Sam Harris, philosopher, neuroscientist, author of The End of Faith & Letter to a Christian Nation, and one of the four horsemen of the counter-apocalypse (more on that group in a previous post), delivered a thoughtful keynote address to the Athiest Alliance International 2007 Conference in which he argued (to a roomful of self-identified athiests) that for people who reject the claims of religion to accept the term “athiest” is a counterproductive exercise, akin to those who don’t believe the claims of astrology calling themselves “nonastrologers” or those who don’t harbor prejudice against people of different ethnicities advertising themselves as “nonracist”. Harris correctly asserts that the life & death issues that end up truly dividing many religious believers from nonbelievers (fundamentalist fueled terrorism, abortion policy, stem cell research prohibitions) are too important to be compromised by either the divisive identity politics of labeling which allows the reflexive identification & rejection of the “other” or the relativistic pluralism which allows dangerous religious doctrines to go unchallenged under the guise of politically correct multicultural sensitivity. Instead, Harris, argues, secularists should reject simple labels, whether it be atheist or Brights or whatever) & insist on addressing specifics of belief, always emphasizing reason & evidence. Such an approach allows athiests (hard to avoid the word in practical use, whatever Harris recommends) to ally themselves with religious moderates in the cause of combating the extremists who pose the greatest threat to civil society through acts of terrorism, as well as with the majority of Americans who support stem cell research regardless of their view of the reality of the soul, etc.

Harris’s view also allows room for a nondual spirituality stripped of metaphysical claims & therefore consilient with scientific reasoning. In his Q&A exchange with philosopher Daniel Dennett, Harris hints at a view of consciousness that at once encompasses our current neuroscientific understanding of brain functioning and the traditional Buddhist/contemplative tenet of the self as illusory. Somewhere in there I see the glimmer of a tie-in to Douglas Hofstadter‘s view, treated in I Am a Strange Loop, of our experiences of ourselves (our “I”) as the result of a “strange loop” in our neurally-constructed representation system, the articulation of which resolves the dualist mind/matter conundrum.

I’m still plodding through Hofstadter’s book though, and not nearly as smart as any of the thinkers listed thus far, so I’m not in a position to pontificate on a resolution to dualist thought. Suffice it to say, listening to the good sense emphasizing reason & evidence in Harris’s lecture was sufficient to prompt me to add The End of Faith to my Amazon Wishlist (right behind Daniel Dennett’s Breaking The Spell, which was there already due to my affection for Dennett from his previous books, especially Darwin’s Dangerous Idea & Consciousness Explained), and to make me subscribe to Harris’s soon-to-be-launched Reason Project, “a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society” which features such intellectual luminaries & personal thought-leaders as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, & Steven Pinker.