What is secular fundamentalism?

Neuroscientist, Philosopher, and Author
Secular fundamentalism is a play on words.
  • Transcript


Question: Does science explain our existence?


Sam Harris: I’m not making any strong claims about where science is going. I think it’s certainly reasonable to expect that we will understand our experience much better than we do at the level of the brain. And there may be some real impediments to that.

But it could also be true that the sky is the limit. I mean we could really understand it in a very precise way. And in such a way as to allow us to alter our experience in as fined a grain as we want. Who knows what awaits us there?

But I know we’re not going to get there if we don’t have an honest conversation about the roots of human experience.

This whole idea of secular fundamentalism, or atheist dogmatism, this is really a play on words. There’s nothing that you have to accept as dogma. There’s nothing you have to accept on insufficient evidence in order to reject the biblical God. Or in order to reject the idea that the Koran or the Bible is the perfect word of God.

There’s no dogma that you and I have accepted on insufficient evidence in order to reject Zeus and Poseidon and the thousands of dead gods that lie buried in that mass grave we call mythology. These gods were in good standing among generations of our ancestors; and for a variety of historical reasons, mostly the assent of monotheism, they’re now in disrepute. But they have the same epistemological stature as the God of Abraham. It’s not like there is so much data for the God of Abraham and there is no data for Poseidon. They’re both without data. And it’s an accident of history that we are not worshipping Poseidon and trying to constrain our maritime law in deference to the whims of the god of the ocean.


Question: Is there value in mythology?


Sam Harris: There’s a value in storytelling. There’s a value in art and literature. And I think there’s specifically a value in narrative. And there may be a value in taking on certain mythical propositions as a kind of schema through which to look at your life. Take Joseph Campbell’s story of “The Hero’s Journey” and to think of yourself in those terms; and just to look at what features of your life and psychology that springs into view.

But I think we have to be very careful about making claims to knowledge about the world. Take something like tarot card reading. Someone puts the cards down in front of you and they, you know, they turn up whatever it is the Three of Rods or whatever kind of tarot card it is. And they say, “Well this suggests to me that you’re dealing with issues of honesty. Have you been dishonest with anyone in your life?”

Now there are two ways to approach a situation. I think tarot card reading is totally bogus as a metaphysical instrument. I don’t think the card is doing anything important there; except it is causing you to ask a question about your life. Just pointing out point blank; a moment ago you weren’t thinking about honesty, and now I just put this card in front of you and say, “Well this tells me that you might want to ask yourself this question.” All of a sudden that changes your experience in the present moment. And it may, in fact, get you to realize that, “Oh yeah! I have some real work to do with my wife, or my father, or . . .”

But the question is then, let’s say you have that experience of a real valuable tarot card reading. What are you going to conclude about tarot cards on the basis of that? I think you’d be wrong to conclude that this is magic. You’d be right to conclude that there’s a certain value in asking questions; and that it’s very easy; we know this; it’s very easy to set up a system which has a psychological resonance for most people most of the time.

This is why astrology seems to work for most people most of the time. You can give Charles Manson’s astrological chart to 100 people, and 99 of them will say, and they’ll think it’s their chart, and they’ll think, “Yeah, well this does kind of get me,” in some fundamental way.

Because there’s no magic to this. Things are written with sufficient generality as to be evocative for everybody, because we’re very similar.


Recorded on: July 4, 2007