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A decade on, still a great read.
on November 17, 2015
One of my favourite quotes is Eleanor Roosevelt’s observation that;
“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
In this book, the Sam Harris discusses ideas. He does not launch any ad hominem attacks on anyone, and only rarely attempts to voice hindsight opinions of past events. It is certainly true that some of his ideas are very controversial in today’s society. Harris has carefully thought out these ideas, and has not been afraid to challenge popular societal explanations and clichés in his presentation of his arguments. I disagree with just a very few of his points, but even on these issues, I do understand his reason for developing position he takes. The ideas in this book certainly need to be discussed, and Harris has eloquently presented them – perhaps trailing slightly in coherency in the last couple of chapters as compared to the rest of the book, but en masse, in a well written and very readable manner.
When taking stock of the somewhat controversial nature of many of Harris’ ideas, we might consider that less than five-hundred years ago, the only openly atheist people in Europe were a small few locked in Christian dungeons, or writhing in the flames as they were burned to death. Any dissension from the opinions held by the church was grossly unacceptable, and indeed unimaginable. Galileo was being threatened with torture for suggesting that Earth was not at the centre of the universe, and witches were being burned at the stake for flying on broomsticks or causing thunderstorms. These practices were the societal norm, and were considered good ideas at the time. The idea that God might not have done precisely what the church said he did was viewed as an entirely unspeakable suggestion. Any writer of that time courageous enough to challenge the church would be lampooned, excommunicated, shunned, tortured and quite likely executed. Moreover, their writings would be censured.
In the west at least, we have come a long way since those days, although other parts of our world still lag woefully behind. When we read a centuries-old document that carefully suggests that witches, just possibly, don't actually cause disease through spells or curses, our reaction is, "Um, duh! Well obviously!" I tend to think that it is probable, provided that we do not annihilate ourselves over religion first, that Harris’ ideas will cause readers five centuries from now to slap their foreheads as they read them and say the same thing. It will be boring and banal to them; a truism that is news to no one. So read it today, while it’s still controversial!