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The NS Profile: Sam Harris

Sam Harris, one of the “Four Horsemen” of new atheism, believes that science can never be reconciled

Sam Harris, the American writer, neuroscientist and leading proponent of the new atheism, rarely invites indifference. The novelist Marilynne Robinson wrote recently that his "aspirations . . . contain much that is not laudable". The writer and commentator Andrew Sullivan once accused Harris of a "form of intolerance that reminds me of some of the worst aspects of fundamentalism". The columnist Theodore Dalrymple said of a passage from Harris's first book, The End of Faith, that it was "quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist".

His supporters are no less voluble. The jacket of his latest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, carries gushing testimonials from Ian McEwan ("Reason has never had a more passionate advocate") and Richard Dawkins ("As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet").

When I meet Harris - a dapper man of 43 who bears a decided resemblance to the actor Ben Stiller - at the office of his English publishers in London, the bayonet is out more or less straight away, even though he is suffering from jet lag after a flight from New York.

A few days before our meeting, the news had broken of the award to Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, of the £1m Templeton Prize. The prize, given annually by the John Templeton Foundation, rewards individuals who have made "exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension" - or, as Harris puts it in The Moral Landscape, "split[ting] the difference between intellectual integrity and the fantasies of a prior age".

“Rees looks like a cagey and successful choice from the Templeton Foundation's point of view," Harris tells me. "He's certainly not who you'd expect to be shilling for the cause. He is on the record as being a non-believer, but is too politic for his own good, or for our common good. He thinks science shouldn't be in the business of criticising religion, and that scientists can do their job perfectly happily without ever engaging in a contest with religion - but I think that's fundamentally untrue."

Zero-sum game

That "religion and science are in a zero-sum conflict with respect to facts" is one of the central contentions of The End of Faith, the book with which Harris, then aged 36, made his name when it was first published in 2004. He was followed into print in 2006 by the philosopher Daniel Dennett (with Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) and by Dawkins, who argued in his bestseller The God Delusion that religion is the enemy of science. Dawkins, like Harris, meant all religion - not just the fundamentalist, apocalyptic varieties whose adherents are indifferent to the fate of this world because they await imminent transposition to another.Dawkins, Dennett and Harris later made common cause with Christopher Hitchens, whose polemic God Is Not Great was published in 2007. That year, the quartet convened at Hitchens's apartment in Washington, DC for a discussion, conducted over cocktails, that was filmed and subsequently released as a DVD under the title The Four Horsemen.

As Harris observes in The Moral Landscape, somewhat ruefully, there is now a "large and growing literature" attacking "the so-called New Atheists" (a term coined in 2006 by Gary Wolf in an article for Wired magazine).

“It is often said that we caricature religion," he writes. "We do no such thing. We simply . . . take the specific claims of religion seriously." What Harris means is that the New Atheists treat religion - of the kind espoused by the mildest Anglican as much as the ravings of the most incendiary Islamist - as consisting of a set of purportedly factual claims about the nature of reality, the origins of the universe and so on, to which believers assent as they would to an ordinary empirical proposition about the weather or the colour of my trousers. If that is what religion is, then it conflicts with science by definition.

When I try to suggest that there might be more to religious faith than this description allows, Harris is emphatic. "Look at the New Testament," he says. "It makes a variety of claims that are by definition at odds with what we know to be scientifically plausible."

Yet there are many eminent scientists who also happen to be religious believers - John Polkinghorne, for instance, the mathematical physicist and Anglican priest who won the Templeton Prize in 2002, or Francis Collins, formerly director of the National Centre for Human Genome Research in the United States, who was appointed director of the National Institutes of Health by President Obama in 2009. Why, if atheism is the world-view that best accords with the scientific evidence, do so many intelligent people persist in faith?

For Harris, this can be explained only as a "failure of intellectual honesty". He is parti­cularly scathing about Collins. "There's something repugnant about the fact that he [is a believer] and one of the most prominent and influential representatives of science in the United States," he says. "And he's not some weak-tea Christian - he thinks the dead will walk again and will be remade out of new matter. And not only that, he doesn't keep those crazy convictions private. He publishes on the mutually reinforcing character of those two world-views [science and religion]."

However, it is not Christians such as Collins who are the most vociferous critics of Harris and the other New Atheists. The most powerful assaults have come from fellow atheists and secularists. Take the literary critic James Wood, who was brought up in an evangelical Christian household but is now an atheist. Wood has written of the "parochialism" of new atheism. Religion, for Harris and the others, he argues, "seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity". More "relaxed or progressive" forms of Christianity tend not to register - nor do Hinduism or Buddhism, both of which Harris flirted with in his early twenties after dropping out of an English degree at Stanford University, or Judaism, the faith into which he was born.

Harris swats away the criticism when I put it to him. "If you want to take that tack, at least do me the courtesy of acknowledging that at least 50 per cent of the American population is fundamentalist. This is not a fringe problem. And in the Muslim world it's the same.

“But if you want to talk about some far more relaxed, noncommittal, non-dogmatic form of Christianity or Islam, then let's talk about what it's committed to, because it's committed to some propositional claims. If it's committed to none, then we're just talking about someone who happens to like the Bible as literature, or who happens to like going to St Paul's because he likes the architecture." The problem with this response is that it does not address whether there is more to religion than beliefs about the world. The philosopher Philip Kitcher, an avowed secularist, thinks Harris is attached to something he calls the "belief model of religion", which he finds wanting.

“Besides beliefs," Kitcher wrote in a paper on "militant modern atheism" published last October, "there are emotions, aspirations, desires and actions . . . Those who merely believe, if there are any such people, are not full participants in the religious life." In other words, living in a moral community in which one engages in shared practices is as important to the religious person as believing in a set of dogmas about the metaphysics of transcendent entities.

Beyond belief

Harris does not dispute that religious concepts articulate a moral vision as well as purport to describe the world. But he wishes that scientists wouldn't leave morality to those of faith, and The Moral Landscape is devoted to explaining why they need not do so. "Secular scientists very commonly think that science has nothing to say about morality and human value, and so it's not science's job to tell people what constitutes a good life," he argues.

In the new book, Harris tries to give a scientific answer to the question of atheist morality. "Questions about values", he writes, "are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures" - and well-being is something that is measurable, scientifically verifiable. The "science of human flourishing" that he lays out in the book is an updated version of utilitarianism, in which well-being replaces pleasure as the source of moral value. Crudely put, in the view that Harris defends, an action is right to the extent that it promotes well-being.

Judging the rightness of an action by its consequences in this way seems to lead Harris, however, to countenance practices that most of us would regard as morally repugnant - such as torture. His arguments about this in The End of Faith caused such controversy that he now maintains a page on his website devoted to the topic. He describes his position thus: "collateral damage is worse than torture across the board". If we bomb civilians, then why are we squeamish about waterboarding?

His opinions are shaped by what seems to him the biggest threat to western civilisation today: radical Islam. The irony is that, in this struggle, he finds himself on the same side as the Christian right. "It's inconvenient, certainly," Harris says laconically. "When I talk to Christians about Islam, they're running the same software. They know how it feels to be sure that the Book is the word of the Creator."

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special

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Is the Catholic Church about to welcome the LGBT community?

Something beneath the surface is shifting in the Catholic Church regarding its attitude to gay people, as its Synod on the Family gets underway.

Is the Catholic Church reaching an LGBT tipping point? The short answer, for anyone so buoyantly optimistic as to expect the imminent arrival of Elton John whirling a thurible round his head and backed by a leather-clad heavenly choir, is: No!

The Catholic Church remains, for the most part, deeply suspicious of homosexuality: as for transgender, the word is that – despite the claims of mostly right-wing, reactionary evangelist types – the term, let alone the issue, has scarcely registered the quietest of blips on the Vatican radar.

Still, something is stirring: if this is not a tipping point, it may yet be the moment that the balance is beginning to shift towards greater, more open acceptance, which, by my calculation, might just break out sometime around 2030. And that’s 15 years hence – not half eight this evening...

Cause for optimism is the Synod of bishops on the Family, taking place in Rome on 4-25 October. Its theme is the distinctly unsexy “vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world”.

Its scope, set out at the conclusion of a previous session in October 2014, includes “the importance of affectivity in life” and “guiding engaged couples in their preparation for marriage”.  Important, but in the end, quite dry stuff.

What has set secular speculation off is the fact that also on the agenda are the “pastoral care for couples civilly married or living together”, as well as “pastoral attention towards persons with homosexual tendencies”.  Note the p-word: “pastoral”. It's key to understanding what is at stake here: what the bishops might be debating, and what they cannot.

This body cannot change policy: cannot, in the jargon of the church, address “doctrinal issues”. Pastoral is about how we treat people: whether, for instance, the Church should exclude divorced and remarried couples from receiving Communion; whether a woman requires absolution at bishop level before she may be reunited with the Church, or whether her parish priest may suffice; whether a gay couple may attend mass together.

Secular readers may, at this point, shrug and decide the whole thing is beyond them. Yet that is to ignore the importance that faith continues to play in the lives of hundreds of millions of people the world over. These things matter: they have an impact on individual lives and they influence, and are influenced by, the politics of each country in which the Church exists.

Moreover, how these things are managed reflect two very different ideas of what the Church should be and the role it should play in people's lives. Reformers and liberals, one of which Pope Francis is widely considered to be, seek guidance in the New Testament. They look to  evidence, particularly in the gospels, that sin is an individual issue, a matter between God and the person concerned, and not for other humans, however imbued with book learning they are, to judge.

Others take a different, more dogmatic view. Some might even characterise it as pharisaic: a tendency towards strict observance of the rules with little regard for the spirit. This is why the constant drip of stories about how Pope Francis has extended the hand of welcome to those traditionally considered sinful – phoning a divorced woman and telling her she can receive communion, or hugging a trans man – are significant.

So much for the split – and it is significant – within the Church. Though you’d be hard-pressed to understand this in classic political terms. The accepted gloss is that this Synod is all about learned debate. There is no lobbying, and absolutely no playing out of the issues in the wider press arena.

Do not be fooled for an instant. Lobbying is going on behind the scenes. But not as we know it.

Over the weekend, the news lit up with the removal from office of Monsignor Krysztof Olaf Charamsa, a gay priest who rather unhelpfully came out shortly before the Synod. Far more significant was the launch in Rome of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC), attended by over 120 people, and including an interview with former Irish President Dr Mary McAleese and a keynote closing address by Bishop Raul Vera from Mexico.

Pressure is being applied, and the quieter the pressure, the more confident you suspect are those behind the pressure. The letter from the GNRC to the Synod contained no demands; was little more than a gentle wave, a nod to say that LGBT Catholics exist – and they are not going away.

In the wake of the 2014 Synod, the Pope wrote openly of the twin "temptations" that the Church needed to avoid. There was, he suggested, a need to "chart a middle course between 'hostile inflexibility' to the letter of the law and a 'false sense of mercy'”.

Hence the many, many cryptic references to be found, these past months, in the Catholic press to the “need for mercy” or, conversely, “the danger of too much mercy”.

In practical terms, this is about keeping the Church together, while managing expectations both inside and out as he does so.

The first Synod, attended by the most senior clerics in the Catholic hierarchy, still managed to open up some radical discussion around the issue of gay people within the Church. This second Synod, which includes input from bishops and lay people, is widely expected to be significantly more radical – and while that may find favour across broad swathes of the Western Church, it must also contend with the fact that in numeric terms, the Catholic Church now draws heavily from Africa and Eastern Europe, where views on LGBT issues are far more conservative.

Already, the Vatican press office has revealed that bishops have said they feel the need to change the language used by clergy with regard to gay people, cohabiting couples or, in the case of some African nations, polygamous marriages.

That may seem little to those of us used to the straightforward democratic battles for equal marriage and LGBT rights. It is, within the Catholic Church, a shift of tectonic proportions: and the Synod still has two and a half weeks to run!

Jane Fae is a trans activist who is also a practising Catholic. In the run-up to the synod, she co-ordinated the writing of a document on transgender in the Church for key attendees at the synod – and later this month she hopes, along with other trans Catholics, to be meeting with senior officials of the Catholic Church in England.

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.