Yesterday a friend of mine posted an article by Sam Harris on her Facebook page calling it “eye-opening.” You can read the article here.
I admit I read only the first part of it, and skimmed through the rest, not out of reluctance to finish it but merely out of time and that I had too many thoughts about it to continue (at this time.) So here are at least some of what might be numerous more complaints I have against Harris’ thinking…
1. Harris begins with two points: that if a family believes God is protecting them from harm and that believers in Louisiana believe that Hurricane Katrina could only happen as divine punishment are aspects of religious belief.
While both may be ideas that religious people may hold, they are not necessarily good religious ideas. To take the Christian view, which I believe is where Harris is directing his criticism in this case, that nothing bad ever happens under God’s watch is incredibly unBiblical. If anything, the Bible, OT and NT, make it quite clear that the community of the religious must anticipate and deal with suffering. I don’t ascribe to or care to talk about “atonement” theories in theology, and rather just stick to the line that God became man in Jesus not to make everything superfantastic! but to become one of us, to suffer with us, not out of sympathy, but something far more radical.
If anything, I would like to argue that it is in fact a far more secular idea that human suffering is something that can be eliminated or slimmed down to the smallest possible margin. A documentary on aging I saw in a theatrical preview suggests that science may be close to “eliminating death” from aging. How is that any less absurd than what is supposedly the “hopeless romantic” Christian view of an after-life? Christianity may struggle to define or even advocate an afterlife, but if nothing else we know the inevitability of death.
Also, claims that God will always protect the True Believers, like a supernatural Superman, is more of a fantastical idea. You’d be hard-up to find many Christian doctrines that support such an idea, which is so inimical to our more common faith in things other than the integrity of the human body.
2. Harris believes that to call oneself an atheism is to deny the obvious fact that religion is so wacky as alchemy that we needn’t even bother having to say why we oppose it. He says that atheist belief is so “obvious” that it needn’t even warrant a categorization–it’s not even belief.
This is perhaps his most profound moment of foot-in-mouth syndrome, because what does Harris proceed to do? Insist that theists give hard cause for their belief.
He starts of with “atheism is obvious” and goes to “theists, give me hardcore evidence!” If you’ve ever gotten even into a shallow degree of the philosophy of science than you know that “obvious” and “evidence” are not remotely the same.
And even more inexplicably, he relates that 87% of Americans believe that God is obvious to them, yet still continues to suggest that it’s obvious that God doesn’t exist. Harris seems to struggle a bit with words.
3. Harris invokes a like-minded companion, Dawkins, to suggest that isn’t it again obvious (obvious, because no other argument is given) that believing in a Christian God is the same as believing in Zeus?
Here Harris makes a blundering and really, really pitiful error of taking something that has a universal quality (belief in a deity/deities) and saying all particulars are under that universal judgment. It’s a tempting argument, but one that utterly fails in its logic.
There is a theory that man descended from arboreal apes in physical anthropology. There is also one that homo sapiens, apart from all other apes, descended from an aquatic version. The facts and rationality against the aquatic ape theory are so pregnant that no legitimate scientist will touch them; yet, that’s not to discredit human descent from apes at in toto. Harris’ logic, though, says that we maybe could throw out all human evolution if there one theory among many is poor.
He considers science to be something that can resist any poor or downright wrong manifestations in the particular, because it has universal credibility. Yet, with religion he feels comfortable dismissing its universality on one or a few particulars. Hypocrisy if there was ever such. Not only is it hypocrisy (a moral judgment on my part) but makes it hard to even accept his standard of what is genuine belief.
4. Harris also seems to frequently point out the behaviors of religious people (superstitious, war-mongering, etc.) as if scientific data to back up a conclusion that religion is bad. However, he makes yet another ENORMOUS blunder in doing so…
A. Theism is not grounded in the actions of theists. It’s grounded in an understanding of God. Taking the hypocrisy and flawed nature of theists as proof that religion is dangerous does not discount any religious arguments. Actually, based on all the major religious creeds I can think of it supports belief!
We know that we are fallen. Hindus and Buddhists know they are deceived. Jews know that they haven’t been faithful. Religion *knows*, I think better than Harris knows, that we are prone to massive frailty. But Harris may just be ready to say a few good babies is not enough to throw away a lot of bathwater… secular culture can surely do better…
B. Stalinist Russia, The People’s Republic of China, North Korea, most fascist countries (to a high degree)… just a few states that managed to purge religions from their society, and what happened? Brutal, totalitarian states. Atheist Apologists insist that these countries either were influenced by other things, didn’t live up to the proper standards or just wont acknowledge them at all. Yet, that is a separate standard from Harris’ earlier “people who profess X are data” to “people who profess X must be understood as complex interactions.”
Simply, Harris is ignorant of the social sciences altogether. He almost acts as if religious people could be studied by his observations of them–in the news or wherever he gets his information–without having to defend himself for his scientific bias in sampling or defining what he is actually studying (religion? pop religion? theology? right-wing fundamentalism?)
But it’s okay, Harris. Fundamentalist Christians do the same thing when they criticize Islam: read bad news in the papers, make superficial analysis of doctrine and declare that the whole Islam business must be gotten rid of.
5. Finally, and I think that in a way reflects the greatest potential danger caused by atheists like Harris, is that Harris is a bystander. He is merely outside the scope of things, watching society as an impartial scientist.
Take his words like “superstition” and “medieval” in explaining why he hates religion. Obviously, he has a beef against people who haven’t transformed themselves to the 21st century and still stick to such archaic fantasy… religion? Pshaw, nonsense! Nothing the modern world couldn’t fix!
Except that just maybe secularism and atheism really do not have better answers, even if they are more “modern.” Modernism itself is a superstition. Raise your hand if you think nuclear bombs have made war better than the archaic days of cannons? That we are free from such ridiculous superstitions as “praying for rain for good crops” to more enlightened ideas like “asking how we wont destroy the planet with global warming.”
I like being able to type and share my thoughts globally via technology. That’s good for me and I make all use of it. But that’s not indicative that progress away from old beliefs is better (nor do religious people hate progress–in fact, Christian scripture is based on it.) The early Christians feared that the world would soon end; modern humans are watching it happen.
The modern, secular American is so tied up in technology. Everything is technological. Harris cites Katrina; what were so many secularists doing after? Asking why the government didn’t handle things better–our techno-management system (even the “donate using your mobile phone” fad we’re going through expresses a kind of quick-and-fast consideration for humans, albeit not a very deep or meaningful one.) Meanwhile, many Christians (even my own church thousands of miles away) were sending helpers and aid. (That’s very unfair approximation, but so is the argument it rebuts.)
So here it is, Harris is man influenced by many things: his education, class, ideologies, atheism, etc. He’s not an impartial subject studying people who are merely sociological data.
And that is the danger atheism poses most: the idea of the subject as the “self-made man.” Atheists resist accountability for their beliefs, logic, etc. because they’ve already convinced themselves enough that merely to be an atheist is to be a “free-thinker.” It’s in their own title. And, oh yes, I would not deny for a moment that many religious people think whatever they think is “God sent” and beyond reason!” Let me not deny that! But is the problem then that people are caught up in fundamentalism and immutably black-versus-white differences? (As I would say.) Or is it that black or white just simply hasn’t eliminated the competition yet? (As Michele Bachmann and Sam Harris might do so in a cage match?)