There is a certain kind of atheist — we have all met him — who is not merely indifferent to organized religion, or puzzled by it, or scornful of it, but who is inflamed to purple rage by the contemplation of it. My own father was of this kidney. He would open conversations with perfect strangers by saying: “Isn’t it obvious that all the world’s problems are caused by religion?” At Eastertime, when the TV news showed a clip of the Pope blessing the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, Dad would rise from his armchair and actually shake his fist at the screen, growling: “You bloody fools!” You read about people shaking their fists but you don’t often see it. Well, I have seen it.
Among public intellectuals, the standard-bearer for this point of view for much of the twentieth century was British philosopher, aristocrat and gadfly Bertrand Russell. In essays with titles like “Why I Am Not a Christian” and “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind,” Russell patiently explained the folly and stupidity of believing in sacred texts, virgin births, messengers of God, and all the other dogmas of the big Western religions. Instead of all that superstitious baggage, Russell argued, men should rely on reason and dispassionate inquiry, on the rules of evidence and scientific method. Then they would see that what we need is not priests and mystics but physicists and logicians; not prayers but testable propositions; not nation-states but World Government. Let’s be reasonable! At age seventeen I was quite swept off my feet by Russell’s slogan: “Remember your common humanity and forget the rest!”
As is often the case with actual religious doctrine, this standard proved too high for most human beings to attain. Several decades on from Russell’s pleadings, large parts of the world are now more devout than ever, to the degree that there is serious talk of religious war on an international scale. What shall we do to be saved? Well, we could try channeling the old Earl, renewing his appeals to logic, science, and common humanity, raising anew the banner of reason, exposing the cruelty and absurdity of taking the supernatural on faith. Like chicken soup, it can’t hurt.
Sam Harris is just the man to do it. I know of no evidence that Harris is in the habit of shaking his fist at TV news clips of John Paul II, but I should not be the least bit surprised to learn that he does so in the privacy of his chambers. Much of this book — most, I think, of the first five (out of a total seven) chapters — is given over to metaphorical fist-shaking at “belief systems … uncontaminated by evidence,” “a desperate marriage of hope and ignorance” (that’s organized religion, of course), “untestable doctrines,” “the medievalism that prevails in the U.S. government” (you know who he’s talking about), and so on. Old Bertie would be proud — and flattered too, as he is quoted numerous times in the book.
To sometime Russell devotees, this is a trip down Memory Lane. Here it all is. Here is the Popular Mechanics scientistic utopianism: “Two hundred years from now, when we are a thriving global civilization beginning to colonize space …” Here is the lip-smacking survey of the cruelties of the Inquisition: “In the interest of saving your soul, a coal brazier will be placed beneath your bare feet, slowly roasting them.” Here is the contemptuous scourging of those who would make us live by the Book: “Men like [U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia — men who believe that we already have God’s eternal decrees on paper …” Here are the breezy reductionisms: “[Q]uestions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures.” (Gosh! That makes it all so simple!) Here are the knottiest old conundrums of theodicy presented as if they never occurred to anyone at all before last Tuesday: “[I]f God created the world and all things in it, he created smallpox, plague, and filariasis.” (Good grief! I never thought of that!) You just know, reading this stuff, that sooner or later you will encounter the plea for World Government. Yup, here it is on page 151.
It is a relief to find that, after the author has got all that off his chest, he actually has interesting things to say about ethics and consciousness, based on an open-minded and sympathetic approach to spiritual experience. A relief, but not a surprise: It seems to be a characteristic of this cast of mind to be drawn towards spirituality. Russell was prone to sudden spiritual insights: see, for example, his encounter with Mrs. Whitehead in Volume 1 of the Autobiography. Others of this stripe — Aldous Huxley, for instance — have been drawn to Indian or Chinese mysticism. Modern neuroscience has opened new avenues of speculation here, and its discoveries are forcing us to re-examine our ideas about mind, self, and the world of external reality. Professor Pinker notwithstanding, none of these recent researches compels us to the strict-materialist view, memorably expressed 150 years ago by Dutch philosopher Jacob Moleschott, that “the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile.”
Sam Harris is up to date with all of this. He has a degree in philosophy and is currently completing a doctorate in neuroscience. His chapter on ethics, though it does not depart far from philosophical basics, is excellent. His brief accounts of intuition, and of the notion of a “moral community” are as good as anything I have read on these topics, though he left me behind with his rather lengthy (and Russell-repudiating!) defense of pragmatism. The final chapter, titled “Experiments in Consciousness,” offers much food for thought, while pausing occasionally to deliver some parting kicks at “faith, the devil’s masterpiece.” His writing, when not fired up by atheistic zeal, is lucid. Only occasionally does he lapse into philosophy-seminar Esperanto: “The recognition of the nonduality of consciousness is not susceptible to a linguistically oriented analysis …” (And that is in an endnote. This is, by the way, one of those books where the endnotes are at least as rewarding as the main text.) There are only a handful of factual errors, all of a commonplace sort: Mankind did not originate in “the jungles of Africa,” for example, but in the savannahs.
What is wrong with Harris’s prescriptions is, of course, what was wrong with them in Russell’s time, and Spinoza’s and Erasmus’s too, for that matter: they go against the grain of human nature. Russell himself argued that the kind of thinking that mathematicians do is in some sense deeply unnatural, and that this is why so many people are repelled by math. Russell was a mathematician in the first place — co-author of Principia Mathematica — and always displayed that abstract, reductive style of thinking. To a certain kind of person (I write as a mathematician manqué) the style is immensely attractive; but alas, there are not many of us; and even among us, there are some who find life insupportable without the consolations of faith.