Religion, Santa Claus and Harm

This is a rather lengthy online debate between Sam Harris and Phillip Ball that is entirely worth the time it takes to read carefully.
Harris, as always, is opposed to the woolly thinking that permeates religious dogma and to those who would accommodate such fantasy as either beneficial or mostly harmless. In his view, religious faith and scientific reason are not things that can (or should) co-exist.
Ball is rather more woolly. Religion has always been part of the human experience, will always be, and science might as well find a way to get on with its work…choose its battles carefully rather than disdain theistic belief at every turn.

I reproduce below a couple of excerpts from Harris I find particularly excellent, but most strenuously suggest that you find the time to read the whole thing carefully. Twice.

Sam writes(emphasis added):

I am not suggesting that it is “science’s duty to eradicate all traces of religion in the world.” Nor am I denying that science can be practiced alongside religion (in most forms), or that religious people can become scientists, or that smart scientists can sometimes harbor incredible religious beliefs, or that religious imbeciles can hanker after the products of science. Clearly, a juxtaposition between bad ideas/methods and good ones is possible—in a single brain, in an institution, in a culture, etc. And as far as science itself is concerned, it has become all too obvious that many scientists practice their discipline like a trade, without ever attempting to form a truly consilient, or even consistent, view of the world.

But the fact that such things are possible does not in the least suggest that they are optimal—or, indeed, that they do not come at a terrible price. I think it would be very difficult to find instances where incoherence, wishful thinking, and dogmatism have aided scientific progress—or, in fact, progress of any kind.

The argument that there is no deep conflict between scientific rationality and religious faith because some scientists are religious, and all religious people value some science, is a false one—and it has become a stultifying shibboleth. Is there generally no conflict between marriage and adultery simply because the two are so often found together? Would it matter if the BioLechery Foundation produced adulterers who could attest, without blinking, to their clarity of conscience? The analogy isn’t perfect, but perhaps you see my point. The cuckold, incidentally, is not merely science itself, but everyone everywhere, and those yet unborn. Who knows how much better our world would be if we had birthed a culture of genuine intellectual honesty in the year 1200 (or 2000)?

So the fact that you find yourself surrounded by scientists and other smart people who may be a little “woolly” on the subject of God is evidence of absolutely nothing worth discussing (on my account), apart from the fact that it seems to have led you to miss the bigger picture and to speak and write in such a way as to give shelter to the deeply religious, powerfully irrational, and shockingly retrograde convictions of entire cultures and subcultures. This is not (as you have charged) to paint religion with a broad brush. I am very quick to distinguish gradations of bad ideas; some clearly have no consequences at all (or at least not yet); some put civilization itself in peril. The problem with dogmatism, however, is that one can never quite predict how terrible its costs will be. To use one of my favorite examples, consider the Christian dogma that human life begins at the moment of conception: On its face, this belief seems likely to only improve our world. After all, it is the very quintessence of a life-affirming doctrine.

Enter embryonic stem-cell research. Suddenly, this “life begins at the moment of conception” business becomes the chief impediment to medical progress. Who would have thought that such an innocuous idea could unnecessarily prolong the agony of tens of millions of people? This is the problem with dogmatism, no matter how seemingly benign: it is unresponsive to reality. Dogmatism is a failure of cognition (as well as a commitment to such failure); it is the state of being closed to new evidence and new arguments. And this frame of mind is rightly despised in every area of culture, on every subject, except where it goes by the name of “religious faith.” In this guise, parading its most grotesque faults as virtues, it is granted a special dispensation, even in the pages of Nature.

The exchange concludes (again, emphasis mine):

I realize that my tone of chastisement has probably grown very tedious and could be mistaken for hostility. But I can’t help but feel that there is a great asymmetry between our points of view – both in how fully they have been thought out and in their degree of the moral seriousness. I see the perpetuation of ancient tribalism and ignorance (read “religion”) to be a grave problem, and the source of much unnecessary suffering in the world; you claim that the problem is either not very serious or that it is unavoidable—in either case there is not much to be done. You do not seem to see what an astonishing number of the world’s conflicts and missed opportunities arise from people’s false knowledge about God, and when specific instances are pointed out to you, you deem them to be inevitable (if it’s not religion it would be something else), or you defensively say, well of course I object to that instance of religious stupidity: parents shouldn’t withhold blood transfusions from their children!… But the truth is, a comprehensive response to the problem of religious ignorance is possible, and a piecemeal response is totally unprincipled and bound to seem so. Our world has be (sic) shattered, and is reliably shattered anew with each subsequent generation, by irreconcilable claims about God and his magic books. Until we stop enabling these competing delusions—by our silence and by our silly attempts to change the subject—we will have no one to blame but ourselves when medieval ideas come crashing into public life—as they do, and will, to our great detriment.

13 Responses

  1. It cannot be more clearly elucidated.

    Dawkins may be abrupt and engage is something like pedantic caricature.
    Hitchens may be frustrating in just that same way, except with far greater literary and historical reference. Being right doesn’t necessarily mean actually being as tolerant as you make extraordinary effort to appear.

    But Harris. Harris makes his points with razor precision, and an absolute fairness that brooks no quarrel.
    It is impossible to take issue with Harris in the way that so many attack Hitch and Richard – “How arrogant of you!”

    There’s just nothing arrogant here…or there. Harris is perfectly willing to meet on any reasonable terms. And so, reason being the parameters, his challengers are over matched.
    He does not need historical references or appeals to either Joyce or Dunn.
    He makes no direct appeal to molecular biology except insofar as admitting his own core bias on that score.
    He makes no defense of or appeal to “the transcendent.”

    He does nothing except speak in plain language and lay the alternative proposition bare.

    Such skill as this makes legends.
    This motherfucker is the Outlaw Josey Wales.
    Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy.

  2. “Dawkins may be abrupt and engage is something like pedantic caricature. Hitchens may be frustrating in just that same way, except with far greater literary and historical reference

    Me? My favourite spokesperson is the blonde girl you linked to recently. Nothing has more power to convince than an argument that gives you an erection. I wouldn’t mind booking a stop on her speaking tour, if you know what I mean. She can speak into my microphone any day.

    I don’t really care much if people want to believe in a Sky Daddy in the same way that I don’t really care if they cheer for the New York Red Bulls or the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs. People have a right to dedicate their lives to illogical things and ridiculous pastimes. I think it’s silly and distracts them from more important things, but some folks think the things I do are silly. Sometimes I do too.

    What I DO care about is the associated philosophy and the actions they take because of that philosophy.

    For example, if you build homes for poor people because your religious brand name declares your Sky Daddy wants you to, hey, whatever. If your Sky Daddy makes you condemn somebody to Hell for liking cock up their ass, well, that’s another story. But if you use your Sky Daddy’s words to excuse discrimination or physical harm, that’s just intolerable.

    If you are are blowing shit up for Allah, burning books for Jesus, or coming to my house to bug me on my personal time, then I got a problem with that and I’ll take it out on you and your Sky Daddy.

    In other words, it’s the effects of any silly beliefs that concern me, not the silly beliefs themselves. One positive benefit of religion is that it can be used to get stupid people to do good things when they would otherwise be stupid assholes 24/7. Unfortunately, it works both ways. It can get good people to do bad things too.

    All philosophies can be abused. All pastimes can consume one’s life to the determent of good sense and responsible behaviour. That’s why I try to take it on a case-by-case, issue by issue, basis.

  3. OK. How about somewhere between Northeast and Northwest? Does that help?

    At the risk of misunderstanding what you meant or pissing you off (neither of which I’m keen on doing but, for some reason I always just say what I want to say anyway)….

    My German ancestors once made broad condemnations of a religion and that didn’t work out too well for either party.

    It’s hard, but I try to avoid such sweeping generalizations. (Well, except for dramatic effect in my writing.) For example, if I were to view all Jews in the same way I view Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Chukie Krauthammer and all those other neo-con motherfuckers that happen to be Jewish, then I’d probably find myself cheering on the next Holocaust.
    I’d prefer to fire up the gas chambers specifically for Perle, Wolfowitz, etc as individuals. Why? Because then I get to kill Bush and Cheney too! (Yes, joking about the Holocaust is wrong and it deserves to be put on my Permanent Record.)

    See how easy it comes out? I think human beings are hardwired to do that and that’s why we have so many wars and genocides.

    I try hard to sit back and let a person’s words and deeds prove themselves stupid or evil first (then attack) as opposed to issue blanket condemnations because they have a membership in a certain social club like the Catholic Church, The Freemasons, the Republican Party, or St Francis Xavier University grads. Such memberships can serve as good evidence of a person’s stupidity or evilness, but not absolute proof in and of itself.

    I have to build such evidence on a case-by-case basis because otherwise I’d be no better than they are. I’d wind up snatching up everybody and waterboarding them too.

    • There are plenty of good reasons for hating Wolfowitz. If he turned out to be a religious man (Jew or otherwise) that would good reason to consider him, at least in that regard, stupid.

      That someone is a Jew, or Catholic, or any other wish thinking sky wizard fantasist ought not make them a target for hatred. Perhaps something more like pity mixed with the same sort of forbearance one shows toward a child who insists on Santa Claus.
      However, should Wolfowitz (or any other religious twit) insist on inflicting their morals or rules – regarding who I might with fuck and how, who I might marry, what I might learn in a science class, etc – that IS grounds for opposition. Not HATE. Opposition.

      If you want to fire up the gas chambers, fine. Just have a better reason for it than that someone buys into unicorns, leprechauns or god stories. There may well be very good reasons for offing some folks. Religion is not likely one of them. Religion PLUS being a terrorist bomber might qualify…but not religion alone.
      But giving them a pass on religion in some “Oh, well…that’s RELIGION. It’s personal! It ought not be subjected to critical analysis of the truth value of its claims, or the consequences thereof,” is just horseshit.
      The “sweeping generalization” I make might be reduced to something like this:
      1. There is no evidence for any god claims.
      2. Those who believe in them are, in that degree, rather stupid and at odds with coming to fully know truth.
      3. To the degree that human society resists discovering truth, or worse teaching lies based on faith, it will suffer.
      4. Religion, for all the hope and comfort it provides those simple minded crutchers, causes far more harm and ought to be done away with.

      It has nothing to do with hate.

  4. Yup. That’s what I figured and it’s basically what I think too.

    Well, except that I might be more driven by hate and I tend to desire the most prolonged and painful deaths of my enemies as possible…but I’m working on that. (Trying to get myself NOT to want that, that is.) Until that day comes, I probably will continue to call for their deaths and cheer them when they occur. (ie Jerry Falwell. I danced when I heard that nasty fuck died.) That’s why I try to ignore as many Michelle Malkins of the world as possible because their meaningless gum flapping brings out the hate in me. And, since I can’t have sex with her without worrying that she’ll bite my dick off, there’s no point in me even thinking about her…except maybe for late night “inspiration”, if you know what I mean.

    I now include “other silly pastimes” in the same group as religion. Increasingly, it seems people are substituting other silly things in the void where religion once stood. Celebrity worship, consumerism, and a religious obsession with sports seem to be the most popular offenders. They have become bottomless pits. They are like fucking monasteries that demand you turn your life over to them or they don’t let you inside.

    I like a good movie or TV show and I still catch the odd sporting event, but it astounds me how much of their lives people dedicate to these things. People know much more about Lindsay Lohan’s gardener’s mother-in-law, or the musical taste of the 3rd string Tight End for the Kansas City Chiefs than they know about universal healthcare, parliamentary democracy, or even the name of their mayor. In terms of stupidity, I see it fast approaching the level of religion.

    In terms of direct harm, I suppose celebs and sports are less dangerous than religion, (although people have died in soccer riots) but replacing one “opium” for another still leaves you numb, addicted and powerless.

    That reminds me, tomorrow is Canada Day and I hope to spend the entire day getting high, playing pool in my basement and cursing Stevie Harper.

  5. “Other silly pastimes” are not at all the same thing.

    No one is recruiting you (except in the most passive sense) to become an “NFL Fan” or even an Amway rep.
    No one suggests to you that football or multi-level marketing ought be taught in high school as an alternative to falsifiable, testable experimental data which ALL supports the “Scientific THEORY” known as Evolution.

    I dismiss distractions as quickly as you do while still recognizing their intrinsic value (Go Habs!)
    That is not the same thing as truth, or critical analysis of the claims made by those who would demand Noah in the science lab.

    You are welcome to your opiates.
    Soccer makes no claims about who I might fuck or how I might fuck them, or who I might marry, or how old the earth might be in CONTRAVENTION of better evidence.

    That evolution is true may be left aside.
    That all god claims are false…nothing could be more clear.

  6. It’s my opinion if man didn’t argue about religion we’d find something else to argue and harm over. We’d apply it’s magical powers baseball or football. Knuckleheads have come to blows over less.

    We’d be a little foolish to simply blame lack of progess on religion alone. If religion is man-made then the problem is us, not the stories we tell ourselves to explain it all away. Nothing is that important to kill over. I’m not saying I’m above it all either, I’m just saying: we all just need to grow the fuck up a little.

    • There are idiots everywhere. But pro sports doesn’t have a set of rules by which one must live, nor a directive to go forth and “bring the truth” to everyone else.
      Supposing that there is a magical, omnipotent, omniscient sky wizard with the power of eternal paradise and eternal damnation; that made everything and has rules about it is PRECISELY the sort of thing that causes crusades, jihads and a shitload of other ugly crap. I know Oakland Raider fans are unpleasant, but they ain’t fucking Torquemada.

  7. I’m don’t disagree. But if religion is man-made then it follows that we can make nonsense (and frequently do) out of anything we imagine. If we got rid of religion we’d do it with something else.

    • That may be true.
      But let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, shall we?
      Let’s FIND OUT if the end of religious fuckwittery is replaced with some other form of fuckwittery.
      It’s time to put childish things away and stop granting these fuckers a pass because “It’s faith.”

  8. “Let’s FIND OUT if the end of religious fuckwittery is replaced with some other form of fuckwittery.” -Cousinavi

    I willing to bet the farm that we will. It might not even turn out to be AS bad, but we will absolutely replace it with some kind of fuckwittery that will have major negative consequences.

    To think otherwise is to give our pathetic species way too much credit. As a group, we are not known for learning from our mistakes. And at the rate the morons are breeding, I suspect our species is in danger of de-volving.

    Any species that can even contemplate treating something like Scientology as being legit (something invented roughly in our lifetime and thus having no “cultural history” excuse for its utterly batshit crazy nonsense) is incapable of NOT falling for anything.

    That said, I still wouldn’t mind the chance to proven right.

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