Religious Morality vs. Secular Morality (Sam Harris’ Take)

Sam Harris’ latest, brilliant book The Moral Landscape argues that science and reason can and should be used to define what is moral.

When Harris wrote his previous best-seller The End of Faith, he received mail from people from all over the political/philosophical spectrum. Their main objection: Reason cannot be used to determine what is moral. Harris’ response: Yes, it most definitely can (and must).

Below is an excerpt from The Moral Landscape:

This rupture [belief that reason cannot determine moral values] in our thinking has different consequences at each end of the political spectrum: religious conservatives tend to believe that there are right answers to questions of meaning and morality, but only because the God of Abraham deems it so. They concede that ordinary facts can be discovered through rational inquiry, but they believe that values must come from a voice in a whirlwind. Scriptural literalism, intolerance of diversity, mistrust of science, disregard for the real causes of human and animal suffering – too often, this is how the division between facts and values expresses itself on the religious right.

Secular liberals, on the other hand, tend to imagine that no objective answers to moral questions exist. While John Stuart Mill might conform to our cultural ideal of goodness better than Osama Bin Laden does, most secularists suspect that Mill’s ideas about right and wrong reach no closer to the Truth. Multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance – these are the familiar consequences of separating facts and values on the left.

It should concern us that these two orientations are not equally empowering. Increasingly, secular democracies are left supine before the unreasoning zeal of old-time religion. The juxtaposition of conservative dogmatism and liberal doubt accounts for the decade that has been lost in the United States to a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research; it explains the years of political distraction we have suffered, and will continue to suffer, over issues like abortion and gay marriage; it lies at the bottom of current efforts to pass antiblasphemy laws at the United Nations (which would make it illegal for citizens of member states to criticize religion); it has hobbled the West in its generational war against radical Islam; and it may yet refashion the societies of Europe into a new Caliphate. Knowing what the Creator of the Universe believes about right and wrong inspires religious conservatives to enforce this vision in the public sphere at almost any cost; not knowing what is right – or that anything can ever be truly right – often leads secular liberals to surrender their intellectual standards and political freedoms with both hands.

….

The underlying claim is that while science is the best authority on the workings of the physical universe, religion is the best authority on meaning, values, morality, and the good life…this is not only untrue, it could not possibly be true. Meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures – and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain. Rational, open-ended, honest inquiry has always been the true source of insight into such processes. Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.

….

It seems inevitable, however, that science will gradually encompass life’s deepest questions – and this is guaranteed to provoke a backlash. How we respond to the resulting collision of worldviews will influence the progress of science, of course, but it may also determine whether we succeed in building a global civilization based on shared values. The question of how human beings should live in the twenty-first century has many competing answers – and most of them are surely wrong. Only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to coexist peacefully, converging on the same social, political, economic, and environmental goals. A science of human flourishing may seem a long way off, but to achieve it, we must first acknowledge that the intellectual terrain actually exists.

Sam Harris

President Obama’s Mixed Ratings

President Obama is average in ratings. According to the American public, he’s not doing a horrible job nor is he doing a fantastic one. In comparison to other presidencies, his is relatively popular.

According to USA Today and in collaboration with Gallup, President Obama has an approval rating of 41% (nearly 600 days in office). Six percent of people polled where either undecided or had no opinion. In other words, 51% of Americans – at least those in the group polled – disapprove of President Barack Obama’s performance.

The Tea Party and increasing amounts of Republicans seize on this and declare that he’s “very unpopular.” While 51% disapproval may seem unpopular (and it is), it is important to note that most Presidents typically have fluctuating performance ratings, especially 600 days into their first terms.

During this time in Bill Clinton’s presidency, he had an approval rating of 43% and a disapproval rating of 48%.

Ronald Reagan is recognized as being one of the nation’s most popular Presidents. In December 1988, Gallup recorded his approval at 63%. However, nearly 600 days into his first term, he had a 41% approval rating and a disapproval rating of 47%. (His lowest point was 35% approval nearly 750 days into his first term).

President Gerald Ford’s approval was around 46% with disapproval at 40%.

It is too early to tell whether President Obama will have a “successful” first term…but then again, who decides what is “successful?” Popularity isn’t necessarily the mark of a good presidency. Those who adore the President (Nancy Pelosi) will see the current numbers as evidence that many Americans are accepting of his executive agenda. And, of course, those who despise him (Rush Limbaugh) and suffer from Obama Derangement Syndrome (Glenn Beck) will see them as evidence of a so-called “revolution.”

The American people are a tough crowd to please, especially when they’re in the midst of a horrible recession and increasingly polarized politics. With both sides screaming at each other – in particular the right since they’re out of power right now – it can be difficult to stay level-headed. All in all, his performance is rather average and unimpressive.

Through all the rhetoric and propaganda, it’s important to keep perspective. As the President’s numbers fluctuate, keep in mind that they will continue to do so. Only time will tell how popular or unpopular the Obama presidency will be in history.

President Barack Obama - Photo credit: AP

“The Political Compass” is an accurate guide

I’ve taken several political quizes before to see exactly where I fall on political, economic and social issues. Of all of them, Political Compass is the most accurate and interesting of all Internet political quizes.

I’ve changed quite a bit over the years. I’ve gone from far-right to centrist with a definitive libertarian streak (hence, my support for everyone’s equality, more regulation of the food and credit card industries and even the President).

Here’s where I fall politically (in clip art terms)

Micah's Politics

My Two Cents on the Ground Zero Mosque

I don’t have too much to say about the Ground Zero Mosque controversy, only that I think it’s horribly ironic.

On the very site where religious fanatics slaughtered thousands of Americans in accordance with their warped teachings, a mosque is being built.

Before I start getting hateful mail, let me clarify: Yes, I am aware that not all Muslims are terrorists and yes, I realize that peaceful, moderate Muslims are wanting the mosque constructed at the site. It should also be noted that I support their right to freely practice their religion. If they have the money and authorization to build the mosque then by all means, they can build it.

However, I have personal “reservations.” In my opinion, Islam is one of the most bloodthirsty, cultic and fanatical religions in the world. Not only does their holy book tell them to murder infidels, but it makes the goal of Islam to conquer the world.

Look to Islamic societies: Women are seen as inferior, weak, stupid, child-bearing objects. In some Muslim cultures, pre-pubescent girls have their clitoris violently removed in barbaric rituals. People of other religions, particularly of the Jewish and Christian variety, are seen as vermin that must be exterminated. Gays are killed or imprisoned for life for being gay.

At its worst, Islam is a dangerous cult that is responsible for the deaths of countless numbers. Holy wars, regional conflicts, societal extremes…this is what Islam is in its purest form.

American Muslims have every right to practice their religion (without the Klingon-esque barbarism) here in the United States. They have the right to build mosques. However, just because they have the right to do something doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right thing to do. I wonder how the 3,000 Americans who lost their lives on September 11 to extremism would feel about this.