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Columnists

Hear, hear?

WinkettI wasn't expecting to be so charmed.  Meeting the author of a 'thrilling' and 'audacious' book, according to its fans,  was, I anticipated, going to be a bracing experience. Sam Harris is a New Atheist scientist and his publication The Moral Landscape argues that science is not only a set of disciplines that can determine how the world works,  it should determine morality as well.

Scientists have for too long, he says,  colluded with the limitations placed on them by religion and have believed that morality is not an area about which they have anything to say. Nonsense says Harris.  Human and animal wellbeing is the key, and the facts of quality of life are not separate from an articulation of values. Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality. He is clear in his own mind that there is no separation between facts and values and therefore no separation between science and morality.   

To meet, face to face, someone who had been so excoriating about Christianity in print was a curious prospect. And what surprised me when we did meet was that we found much in common, in our appreciation of silence, in our desire to take these questions seriously, in a stated desire to contribute to human flourishing.

The fact that I told him he had set up a caricature of religion in order to demolish it didn't wash with him. The fact that in the name of scientific experiment,  abominable pain has been visited upon humans and animals thus making bad science and bad religion equally culpable in contributing to the sum of human distress, didn't cut any ice either. His universalised description of faith-based religion as that great engine of ignorance and bigotry seemed to stem from an anger that I couldn't quite fathom  and I was curious when he said that he had spent two years of his life in silent retreats, mostly Buddhist, and that contemplation was an important part of his practice.  

The truth is that in print he is aggressive, brooking no opposition. In formal debate he was a little less condemnatory but still in denouncing mode. But in conversation he was interested and interesting, and despite expressing  strong views, listened to what came back at him in return.  

I was keen too not only to 'defend' religion but to learn from his perspective and criticism. It reminded me of a friend once observing that most of us will travel quite a long way to have a meal with people who basically agree with us. But what happens when we spend time with our neighbour, the ones who happen to be near us, the ones we fall into conversation with who will have completely different assumptions and views,  and who may tell us that everything  we stand for is wrong? Yes it may be bracing, even disconcerting, but if it avoids becoming mired in a dialogue of the deaf,  then it can only be a good thing and might in itself be a key part of helping us flourish and making us whole. 

Lucy Winkett