Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Harris' hatchet job

Granted, I'm by no means a sophisticated critic of the various forms of philosophical atheism. But atheist Sam Harris has hardly made sophisticated points in his latest piece on atheism, which seems more about attacking religions such as Christianity than demythologizing atheism.

Given that we know that atheists are often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in any society, it seems important to deflate the myths that prevent them from playing a larger role in our national discourse.

1. Is it a fact that "atheists are often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in any society"?

2. If it's just Harris' opinion, well, let me give mine. In my view, many Christians are also often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in Western society. For example, prominent contemporary scientists such as Francis Collins (head of the Genome Project), Donald Knuth (computer science legend), Fritz Schaefer (who was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize), and Kurt Wise (who had Stephen Jay Gould as one of his doctoral advisors) are professing Christians.

Historically, the case might even be stronger: Copernicus, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Faraday, and Maxwell, to name a few.

3. But do academic accolades and genius in a particular field necesssarily then imply the truth of atheism (or theism)? If a scientist is renowned in his field, does this then mean he has philosophically strong reasons to believe in atheism (or theism)?

Not that there's no place for academic credentials and the like, but shouldn't it primarily be about the strength of the argument?

1) Atheists believe that life is meaningless.

On the contrary, religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave.

1. Even if this is true, it's not an argument against the former claim.

2. But the "pie in the sky" view of religious people is just as much a caricature as (perhaps) the claim that atheists believe that life is meaningless.

Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find this fear of meaninglessness...well...meaningless.

The more important question is whether a particular philosophical system lends itself to meaningfulness. It doesn't matter what one atheist or group of atheists might think or feel in and of themselves. The question is rather, first, how does one define meaning, and second, does this or that particular brand of atheism have a reasonable ground for meaning?

2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

1. This is largely assertion, not argument. Harris doesn't explain why fascism and communism are like religions.

a. He mentions dogmatism. By which I take him to mean something along the lines of unquestionable, authoritative beliefs and rules.

But is dogmatism at the heart of the Bible? Is that what predominantly comes through when reading, say, the Sermon on the Mount?

Also, is all dogmatism inherently wrong? If so, how so?

b. Next Harris claims that totalitarian governments foster personality cults indistinguishable from religious ones. Is that so? In what ways? Harris is simply broadbrushing all religion under this heading without making a case for why "personality cults...are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship."

2. There may have been atrocious acts done in the name of religion, just as there have been atrocious acts done in the name of irreligion. But, again, the more important question is whether atheism (or religion) has good philosophical grounds to treat their fellow human beings with dignity and respect, to refrain from murder, etc.

3) Atheism is dogmatic.

Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so prescient of humanity's needs that they could only have been written under the direction of an omniscient deity.

It's true this is one argument deployed in defense of the Bible and Christianity. But it's not the only one. Let alone the main one. At any rate, there's a lot more to the truth of the Bible than this single claim.

An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous.

No, that's not the definition of an atheist. At best, that's closer to the definition of a skeptic. Perhaps Harris is attempting to show atheism in a favorable light by equating it to or at least associating it with mere skepticism.

One doesn't have to take anything on faith, or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs. As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

Nevertheless, each person has a particular set of beliefs he subscribes to. He takes certain positions. Even if he refuses to accept this or that label for himself, his beliefs can be labeled.

Plus, Harris does not simply stand against some stated position, but he also positively holds to a particular position, i.e. (militant) atheism -- even if he doesn't care to admit it at this point.

4) Atheists think everything in the universe arose by chance.

No one knows why the universe came into being. In fact, it is not entirely clear that we can coherently speak about the "beginning" or "creation" of the universe at all, as these ideas invoke the concept of time, and here we are talking about the origin of space-time itself.

The notion that atheists believe that everything was created by chance is also regularly thrown up as a criticism of Darwinian evolution. As Richard Dawkins explains in his marvelous book, "The God Delusion," this represents an utter misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Although we don't know precisely how the Earth's early chemistry begat biology, we know that the diversity and complexity we see in the living world is not a product of mere chance. Evolution is a combination of chance mutation and natural selection. Darwin arrived at the phrase "natural selection" by analogy to the "artificial selection" performed by breeders of livestock. In both cases, selection exerts a highly non-random effect on the development of any species.

1. The theory of evolution is not exactly impartial to the question of "why the universe came into being." True, it deals primarily with the "how," but there's a fair bit of philosophy in certain versions of the theory of evolution as well.

2. Harris claims to know the "how" (natural selection) even as he claims not to know the "why" (not chance). Yet if he claims not to know the "why," then why rule out the possibility that it could have been by chance? Why rule out chance? Or why not remain agnostic on the issue? And why not leave open the door for intelligent design?

3. Because, as an atheist, Harris has certain beliefs and presuppositions. For example, he won't consider intelligent design as a viable option. He may be against chance, but as a militant atheist he's also against God as the origin of life, the universe, and everything.

What's more, he is taking a particular position in regard to the origin of life on earth. In fact, from what I can tell, Harris holds to naturalism. As such, he is a naturalistic evolutionist.

And Alvin Plantinga has contended that naturalism and evolution are logically inconsistent with one another.

5) Atheism has no connection to science.

Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe in God — as some scientists seem to manage it — there is no question that an engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than support, religious faith. Taking the U.S. population as an example: Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not. This suggests that there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.

1. Although it may seem science tends to erode belief in God, perhaps that is due to factors other than the science itself. Such as the philosophy behind the science.

2. Again, I wonder what arguments these scientists of the National Academy of Sciences would bring to bear on the argument for or against the existence of God? That's the important point to keep in mind.

6) Atheists are arrogant.

When scientists don't know something — like why the universe came into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn't know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it, atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn't arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.

1. Is it a fact that religions such as Christianity are based on "[p]retending to know things one doesn't know"? All this demonstrates is Harris' profound ignorance of Christianity, among other religions. He's preaching to the [atheistic] choir.

2. Which particular facts of "cosmology, chemistry, and biology" does Harris have in mind when he alleges that Christians, for example, know about "that no scientist knows"? I wonder if Harris might like to cite specific examples or if he'd prefer to continue to embarrass himself with such unfounded, slanderous remarks?

7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.

There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly.

Is this the limit of what should be considered under the umbrella of "spiritual experience"?

What atheists don't tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences.

Would Harris care to cite specific examples of what he means by this?

There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences.

The Christian does not necessarily deploy his spiritual experience as a reason to believe in Christianity absent other arguments.

There is, in fact, not a Christian on this Earth who can be certain that Jesus even wore a beard, much less that he was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. These are just not the sort of claims that spiritual experience can authenticate.

Who says they do? Do Christians use their spiritual experience alone to demonstrate that Christ had a beard, was born of a virgin, and rose from the dead?

Again, such claims are not authenticated by personal spiritual experience. There's the textual and historical reliability of the NT manuscripts themselves, for instance, among other things.

8) Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding.

Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way that religious people are not. It is obvious that we do not fully understand the universe; but it is even more obvious that neither the Bible nor the Koran reflects our best understanding of it.

1. As is his wont, this is an assertion from Harris, not an argument. How are religious people not free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way that atheists are?

2. After all, don't religious people like Christians acknowledge their moral and intellectual finitude in relation to an omniscient God?

3. And doesn't Harris as a militant atheist claim to somehow know there is no God? If he were to admit that human understanding has limits, perhaps agnosticism would be a better position to affirm. But Harris refuses to admit that his understanding might be limited and instead argues that he somehow knows that God does not exist.

We do not know whether there is complex life elsewhere in the cosmos, but there might be. If there is, such beings could have developed an understanding of nature's laws that vastly exceeds our own. Atheists can freely entertain such possibilities.

If there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and if they understand the laws of science far better than we do, then so what? More intelligence and more understanding of scientific laws does not somehow disprove the existence of God. Why does Harris think it would?

They also can admit that if brilliant extraterrestrials exist, the contents of the Bible and the Koran will be even less impressive to them than they are to human atheists.

Why should space aliens be less impressed? Why couldn't they just as well be more impressed? Who's to say? Or has Harris actually met extraterrestrials and had them communicate their opinion to him on the topic?

From the atheist point of view, the world's religions utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe. One doesn't have to accept anything on insufficient evidence to make such an observation.

1. How do the world's religions "utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe"? How does believing in a God (theism) trivialize the beauty of the universe? Has Harris ever read parts of the Bible such as Gen. 1 or Ps. 8 or 19?

2. What is beauty? How would Harris as an atheist define it?

3. And as an atheist, on what grounds is his aesthetic appreciation based?

9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society.

Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as "wishful thinking" and "self-deception." There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth.

1. Do Christians, for example, ever argue that Christianity is true or the Bible is true simply because it has had "good effects" or been "beneficial to society"? Even if they did, again, is this their only argument in regard to the truth of Christianity and the Bible?

2. For the sake of argument, let's assume there is no God. Let's assume atheism is true. Let's assume there's no afterlife. All that matters is the here and now. How is this any better than a consoling delusion? In the end, it doesn't matter anyway. So who cares if I believe in a lie which comforts me while Harris believes in the truth of atheism? In the end, we'll both end up six feet under.

3. Again, let's assume there is no God. Someday, the earth will be engulfed by the sun. And unless humans are able to colonize other planets, and escape the solar system, we'll be extinct as a race. Even if we are able to escape the solar system, and colonize other planets, and in fact let's say the whole universe, someday won't all the stars burn out? Won't the universe be left cold and dead -- eventually? Or perhaps even collapse into itself, and thereby destroy all human life? Ultimately, then, there's no reason or rhyme for the existence of humanity.

Which then leads to a common refrain by some atheists: We have to make meaning for ourselves. In that case, why shouldn't I live it up? Why shouldn't I just do what I want to do, regardless of how it may affect others, so long as it makes me happy, and I can get away with it? If I can get away with stealing or having sex with as many women as I want, regardless of how it affects other people's lives, then why not, right?

Or if it made Jeffrey Dahmer happy for the finite amount of time he was on the earth to kill and eat other people, since perhaps according to him it was better to go out in a blaze of glory rather than to live a long but mundane life, then why not, right?

According to this line of thinking, is there anything inherently wrong with Hitler in following Nietzsche's "will to power"? After all, who's to judge? Perhaps Hitler saw beyond good and evil. He saw that Jews and Christians and others were weak in helping the disadvantaged or caring for the poor. He would have to destroy such feeble-minded thinking. Hitler was an Übermensch. He would change the course of history. He would get rid of the weak among us, and create a new race of super humans, a race which would be able to overcome all things by their strength, by their sheer will power. And thus Hitler would lead humanity to its glorious future in reigning over the earth and then the entire cosmos. Who's to say Hitler was wrong in his motives?

In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?

1. I can't speak for other religions, per se, but that's not why Christians are motivated to help the poor. This is immensely naive on Harris' part.

2. Even if it were, why does Harris object to fear and punishment as a motivator? On what grounds?

3. By asking "which is more moral," I presume Harris has a moral standard in mind. As an atheist, upon what is his moral standard based?

10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.

If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.

1. All Harris has done is to admit we have a conscience. He believes our conscience evolved over millions of years. But he hasn't answered the objection: What are his grounds as an atheist for morality? He's explained the "how" (according to him, evolution), but not the "why." Why should atheists distinguish between right and wrong?

2. Assuming evolution is true, and that competition to survive is the main driving mechanism for evolution, then who's to say that future humans won't condone currently vile acts such as murder and adultery? Who's to say our consciences won't adapt in order to better survive? And so who's to say that anything is always universally wrong or right?

We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.

1. For starters, Harris should be aware that there's a huge difference between condoning slavery and accepting it as a societal norm (cf. 1 Cor. 7:21; Philemon).

2. Also, there's a huge difference between ancient slavery as practiced, say, by the Romans and the modern practice of slavery.

3. The Bible is against kidnapping (cf. Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7; 1 Tim. 1:10).

4. As far as the modern practice of slavery is concerned, Christians such as William Wilberforce and John Newton (himself a slave trader as well as slave) in England and Harriet Beecher Stowe in America were instrumental in its abolition.

5. "Whatever is good in scripture." Hm, on what grounds does Harris himself decide what is "good" or "bad" in Scripture? On evolutionary grounds?


  1. Wonderful reply! Hopefully, Harris will get wind of it. It's typical of Harris to do very little to defend his views. But he'll do plenty to offend Christianity.

  2. Maybe someone can verify this. But some people have claimed that Harris is a Buddhist (I do not know which kinds in particular). If so, it looks like his *crusade* is one more religious person attacking all other religions other than his own. (Of course, someone might say that Buddhism is not a religion, it is a philosophy; and I will say we all learned at kid-camp that Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship.)

    Btw. While it is interesting to see that Harris' work is endorsed by some big names, such as Roger Penrose, Hauser, and Sussikind, the best he's got going for him by any philosophers that I could find is Peter Singer. Penrose, Hauser, and Sussikind might know physics very well. Indeed, they do. But I doubt that makes them much more suited to give adequate critique for something in philsophy than rebuilding a '69 Malibu.

    As for the philosophers' endorsements (perhaps that should be in the singular), for writing in philosophy of religion, Singer, the one endorsement by a philosopher, is not a specialist in the relevant area. Perhaps Harris could try finding an endorsement by, I don't know... J.H. Sobel, Quentin Smith, Paul Draper, Bill Rowe, you know, the sort of atheist/agnostic writers that present difficult challenges. Or perhaps sending something to Religious Studies, or the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, F&P, etc. I guess if appearing on Opera's show is the goal, there's no point to publish there.

  3. Whoops. There are apparently some bad typos, e.g., "kinds in particular...," implying Harris could be several kinds of Buddhists at once. That's a typo: a different kind of stupid mistake than what appears in the text. Probably, there are similar mistakes throughout.

  4. You're reading considerably further into the quoted comment than necessary. It's indisputable that being an atheist (at least openly) greatly disadvantages one in the political arena in the U.S. (not so in Europe, mind you). Much of mainstream American society simply won't accept political figures who won't accept their faith (thankfully, we've managed to stay above the sectarian squabbling that has destroyed such areas as the Balkans).

    The point is simply that atheists contribute to the population of intellectuals (you can set your petty whinging over proportions aside) and so should not be excluded from "our national discourse." Accordingly, it would behoove us as a nation to remove the obstacles that impede atheists' success in the political arena, for they have plenty of value to contribute. Your trumpeting about prominent theists is wholly irrelevant, for it is in no way implied that there isn't a place in modern political discourse for those figures as well. The point is simply that a society that alienates potentially invaluable contributors on the basis of their atheism is doing itself a great disservice.

    As for the comments on Buddhism, I don't know for certain what Harris believes, but based on what I've read of his work, I imagine he's sympathetic to many Buddhist teachings, as are a great many committed atheists, but that he would reject it as a "religion" per se. The vast majority of Buddhism is simply moral philosophy (ethics) in the strict sense, much the same way as something like Confucianism, which few would argue to be a religion, is, without any appeal to a "higher power" as the source of ethics. Buddhism does delve into the supernatural in dealing with death, however, and it is here that it earns its characterization as a religion (and also where atheists abandon it).