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Sam Harris Editorial (part 2)

John on December 25, 2006 at 6:29 pm

The LA Times gave Sam Harris a platform for religion bashing on Christmas eve. Sam offers ten points. I respond to the first five here. Now on to the remainder:

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.

First, there are exceptions to every rule, but as a group I find that atheists often find it difficult to get through a paragraph without reminding you how smart they are. Daniel Dennet and his term “brights” comes to mind. Humility is simply not a virtue to which many atheists aspire. That’s fine, no one says they have to. But let’s not lie about it, Sam.

As for his answer, this is possibly the most dishonest of the bunch. The idea that atheists take their opinions strictly and solely from science is simply false. Atheists take certain opinions from science and then extrapolate wildly about things that they either don’t know or, in many cases, are not likely ever to know.

How did the universe get here? It’s true that no one knows. Christians don’t claim to know either, only to have faith that God created the universe. Yet despite our collective not knowing, Dawkins suggests in his recent book that it’s possible it evolved. In an online article he suggested that the universe bubbled out of a foam of many universes. You can read my response to his faith in “foam” here.

Nobel prize winning physicist and fellow outspoken atheist Steven Weinberg believes in an interpretation of quantum physics which says that all possible realities really exist. His evidence for this? Well, there isn’t any evidence. In fact, as the laws of physics are currently understood, this theory is untestable. We hear a lot about testability when it comes to intelligent design, but not so much when it comes to Weinberg’s views.

Scientists regularly go beyond what they know into what they hope or would like to be true. The same is certainly true of Sam Harris who has announced his desire to find the brain mechanisms which account for belief in God. He hasn’t found them yet or published anything on the topic. That doesn’t stop him from suggesting that such a finding is a fait accompli.

Atheists operate on faith too, you just have to work to expose it.

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

Another aspect of the new atheism is their “openness.” Dawkins talks about this in his recent book. But what does Sam Harris mean when he says atheists are open to spiritual experiences? Well, what he doesn’t mean is what most people think of when they hear the term “spiritual experience.”

For an atheist awe is simply a feeling one can have, whereas, for most people, awe describes not simply a sense of wonderment but a sense of relation to something larger than oneself (and not just physically larger). A “spiritual experience” is specifically one that transcends the rational, material world. This is precisely the sort of thing Sam Harris rejects as a possibility. There is nothing beyond the material. There is no spiritual. Only experience.

Once again, Sam is being dishonest.

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. 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. 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.

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.

CS Lewis wrote a trilogy of books about life on other worlds. Apparently he personally believed aliens might really be discovered some day. Many believers have suggested as much. So Christianity does not limit one’s ability to speculate in any way and never has.

But I guess Sam wants us to know that — if aliens exist — they’re on his side. Okay, Sam. You can have the ET vote.

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.

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?

Another touchy area for the new atheism is charity. As Arthur Brooks new book makes clear, the easiest way to know how much someone gives is to ask whether or not they go to church. This isn’t to say that individual atheists don’t give. Some have pointed out that atheist Bill Gates is giving away billions. Fair enough, so long as we understand that he’s an exception to the rule.

Sam can cavil about bad motivations all he wants. The fact remains that Christian charity provides most of the non-governmental aid to needy people worldwide. As for his good motives, I wonder what percentage of his book royalties (which must be in the millions) he donated to charity.

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.

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.

I’m not sure whether Sam is being dishonest here or if he’s simply ignorant. I can’t speak for the Koran, but the Bible specifically states that the “Law of God” (truth about right and wrong) is written on the heart of every individual. So there is nothing threatening to Christian faith in that idea.

Here is where I’m certain that Sam is being dishonest. That one has an inner moral compass does not make one moral. One can simply choose to disregard the conscience. One can, over time, disregard the conscience so routinely that it essentially ceases to have any effect on one’s behavior. So let’s imagine such a case. Someone has, over time, become a thief. His conscience no longer sounds any alarm when he steals.

Is he wrong?

Well, I would say so. Most people would say so. But remember Sam is saying that the inner moral compass should be our guide. So just because it’s wrong for us, does that make it wrong for someone else?

I think abortion is wrong. Yet clearly thousands of women accept the killing of a fetus every day. So is my moral compass correct and theirs wrong? Is mine wrong and theirs right? How can we know? Sam’s view would suggest that we have two options. Either we put it to a vote and whatever the majority’s conscience tells them must be right (since that is the basis of morality). Or we could leave it to the individual. Obviously this is a problem if someone wants to, say, keep a house slave. At some point, we’re prepared to overrule the conscience of our neighbor. But under what circumstances?

While it may be true that atheism provides a basis for morality, what it does not provide is a grounding for that basis beyond happenstance. As a result, there is no ground for adjudicating disputes, only a power struggle where the majority rules. In my view, that’s not morality it’s mob rule.

As our history surely shows, our moral compass is easily swayed away from true north, often without our awareness. The teachings of Jesus represent a sort of diagnostic check. And they also ground our personal experience of morality in a transcendent basis. Things are right or wrong not simply as a result of historical happenstance, but because right and wrong are fundamental and, in at least a few cases, unchanging.

Finally, it’s ironic that Sam would mention slavery in his answer. Slavery has always an everywhere been practiced throughout human history. It is only in the Christian West that slavery was eradicated. The majority of abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic were Christians. They said — though I doubt Sam would believe them — that their Biblical faith motivated their opposition to the practice. The record of Christianity with regard to slavery is better than any group on the planet. I think Sam knows that and is being dishonest, but maybe he’s just ignorant.

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