Is religion a bad or good thing for society? An engaged discussion between Sam Harris & Jonathan Haidt

Is religion a bad thing overall for society? The new atheists certainly seem to have a case. I’ve seen, first hand, too much evidence for the benefits coming from religion-based groups to be satisfied with this simple conclusion. The topic is an important one, clearly. I’d like to sort out what I think. I just listened to a very meaty discussion on this topic between Sam Harris and Jonathan Haidt – and I’d like to share it with you. But first, a bit of background.

I have been an admirer of Sam Harris’ work since I read his 2004 book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Over time, I grew to have reservations about some of the more strident anti-religious positions taken by Harris and other leading thinkers of the “new atheist” movement. Reading Harris’ recent work, I’ve discovered his thinking on the role of religion in society is more subtle that I thought. Yes, he argues faith (the belief in historical and metaphysical propositions without sufficient evidence) is problematic because it is inherently irrational and excludes any attempt to criticize it. However, Harris’ most strident criticism targets fundamentalist forms of religion; adherents of fundamentalist forms of religion uphold belief in strict, literal interpretation of scriptures and commitment to societal changes to manifest the ideals described in those scriptures. I find Harris’ criticisms on this score persuasive.

I am also a fan of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt‘s work. Haidt views religion as playing a relatively benign role in society. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, he looks at the achievements of communities through sustained collective actions and concludes that religion has contributed to making these collaborations possible.

When Harris and Haidt clashed publically on this topic starting in 2007 [NB: they present an overview of their exchanges starting at minute 30 in the interview to which I link below], I found it amusing, at first. Upon reflection, I was annoyed. These two influential scholars present themselves as open-minded; both take strongly positive positions on the critical value of discourse to scientific and social progress. Yet, on such an important topic, they resorted, in my mind, to clever sniping rather than real engagement in what was behind their different views.

Last week, as I made my way through earlier episodes of Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast, I made a happy discovery. Harris had invited Haidt to engage in discussion on his podcast in March 2016. I commend it to your listening enjoyment, for the substance as well as for the pleasure of hearing discourse that is engaged rather than entrenched. By engaged, I mean that the discussion helped illuminate the substance and limits of their disagreements. Haidt, for example, makes clear that his position that religious bonds can help a society to sustain collaboration toward their betterment, does not conflict with Harris’ argument about the harms flowing from fundamentalist religion. All in all, it was a much more interesting exchange than that which occurred in their heated sniping over previous years.

Waking Up Podcast with Sam Harris Episode #31, March 9, 2016

Evolving Minds: A Conversation with Jonathan Haidt

You can stream or download the audio from the podcast website episode page here or stream it from youtube here. Note: the exchange between Harris and Haidt starts at 26 minutes in; they first discuss their clash and their views on religion. Then they turn to political correctness and free speech issues on campus.

 

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