Questions and Chaos

Life in the 21st Century

A Note to Sam Harris

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I think you’re right: what the world needs is more love and curiosity.

I watched a You Tube video where Sam Harris gives an interesting talk to the Atheist Alliance International conference.  I haven’t read his books. I’ve listened to talks by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett but haven’t read their books either. I’m not all that interested in what atheists can tell me about religion.

I was a small child when I first heard the story of God asking Abraham to offer up his most loved son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. I couldn’t understand why the creator of the universe, the creator of sunshine and flowers and kittens, would want to kill children.

I remember being nine years old and struggling to hold back the tears through a thundering sermon. “Everyone sitting here is responsible for nailing Jesus to the cross.  You,  personally, hammered in each of those nails with your sin and disobedience. I choked back sobs. I didn’t want to kill Jesus and I had no idea what I had done that was so terrible. I couldn’t change what I didn’t know. I would always be guilty.

As uncomfortable as I feel with religion, I’ve been uncomfortable with accepting the label of atheist. Atheists always seemed to be as angry as the preachers. Preachers argued against sin and atheists argued against religion. Both of them are taking the same position of “I am more right than you are.” “I am a better person than you are.”

I also had some difficulty seeing atheism as a rational alternative. I can’t help thinking that there must be a logical fallacy involved, somewhere, when people identify themselves as being against something that doesn’t exist.

There needs to be a better way. While science tries to give testable answers to questions about how the world works, it has nothing to say about what we value, who we love or how we can feel safe in the world. Perhaps what we really need is to put our beliefs and values to the test, to see if they are producing the results we want.  We need to put our emotions to the test. Does love produce the result we want or does hatred?  Does anger, and teaching others to fear us, produce the result we want.

When religion puts all the results we can expect into the next life, it holds us captive. We depend on the unverifiable stories of others to determine our actions. We need to test our results in this life. As humans, we seem to have a tendency to do more of the same with more intensity when we’re not getting results we want. We all know people who yell more loudly and punish their children more harshly when the children don’t respect them. A more useful tactic might be to stop and ask the question, “Are my actions getting me the results I want?” 

It’s clear from the state of the world today that the “way we’ve always done things” isn’t working very well. We need to have the curiosity to ask, “How can we change to get the results we want?”

Like Sam Harris said, “What we need most is love and curiosity” — and I would add to that, creativity.  Love and curiosity and creativity are the starting points to learning how to live well in the world.