#023: Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson & Contrasting Approaches to the Study of Religion with Erik Davis

Erik Davis
In this episode author and religious studies scholar Erik Davis and I consider the arguments of the New Atheists, particularly the work of Sam Harris. We contrast Harris’ approach to religion with that of Jordan Peterson, as well as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Topics we touch on include:
  • Erik’s background and personal religious views
  • Religion as myth & metaphor vs revelation
  • Religion as a set of practices, rather than a set of beliefs
  • Problems with tribalism, including & beyond religion
Guest bio:
Erik Davis is an author, podcaster, award winning journalist and popular speaker based in San Francisco. Davis was born during the Summer of Love within a stone’s throw of San Francisco. He grew up in North County, Southern California, and spent a decade on the East Coast, where he studied literature and philosophy at Yale and spent six years in the freelance trenches of Brooklyn and Manhattan before moving to San Francisco, where he currently resides. 
He is the author of four books: Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica (Yeti, 2010), The Visionary State: A Journey through California’s Spiritual Landscape (Chronicle, 2006), with photographs by Michael Rauner, and the 33 1/3 volume Led Zeppelin IV (Continuum, 2005). His first and best-known book remains TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (Crown, 1998), a cult classic of visionary media studies that has been translated into five languages and recently republished by North Atlantic Press. 
Erik has a PhD in Religious Studies from Rice University. He is the host of the Expanding Mind Podcast. 
Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Richard Dawkins, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell
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  1. Great podcast! I clicked because I thought I might disagree, and that’s something I really try to do; to listen to things that I’ll disagree with, and have an open mind about them.

    Though I agree that religions aren’t just a matter of belief, they do deal in beliefs. Many of the things I was raised to believe were literal. There’s literally someone watching your every action and listening to your every thought, and is judging you, and will ultimately send you to a very real place called hell if what you think or do is wrong. It wasn’t taught to me as a mythological truth, or a metaphorical truth, or as a useful story, it was taught as the actual literal truth. What I don’t understand is, how does one think something like that is only metaphorical or mythic? Having said that, I value many of the stories in religion, in the same way I value the stories of Shakespeare. But to me, you don’t have to believe the stories are true to get something out of them. This is the disagreement that I have with many of my religious friends. They think that I’m going to hell because I don’t believe that the stories are true, not metaphorically true, but literally true. Your guest says, “belief isn’t that important.” I totally disagree. It might not be important to him, but the beliefs of the people I know have had huge effects on my life, and on their lives.

    Also, I don’t know if any of the prominent New Atheists believe that getting rid of religion will solve all of our problems. To my knowledge, they’re not claiming that religions are the only thing that causes harm. We’re poorly evolved primates, and we’re pretty good at exploiting one another whether or not we believe in god. Also, the belief in myths and religion hasn’t been a solution for that historically.

    “If we’re wired for religion, then how can you say it’s a good thing to expunge religion?” This to me is the naturalistic fallacy. ‘We’ve evolved to do it, therefore it’s a good thing.”

    Anyways, thanks for the podcast!

    • Thank you for the thoughtful reply and kudos to you for seeking out opinions with which you strongly disagree. Far too few of us do that these days. We are very much in agreement on the notion that a big part of religion is about beliefs. Belief systems seem to be more central to some religions than others, such as Christianity, and of course there is a great of variation within religious groups (exoteric vs. esoteric schools, being one example).

      One point of agreement I have with Sam Harris is his insistence that we need to be honest about the link between religious doctrines and violence. Violent or non violent this is true for many religious people. They are very much inspired by their beliefs. I don’t believe they are citing these beliefs as some sort of guise for an ulterior motive (which is sometimes argued). When they quote a religious text as a source of inspiration for their position and their actions then we should take these people at their word. I strongly agree with you that we should push back against religious literalism, particularly as it encroaches upon the rights of others in the public sphere in a multicultural, pluralistic Western democracy.

      As for your last point the New Atheists certainly don’t assume that all of our problems would go away without religion, but they most definitely assert that society would be unequivocally more rational and better without religion. Dawkins and Harris are both very emphatic on this point. That’s an assumption. It might be a correct one or an incorrect one, but it’s an assumption nonetheless and we would not know what happened if we played that scenario out. I used to be more swayed by this argument but I think that point of view comes from focusing too much on the ills of religion as opposed to other ideologies. Many ideologies–not only religious–can convince people that their beliefs are beyond reproach.

      I also think that this point of view overestimates the degree to which people are rational, something that Harris, who is highly logical, I think sometimes fails to appreciate about other people who are not so analytical. People are far, far more irrational than most of us realise or care to acknowledge. It isn’t just atheists who think this. Economics as a discipline is traditionally predicated on a belief of people as rational actors which does not map very well onto human behaviour in the real world–hence the rise of behaviour economics as a discipline, incorporating the findings of neuroscience with economics. Reading Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” would be one excellent body of research demonstrating that we are far less rational than we realise (Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his research), if you’re interested in further exploring this discussion. We use the intellect to rationalise decisions based on much deeper emotions and unconscious patterns. I don’t think that goes away if we magically wave a wand and git rid of religion. Would I rather live in a society ruled by scientific orthodoxy rather than an Islamist or Christian theocracy? Absolutely but that doesn’t mean that religion is the source of all of our irrational impulses and superstitions to the extent that Dawkins and Harris strongly assert.

      Thank you for taking the time to listen to the conversation and to leave such a thoughtful response.

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