Monday, October 25, 2010

God, Reason, and Sam Harris

I have long been troubled by the fact that public discussion of and media attention to the existence of "God," assumes that the word "God" refers to a supernatural person who is rather like a super version of a human person, a "guy" who lives way "out there" somewhere, answers our prayers, and occasionally performs magical acts called miracles.

I do not understand the term God to be restricted to signifying this cosmic super-being, and many professional theologians and philosophers do not either. Just read Charles Hartshorne, Paul Tillich, J.A.T Robinson or David Griffith and you will quickly see that there are other possibilities.

I've posted on this before and I refer my readers to my previous posts on God and religion, for my own views. Public discussion, however, has very seldom recognized this distinction.

I am happy to report that Newsweek has changed this trend. In a recent article on so-called "atheist" Sam Harris We learn that for Harris

The answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” comes down to this: It depends on what you mean by “God.” The God Harris doesn’t believe in is, as he puts it, a “supernatural power” and “a personal deity who hears prayers and takes an interest in how people live.” This God and its subscribers he finds unreasonable. But he understands that many people—especially in progressive corners of organized religion and among the “spiritual but not religious”—often mean something else. They equate God with “love” or “justice” or “singing in church” or “that feeling I get on a walk in the woods,” or even “the awesome aspects of existence I’ll never understand.”

Even more encouragingly

According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a quarter of Americans believe that God is “an impersonal force.” Among Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and the unaffiliated, the number rises to a third. Among Jews, it’s half. In a Gallup study done in May, 9 percent of respondents said they believe in a God who doesn’t answer prayers.

When polled about God, “people substitute in their own ideas,” says John Green, senior research adviser at Pew. “People have a vague, fuzzy notion of transcendence, and they substitute God for it...When you try to make the definition more specific, fewer people answer in the affirmative.” Or put another way, “If you let the concept of God float a little bit, almost everybody is a theist,” says Stephen Prothero, author of God Is Not One. What Sam Harris believes in—rationality, morality, transcendence, humility, awe, community, selflessness, and love—meets a fairly common definition of God.

It seems that a sizable, though I confess a minority, of people who think that they believe in God reject the idea of a divine super person who answers prayers and performs miracles, they believe in "God," but don't believe "the old man in the sky."

Harris has a reason for his beliefs, a reason that will resonate with many spiritual people

Harris is ... promoting The Moral Landscape, his new book. Even here, he briefly explores the connections between spiritual experience—especially an experience of selflessness—and human happiness. “I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have,” he writes. Over lunch, he says with a smile how much he looks forward to working on the next project, which will allow him to pull back, after six long years, and focus on things that support human flourishing. “Ecstasy, rapture, bliss, concentration, a sense of the sacred—I’m comfortable with all of that,” says Harris later. “I think all of that is indispensable and I think it’s frankly lost on much of the atheist community.”

This is really quite astounding. I've very often been told by atheists and theists alike that because I don't believe in a rather crudely anthropomorphic conception of God, I am really, therefore, an "atheist," despite my claims to the contrary. It's refreshing to finally see a major news magazine, and a popularly known atheist, recognize and embrace the fact that the world "God" need not refer to merely one idea.

I hope this becomes far more common.

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  1. Sorry, but having some vague feeling of transcendence does not make one a theist.

  2. Agreed. And I don't think I'd call Harris a theist. My point is only that the term God need not be as narrowly defined as it often is and that this article, and Harris apparently, are aware of that. The idea that God *MUST* refer to a person-like being "out there" somewhere, is the idea I reject.


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