The End of Faith

Sunday, January 15, 2006
A couple people I know are enthusiastically absorbing the book, The End of Faith, by Sam Harris.

I have been scanning the reviews on Amazon, deciding whether I want to read it so I can jump into discussion in an informed way.

My observation is that secular intellectuals such as the author of this book often misunderstand religion and faith. They have choosen instead to believe deeply in something they call rationality and science.

Belief, on one level, as a friend of mine puts it, is the "scent" or "stink" of the tribe. It is how we tell whether someone is "one of us".

Faith to me is different from belief and has nothing to do with discounting the here and now over the hereafter -- a charge which the author of the book levels against religious believers and something which, in so much as it is true, I agree is often counter-productive. Faith to me is about a sense of wonder and awe. When you understand what a miracle it is that we exist at all, you open the door to faith. Simple people sometimes have an easier time of it than people with a patina of education.

I do not suggest that some bearded old geezer in the sky drew up blueprints for all creation down to the structure of the human eye as the ID folks seem to claim (this is the extreme anthropomorphism of god), but I do find it rather amazing that the principles of physics, such as we understand them today, allow for the existence of beings as complex as we are, to say nothing of all the other flora and fauna that abound. Intelligence is buried in the structure of our universe!

Intellectual and highly rational people often are stuck in a "rational" mode, thinking that rationality is the highest functioning of the human brain. There are higher levels. Rationality is slow and the human mind is unable to follow all rational chains of inference to their logical conclusion simultaneously or even serially. Inevitably we leave paths of logic unexamined. What we end up with is a collage of remembered narrative chains which have the flavor of rationality and logic. We tell ourselves things that sound rational. We have smart-sounding people, in positions of authority, who parrot these narrative chains until the narratives become articles of belief in the tribe. They look down on the myths entertained by religious folk but they subscribe to plenty of their own. A quick wit and a piece of parchment does not a wise person make.

So it is that belief is the stink of the tribe.

Those who focus solely on rationality and rationalism relegate the irrational to their subconscious. By remaining aware only of the "rational" processes of their mind, they limit their understanding of the mind's deeper workings. In this way they give power over to the irrational and they are right to fear it.

Logic is a tool much like a microscope. You can dissect symbols and look at their logical relationships but you will need more than a microscope to create a meaningful picture of the world around you.


Buddy Larsen said...

So true--'fundamentalists' exist in every belief system--their 'tell' is how excited (anxious, energetic) they get in proximity to other, differently-scented, fundamentalists.

terrye said...

Well, religion can mean a lot of things. I would say that Secularism is a religion to many.

I have to say I had an experience that can not be explained in a rational way.

chuck said...

There is also no rational reason to live, to survive, to have families. Such desires are part of our makeup, but they are not rational. Rather, they are a consequence of the fact that we are living beings. It seems to me that wisdom begins in knowing what we are and accepting it. Reason then becomes just another tool like the opposable thumb or the claws of a cat. To put reason at the head in all things is to completely miss the point.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

What we end up with is a collage of remembered narrative chains which have the flavor of rationality and logic.

Wow. That's one for the ages.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Anyone who honestly believes that "faith" is coming to an end is either stupid or dishonest. Both my consciousness and my time on this planet are limited and I will not waste any further time on them.

Degrees are not the only means by which people, false prophets as it were, arrogate authority unto themselves. Take the NYT for example. It has asserted that "Bush is spying on Americans", a statement which when examined, insofar as we can examine it, is patently false based on the evidence adduced so far. Yet it has taken on a life of its own, believed completely as an article of faith--yes, faith--amongst those people who are busy demonizing Bush in their own personal religious narrative. Largely this is because the NYT has created a certain authority for itself just because it is there. Not because of any degree it possesses, or any vote that it one, or any statutory right granted by the Congress, or any ruling by the Supreme Court. No, it has simply arrogated authority to itself. The process is similar to a certain type of infomercial you see sometimes wherein an individual seeks to convince you that he has some sort of answer and is an authority on the subject, though there's really no need to believe him. He succeeds because he asserts his authority in such a manner that some people are taken in. Likewise for TV evangelists like Jimmy Swaggert.

Buddy Larsen said...

Is it ever--been warned against since the Dawn, as a "false prophet".

Buddy Larsen said...

That was to your 'one for the ages' post, MHA, sorry for no ref.

Knucklehead said...

For those who would like a taste of the lives secular intellectuals live I strongly recommend Paul Johnson's Intellectuals.

I probably should not admit such a thing but I found the book enormously amusing.

Syl said...

What we end up with is a collage of remembered narrative chains which have the flavor of rationality and logic.

True. Very true. And this is what we have to admit.

However this applies to religion as well.

All we need is a faith that some power greater than ourselves exists. Nothing more.

And, in fact, it is our very desire for rational thinking and explanations that lead us to that faith.

offworld said...

Thanks MHA, that one felt good coming out. That post started as an email to my atheist friend in San Francisco who is reading that book. I thought it worth sharing.

A follow on thought I had is that belief as the marker of the tribe is becoming more important since people move about more and media has become both more homogenous from place to place and more fragmented and personalized. We choose our realities in so many ways that the traditional concept of from-ness as indicator of tribe is rapidly attenuating. What social map have we to go on but beliefs?

MeaninglessHotAir said...

the traditional concept of from-ness as indicator of tribe is rapidly attenuating. What social map have we to go on but beliefs?

Another interesting and provocative thought. Thanks.

Yes, this phenomenon definitely seems to be growing and perhaps accounts for the increasing shrillness and polarization we see in, for example, the Democratic party.

offworld said...

I am not an intellectual, I just play one on the Internet.

truepeers said...

Yes, I'm with Syl, I don't think reason and faith should be opposed; your opposition of belief and faith makes more sense, belief being a narrow-minded reason. The more sophisticated our reason, the more we need of faith; words lose their sacred aura and we can't just get on with things like Chuck's naturalistic beings.

I've already forgotten the author, but I read a line the other day, something like: madness is not the loss of reason; madness is when you've lost everything and still have your reason. I think we tend to go crazy when we lose faith in the creation and our unfolding place in it, and we fight against what is given, which is also to fight against an ongoing human story - though in our madness we might think we are on top of history and saving a fallen world - in favor of some lesser belief/story. Our reason can seem to cause this loss - when it is s an outdated or narrow belief to which we cling - but in a more profound sense our reason can also save us, by recognizing its aporias or mysteries and eventually calling us back to faith in the creation. Narrow-minded reason/belief is like a ritual or myth that can become anachronistic or egocentric; faith is what we put into the process of human life such that new stories and mysteries emerge to give it meaning.

Buddy Larsen said...

" is what we put into the process of human life such that new stories and mysteries emerge to give it meaning."

AKA, "tomorrow"--the thing that makes today worth doing.