Marilynne Robinson has written a somewhat critical review of Sam Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape. I haven’t read this book, but I’ve heard enough from him on this topic to know where he stands.
Here, for example, is Robinson’s defense of the positive role of some churches in guiding people on moral paths:
If he were to articulate a positive morality of his own, he might well arrive at its heights to find them occupied by the whole tribe of Unitarians, busily cooperating on schemes to enhance the world’s well being, as they have been doing for generations.
…[H]e never notices that many of the good things he embraces – for example, equality and opportunity for women – have been championed and better realized in mainline churches and the larger community than in the sciences.
What she says may be true of the overwhelmingly liberal mainline churches. Anyone who has heard Sam Harris knows that his main criticism is aimed at traditional religion, which is far and away the most common type. Mainline churches have been dying for years and it’s never been demonstrated to my satisfaction that the values they espouse are really based on the bible.
Most of the Unitarians that I know are atheists. At least half or more of them are secular humanists who like all the good stuff in religion but not the supernaturalism. They all seem to me to be ignostic. There’s a whole group of them, the HUUmanists, who are affiliated with the American Humanist Association, that bastion of godlessness. Does any of this sound familiar?
I don’t know how setting these people up against Harris does anything to forward the cause of traditional religion. If Harris has any quarrel with liberal religion, it’s for the same reason that I do. It provides cover for and enables its much larger and more monstrous traditionalist older sibling.
It’s doubtful that Unitarians even come under the heading of liberal religion except that they, like Secular Humanistic Jews, have expropriated the exoskeleton of religion while ejecting the supernatural and its claims for authority.
As for Harris’ central argument, even Robinson acknowledges that when he speaks about science determining morality, he means something more:
It is true that he defines science in broad terms as “our best effort to form a rational account of empirical reality,” which includes, for example, history.
So he is not just talking about learning morality from the chemical components of DNA, as if such a thing were possible. He’s divorcing the search for morality from the authoritarian ancient texts we’ve inherited and replacing them with human reason.
Robinson correctly warns about the immoral abuse of scientific discoveries, though I hardly think that Harris is unaware of history. I’m currently reading James Watson’s DNA: The Secret of Life. Watson goes to some effort to remind us of these abuses in the eugenics movements. And we always have nuclear weapons to jog our memories.
If stated crudely, the assertion that science holds all the keys to understanding morality is plainly ridiculous. I have never heard Harris or anyone say this. Secular moral and ethical philosophy also play a very key role. Traditional religious texts and their advocates, however, have no place in the discussion.