Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Responding to a BuJu: Michaelson vs. Harris

A friend just pointed me in the direction of Jay Michaelson's recent essay, "A BuJu Responds to Sam Harris." Here's my response.

Michaelson begins,

'When people used to say "I believe in God," they meant it in the way one might mean "I believe in you." It was a statement of trust, not ontology -- it's not that I believe you exist (or don't), but rather that I believe you'll come through for me. Emotion, not reason. Things are going badly, one might say, but I believe in God. It was a disposition of the heart toward faith.'

Michaelson is painting a pretty picture here, but it isn't wholly accurate, neither as an historical picture of what religion has been, nor as a psychological interpretation of what religious statements of faith have tended to be.

What did people mean during the Spanish Inquisition, when they said, "I believe in God?" Was it a usually a statement of trust? Probably not, though it wasn't purely a statement of ontology, either. It was often most likely a statement of submission and conformity.

Was it a disposition of the heart towards faith? Probably not. It was most likely a disposition of the mind towards authority.

Michaelson ignores the political, and often bloody side of religion's history, and instead evokes a utopian view of the past, in order to draw a sharp line between emotion and reason, between what stirs the heart and what moves the mind. I tend to be suspicious of such strong distinctions. Sure, emotions and reason are unique, involving different brain systems, and each has its own tell-tale signs; but human behavior can rarely, if ever, be understood in terms of only one, and not the other. By regarding religion as the sole province of emotion, and not reason, Michaelson oversimplifies the nature and history of religion just as much as, if not more than, Sam Harris does.

Michaelson wants religion to be, and to always have been, about something that reason cannot touch, and which has been lost in the modern world. Sure, he says, religions may have been ignorant with respect to science and ethics, but they've exhibited no insufficiency when it comes to addressing "the human condition."

I beg to differ. As I see it, a system of rules which is ignorant of science and ethics is going to be severely limited in its ability to speak to the human condition. Are we really supposed to believe that religions have been perfectly capable of addressing all of their follower's emotional needs? As if people in the past (before ugly modernity came and ruined everything) merely had to breathe God's name, no matter what, and all suffering and anxiety was lifted. We still have a way to go, but I'd say we've learned a thing or two in the secular world about dealing with emotional problems.

No, I simply don't buy Michaelson's view of religion. We cannot understand religion by thinking of it only as an emotional celebration detached from rational thought. Religion is a complex beast, a family of political and social phenomena with important roots in, and consequences for, ways of thinking and understanding the world. Despite what Michaelson might wish to be true, religions throughout history have not existed orthogonally to reason.

Be that as it may, some of his criticisms of Sam Harris are well-stated. Harris does tend to oversimplify what religion is or can be, and what it means for people, and that is no doubt frustrating to the many individuals (like Michaelson) who consider themselves "religious," but who don't quite fall on Harris' map.

In Harris' defense, from what I gather, he is neither trying to offer a comprehensive understanding of what religion has been throughout history, nor is he trying to explain or understand all of the ways people interpret and celebrate religion today.

He is not talking about people who regard religion as a private way of experiencing bliss, beauty and transcendence. Rather, he is talking about, on the one hand, the people who regard religion as an institution and set of rules for pleasing God and attaining a good seat in heaven; and, on the other hand, the people who want to protect the rights of said rules and institutions, even if they don't fully submit to them.

The former are the ones flying planes into buildings, protesting outside of abortion clinics, blocking stem cell research, trying to teach intelligent design in schools, and so on. The latter are the ones trying to undermine any political or philosophical criticism of the former.

Harris' criticism of religion is rooted in the politics of today. It is not a statement about spirituality in general, but a statement about the political concessions to irrationality made in the name of religion. Religious moderates are criticized for attempting to justify these concessions.

I know I can find lots to disagree with in Harris' writings, and, again, I think Michaelson has made some fair criticisms here. But I don't think he adequately addresses the thrust of Harris' argument.

Michaelson's objections notwithstanding, I am still going to use the term "religion" to refer to political and social institutions and set of rules centered around belief in the supernatural and an afterlife, and not merely to meditation, dance, storytelling or random ways of appreciating existence and approaching nonbeing.

A semantic dispute about what should or shouldn't be called "religion" might be worthwhile, but I don't think Michaelson has made a strong case for any particular definition at all.

But whatever we decide to call "religion," the political and social issues still need to be met.