An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Scott Parker is a philosophy student and writer. In university, his honors thesis, Synthesizing the Kosmos: A Critical Study of Ken Wilber, was a close reading of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. He writes: "Most of the essays on IntegralWorld attempt to engage Wilber on a serious level. It is only by critiquing, clarifying, and offering alternatives that we can pursue the truth." This review was written a year ago. It is published here by way of response to a request from ~C4Chaos that integral thinkers consider the New Atheists.

Review of Sam Harris'
'Letter to a
Christian Nation'

Scott Parker

It is a silly thing for a book such as Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation to appear atop the bestseller lists. A wise nation might find such a trenchant criticism of religion almost charming in its quaintness, yet moot musings no longer relevant to the concerns of serious people. But, Harris didn't write his letter to a wise nation. He wrote it to America. And the only thing sillier than the need for a book like Harris' is how desperate that need is.

Harris describes an American Christian, 147 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, believing that the universe is 6,000 years old; that an invisible god inhaled life into dirt to make a man that spawned a wife from his ribs and talked to a snake; that god fathered a biological son; and that that son will return to Earth in the next few decades, trailing with him the Apocalypse. Two things are most shocking about this depiction: 1) This isn't an eight year old; and 2) This isn't an exception. These myths comprise the metaphysical beliefs of the average American.

And this is dangerous.

These beliefs cannot be verified, or proved, or even supported, except in the final trump of retreating to faith, that rational-halt that has so long been left unchallenged. I believe Harris' greatest achievement has not been his criticism of the irrationality of religion—this has been done before, though perhaps not much better than:

"You [Christians] are using your own moral intuitions to decide that the Bible is the appropriate guarantor of your moral intuitions. Your own intuitions are still primary, and your reasoning is circular" (49).

—but his criticism of a society that is incapable of rooting out that irrationality from its foundations because of the respect it affords faith.

By retreating from any criticism of something that is a person's faith, we effectively forgo the opportunity to criticize the consequences of that faith.

"Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us unwilling to criticize ideas that are increasingly maladaptive and patently ridiculous" (80).

For example, the bizarre and arrogant belief that Jesus has been waiting 2,000 years to make his end-of-time-marking return in your lifetime, makes for disastrous social policy, the absence of compassion, and ultimately, nihilism. Why care for the planet, educate children, or plan for the future if Jesus will erase it all in a matter of years anyway? This quick thought is a reminder to nonbelievers that the consequences of Christian mythology are not constrained to the insides of others' minds.

But I don't need to go into Harris' arguments in this forum (though I assure you, they're quite good). Instead, I'd like to consider what this message means to integral thinking.

For integral thinkers who are inclined toward the subjective, even the mystical, there is a danger here of wanting to form an ally with religion, as the latter at least offers some space for inner exploration. The implied contrast being that science offers no space for such explorations, and some space, even if it is squarely enclosed in the four walls of a church, is better than no space. This is exactly where integral could be helpful in using the subjective to complement science, rather than rejecting it, as religion would have it. But that opportunity is lost if integral builds on that faulty foundations of religious mythology.

And Harris would espouse something similar; his letter betrays no scientism. He understands that people have wide-ranging subjective experiences that cannot be explained away in the language of cells and action potentials.

"There is no question that it is possible for people to have profoundly transformative experiences. And there is no question that it is possible for them to misinterpret these experiences, and to further delude themselves about the nature of reality" (89).

The problem is not the experience. The problem is that, because we lack alternatives, these experiences are held up to support religious worldviews.

That, I believe, will be the divided response of the integral types. Some will find Harris' letter harsh and hyper-rational. Others will agree that religious sympathies are consequent to nihilistic concessions.

As for the subjects themselves, the addressees of Harris' letter, what will be their response? Will their metaphysical stance preempt the rational discourse that could undermine it? Their faith will encourage it. The epistemology of the religious is that a criticism such as Harris' is wrong not because it is logically flawed, but because it is a criticism. The conversation appears to be over before it's begun. Sadly for the rest of the world, this is not a debate of right or wrong where only pride is on the line. This is a foundational debate about how decisions are made in our society. Will we allow mythology to guide us to the Apocalypse or will we recognize that, as Harris says:

"That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization" (91).

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