Monday, 12 October 2009

Sam Harris is half-right

Atheist philosopher Sam Harris, a favourite of my brother, has argued that religious people are more motivated by emotional reactions than are atheists.
"A comparison of both stimulus categories suggests that religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation, and cognitive conflict, while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks."
It is surprising that someone as unlikely to see both sides as Sam Harris can - at least in a very broad sense - come to conclusions that are not radically different from what I argue here.

Psychologist Michael Fitzgerald, in discussion with me, has agreed with my point that high empathy, conservatism and religiosity are tightly linked, despite opposition to this viewpoint from my relatives. Religious belief is undoubtedly very closely related to personal experience ("cognitive conflict" means conflict between right and wrong) and how someone feel about it, whereas mere memory without any feeling (as I have so much of about my childhood) is unlikely to be related to religion because people are unlikely to learn much from it (I will state straightforwardly that I seldom learn from the mistakes I made as a child when really pressed).

The problem with Sam Harris is that he - and other ethicists who hate him - fails to realise that there is an important psychological distinction between:
  1. shallow, spontaneous emotions and
  2. deep-rooted emotions
Astrology, for all the absurdity of planets being able to influence personal behaviour, is correct in its theory that there is a crucial distinction between shallow, short-lived emotional reactions (represented by fire signs) and deep, empathetic emotional reactions (represented by water signs). It is because of this confusion that one has claims:
"People "accept religion on emotional grounds" - I look around today, and the most emotional people I see are atheists."
The emotion of these atheists is likely to be really what Myers-Briggs theorists call "intuitive" types or what astrologers call fiery types, and is not true "feeling". Truly feeling-oriented types are likely to view rigid gender roles are a necessity, laws against extramarital sex or contraception as protecting women, and limited government as protecting people's privacy. They are even more likely to see respect for tradition as critical to the advancement of cultures and to fear rapid breaks from tradition in pursuit of individual freedom to do whatever one desires.

It is strange that religious conservatives do not recognise these points, preferring to compete on a field where they simply cannot win. It is no wonder religious conservatives who do not know how (or if) they can use their strength at a truly deep emotional level make so many lamentations nowadays.

Yet, this does not mean atheists like Sam Harris are right to yearn for (if they haven't already got) a world in which truly deep emotion has disappeared. The effects on demography and economics (government debt) are such that questioning the assumption a world divorced from deep emotions is a utopia cannot be a bad thing.

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