments about other people’s behavior. They are so afraid of becoming self righteous bigots that they prefer to error on the side of denying the obvious.

Harris sides with the religious conservatives on this one: They may be right for the wrong reason “because the Bible tells me so.” And they may get morally activated by issues that have nothing to do with morality, like piercings or Harry Potter books. They may sanctify mere habit or tradition or culture. But they are fundamentally right: good and evil are real and we have the ability to distinguish one from the other, albeit imperfectly, and the difference is enormously consequential.

In turn, Harris’s foundational premise, that moral questions are questions about the well-being of sentient creatures finds supporting evidence throughout the biblical texts and Christian tradition. Nowhere is this more clear than in Christian descriptions of the afterlife; in fact it is so clear there that I won’t bother with other examples. What do obedient Christians obtain? Perfect, eternal wellbeing—youth, health, freedom from want and pain, beauty, wonder, peace, wealth and love. How about the enemies of God? Well, what they get is remarkably close to Harris’s version of the worst possible evil, the only difference being that the Christian hell appears limited to Homo sapiens rather than encompassing all conscious beings. The mere existence, however figmentary, of a heavenly host that sings joyously while demonic hoards suffer eternal torture lend credence to Harris’s premise.[2]

Does Harris have it right? Are there moral facts to be discovered? Can we, should we be opening up empirical studies of well-being in the same way we study health? Is it conceivable we can factually determine some individuals to be moral experts and some cultures to be more moral than others? I don’t know. But I do know this: For those of us who find traditional dogmas inadequate to answer the complex ethical questions before us, and I am one, Harris has opened a conversation we need to have.

[1] Harris gives a nod to cognitive scientists who have written extensively in recent years about our universal moral emotions and intuitions, but unlike them, he is interested in applying science to determine what we should care about rather than what we routinely do. In other words, he is saying that questions of “is” and “ought” can be answered with the same methods.

[2] All of the sacrifices that Christians are asked to make in this life offer no evidence to the contrary. That would be like saying the Wall Street banker who works long hours so that he can buy big houses and fast cars and hot women isn’t a hedonist. The Christian’s temporal self-sacrifice and the banker’s long hours are simply evidence of the human ability to delay gratification. Each is willing to resist temptation and endure hardship in the near term for a bigger reward later.