We can explain the natural world through physics. We can account for human emergence through evolution. We can explain human behavior through genetics and psychology. But what about our sense of good and bad, of right and wrong? What is the ultimate source of our moral values? This book addresses this last question with considerable insight and some originality.
In historical terms, morality in most cultures arose primarily from the elders and religious leaders of communities, who made their pronouncements largely on the basis of scriptures which had acquired a time-honored status. This led to the idea that morality has a divine and supernatural source. This would imply that one needs to be affiliated to a religion in order to be moral.
But all through history many thinkers have also argued that one can be moral without subscribing to religious doctrines which goad people to ethical behavior often through threats of post-mortem penalties for naughty behavior and promise of rewards for good conduct. This book lends support to the thesis that there is no need to attend church, temple, synagogue or mosque to be a decent human being.
A related issue is the relevance of religions in a world where science reigns (or should reign) supreme. The general belief is that science deals with the world such as it is and it simply cannot say anything about the ought in human life, which is the domain of ethics. Science may say something about the roots of ethics, but can offer nothing as ethical guide-posts. Marshaling recent data from anthropology, biology, psychology, neuroscience and more, Harris informs us that science can not only explain why we behave the way we do, but also teach us how to behave. In other words, science can be both teacher and preacher. Beyond presenting the progress made by these sciences, Harris also makes the customary comments of the New Atheists on the Catholic Church, the Qur’an, and the God of Abraham who “never told us to treat children with kindness, but (Who) did tell us to kill them for talking back to us,” which may sound as somewhat of an affrontingly simplistic capsule description of those religions to some people. Since religion, for most Western thinkers means only the Abrahamic ones which today “constrains the thinking of even atheists,” there is no reference to Hinduism or Buddhism. In the writings of the New-Atheists, absence of mention of a religion is a compliment to it. Although the central thesis is not exactly new in the history of ideas, this book will surely serve as another weapon in the arsenal of New Atheists in their on-going crusade against religions.
February 24, 2011