Our Man In Dublin asked me what I thought of this TED talk yy Sam Harris on Science and Morality from 2010. Sam Harris, if you haven’t heard of him before, is often included among Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens as a powerful voice in contemporary atheism.

Some quick responses to the talk as I understand it:

Given that science is factual and empirical, must science be neutral on the subject of morality and human values, a subject which supposedly does not admit to measurement and objectivity? I think he’s right to say that human morality can be discussed factually. I agree that we can speak objectively about concepts such as human health and wellbeing, in that it’s better to be alive than to be dead, it’s better to live in a healthy society than in a failed state.

I agree with his suspicion of moral and cultural relativism, and with his claim that a view of universal morality would and should condemn cultural practices such as the honour killings of raped daughters. I would accept in principle that religious practice can be trumped by secular morality in certain circumstances, if those religious practices (eg, suttee, honour killings, polygamous marriages with child brides) are obviously harmful to human wellbeing.

Because I am a Christian and a priest and Harris is a secular atheist, he and I differ on the idea that my notions of human wellbeing and morality derive in some form from divine revelation. Harris’ reference to religious leaders as “demagogues” who derive their moral worldviews from “whirlwinds” shows his obvious hostility to my moral worldview, although I can’t help but noting that in an example of what a continuum of moral views might look like, he puts serial killer Ted Bundy at the negative end, and the Dalai Llama at the positive end. If I had the chance to ask Harris a question that day, I would have asked him whether he would call the Dalai Llama a demagogue and a representative of a “delusional” belief system?

This is my first exposure to Harris, so I would want to be careful about rushing to judgement about his claim that humanity might and should evolve to a universal, secular morality. I would want to know what guarantees he would want that such a universal morality would be benign. One can think of several regimes in recent history that have jettisoned religious views of morality and imposed tyrannous and lethal secular moralities on their peoples. Perhaps the best guarantor for an empirically measurable view of human happiness would be a society where dialogue, coexisgence, and respect between religious and secular views of morality was possible?

0 Responses

  1. "I would have asked him whether he would call the Dalai Llama a demagogue and a representative of a "delusional" belief system?"

    Maybe Harris sees Buddhism for what it really is. Nearly everybody sees Buddhism as a religion, but in fact it isn't!!! It has no gods or creation myth and the basic ideas (4 noble truths) of Buddhism could be considered as the first steps of psychology. Personally I see Sidharta Gauthama (aka Buddha) as the first psychologist in history 🙂

    I have to admit that (the southern branch of) Buddhism has taken on a lot of "religious-like" practices, but this is no other than christianity taking over pagan rituals to make itself more acceptable to the future converted.
    The northern branch of Buddhism that went through China towards Japan leading to Zen-Buddhism did not "suffer" as much from that as China is home to Confucianism and Taoism, both pretty atheistic worldviews themselves.

    That might explain Harris…

    Coincidentally, I watched a documentary this weekend about a visit of the Dalai Lama to Belgium this summer. There he talked about teaching kids about the universal moral values from an early age through the secular schools… He seems to agree with Harris 🙂