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 Post subject: The Problem with Atheism
PostPosted: 01 Apr 2008, 05:45 
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I’ve just come across this article from Sam Harris. I think he makes some provocative points. Specifically:

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To judge the empirical claims of contemplatives, you have to build your own telescope. Judging their metaphysical claims is another matter: many of these can be dismissed as bad science or bad philosophy by merely thinking about them. But to judge whether certain experiences are possible—and if possible, desirable—we have to be able to use our attention in the requisite ways. We have to be able to break our identification with discursive thought, if only for a few moments. This can take a tremendous amount of work. And it is not work that our culture knows much about.

One problem with atheism as a category of thought, is that it seems more or less synonymous with not being interested in what someone like the Buddha or Jesus may have actually experienced. In fact, many atheists reject such experiences out of hand, as either impossible, or if possible, not worth wanting. Another common mistake is to imagine that such experiences are necessarily equivalent to states of mind with which many of us are already familiar—the feeling of scientific awe, or ordinary states of aesthetic appreciation, artistic inspiration, etc.

As someone who has made his own modest efforts in this area, let me assure you, that when a person goes into solitude and trains himself in meditation for 15 or 18 hours a day, for months or years at a time, in silence, doing nothing else—not talking, not reading, not writing—just making a sustained moment to moment effort to merely observe the contents of consciousness and to not get lost in thought, he experiences things that most scientists and artists are not likely to have experienced, unless they have made precisely the same efforts at introspection. And these experiences have a lot to say about the plasticity of the human mind and about the possibilities of human happiness.

So, apart from just commending these phenomena to your attention, I’d like to point out that, as atheists, our neglect of this area of human experience puts us at a rhetorical disadvantage. Because millions of people have had these experiences, and many millions more have had glimmers of them, and we, as atheists, ignore such phenomena, almost in principle, because of their religious associations—and yet these experiences often constitute the most important and transformative moments in a person’s life. Not recognizing that such experiences are possible or important can make us appear less wise even than our craziest religious opponents.


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PostPosted: 01 Apr 2008, 08:43 
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I've heard a lot about this Sam Harris guy. I'm really going to have to read something by him. Do you have any recommendations, HB?

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PostPosted: 01 Apr 2008, 10:51 
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I would say this mindset is common among committed atheists, not necessarily all atheists. I have definitely noticed it myself, and it is not just limited to a blanket dismissal of "oceanic experiences." I notice in committed atheists a tendency to view anything that has traditionally been associated with religion as irrevocably tainted by that association--meditation, solemn ceremony, rites of passage, mythology, etc.

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PostPosted: 01 Apr 2008, 13:26 
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dug_down_deep wrote:
I've heard a lot about this Sam Harris guy. I'm really going to have to read something by him. Do you have any recommendations, HB?

Uhm... Nope. I haven't read any of his books. My knowledge of his views comes from reading some of his articles and IIDB threads that discuss his writings. He does strike me as the most open-minded of the popular atheists - he doesn't just ignore or trash Radin's work, for example - so hopefully his books are well worth the read.


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PostPosted: 01 Apr 2008, 14:19 
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Karalora wrote:
I would say this mindset is common among committed atheists, not necessarily all atheists. I have definitely noticed it myself, and it is not just limited to a blanket dismissal of "oceanic experiences." I notice in committed atheists a tendency to view anything that has traditionally been associated with religion as irrevocably tainted by that association--meditation, solemn ceremony, rites of passage, mythology, etc.

I wonder whether this is more common among atheists who were subjected to religious indoctrination during upbringing. Alternatively, perhaps it is simply a matter of excessive reliance upon reason in the construction of one's worldview.


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PostPosted: 01 Apr 2008, 14:26 
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Hrvoje Butkovic wrote:
I wonder whether this is more common among atheists who were subjected to religious indoctrination during upbringing. Alternatively, perhaps it is simply a matter of excessive reliance upon reason in the construction of one's worldview.


I'm tempted to think it's more often the latter. Sometimes, people with this mindset take it even further, and start to decry/devalue anything that isn't based on cold, hard reason. It's not limited to atheists, but does seem to be a lot more common among them, perhaps because they see faith and logic as the two halves of a dichotomy, and have made the decision to utterly reject faith.

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PostPosted: 02 Apr 2008, 05:19 
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Perhaps relying entirely on reason is the reason they are atheists? :D


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PostPosted: 02 Apr 2008, 11:44 
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Hrvoje Butkovic wrote:
Perhaps relying entirely on reason is the reason they are atheists? :D


No doubt. Reason is a vital tool. But it does not follow from this that anything not discernible through reason alone is therefore not worth knowing, and there are atheists who seem to believe just that.

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PostPosted: 02 Apr 2008, 20:57 
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The most violent and vocal atheist I ever met became a buddist 10 years later.

I dunno. I can't be sure why mediation is a needed thing. I feel it's overrated. You can get the same pluses from art or sport or anything... you don't need to contemplate your navel to live life well...

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PostPosted: 05 Apr 2008, 12:56 
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The interesting thing here, to me, is that he is not dealing with matters of faith. It's a purely experiential matter which is repeatable and capable of being experienced by anyone. I can understand why atheism would reject something which is faith based, but why something which simply works? (Looking at the smileys here,) if eating popcorn once a day (without butter or salt) was known to cause a state of bliss among the majority of practitioners, what's the point of denying that it does this? I can understand denying that the bliss has any value, but denying that it does what it claims to do, when it is capable of being experienced by anyone, doesn't make sense to me. In fact, it doesn't seem very rational or "scientific".

I suppose kudos are in order for the atheist who took the time to experience something which I suppose could be said to be "of a spiritual nature", but what he has done is really quite simple and has been done by many people before him in both this practice and others which also work. He recognizes this, and I don't mean to degrade Sam Harris, because he sounds like one of the most open minded atheists I've run across. I just don't understand why the rest bother to close their minds to practices which work and can be used by anybody. He didn't claim he saw God after all.


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PostPosted: 09 Jul 2008, 07:58 
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Speaking as a fairly hard core atheist, who, earlier in his life, spent the best part of 3 years in ashram life, it is not an allegation that meditative practises do not work that worries me about them, it is because in my own experience they do work (though I think not to the same degree in different people, and some may be pretty much blind to them, others very susceptible).

And they have a frequent history of leading people open to being manipulated by cult leaders, who may well be victims of being led into cultism themselves, and to the likelihood (though not certainty) of being led to take on board false metaphysics.

I can (I've experimented) drop into a meditative state pretty much at will, now.

I don't very much, though, preferring the effects of a few glasses of wine to wind the day down.

David B


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