Rosenau on Harris

My SciBling Josh Rosenau had a different reaction to the exchange between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan. Sadly, he gets most of the important points wrong.

Rosenau writes:

As for “the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence…,” I’d merely note that this ought to lead us to a state of profound agnosticism. There can be no natural evidence for God (philosophy of science and theology generally agree on this point), and neither could there be natural evidence against the supernatural. Insisting that others acknowledge the fundamental importance of one’s own answer to questions only answerable through revelation seems unwise, whatever your answer.

I was not aware that philosophy of science and theology had concluded that there can be no natural evidence for God, but if they have then so much the worse for those subjects.

The claim is easily refuted. It is trivial to imagine discoveries we could make in nature that would persuade most people that a higher power exists. Here’s one that would impress me. Suppose that instead of a universal genetic code possessed by all living organisms we discovered instead multiple genetic codes. More than this, the patterns of which organisms possessed which codes fit some reasonable notion of created kinds (so that dogs possessed one code, cats possessed another, fish possessed a third, humans a fourth and so on). Such a discovery would (a) defeat every theory of evolution of which I am aware and (b) provide an eerie consonance with the Biblical account of creation.

Mind you, we’re not talking about proof in the sense of logical certainty. We’re talking about evidence. Does Josh really want to claim that the discovery I described would not count as evidence for creationism?

Likewise, it seems reasonable to talk about natural evidence against the supernatural. There are cases where absence of evidence really is evidence of absence, and this is one of them. If supernatural events routinely occurred we would expect reliable documentation of them in the form of eyewitness testimony, or traces left after the fact, or some other form of evidence accessible to science. That there is no such evidence (none that has ever survived careful scrutiny at any rate) strongly suggests that the supernatural events do not occur.

Again, we’re not talking about proof. We’re talking about the most reasonable conclusions to draw from the evidence at hand.

Josh continues:

We do well, then, to heed the words of Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, writing on relations between Jews and Christians, but I think more widely applicable:

…the logos, the word, in which the multifarious religious experience is expressed does not lend itself to standardization or universalization. The word of faith reflects the intimate, the private, the paradoxically inexpressible cravings of the individual for and his linking up with his Maker. It reflects the numinous character and the strangeness of the act of faith of a particular community which is totally incomprehensible to the man of a different faith community. Hence, it is important that the religious or theological logos should not be employed as the medium of communication between two faith communities whose modes of expression are as unique as their apocalyptic experiences. The confrontation should occur not at a theological but at a mundane human level. There, all of us speak the universal language of modern man. As a matter of fact our common interests lie in the realm of faith, but in that of the secular orders.

Wow. That’s really bad.

Not the last part, mind you. I’m all in favor of people living in peace and harmony (assuming that in that final sentence he meant “…our common interests lie not in the realm of faith). But those first few sentences are just wrong.

There is nothing incomprehensible in the fact claims made by the various major religious traditions. Christian or Islamic doctrine, for example, can be comprehended by anyone willing to invest some time and effort. It is the substance of these doctrines that Harris is criticizing, not some paradoxically inexpressible cravings particular religious people are said to have.

Next, the idea that people are members of different faith communities because of experiences comprehensible only to them doesn’t seem right. My religious friends don’t seem to have any trouble explaining themselves to me, and I feel I have a very good grasp indeed of why they believe what they believe. I disagree with them, but I understand them nonetheless. This idea that only a Jew can understand what it means to be a Jew and only a Christian can understand what it means to be a Christian seems like a good recipe for making it impossible for different faiths to talk with one another. The idea that people can cast aside their mutually incompatible and rationally indefensible religious beliefs when they enter the public sphere is rather naive.

The Rabbi concludes by saying that different religous faiths should meet not on the theological level, but rather on the mundane humane level. Well, who disagrees? Certainly not Harris. It’s not atheists who think that theological considerations should have any impact on the day-to-day actions of human beings. Actually, it is only religious extremists who want the common ground on which people meet to be influenced by theology. Indeed, Harris’ main objection to religious belief is that it frequently, almost inevitably, leads to conflict among people. It’s rather rich for Josh to cite the Rabbi’s passage as if it puts Harris in his place.

What people like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins fail to address to my satisfaction is that it is worth arguing over unknowable questions about theology, when the issues that either divide us or unite us are usually about our behavior towards one another, not our beliefs.

It is worth arguing about because belief often leads to behavior. Since this has been a major theme of Harris’ writing, it is unclear to me how Josh missed it.

Once again, it is not atheists who are trying to enforce anything on anybody. If religious believers were willing to sequester their beliefs within their own faith communities and leave them out of the public sphere altogether then Dawkins and Harris would not have written their books. It is precisely because so many religious believers do not leave their faith at home that it is important to determine if their claims have any merit.

Skipping ahead a few paragraphs, we come to this:

The distinction between belief and behavior is useful in modern discourse also. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” and elsewhere that “religion is a matter which lies solely between a man and his God.” This idea is foundational to this country and to other modern liberal democracies. It applies equally well to issues of political philosophy and the general principle of free speech. How an individual speaks or thinks is no account for anyone else, so long as no other is forced to listen to the speech or to adhere to the same thoughts. And if they are so forced, it is the force which is in error, not the thought.

But what if the thought leads to the force? And what if certain thoughts lead to unjustified uses of force far more often than other, more reasonable thoughts do?

This facile distinction between belief and behavior really has to stop. If you believe that your child’s eternal soul will be placed in jeopardy if he learns about evolution in his biology class, how can you not do everything in your power to prevent it? If you believe that it is God’s will that you slaughter infidels and that you will be rewarded in heaven for doing so, how can this not affect your behavior?

And it’s pretty appalling for Jefferson, the father of American democracy, to be caught saying something quite as foolish as what he is quoted as saying here. People’s crazy beliefs often lead them to vote in crazy ways. If enough people are persuaded to go along with the crazy beliefs, then the rest of us will have to live with public officials who believe them as well. Let the Rabbi preach his message of comity and good will to the Christian theocrats who do so well in red state elections and see how far he gets.

I find this all very frustrating. People like Harris point to specific, irrational fact claims made by certain religious traditions, establishes the harm that comes to society when large numbers of people believe those claims, and encourages people to think a bit more critically about religious beliefs. He is so militant about the subject that you know what he does? He writes books about it. He speaks publicly about it. And he tries to persuade people with nothing more formidable than rational argumentation.

For his trouble he is criticized for being extreme and intolerant. He is branded a fundamentalist. He is lectured for taking clearly stated and widely-held religious beliefs seriously, when everyone knows that real religion is all nuance and metaphor and paradoxically inexpressible cravings. He is told to shut up lest some ignoramus on the local school board hear what he is saying. He is told that he is the one sowing social discord, unlike all those religious folks who are perfectly happy to live together in peace and not engage each other on theological matters.

Well, let them bray. The fact remains that Harris is right and his critics are wrong.

Comments

  1. #1 Jeff Chamberlain
    January 18, 2007

    Good job.

  2. #2 Josh
    January 19, 2007

    My claim regarding evidence for or against the supernatural follows from any sort of falsificationist account of science/inferential knowledge, combined with the definition of the supernatural as something not bound by natural law. The supernatural would therefore be unfalsifiable by definition. I didn’t think that point was controversial. You learn something new every day.

    I too at first thought that there was a missing “not” in this passage: “As a matter of fact our common interests lie in the realm of faith, but in that of the secular orders,” but I think that the Rabbi is saying that there are secular orders within the realm of faith, and that issues of morality and spirituality fall within that realm. Sam Harris argues something similar in his own book. That common realm of faith is closer to the empirical part of our experience.

    As for “It is the substance of these doctrines that Harris is criticizing, not some paradoxically inexpressible cravings particular religious people are said to have,” I thought I was clear that I think this is an error on his part. Set aside the bizarre idea of someone who doesn’t believe these things insisting that he understands them better than people who actually do believe them. I don’t even need to get into that rat’s nest. Barbara Forrest, when she spoke at KU, distinguished between the broad class of empirical knowledge, with science being at the core of such knowledge, and personal revelation. Personal revelation is unfalsifiable and unempirical, hence inaccessible to anyone but oneself. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s impossible to share my personal revelation with anyone else, at least in a way comparable to my ability to share my experience of a mammal or some other empirical phenomenon.

    Actually, it is only religious extremists who want the common ground on which people meet to be influenced by theology.

    I would agree, with only the addendum that it is only extremists who want no one in the common ground to be influenced by religion. Yes, people influenced by religion did bad things. Some also did truly wonderful things. The idea that it is religion that is the problem seems entirely laughable to me. The whole Dawkins/Harris argument seems like a giant post hoc ergo propter hoc.

    In an interview with Chris Hedges in Salon.com about his take on religious authoritarianism in America, Hedges quotes Niebuhr saying “Religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.” I don’t know why it’s so hard for people to accept that. I don’t see how one goes from “some religious people do bad things, others do good things,” to “religion is uniformly bad.”

    We are all better off because Gandhi brought his religious faith to the common ground, and that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. could meet him there. It was their religious faiths that inspired each to do what they and their followers did, just as, alas, it is the religious faith of Osama bin Laden that inspired his actions and those of his followers.

    The difference between Gandhi and bin Laden lies not just in their views on violence. Gandhi was inspired by religion, but knew that he had to speak in terms of our shared experience, not his personal religious experience. Bin Laden seeks to force his beliefs on others, which is authoritarianism. This authoritarian strain links bin Laden to Hitler and Stalin in a very simple, very logical way that religion does not and can not. I see my fight against creationism in Kansas, and my fight against warrantless wiretapping and extralegal suspension of habeas corpus as parts of that same fight against authoritarianism. Religious authoritarianism is just one form.

    It’s unfortunate that you are arguing against Jefferson above, since that basic idea is foundational to most modern democracies, and has been found to work pretty well. The idea that your right to swing your fist ends at my nose is not even a distinction between thought and action, but between kinds of actions. Again, didn’t know that the idea of small-l liberalism had become so controversial in liberal democracies.

    Furthermore, I don’t need to be lectured about red state politicians, having just helped out in several campaigns here in Kansas which blocked exactly the kinds of people you talked about. There was a marketplace of ideas, and Connie Morris, Phill Kline and Jim Ryun’s religious authoritarianism lost. They still believe what they did before, but voters took their power away.

    For all the ink spilled about the harm caused by irrational religious faith, no one sees how easily the argument could be, but isn’t, applied to politics. I could write a book about the deep harm done by Dick Cheney’s irrational faith that Iraqis would greet us as liberators, or his belief that cutting taxes would somehow increase tax revenue. But if I argued that therefore political ideology is outdated in general, I would be rightly mocked for my simplistic view of the world. But when Harris or Dawkins takes a group of bad people who were inspired by a subset of religious belief and generalizes to the idea that all religion is bad, smart people seem shocked that anyone questions the linkage.

    You can call it facile, you can call it braying, you can even declare Harris the winner by default. I presume that most of those last paragraphs were directed at some imaginary opponent, since I never suggested that he shouldn’t speak, nor did I even bring up school boards. The point remains that when you survey religious thinkers beyond the fringes, you find that quite a few of them make at least as much sense about pragmatic issues as Dawkins or Harris do. And the other stuff doesn’t matter to me. He is extreme, he is intolerant, and he is fundamentalist. I’m not sure he would regard all of those as pejorative. He and Dawkins have invested a lot of ink arguing that tolerance of religion is unnecessary and unwise, and that moderation of any form is equivalent to surrender. As Barry Goldwater said, extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. If only Harris and Dawkins were simply fighting for greater liberty, and if only their supporters weren’t arguing against it.

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    January 19, 2007

    Josh,

    Barbara Forrest, when she spoke at KU, distinguished between the broad class of empirical knowledge, with science being at the core of such knowledge, and personal revelation. Personal revelation is unfalsifiable and unempirical, hence inaccessible to anyone but oneself. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s impossible to share my personal revelation with anyone else, at least in a way comparable to my ability to share my experience of a mammal or some other empirical phenomenon.

    But as is usually the case with religion, all this “personal revelation” nonsense is given some sort of special status as a belief where nothing else passes muster so easily. If I ever heard someone claim to have a personal experience getting abducted by aliens, talking to ghosts, or actually performing Ryu’s Hadoken attack from Street Fighter, I’m certainly inclined to question their judgment based on the empirical unlikelihood of such events happening. The same should go for claims of religious “revelation”. Invoking Popperian falsifiability seems like an awfully ad hoc means of getting religion off the hook. It says nothing about whether we are right to infer that such improbable events don’t happen, and in fact pretty much dodges the question all together.

    I could write a book about the deep harm done by Dick Cheney’s irrational faith that Iraqis would greet us as liberators, or his belief that cutting taxes would somehow increase tax revenue. But if I argued that therefore political ideology is outdated in general, I would be rightly mocked for my simplistic view of the world. But when Harris or Dawkins takes a group of bad people who were inspired by a subset of religious belief and generalizes to the idea that all religion is bad, smart people seem shocked that anyone questions the linkage.

    This analogy is fatuous, to put it mildly. Setting aside the obvious irony that you invoke a belief among our current leaders that has clear religious inspiration as some sort of counter-example to the point Dawkins, Harris, et al. try to make, political ideologies bear out their correctness or incorrectness in the empirical world. The irrational, Manichean faith of the neocons has been demonstrated to be pretty conclusively wrong at this point, as has the Marxian theory of history.

  4. #4 tomh
    January 19, 2007

    Jason Rosenhouse wrote:
    And it’s pretty appalling for Jefferson, the father of American democracy, to be caught saying something quite as foolish as what he is quoted as saying here.

    Jefferson lived so long and wrote so much on the subject that it’s easy to pick quotes out of context to distort his views. The first quote, twenty gods or no gods, was in reaction to the Massachusetts Protestants seeking to impose a religious test for office among other intolerances. The second is in the famous “Wall of Separation” letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, in which he was answering their concerns that, being a minority, they might be oppressed by state sponsored majority religion. The sentence starts, [Believing with you that] “religion is a matter which lies solely between a man and his God” and goes on to reassure them. In neither case was he expressing his own views but merely presenting arguments (after all, he was a lawyer). His own views are more properly expressed in this letter of advice to his nephew, “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear..” It’s a common tactic of religionists to cherry pick Jefferson’s writings to “prove” some point.

  5. #5 Uber
    January 19, 2007

    He is extreme, he is intolerant, and he is fundamentalist.

    He is none of these things. This is what is so frustrating coming from someone like you. How on Earth is he intolerant by simply saying what he says? He doesn’t despise or hate anyone he simply finds their way of thinking backwards and says so.

    I think you are out to lunch.

    For all the ink spilled about the harm caused by irrational religious faith, no one sees how easily the argument could be, but isn’t, applied to politics.

    This is just bullshit. There are countless discussions of irrational politics everywhere. It seems to me you recognize this there for the harm it does but seek to give religion somewhat of a pass when people say the same about it.

    combined with the definition of the supernatural as something not bound by natural law

    As a mental exercise this may have some fun merit, in reality it is meaningless. It would be impossible to know and therefor why even bother other than fun.

  6. #6 Ahcuah
    January 19, 2007

    Jason wrote:

    It is trivial to imagine discoveries we could make in nature that would persuade most people that a higher power exists.

    I always liked the “discovery” that Carl Sagan used in Contact: Messages encoded in the digits of pi, way down after the 100 millionth digit. Pi is so absolutely fundamental that there is no way I could see such messages being there, so if they were, it would constitute evidence for, well, something god-like.

    (On the other hand, when suggesting this before, I had somebody else point out that a more likely explanation than God would be some advanced technological group diddling the computer.)

  7. #7 Jason Rosenhouse
    January 19, 2007

    I’m afraid you’re still missing most of the important points. I’ll take your remarks in order:

    First, on the subject of evidence for the supernatural I was explicit in my post that I wasn’t talking about falsifiability. The subject was evidence, and it is obvious that there could be evidence for the supernatural. I gave a specific example, which you ignored, but it’s not hard to come up with others. All it would take is a well documented event that stands in such stark defiance of everything we know about nature that the supernatural becomes the most reasonable explanation. When Paley argued that the complexity of living organisms was strong evidence for a designer, few people responded by criticizing the very idea of inferring the existence of the supernatural by an examination of the natural.

    Your interpretation of the Rabbi may be correct, but then I would say it’s a very poorly worded sentence. I would also withdraw my previous endorsement of the final part of his quote. Your assertion that the Rabbi’s statement is more widely applicable than to the discussions between Jews and Christians the Rabbi was discussing is then also suspect. It sounds like only people of faith would fall under the Rabbi’s statement.

    I don’t understand your assertion that Harris thinks he understands religious doctrines better than people who actually believe them. Do you have any basis for that assertion? I also don’t understand why you think it is a mistake to confront irrational religious beliefs.

    It is not my impression that most religious belief is based on personal revelation. I think that’s a canard people like you bring up solely to avoid having to actually look critically at what these folks claim to believe. As I mentioned in a previous post, the fundamentalists certainly don’t claim that their faith is based on personal revelation. Rather, they claim that their’s is a faith backed up by reason and evidence, and then unload a variety of arguments to defend that view.

    At any rate, Christians certainly do make assertions on empirical matters, and it is perfectly reasonable for Harris to take a good hard look at those assertions.

    I am mystified that you find laughable the assertion that it is a bad thing when large numbers of people hold irrational beliefs on matters of cosmic importance.

    Harris has never denied that many people are moved to do good things or improve their lives on the basis of their religious faith. He has never claimed that religious faith is uniformly bad; you just made that up. What he does claim is that on balance the effect of religion on society has been mostly negative, and that the good things that religion provides for its more noble adherents (like, say, a sense of morality) are better obtained by other methods.

    Likewise for your contrast between Gandhi and MLK on the one hand, and bin Laden on the other. You’ve completely missed Harris’ point, I’m afraid. He is not saying religious people never do good. He is saying instead that bin Laden’s views on violence and authoritatianism follow from a straightforward reading of the Koran, and they are views shared by countless others. The views of Christian fundamentalists likewise follows from a plain reading of the Bible. It is, indeed, the religion itself which is the problem.

    His rap on theological moderates is simply that their views can not be defended rationally, and that by making it acceptable to hold groundless, supernatural beliefs they provide aid and comfort to the extremists. That is a far cry from the cartoonish version of his argument you are putting forth.

    Moving on, your prattlings about small-l liberalism are charming, but they are totally irrelevant to any point I was making. You said it doesn’t matter what people think, only what they do. I replied that what people think influences what they do, and if certain prevalent beliefs routinely lead to unpleasant actions then those beliefs ahould be exposed and criticized. This isn’t complicated.

    Your remark about recent elections in Kansas is truly bizarre. Congratulations on your recent victories in the three elections you mention. But do you honestly think that even addresses the point I was making? Ask yourself how those people got elected in the first place.

    My point was that the crazy religious beliefs many people hold, particularly in places like Kansas, lead them to elect crazy people, who then have power over my life (thereby illustrating the absurdity of saying that it is not thoughts, but actions that matter). You replied by saying that after much hard work you managed to get rid of three of them. Sorry, I’m not impressed.

    You then go on to repeat your canard that Harris and Dawkins think all religion is bad. They don’t, as they have stated repeatedly. And the problem with Dick Cheney wasn’t political ideology, it was with his willingness to believe things on insufficient evidence coupled with the fact that he found himself in a community of people unwilling to criticize him for those beliefs. I think you’ll find Harris and Dawkins perfectly happy to apply their arguments to this case.

    There is far too much insanity in your final paragraph to respond point by point, so I’ll just briefly respond to the charge that Harris is intolerant. That is a serious misuse of that term. Criticizing opinions you find incorrect is not intolerance, and that is all Harris does. The only thing Harris wants to do to religious people is persuade them that they are wrong. Intolerance would imply that in some way he wants the government to do something to religious believers, or that in some way force should be used to keep them from practicing their faith. Harris believes no such thing, of course.

    It is perfectly clear both from your initial post and your poorly-argued comment here that you have given no serious consideration to the argument Harris is actually making. You have this in common with most of his critics. You also ignored most of the arguments I made in your reply to my post. Perhaps you’ll do better if you try to reply to this one.

  8. #8 Josh
    January 19, 2007

    How on Earth is he intolerant by simply saying what he says? He doesn’t despise or hate anyone he simply finds their way of thinking backwards and says so.

    Intolerance does not consist of despising or hating, it consists of not tolerating. And I don’t think he sees any virtue in tolerating religious belief.

    As a mental exercise this may have some fun merit, in reality it is meaningless. It would be impossible to know and therefor why even bother other than fun.

    My point exactly. And I haven’t gotten a good answer yet, alas. Why do people spend so much ink on what may be a meaningless exercise, when there are very meaningful exercises that we could spend time on. The issue is not religious belief, but attempts to impose beliefs on other people. Some of those beliefs are religious, others aren’t, but that compulsion is the problem. Such compulsion has a name, authoritarianism. One can oppose a wide range of authoritarian behavior, from illegal wiretapping to creationism in schools, without arguing about untestable theology. Why bother with that when the problem is clearly authoritarianism?

    His own views are more properly expressed in this letter of advice to his nephew, “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”

    Interesting, I nearly quoted the same text to prove my own point. Jefferson was not an atheist, he was a deist who believed that God could be comprehended through reason. Sam Harris, in his infinite wisdom about religion, seems intent on denying that such a position could possibly exist in a rational human being.

    I don’t know why you would say that Jefferson wasn’t expressing his own views in the letter to the Danbury Baptists or in the other letter I quoted. I think that the quotations I offered are perfectly consistent with the additional quotation you offered, and with the 1st amendment protections that Jefferson insisted upon, which protect a right not to worship, but also to worship freely and to speak freely.

    No one would deny that speech, more than belief, can inspire bad actions. But the point is well established that the response to bad speech is not to silence them but to meet them with more speech. You may not change the mind of the one declaiming bad ideas, but you will sway some people who were listening to them. Sam Harris solution, clearing out the moderate voices, would simply give extreme voices all the more power in the marketplace of ideas.

    I’m also fascinated by people’s insistence that my analogy to politics is “fatuous” “bullshit,” but no one actually addresses it. Sam Harris argues that some people are inspired by some forms of religion to engage in bad behavior which causes great harm. His solution is to declare all of religion “illegitimate.”

    The analogy to politics is as follows. Dick Cheney and various others believe that cutting taxes will raise tax revenue because of a belief, a personal revelation, if you will, about the nature of taxation (I’m not aware of any religious basis for the belief, perhaps Tyler could explain what he meant about this). They cut taxes, they spend more money, they get less revenue than they would otherwise, and future generations have to pay off the debt. The huge deficit means that important social programs are underfunded, including NASA’s budget for monitoring earth, national health insurance, public school assistance, etc.

    If I were the Sam Harris of politics, I would argue as follows. Clearly, a bad political ideology caused Dick Cheney to insist on these asinine tax cuts. Political ideology (religion) caused bad consequences, so political ideology (religion) is a bad thing.

    A more nuanced approach would be to recognize that there may be circumstances where cutting taxes would increase tax revenue, that there is complexity to the situation and that good policy should reflect complexity. Supply-side economics is extremism, but insisting that no tax cut would ever increase revenue would be extreme also. You have to accept the complexity, and make policy based on the economic science and on your personal evaluation of policy preferences. This is not so far from a moderate, who lives life by taking the hard facts from empiricism, and makes decisions within the bounds of empirical observation, and guided by personal opinion.

    This gets, at last, to Tyler’s beef with the idea of personal revelation. “Revelation” may be an awkward term, but “opinion” is a fuzzier way of referring to the same concept. When someone proposes building a wind turbine within the sightline of the only national park in Kansas, a beautiful pristine tallgrass prairie, how do I decide what to do. Do I fight for clean, renewable wind power and the economic boost that will give the rural economy, or do I stand up for the aesthetic benefits of keeping a clear sky in that astounding slice of history? There is no empirical basis for the decision, I have to go with my own gut feeling. My own personal revelation on which value is more important isn’t going to be based on any empirical evidence that I can just present and everyone will automatically accept my claim. If I think that the benefits to the global atmosphere are more important than the local scenery, I have to argue that claim in terms that make sense to everyone, not just people who share my own biases.

    This is what the Rabbi I quoted was arguing. We all have personal beliefs of some sort which are not based on anything empirical. Different faith communities give those things different names and different emphases. The empirical world gives us a shared reality, and our discussions have to be rooted in that shared experience, even though our arguments are influenced by factors external to that shared experience.

    None of this gives any particular belief “a free pass” as several commenters have claimed. I obviously think that authoritarianism is bad ipso facto. But I don’t condemn all political philosophy as a result. There are bad religious beliefs, for instance those which set themselves in opposition to empirical facts. I simply don’t see how those beliefs can be used to condemn all of religion, even moderate religions which also oppose those religions which set themselves against empirical reality.

    Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins both proudly commit the fallacy of the excluded middle, and I won’t sit quietly while smart people make bad arguments.

  9. #9 tomh
    January 19, 2007

    Josh wrote:
    I don’t know why you would say that Jefferson wasn’t expressing his own views in the letter to the Danbury Baptists or in the other letter I quoted.

    Well, then I’ll tell you why. The out of context quotes you used had nothing to do with his personal beliefs and everything to do with keeping religion out of government. It may look easy from here but this was a very difficult fight. When the Constitution was signed 11 out of 13 states had religious tests for office, state religions were common and Madison lost the struggle to have the federal constitution overrule the states on this matter. So it was a real fear. Jefferson was responding to this fear with the wall of separation letter, written when he was president. With the other quote he was fighting the push to have a religious test for office by pointing out that it does you no harm if your neighbor is a different religion. Trying to use these quotes out of context to prove Jefferson’s personal beliefs is deceptive at best. In fact, these two quotes are common Christian talking points when they’re telling the flock what the Founders really meant.

  10. #10 Joe Shelby
    January 19, 2007

    (Note: I haven’t read the comments yet; this thought came to mind while reading the original post off-line over lunch).

    I do see Jason’s overall point, one he hasn’t overtly stated but I’ve seen hidden in his (and PZ’s) statements over the last couple of years, particularly through the mini-war with Ed over at Dispatches in the last month or two.

    The problem is that even if we were to magically get rid of all of the “bad” parts of religion, the nature of religion itself would recreate them all too quickly.

    If we rid the planet of all the religious fundamentalism in the world, it would recreate itself, not because it’s inherently right or “true”, but because those with political aspirations would recreate such madness in the next generation of susceptible people merely to further their own gains.

    Think how quickly Scientology went from someone’s back-room bet with Hubbard (if you believe that story) to a multi-billion dollar enterprise with celebrity endorsements and an anti-science fundamental rhetoric (in this case, anti-psychology, though their creation view goes against cosmology and evolution as well) within a mere 3 generations?

    All because *someone* read that book and realized not that there was any truth to it, but because it could be used to manipulate other people into making them rich and/or powerful.

    So too, the Bible. Yes, I think Harris (and you) are wrong that “cherry-picking” passages from the Bible is inherently contradictory (though calling them “Truth” and the rest not certainly is – like the Pirate’s Code, I take it more as a guideline than a rule ;-) ).

    However, the reality is just like Scientology – even if we eliminated fundamentalism now and picked for this generation the passages to call “Truth” and the passages to call “archaic and possibly inaccurate history of an ethnic group from 2500 years ago”, *someone* would come along and point to a different passage, assert some anecdotal stories that “prove” its true, and use it to manipulate people.

    One really bad example of how powerful such manipulations got? There is *nothing* in the Bible that says one shouldn’t drink alcohol except one vague reference that is more akin to Aristotle’s “moderation in all things”, and in fact, Jesus himself encouraged drinking in the very first “miracle” (wine from water).

    Yet the fundies continue to politically manipulate this nation, often at the local level, into alcohol restrictions (dry counties, drunk in public laws, no sales on sundays) that bluntly violate church-state separation. They continue to claim that the Bible supports this abuse of power merely on the one passage of Ephesians 5:18 (which really just says “don’t get drunk on wine, lest you look stupid”), and from this, they can twist the interpretation of several other passages to be referring to alcohol with all of the accuracy of the after-the-fact interpretations of Nostradamus prophecies.

    Thus the worst of the Bible – the concepts that are concretely presented are either factually wrong (when compared to scientific evidence), historically out of date (or proven to be invented), or such universal truths (presented in many other works and justified philosophically without reference to religion) that the Bible doesn’t need to be considered an authority on them. Meanwhile the passages that are vague can be easily manipulated by the powerful to hold people in fear and irrationality by playing with context and analogy, creating a new generation of “sheep” that hold the development of our society back.

    At least, that’s *one* way to look at it. :)

  11. #11 Tyler DiPietro
    January 19, 2007

    I’m also fascinated by people’s insistence that my analogy to politics is “fatuous” “bullshit,” but no one actually addresses it. Sam Harris argues that some people are inspired by some forms of religion to engage in bad behavior which causes great harm. His solution is to declare all of religion “illegitimate.”

    I called it fatuous because political ideologies make claims about the real world that bear out their correctness or incorrectness, albeit more slowly than some other things. I would say that the disastrous socio-economic effects of the Chilean revolution under Pinochet and the mass privatizations in New Zealand are pretty decent empirical disconfirmations of the extremist neoliberalism of Friedman, Becker and others. This is hardly comparable to the ineffable fantasies of religion and theology, which either stubbornly refuse to be tested or simply ignore reality.

    This gets, at last, to Tyler’s beef with the idea of personal revelation. “Revelation” may be an awkward term, but “opinion” is a fuzzier way of referring to the same concept. When someone proposes building a wind turbine within the sightline of the only national park in Kansas, a beautiful pristine tallgrass prairie, how do I decide what to do. Do I fight for clean, renewable wind power and the economic boost that will give the rural economy, or do I stand up for the aesthetic benefits of keeping a clear sky in that astounding slice of history? There is no empirical basis for the decision, I have to go with my own gut feeling. My own personal revelation on which value is more important isn’t going to be based on any empirical evidence that I can just present and everyone will automatically accept my claim. If I think that the benefits to the global atmosphere are more important than the local scenery, I have to argue that claim in terms that make sense to everyone, not just people who share my own biases.

    I actually think that this is a good point: not everything can be based on empirical data. But it is important to distinguish between which beliefs fall into a place where they require empirical data and those that don’t. I think that people who make claims about religious experiences should be held to the empirical standard, and I’m for investigation into what these experiences are (as, by the way, is Sam Harris). But that doesn’t mean that the argument from personal experience gets religion off the hook.

  12. #12 Tyler DiPietro
    January 19, 2007

    Joe Shelby,

    I think the nature of irrational belief is such that it will always be with us in one form or another, but I don’t view such an unfortunate fact as a wholesale legitimization of religion. Holocaust denial is such an irrational belief, as is the belief that Elvis is still alive. These beliefs persist, but are marginal in comparison to the equally irrational beliefs of religion. This is because we are intolerant of an anti-Semites delusion that the Holocaust is simply an international Jewish hoax to extract from gentiles, but bend over backward to be tolerant of a Christian’s delusion that the creator of the universe wrote the Bible.

    I think a more consistent demand for intellectual honesty would help our society a great deal, and I think that is what this argument is all about.

  13. #13 Uber
    January 19, 2007

    Josh-

    I am beginning to think your not fit to judge a good argument from a bad one.

    Intolerance does not consist of despising or hating, it consists of not tolerating. And I don’t think he sees any virtue in tolerating religious belief.

    So what? Thats not intolerance. Thats a different opinion. Your sentence is one of the most ignorant I’ve seen in these type of discussions. Harris doesn’t advocate hurting people just reasoning with them and for this you attack him.

    The excluded middle is really no such thing. It has the same number of problems and fallacies as do the fundies.

    Your second paragraph above I agree with much more.

  14. #14 Bill O'Day
    January 19, 2007

    If I were the Sam Harris of politics, I would argue as follows. Clearly, a bad political ideology caused Dick Cheney to insist on these asinine tax cuts. Political ideology (religion) caused bad consequences, so political ideology (religion) is a bad thing.

    It’s not so much that he argues that political ideology (religion) would cause the “asinine” tax cuts, but that lack of objective thought causes them. A dominant and ultimately (apparently) unchallengeable political ideology (religion) caused the asinine tax cuts.

    Both Harris and Dawkins do not say that religion is always bad or evil, only that moderate religious adherents do two major disservices to humanity at large. One, they create an environment in which criticism of all but the most extreme examples of fundamentalism is offset by the words “Islam (Christianity, Judaism, etc.)is ultimately a religion of peace, just look at all of these moderates.”

    Two, moderates are already exercising proof that morality (and many of the so called “good” benefits of religion) is not dependent on the literal word of God (whatever). If a person is able to pick and choose which Biblical verses apply to modern life and which ones are relics of some distant, no longer relevant past, how are they doing it if not through reason?

    I would argue (and I feel that both Dawkins and Harris would agree) atheism in and of itself pushes a degree of tolerance, of acceptance and recognition of the fluid nature of existence. Religion, in most forms, argues for a relatively static existence. Having a creator (even if He stepped back and let evolution do its thing) necessitates purpose.

    What Dawkins is effectively saying is that the vast majority of humanity has moved beyond the need for some supernatural father figure, beyond the need for that “purpose;” we just keep him around for reasons of tradition. The only problem is that our need for “tradition” acts as both an excuse and an advertisement for a more extreme and fundamental tradition, one that preaches intolerance and violence.

    In a vacuum, I’m sure, Josh, that both Dawkins and Harris would agree with you on the fact that Rev. King’s and Gandhi’s faith were “good” things. The problem is that the faith of Dr. King is the same faith that defends people like the Westboro Baptist Church.

    My question really is that if Dr. King was anything other than a preacher, would not he have come up with a theory of equality? Is it not likely that these concepts of fairness and justice extend beyond religious ideology, or are atheists only capable of self-interested behavior?

    Again, and I cannot stress this enough, if any person wants to believe in God, Yahweh, Allah, the FSM, whatever, I have absolutely no problem with that. It is their personal decision. When the personal decision of my neighbor means that they force my child to listen to a lecture on His Noodly Appendage as an explanation of how the universe came into existence, when they picket my home because I made spaghetti and meatballs, and when me and my wif… I mean “civil partner” cannot be married because we live in a Pastafarian society and the laws benefit those who follow the FSM first and foremost, then that is when I will speak. And that is why Harris, Dawkins, and other including myself speak now.

  15. #15 Tyler DiPietro
    January 19, 2007

    It’s incumbent upon us to remember that the sort of intolerance Sam Harris advocates is conversational. The idea being that we don’t tolerate such beliefs as a rational part of our discourse. We already do this with many beliefs, and we need to expand the circle.

  16. #16 Joe Shelby
    January 19, 2007

    I think a more consistent demand for intellectual honesty would help our society a great deal, and I think that is what this argument is all about.

    Actually I see the opposite. Intellectual honesty is irrelevant when it comes to personal behavior and more importantly the desire to influence the behavior of others even as their actions don’t directly affect you.

    This is why the “war against moderate christians” seems to me to be pointless. Moderates are not the ones going around telling you you can’t drink, you can’t gamble, you can’t teach evolution, you can’t vote against republicans because “the bible says so”.

    So why get into intellectual wars with a group that has nothing against you merely because their existence “tolerates” the groups you DO have problems with because they want to restrict your behavior for no reasonably supported reason?

  17. #17 Uber
    January 19, 2007

    Bill and Tyler- excellent posts.

  18. #18 Josh
    January 19, 2007

    First, on the subject of evidence for the supernatural I was explicit in my post that I wasn’t talking about falsifiability. The subject was evidence, and it is obvious that there could be evidence for the supernatural. I gave a specific example, which you ignored, but it’s not hard to come up with others. All it would take is a well documented event that stands in such stark defiance of everything we know about nature that the supernatural becomes the most reasonable explanation. When Paley argued that the complexity of living organisms was strong evidence for a designer, few people responded by criticizing the very idea of inferring the existence of the supernatural by an examination of the natural.

    It’s a little hard to argue about counterfactuals. If we found all life shared no genes, that would be very curious, and I would need to know more than that in order to have any opinion whatsoever. What I would not do is throw my hands up and give up on finding a natural explanation for it. My first thought would not be “God did it.” I’m surprised that you would think such a thing either.

    I cannot comment on late 17th and early 18th century attitudes towards supernaturalism, except to say that philosophy of science has grown a lot since then, to the benefit of scientists and philosophers. In 1805 I might have found Paley’s argument fascinating, now I do not. Darwin’s ability to answer Paley in the specific case also reminds us that while an omnipotent God cannot be excluded as an explanation for anything (by definition), that answer is never more informative than a testable scientific hypothesis.

    Your interpretation of the Rabbi may be correct, but then I would say it’s a very poorly worded sentence. I would also withdraw my previous endorsement of the final part of his quote. Your assertion that the Rabbi’s statement is more widely applicable than to the discussions between Jews and Christians the Rabbi was discussing is then also suspect. It sounds like only people of faith would fall under the Rabbi’s statement.

    As I indicated in my comment left while you were typing your response to me, I think we all have beliefs that are not empirical, that are built on personal revelation/faith in a very broad sense of that term. While “revelation” often has a connotation based on the Biblical Book of Revelation, I think Pragmatic philosophers mean something much broader by that. Personal values, morality, etc. all fall within that category, and we would all then be, in some broad sense of the term, people of faith. I’m pretty sure there were atheists working along with Dr. King to promote civil rights, nor has my indifference to theism ever been a problem with my involvement in Amnesty International. I understand “people of faith” to be a broad and inclusive phrase emphasizing shared values, and a contrast with denominational terms which emphasize doctrinal differences.

    I don’t understand your assertion that Harris thinks he understands religious doctrines better than people who actually believe them. Do you have any basis for that assertion? I also don’t understand why you think it is a mistake to confront irrational religious beliefs.

    Harris’s reply to Sullivan: “The problem, as I see it, is that moderates don’t tend to know what it is like to be truly convinced that death is an illusion and that an eternity of happiness awaits the faithful beyond the grave.”

    While Harris does?

    I have no problem with confronting counterfactual religious beliefs. I have no problem confronting religious or non-religious belief when someone tries to push it on me, or to force its consequences on me, or if a person is likely to do harm to him/herself or others. That’s the swinging fist hitting my nose. I do not see why I should care that a person who behaves well and with whom I see eye-to-eye happens to think that wine turns to Christ’s blood during the Mass. I don’t think that even religious scholars would regard that as rational, since faith is supposed to transcend reason. So what?

    It is not my impression that most religious belief is based on personal revelation. I think that’s a canard people like you bring up solely to avoid having to actually look critically at what these folks claim to believe. As I mentioned in a previous post, the fundamentalists certainly don’t claim that their faith is based on personal revelation. Rather, they claim that their’s is a faith backed up by reason and evidence, and then unload a variety of arguments to defend that view.

    At any rate, Christians certainly do make assertions on empirical matters, and it is perfectly reasonable for Harris to take a good hard look at those assertions.

    Sure, though we ought to clarify that sentence to be “some Christians.” Some Christians think wine literally transforms into blood, which is testable. Others think that wine takes on the significance of blood, without actually undergoing some sort of alchemic transformation.

    I am mystified that you find laughable the assertion that it is a bad thing when large numbers of people hold irrational beliefs on matters of cosmic importance.

    I disagree about the cosmic importance. Lots of good people don’t believe in God, and lots do. Lots of bad people don’t believe in God, lots do. I think that the issue is unresolvable and uninteresting. I think that what people do and why they do it matters a great deal, but simply possessing irrational beliefs is not itself a problem. Is my dislike for Charles Dickens “irrational”? What about my belief that the human ability to recognize how we are changing our environment places a responsibility on us to be cautious in those changes? What about your belief that belief or disbelief in deities is “of cosmic importance”?

    Harris has never denied that many people are moved to do good things or improve their lives on the basis of their religious faith. He has never claimed that religious faith is uniformly bad; you just made that up. What he does claim is that on balance the effect of religion on society has been mostly negative, and that the good things that religion provides for its more noble adherents (like, say, a sense of morality) are better obtained by other methods.

    And I would agree with him that there are people who do bad things and are religious. I just claim that the effect of religion is neutral, on balance, and that bad things religious people do often share other readily identified proximate causes. Religion may or may not be a factor, but ingrained inequality within societies and among them seems like a much greater factor, unifying the conservatism that Tom Franks describes in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” with the suicide bombers in the Middle East or Sri Lanka.

    As for whether Harris claims religion is uniformly bad, I guess I was working from this passage in his debate, as well as my reading of “The End of Faith”:

    Religious moderates—by refusing to question the legitimacy of raising children to believe that they are Christians, Muslims, and Jews—tacitly support the religious divisions in our world. They also perpetuate the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence in order to have an ethical and spiritual life. While religious moderates don’t fly planes into buildings, or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they refuse to deeply question the preposterous ideas of those who do. Moderates neither submit to the real demands of scripture nor draw fully honest inferences from the growing testimony of science. In attempting to find a middle ground between religious dogmatism and intellectual honesty, it seems to me that religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.

    Since both sides of the debate there (and here) agree that religious extremism is bad, the issue at hand is whether religious moderates are to be praised or vilified. That passage summarizes Harris’s argument for vilifying them. They appease (to borrow Dawkins’ phrase) extremists. They betray reason, tacitly support divisions within society, etc., etc., all the bad things that extremists do. I don’t know how to read this without interpreting him to argue that religious moderates do good in spite of being religious, and that religion qua religion is a bad thing.

    Likewise for your contrast between Gandhi and MLK on the one hand, and bin Laden on the other. You’ve completely missed Harris’ point, I’m afraid. He is not saying religious people never do good. He is saying instead that bin Laden’s views on violence and authoritatianism follow from a straightforward reading of the Koran, and they are views shared by countless others. The views of Christian fundamentalists likewise follows from a plain reading of the Bible. It is, indeed, the religion itself which is the problem.

    But Gandhi’s views on ahimsa come straight from Hinduism, and Dr. King found the same nonviolence in his scriptures. In those cases, it is religion itself which was the solution to problems caused by secular racism, classism and imperialism. Some religion is good, some is bad. Some Muslims oppose bin Laden based on the Koran. Harris dismisses them, again presenting an argument that his reading of their religious text and tradition is superior to a practitioner’s.

    Maybe bin Laden’s authoritarianism did come from religion, but I’m not sure that Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Pol Pot’s, Saddam Hussein’s or even Dick Cheney’s or King George III’s could be said to have done the same. Some of them used religion to cover for their bad acts, but if we expand our criteria enough to squeeze any of those leaders into a religious frame, we’d have to attribute the Purges to atheism. And I think that would be silliness. Authoritarianism comes from many sources, and one can oppose it without tarring anything that has ever come close to it.

    His rap on theological moderates is simply that their views can not be defended rationally, and that by making it acceptable to hold groundless, supernatural beliefs they provide aid and comfort to the extremists. That is a far cry from the cartoonish version of his argument you are putting forth.

    I think the argument as you presented it is sufficiently cartoonish for my purposes. Where is the evidence that possessing “groundless, supernatural beliefs” is the problem? I think that extremism is the problem, and the tendency for extremists to insist that others must be forced to share their extreme views, or at least to act like they do. Religious moderates made it possible for Dr. King to believe in an Almighty and in a better future for this nation and this world. That belief may be just as groundless, but I don’t see the harm in it.

    Moving on, your prattlings about small-l liberalism are charming, but they are totally irrelevant to any point I was making. You said it doesn’t matter what people think, only what they do. I replied that what people think influences what they do, and if certain prevalent beliefs routinely lead to unpleasant actions then those beliefs ahould be exposed and criticized. This isn’t complicated.

    And I don’t disagree. I disagree only with the idea that we ought to regard theistic belief as causative of anything harmful. I don’t think that we ought to regulate thoughts or beliefs, and we should only even regulate actions to the extent that they cause harm to others. We can do that without tarring religion.

    Your remark about recent elections in Kansas is truly bizarre. Congratulations on your recent victories in the three elections you mention. But do you honestly think that even addresses the point I was making? Ask yourself how those people got elected in the first place.

    I know that Jim Ryun got beaten because Nancy Boyda reached out to church groups and said that there was a better way, that having a religious perspective didn’t require that you only talk about abortion and gay marriage, it also meant talking about building stronger communities, improving schools and taking power back from corporate lobbyists. And that Connie Morris went down because Sally Cauble reached out to religious moderates and reminded them to show up and vote in the Republican primary, something a lot of them don’t do too often. Phill Kline lost because he wore his religion so prominently, treated churches as piggybanks so flagrantly, that people – especially moderate religious voters – preferred to vote for the moderate voice of Paul Morrison.

    Those were the three most powerful religious authoritarians on the ballot, and all three lost. The religious authoritarian candidate for governor didn’t clear the primaries. There are still some of them in the state legislature, where turnout is lower and factors like pork matter more.

    The relevance is that you had written “People’s crazy beliefs often lead them to vote in crazy ways. If enough people are persuaded to go along with the crazy beliefs, then the rest of us will have to live with public officials who believe them as well. Let the Rabbi preach his message of comity and good will to the Christian theocrats who do so well in red state elections and see how far he gets.” I was just pointing out that they didn’t do so well in the latest elections. Religious moderates swept the field.

    My point was that the crazy religious beliefs many people hold, particularly in places like Kansas, lead them to elect crazy people, who then have power over my life (thereby illustrating the absurdity of saying that it is not thoughts, but actions that matter). You replied by saying that after much hard work you managed to get rid of three of them. Sorry, I’m not impressed.

    My point was not those three people, but the dramatic shift that caused. All of the prominent evangelicals up for election lost. The remaining Republican congressmen from Kansas are not theocrats. The Governor is a moderate Democrat. The state Board of Ed switched hands (we picked up another seat thanks to a victory in an open primary). The Republican advantage in the state legislature narrowed, and the religious authoritarian hold on the chamber shrank with it.

    People can indeed vote themselves into trouble, just as they can vote them out. I don’t see the need to invoke religion to explain that.

    You then go on to repeat your canard that Harris and Dawkins think all religion is bad. They don’t, as they have stated repeatedly. And the problem with Dick Cheney wasn’t political ideology, it was with his willingness to believe things on insufficient evidence coupled with the fact that he found himself in a community of people unwilling to criticize him for those beliefs. I think you’ll find Harris and Dawkins perfectly happy to apply their arguments to this case.

    I don’t know when either has stated that they don’t think religion is bad. They don’t think it should be banned, but neither thinks that religion is good. I agree with Harris’ claim in TEoF that various bad things he lists “can be attributed to an insufficient taste for evidence, to an uncritical faith in one dogma or another.” And I chose Dick Cheney as an example of a person and milieu in which the dogma is not religious. There are religious people who do take a critical attitude towards faith, who apply empirical evidence when possible, and fill in the untestable as they feel is most justified. These are moderates, and they do not do the harm described. One can easily see Stalin’s purges in this context as a result of an excessive adherence to Marxist dogma, for instance. But Harris does not rail against dogma, he rails against religion in particular and in general. It ought to be replaced, as chemistry replaced alchemy.

    There is far too much insanity in your final paragraph to respond point by point, so I’ll just briefly respond to the charge that Harris is intolerant. That is a serious misuse of that term.

    Intolerant = Not tolerant.

    Criticizing opinions you find incorrect is not intolerance, and that is all Harris does.

    Calling them illegitimate is. That is a declaration that the discussion does not even belong on the table. Religious belief is, by his account, the cause of most of what ails us, and he sees no reason to tolerate it.

    The only thing Harris wants to do to religious people is persuade them that they are wrong. Intolerance would imply that in some way he wants the government to do something to religious believers, or that in some way force should be used to keep them from practicing their faith. Harris believes no such thing, of course.

    That was not what I intended by using the term, and I did not mean to imply that Harris was advocating outlawing belief. I simply meant that he sees no reason to tolerate such belief. The extent to which he is event talking to religious people, let alone persuading them, is limited by his unwillingness to grant any legitimacy to a belief that is not founded in the empirical world.

    It is perfectly clear both from your initial post and your poorly-argued comment here that you have given no serious consideration to the argument Harris is actually making. You have this in common with most of his critics. You also ignored most of the arguments I made in your reply to my post. Perhaps you’ll do better if you try to reply to this one.

    With a charming invitation like that, how could anyone refuse? I won’t comment on whether I think you addressed any of the points I raised.

    For instance, in my original post, to which you are in principle “responding,” I raised these mild points:

    For instance, we don’t even need Sully in order to address this canard:

    Religious moderates—by refusing to question the legitimacy of raising children to believe that they are Christians, Muslims, and Jews—tacitly support the religious divisions in our world. They also perpetuate the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence in order to have an ethical and spiritual life.

    Who’s to say that religious moderates don’t question those points? Who is to say that religious moderates, through their example of moderation and tolerance, are not actively working against the idea that those divisions are fundamental?

    Those questions are only somewhat rhetorical. Harris makes similar claims in TEoF, and I don’t see how he justifies it. My experience with religious moderates is that they do reach across those divisions, that they encourage exploration of other people’s traditions and beliefs. My experience is that religious moderates reach their moderation in part because they recognize the importance of letting others, even their own children, make their own religious choices.

    I think that when you take away claims like this, and Harris’s general plaint that moderates are just fundamentalists who haven’t gotten on board yet, and you realize that his argument rests squarely on a logical fallacy, the excluded middle. When you appreciate that religious moderates are not just appeasing compromisers who believe nothing at all, but that religious moderation is defended on principle, his and Richard Dawkins’ constant efforts to exclude that middle simply leave a giant hole in their arguments.

    I then wrote:

    As for “the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence…,” I’d merely note that this ought to lead us to a state of profound agnosticism. There can be no natural evidence for God (philosophy of science and theology generally agree on this point), and neither could there be natural evidence against the supernatural. Insisting that others acknowledge the fundamental importance of one’s own answer to questions only answerable through revelation seems unwise, whatever your answer.

    You sort of addressed that point, but only by introducing a concept of natural evidence of the supernatural that seems inconsistent with modern philosophy of science. You describe “a well documented event that stands in such stark defiance of everything we know about nature that the supernatural becomes the most reasonable explanation,” and I think you are talking about having falsified all natural causes. Or maybe a Bayesian/maximum likelihood thing, where you are compare the probability of getting that result via some (all?) natural means with the probability of getting it by supernatural means. But how do we evaluate the latter probability? I contend that it is unknowable, you would contend that it’s so small as to be practically zero, and some theists would put it at exactly 1.

    Again, why should this not lead us to a profound agnosticism, or at least an acceptance that our own beliefs are based only on our own personal views?

    Having clarified that the sense in which I and Rabbi Soloveitchik (and I think even Sam Harris) would treat issues of morality and personal values as within the realm of faith, I hope you’ll also consider re-reading my comments on Soloveitchik’s essay. While I may or may not have misunderstood Sam Harris, I’m quite sure you misunderstood me regarding the Rabbi’s comments, and where I went from there.

    I will not impugn your intellect or sanity over a misunderstanding. Do unto others, etc.

  19. #19 Blake Stacey
    January 19, 2007

    If I could be reassured that all the churches of modern America train their parishioners how to emulate Martin Luther King, Jr. when the need arises, I’d feel better about American religion. When the Pope says that circumstances may demand good Catholics to overturn the money-changers’ tables, Dawkins might have to moderate his rhetoric. Until then, we’ll just have to keep arguing — and musing over the fact that it was not the churches who made King a hero to generations, but rather the public schools.

  20. #20 Josh
    January 19, 2007

    My apologies for the unclosed blockquote somewhere. Let this be a lesson to always use the preview button.

    In a vacuum, I’m sure, Josh, that both Dawkins and Harris would agree with you on the fact that Rev. King’s and Gandhi’s faith were “good” things. The problem is that the faith of Dr. King is the same faith that defends people like the Westboro Baptist Church.

    If that’s true (and I don’t know that it is), it seems like a strong argument against using faith as a way to identify bad things.

    Fred Phelps would be just as bad if he were not running a church, and Dr. King would be just as good. Hence my earlier quotation of Niebuhr, “Religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.”

  21. #21 Joe Shelby
    January 19, 2007

    Jason wrote (quite a while ago): The subject was evidence, and it is obvious that there could be evidence for the supernatural.

    See here is the point where “science” becomes as “unfalsifiable” as religion, to the extreme right. We could look at it at first and see that it *seems* to be miraculous (lets stop avoiding the word). But then we hit that point – science won’t let it stop there. By necessity it mustn’t. There isn’t a point where *somebody* won’t look it it deeply enough to see a believable, supported, causal mechanism for why it got there that doesn’t invoke a god.

    Scientists won’t give up looking for a natural explanation, so they don’t.

    Ask yourself, Jason – would your example of multiple “kinds” at the genetic or DNA or deeper level really be “proof” of the devine? or merely proof that the writers of the Bible were better guessers than early skeptical examiners thought? Would it be a violation of natural cause necessarily invoking a diety, or merely more data for which a new natural cause must be interpreted and tested?

    Thus, why the religious right argue that science is unfalsifiable. It’s true. A “scientific fact” (re: theory) may be falsifiable, but science itself isn’t.

    And because of that, I honestly think there is no “proof” that would ever work for you (or Dawkins) that a god (much less the Christian God) exists. Better you leave that particular argument behind, because it implies that you would change your mind on this when I firmly believe you wouldn’t.

  22. #22 jeffperado
    January 19, 2007

    Josh wrote:
    My point exactly. And I haven’t gotten a good answer yet, alas. Why do people spend so much ink on what may be a meaningless exercise, when there are very meaningful exercises that we could spend time on. The issue is not religious belief, but attempts to impose beliefs on other people. Some of those beliefs are religious, others aren’t, but that compulsion is the problem. Such compulsion has a name, authoritarianism. One can oppose a wide range of authoritarian behavior, from illegal wiretapping to creationism in schools, without arguing about untestable theology. Why bother with that when the problem is clearly authoritarianism?

    You still do not seem to get the point here. I think we all agree that “authoritarianism” is to blame (a trivial point, really). But what you don’t seem to acknowledge is what is at the root of authoritarianism, i.e. what causes authoritarianism. It’s like those old weed killer commercials, one brand simply kills the weed, but leaves the root (what you subscribe to) and the other brand not only kills the weed, but its root as well (what Jason is arguing).

    There are, granted, more than one root for authoritarianism, but the one we are focusing on here is religion. And you have failed at every turn to dispute that.

    Like your argument you used before about the politicians in Kansas; sure you got rid of this bunch of weeds, but without attacking the root of the problem, religion, in upcoming years and elections more weeds will undoubtedly sprout up. Unless, of course, you actually believe that now that Kansas has a moderate BOE, creationism will never rear its ungly head again in Kansas… In which case, delusion seems to be the best descriptor.

  23. #23 DC
    January 19, 2007

    and Dr. King found the same nonviolence in his scriptures

    By selectively ignoring that which he personally disproved of. Likewise for those using the Koran. I think your kinda sorta making Harris’s argument for him. The ‘excluded middle’ simply isn’t excluded at all. The so called moderates are simply picking and choosing more carefully. In doing so they give legitimacy to those that don’t pick and choose which as far as I know is no one.

    My experience is that religious moderates reach their moderation in part because they recognize the importance of letting others, even their own children, make their own religious choices

    Which 5 people in this nation are you speaking about? This is where I question how your reality intersects with others. Which Catholic you know is ok if their child becomes a muslim? Which religious group/parent that you know doesn’t try to ‘train’ the child in their chosen faith?

    Religious moderates made it possible for Dr. King to believe in an Almighty and in a better future for this nation and this world.

    No they didn’t. He wasn’t the moderate you paint him to be. I think it would be easier to paint him as an astute fellow who didn’t swallow all the tenets of his religion and rather used it for his purposes very succesfully. MLK was a great leader but no saint. He also was produced in a very fundamentalist background which I think he was able to see flaws in.

    They betray reason, tacitly support divisions within society, etc., etc., all the bad things that extremists do. I don’t know how to read this without interpreting him to argue that religious moderates do good in spite of being religious,

    Do they do good? Any more than anyone else? Sure they side with evolution but that is one of many fights. And if they do good in spite of being religious good. But if they fail to denounce those who do harm and continue the spread of irrationality they are not harmless.

  24. #24 Tulse
    January 19, 2007

    I am a hard-core atheist, but I can think of plenty of evidence that would strongly shift my belief towards there being a supernatural creator. For example, if a flaming pillar ten-thousand feet tall appeared in Times Square and intoned “I AM THE LORD THY GOD!”, I’d have to re-evaluate my position. If a large portion of the world’s population suddenly disappeared as predicted by Rapture adherents, I would pause to reassess my (lack of) belief. If every mammal had a discolouration on its skin that spelled out “Created by God, All Rights Reserved”, I’d be more likely to have faith. If we discovered a collection of galaxies organized to look from Earth like a high-resolution black-and-white image of a bearded old man, I might shift my probabilities of God’s existence.

    It is silly to say that science itself is not falsifiable. These kind of events would certainly seem to provide evidence that that naturalistic approach to the world was wrong, as would, for example, a prevalence of effective sorcerers, or well-documented appearances of fairies, or large elephant-headed humanoids regularly removing obstacles in India. The reason we believe in naturalism is precisely because these kind of things don’t happen.

  25. #25 Koray
    January 19, 2007

    Tulse, actually you don’t need to reevaluate your position. All the “supernatural” events you mentioned are spectacularly easier than creating the whole universe. Heck, the easiest is probably wiring your brain up and give you the Matrix(TM) experience.

    There is an inherent problem with the question itself: we actually don’t give a crap about whether God created the universe or not. If God existed and talked to me, I really wouldn’t care what he did. All that matters is that he can convince me that he’s more powerful than me (by demonstrating his flaming pillar in Time Square or wiring up my brain, etc.) and state that he’ll squash me if I sin.

    Such an entity doesn’t have to be a god. Such an entity doesn’t even have to tell me the truth or answer my prayers or send me to heaven when I die.

  26. #26 Blake Stacey
    January 19, 2007

    @Koray:

    I believe that James T. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise encountered such beings almost as often as they visited TwenCen Earth or a close facsimilie thereof.

  27. #27 Joe Shelby
    January 19, 2007

    Tulse: It is silly to say that science itself is not falsifiable. These kind of events would certainly seem to provide evidence that that naturalistic approach to the world was wrong, as would, for example, a prevalence of effective sorcerers, or well-documented appearances of fairies, or large elephant-headed humanoids regularly removing obstacles in India. The reason we believe in naturalism is precisely because these kind of things don’t happen.

    You missed my point. Would we really say this “God” was now supernatural, or would we just say there were now more things in nature that need to be investigated more closely for how it happened, where it came from, etc. God would no longer be “super-natural” but instead a natural being subject to naturalistic investigation.

    Science would be the tool, rather than revelation, to do such investigations.

    “I don’t know, *yet*” would then become an acceptable way (among scientists) to discuss this entity.

    So a particular scientific *fact* (re: theory), that there has been no evidence for any such creature that might have been powerful enough to “create” everything might have been proven false, but it will have been proven false by evidential science rather than philosophical mutterings based flawed interpretations of a 2000 year old book.

  28. #28 Colugo
    January 19, 2007

    Sam Harris is a strange advocate of atheistic rationalism.

    Salon magazine interview with Sam Harris 7/7/06:
    http://www.salon.com/books/int/2006/07/07/harris/

    Steve Paulson: It sounds like you’re open-minded to the possibility of telepathy — things that we might classify as psychic. You’re saying it’s entirely possible that they might be true and science at some point will be able to prove them.

    Harris: Yeah, and there’s a lot of data out there that’s treated in most circles like intellectual pornography that attests to there being a real phenomenon here. … But I’ve had the kinds of experiences that everyone has had that seem to confirm telepathy or the fact that minds can influence other minds.

    Paulson: Tell me about one of those experiences.

    Harris: Oh, just knowing who’s calling when that person hasn’t called you in years. … I know many people who’ve had even more bizarre experiences. But that does not rise to the level of scientific evidence. The only way to determine if it really exists is to look in a disinterested and sustained way at all of the evidence.

    Paulson: … Most evolutionary biologists would say consciousness is rooted in the brain. It will not survive death. You are not willing to make that claim.

    Harris: I just don’t know. I’m trying to be honest about my gradations of certainty. I think consciousness poses a unique problem. If we were living in a universe where consciousness survived death, or transcended the brain so that single neurons were conscious — or subatomic particles had an interior dimension — we would not expect to see it by our present techniques of neuro-imaging or cellular neuroscience….

  29. #29 Joe Shelby
    January 19, 2007

    Actually, Jason, on further thought I find that your “different kinds” example is not only flawed, but leads me to think that you actually fell for exactly the dichotomy example the creationists have been trying to get society to accept for years.

    You pick one small part of evolutionary theory, common descent (and it really is a small part compared with natural selection), and by proposing an instance where it was disproved, you assert in your example that the only reasonable solution must be that evolution is wrong, and by the creationist canard, God must be real.

    This is, of course, the flawed false duality argument that scientists and logicians have been trying to discredit for centuries, yet you seem to have walked right into it here.

    I expect better from you. :)

  30. #30 Joe Shelby
    January 19, 2007

    but without attacking the root of the problem, religion, in upcoming years and elections more weeds will undoubtedly sprout up.

    That is the assumption that Josh already addressed. The root of the problem (especially in Kansas) is not religion. Religion is merely the excuse.

    The “culture war” goes far deeper, and is a war of cultural identity of which religion is but one aspect. A traditional view of the world has been severely challenged by an encroaching urban and suburban culture that embraces global art over “american”, accommodationist philosophy over racial and ethnic identity and isolation, etc (all described in Frank’s book rather clearly). The reaction to this view is to fall back on extreme traditionalism, of which the religious right in the media (see again my argument that fundamentalism doesn’t arrive because people believe its true but because the powerful assert its truth to control the people) have milked religion as being part of that identity that is being threatened by change and modernation.

    They have been told that the public schools are corrupting their children with views of the world that are inherently not their own, so they attack the schools. Evolution is the “easy” target, the one where a supposedly sensible alternative (God and Creationism) can be found (in contrast to teaching world history and world cultures where trying to assert that teaching only americanism isn’t going to go over too well). The ignorant sheep might claim religion as the reason they attack, but the people in control know that getting them to attack the schools is an easy way to keep them in fear, under control.

    The REAL enemy is not the religious moderate (on either Democrat or Republican side), but the Republican business/academic conservative that is willing to ally with these ignorant heathens merely to get their votes in order to enact their economically and environmentally destructive policies for their own profit.

    Or at least, that’s how *I* read Frank and Mooney.

  31. #31 Jason
    January 19, 2007

    That’s right, Joe. Creationism has nothing to do with Christianity. And the 9/11 attacks have nothing to do with Islam.

    You’re deluding yourself.

  32. #32 Joe Shelby
    January 19, 2007

    I NEVER said it had nothing to do with it, so take your strawman (now your third, at least, in this discussion) with all of its unnecessary emotional exaggerations and shove it.

    I said that religion was an excuse for their assertions of control in defense of a cultural identity under threat, not necessarily the root cause that you have decided it is. You (and Harris) have provided no proof that it is the root of all evil (or even “much” evil). If you REALLY believe that religion is the sole reason for the madness in Kansas, much less the terrorism from the middle east, then you have an *extremely* distorted view of the importance of religion.

    I say again, analysis of the cultural differences and the conflicts that arise more often show religion as being an excuse, a justification and not a cause, of the actual conflicts involved. If religion wasn’t so easy to fall back on, the violent and manipulative of the world would have to come up with some other irrational justification for their actions.

    Getting rid of religion will not solve the violence of the world, a violence with roots in imperialism, economic disparity, political machinations, and a great many other negative aspects of human behavior that are there just as strongly even without religion.

  33. #33 Joe Shelby
    January 19, 2007

    I apologize for the “shove it”. There are times I feel that in discussions of religion, 9/11 should be, like bringing up the Nazis, a form of Godwin’s Law only called upon when it is truly applicable.

    As for the idea that religion was *really* behind 9/11? Why attack (twice, counting 1993) the World Trade Center, the heart of New York’s economic center, not the heart of American’s religious center (such as we have one).

    Why not attack The Vatican, St. Pauls in London, Canterbury, the National Cathedral, St Pauls in NYC, the Old North Church in Boston where “liberty” was incited in Paul Revere’s ride?

    Why? Because the response was not really against american religion or even american religious freedom, but american economic imperialism and the power the west asserted over the middle east over the last 400 years.

    The imperialism of the modern era, of which 9/11 was a reaction, has little to do with the crusades, themselves while justified and triggered by religion, are also considered by many historians as a barbarian invasion addressing an economic disparity and the political, not religious, aspirations of those in the vatican at the time.

    They don’t hate our “freedoms” as Bush liked to put it. They hate the fact that our economic power controls their destiny and their identity rather than their own actions. They attack those that they feel are most in control, and it wasn’t the religion or the government, it was the economic base and the military. The White House or the Capital, the seats of our government, could just as easily have been hit rather than the Pentagon, but they went for the Pentagon.

    That the economic control also attacks their religious identity as much as their economic and cultural identity is almost moot.

    Almost.

    And it was that almost which I thought I made clear that I felt you decided incorrectly to ignore.

  34. #34 Kevin
    January 19, 2007

    Bill O’Day said

    “when they picket my home because I made spaghetti and meatballs, and when me and my wif… I mean “civil partner” cannot be married because we live in a Pastafarian society and the laws benefit those who follow the FSM first and foremost, then that is when I will speak.”

    Bill Bill, do not fear. Pastafarians are very civil and loving and encourage all persons to partake of His Noodly Goodness, in all forms. And do not worry if you wish to take a wife, or a partner. Pirates are very open to new ideas such as cohabitation, contractual conjugales or even friendly distractions on those long ship voyages.

    Now it is true that when followers of the FSM fullfill their 47-stem plan to take over the government of this great nation, we will enact legislation declaring all Fridays to be “Pirate Days” and that no one should work on such a day (unless they be cooking, serving or making pasta or beer, or cookies, or some other stuff)

    Anyway, fear not His Noodly Appendage and open your hearts to Pasta.

    Ramen

  35. #35 Tyler DiPietro
    January 19, 2007

    Joe Shelby,

    Just curious, do you know of any Palestinian Christian suicide bombers?

  36. #36 Joe Shelby
    January 19, 2007

    Suicide bombing (or even the basic suicide attack) is not exclusively religious in origin or execution.

    Japanese kamikaze pilots certainly didn’t act on the idea that they would be rewarded in Shinto heaven for dying by crashing into American ships. They sacrificed themselves with the idea that their actions would cause the Americans to back down and give some sense of victory to the people at home who survived the war.

    Bombings and terrorism have occurred in many cases where religion is asserted as the reason but historical realities showed other causes. Ireland is a BIG example, where “catholics vs protestants” is an easy cop-out, ignoring the economic reality of British imperialism and political control, suppressing and all but destroying a native ethnic identity (of which religion was just one relatively small part) of a people who didn’t want them there.

    And though the bombers don’t die in the bombs, the attackers of abortion clinics certainly have their lives and careers destroyed by the subsequent arrest, trial, and jail time, certainly interpretable as a form of suicide.

  37. #37 Bill O'Day
    January 19, 2007

    @Josh:

    Fred Phelps would be just as bad if he were not running a church, and Dr. King would be just as good. Hence my earlier quotation of Niebuhr, “Religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.”

    That’s the point, more than anything else. I will admit (if you couldn’t figure it out already) my lack of faith, but please allow a couple of questions. First, is humanity, by nature “good” or “evil?” Second, is it possible that one man’s good is another’s evil (ie: Fundamentalist Muslims feel that destruction of Israel is a “good” thing, although Zionist Jews would view it as a great “evil”)? Thirdly, are saying that religion either does nothing or intensifies the relative good or bad of an individual? Finally, if you accept the second question, wouldn’t a balance be better for humanity?

    Regardless, my perspective (and it is not directly shared by those who speak for me) is that religion is fine until it becomes policy, and religious tolerance has become a situation where religion rapidly becomes policy. Dawkins himself has said as much (BBC video). As a society we need to come together and say beyond any misunderstanding that our education of children and our running of government should never make any sacrifices to the whims of a nonrational belief structure. By having a large percentage of a national population self-identify at least in name only with the self-identification of extremists, it becomes the fault of all.

    Talking heads have attacked Islamic leaders for not publicly stating their disgust at the actions of terrorism. Amazingly enough, I haven’t heard of any ministers being called to task for Phelps or Virgil Goode, Jr.’s comments. I wonder why.

    Regardless of these details, religion exists simply to maintain social order. It’s major benefit is that it gives a series of rules to live by. Except that no major religion (with the possible exception of Taoism, mainly in that its only major rule is to live in harmony with yourself and others) has a written set of rules that have a strong bearing on modern life.

    If we already pick and choose our morality, why not just start over and get rid of the extra baggage?

    @Kevin:

    Perhaps someday I will be ready to receive His Great Tomato Feast, but that day has not yet arrived…

  38. #38 Joe Shelby
    January 19, 2007

    As for your specific, Palestinian Christian bombers, no, I can’t name any.

    But I haven’t seen any large-scale media effort by them to condemn the bombings, and much of that can be pinned on their minority status politically.

    Many native Christians in the area, while not being “bombers”, are still against the Israeli occupation for reasons having nothing to do with religion. In the wars since ’48, they have often fought with their nations, alongside Muslims, for the Arabic/Egyptian/Palestinian/Jordanian cause.

  39. #39 Joe Shelby
    January 20, 2007

    If we already pick and choose our morality, why not just start over and get rid of the extra baggage?

    Because morality is not taught through logical, reasonable justification to our children. Its taught as rules, rules to which they derive the verification of from later in life, just like mathematics.

    So to get a society to accept a non-religious justification for a moral code to enforce, you would have to find a way to teach that code to children as an absolute they will respect (and kids *don’t* respect their parents enough to just take their word for it, once beyond a certain age and exposed to enough TV that contradicts it).

    PLUS, you would have to get that society to accept a common moral code to start with, while keeping religion out of any justifications for that code. Given how many people know the Bible, that still goes back to the problem I described earlier, where showing how A moral truth is in the Bible leads validity to the rest of the work, in (irrational) impression if not reality. This would give the means for asserting other moral truths that aren’t, and once again the political control over people through religion.

    Seriously, how would you teach a moral code without either religion or logic, neither of which a kid can expect to understand at the age when such moral codes can become fixed? I’d love to hear any ideas.

  40. #40 Bill O'Day
    January 20, 2007

    @Tyler DiPietro:

    Just curious, do you know of any Palestinian Christian suicide bombers?

    I wouldn’t use this argument for two reasons.

    One, if you really want to compare body counts of all surviving world religions throughout history, Christianity wins without equal. It is without question the most destructive religion in known history (the Crusades, witch hunts, American manifest destiny, the Inquisition, I could continue).

    Two, in any uneven conflict (including the American Revolution), the “weaker” side must use methods that offend the senses of even its own people. In a “fair” fight, Israel would crush the Palestinian resistance in a heartbeat. Islam happens to have a vocabulary that can be effectively used to describe this in the form of the martyr. Catholicism has watered down its history over the years, but it still has its share of bloody martyrs. The Romans weren’t merely killing them because they didn’t agree; lots of “citizens” of the empire didn’t agree.

    Ireland has been mentioned in this thread for good reason. The troubles were described at the time as a struggle between Catholic and Anglican followers, which is technically true. It just so happens that the Anglican followers were British first and treated as above the Irish, or Catholic. The religion gave a framework (vocabulary) for the conflict, but it was rarely the cause. Land ownership, criminal cases, food availability, and language were the focal issues in this conflict. With Palestine, history will probably view it much the same way.

  41. #41 Bill O'Day
    January 20, 2007

    @Joe:

    Teach the Golden Rule (treat others as you wish to be treated). Everything else can be derived from it. The fact is that we are human and, as such, are social creatures. A quick look at the past year shows that religion is not the ultimate in moral structures. The thought that our instinctual natures are inherently sinful is probably more corrupting then the sin itself.

    This is the blog of science and reason, so I’m leaving tonight with this one thought: As an atheist and a reasonably moral being, I have one ultimately overriding principle: actions that benefit all of humanity or at least harm the least of humanity are inherently moral. By that statement, the Pope (a figure that the non-Christian world views as the voice of Christianity) who claims that condom use in countries ravaged by AIDS and poverty is a sin against God is not moral. That a more nuanced look shows things otherwise doesn’t matter. The President of the United States shares this opinion. At what point does a responsibility to humanity (that we know exists) trump a responsibility to God (that we hope exists)?

  42. #42 Josh
    January 20, 2007

    jeffperado writes:

    There are, granted, more than one root for authoritarianism, but the one we are focusing on here is religion. And you have failed at every turn to dispute that.

    Huh, I thought that my whole point was that I dispute that religion is at the root of authoritarianism. Religion is bad when it intersects with authoritarianism, isn’t bad when it doesn’t. Authoritarianism is bad when it intersects with religion and when it doesn’t. Why are we talking about religion? Science is bad when it intersects with authoritarianism (through eugenics, for instance) but good when it doesn’t. Why not focus on authoritarianism exclusively?

    Like your argument you used before about the politicians in Kansas; sure you got rid of this bunch of weeds, but without attacking the root of the problem, religion, in upcoming years and elections more weeds will undoubtedly sprout up.

    Religion is not the problem. If my experience on the ground here doesn’t carry weight with you, look at “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” or Chris Hedges’ new book on American theocracy. Neither finds that religion is the problem. Shouldn’t we let empirical evidence influence our judgment on this matter?

    DC writes:

    “Dr. King found the same nonviolence in his scriptures”

    By selectively ignoring that which he personally disproved of. Likewise for those using the Koran. I think your kinda sorta making Harris’s argument for him. The ‘excluded middle’ simply isn’t excluded at all. The so called moderates are simply picking and choosing more carefully. In doing so they give legitimacy to those that don’t pick and choose which as far as I know is no one.

    No they don’t. By showing that one can adopt a figurative understanding of religious texts without giving up religion, they give extremists an excuse to abandon their extremism. I fail to see how rejecting extremism legitimizes it.

    Which 5 people in this nation are you speaking about? This is where I question how your reality intersects with others. Which Catholic you know is ok if their child becomes a muslim? Which religious group/parent that you know doesn’t try to ‘train’ the child in their chosen faith?

    My parents, for one. I was never under any pressure to attend religious services, and they went with me when I wanted to visit Quaker meetings, Episcopal masses and synagogues. I felt like a lot of my friends were in the same situation.

    But if they [moderates] fail to denounce those who do harm and continue the spread of irrationality they are not harmless.

    What if they do denounce those who do harm? Kansas Citizens for Science is filled with religious people who are standing up against religious groups who do harm. The MAINstream Coalition that fights for political moderates in Kansas, which opposed the gay marriage ban and other assaults by religious conservatives, is full to the brim with religious moderates who are working hard to take this state and the nation back for sensible policy and sensible people. I don’t know what fantasy world you people live in that you don’t think religious moderates are working hard against theocrats and religious authoritarians. It isn’t just evolution. It isn’t just evolution and civil rights. It isn’t just evolution, civil rights and the environment.

    Many of the Supreme Court’s establishment clause rulings are in cases brought by religious moderates. To pretend that these moderates who fought against extremism are actually giving cover to extremists is to ignore history and to ignore facts on the ground.

  43. #43 Calednoian
    January 20, 2007

    The issue is not whether whatever doctrine can be eked out of historical teachings by selective picking and choosing is “good” – the issue is that religions teach that arbitrary teachings can have authority, that truth is actively created by those who believe, that faith validates positions, and so on.

    All of those positions are not only bad, but actively incompatible with rational inquiry and the scientific method.

    As for ‘intolerance’, it’s not a bad thing. It is in fact absolutely necessary – which is why those who bray about others’ intolerance practice it themselves. It’s what’s tolerated, what isn’t, and why, that’s important.

  44. #44 Bruce the Goose
    January 20, 2007

    Rosenau is just playing politics, hoping to get an academic post. He is as much an atheist as Harris or Dawkins, well known by many Lawrence Kansas buddies of his.

    He just does not want to end up in career ruin like the KU professor Mirecki.

    Rosenau uses dissembling spin meistering to play the game.

    Its no secret around here.

  45. #45 Jason Rosenhouse
    January 20, 2007

    Josh-

    In the interest of allowing us both to move on to other things I’ll let you have the last word. Thank you for your replies to my remarks, even though I still think you’re mostly wrong. :)

    Joe Shelby-

    I think that you are missing the point I was making about evidence for the supernatural. We’re not talking about proof or falsifiability. We’re not talking about logical certainties. We’re talking about evidence. Just like in a trial a prosecutor can present evidence that makes the defendant’s guilt likely without proving guilt to a certainty, so too there could be observations we could make of nature that would make the existence of supernatural forces seem likely.

    In the example I gave of the multiple genetic codes occurring in a pattern that matches some reasonable notion of “created kinds,” the point wasn’t simply that it would defeat evolution as we currently understand it. It is that it would defeat every naturalistic theory for the origin and development of life ever proposed. We have a decent grasp of the sorts of things that happen without intelligent intervention, and can conjure up scenarios that would stand in defiance of that grasp. And rest assured that if you come up with a naturalistic theory for the multiple genetic codes, I will simply tweak my example to defeat it.

    Now, if my example actually came to pass, of course scientists would continue looking for a naturalistic explanation. And of course we wouldn’t say that the existence of the supernatural has been proven. Of course it’s possible that later discoveries would cause us to revise our present beliefs. We would say simply that in light of the best evidence we currently have it seems likely that there are supernatural forces at work. Paley wasn’t wrong, at the time he was writing, to infer a designer from the complexity of living organisms. He didn’t claim that his inference was true with 100% certainty, simply that supernatural design was the most likely explanation for the facts at hand.

    His problem was simply that he lacked certain information relevant to the problem he was studying. This information was brought out by Darwin and the scientists who followed him. But the fact that later evidence might cause us to reject an inference that previously seemed plausible does not mean the previous inference was unjustified.

    The creationists and the ID folks aren’t wrong to think that in principle we could make observations of nature that would be best explained by design. They’re just wrong to think tha such observations have been made in fact.

  46. #46 tomh
    January 20, 2007

    Josh wrote:
    Many of the Supreme Court’s establishment clause rulings are in cases brought by religious moderates.

    Another vague, doubtful appeal to authority that it seems unlikely you could back up with any evidence.

  47. #47 Blake Stacey
    January 20, 2007

    Null hypothesis: most people in the United States are religious moderates.

  48. #48 Joe Shelby
    January 20, 2007

    His problem was simply that he lacked certain information relevant to the problem he was studying. This information was brought out by Darwin and the scientists who followed him. But the fact that later evidence might cause us to reject an inference that previously seemed plausible does not mean the previous inference was unjustified.

    The creationists and the ID folks aren’t wrong to think that in principle we could make observations of nature that would be best explained by design. They’re just wrong to think tha such observations have been made in fact.

    And my point is that skepticism has reached such a standard, and has such a record of reliability, that no matter how questionable and “hinting of design” it seems, the standard scientific response will NEVER be “ok, we give up, it was designed, there is a god.” Never. Skepticism and science itself has come too far to reach that stopping point.

    I’m serious – really name an observation that will change your mind. One that is really PROOF of God, not merely very difficult to explain so we’ll simplify it and call it God which is the current ID attitude with their big numbers and extreme improbibilities nonsense.

  49. #49 Tyler DiPietro
    January 20, 2007

    To clarify, I didn’t ask the question about Palestinian Christian suicide bombers to rhetorically assert that Christianity was, it only seems to me that Joe Shelby is trying to completely exonerate the belief systems of those who commit such acts from any blame. It seems to me to be flat ridiculous to do so. I’d rather take a suicide bomber at his word that he is driven by the prospects of martyrdom than to lay the entire phenomenon at the feet of Western imperialism (which I do agree is partially to blame for the rise in fundamentalism over the past century, but there is plenty in the way of justification for such fundamentalism in the Koran).

  50. #50 Christensen
    January 20, 2007

    Whats with this pretense that atheistic “lack of faith” leads to anything better?

    Practitioners of atheistic philosphies killed over 100 Million in the 20th century alone.

    Who ya kiddin?

  51. #51 Joe Shelby
    January 20, 2007

    I hate how you people take my words and twist them into having an extreme, absolute meaning that I don’t think is in there.

    I did not claim to exonerate anything. In fact, in the sense I was intending, I was more on Jason’s (and your) side than on Josh’s.

    My point is that religion, in and of itself, did not *cause* the hatred that leads to violence. The cultural identity crisis, of which religion is a part (words I’ve said several times here and seem to keep being ignored), the economic repression and the desire of some in power to control others and increase their power are more easily the root *cause* of the hatred.

    That their weapon to control, or the weapon in reaction to hatred is violence, and that the violence is easily defended by extracting and interpreting words of faith (often out of context, even in Islam) is certainly a fault of religion.

    But the religion by itself is not the cause of the violence, nor will ridding the world of it get rid “all our problems”, or even most of them. Some other form of irrationality will, others agreed with me here, re-invent itself.

  52. #52 Joe Shelby
    January 20, 2007

    Christensen brings up that “re-invention of irrationality” with which we should all be familiar – the exchange of worship of God with the “worship” of the state and its leaders, a fault in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as in Japan and China for most of the last thousand years and more.

    You can get rid of the words of religion all you want, but you’ll never get rid of the fact that there are sheep out there who will believe anything anyone tells them, provided it makes them feel better and takes their personal guilt and personal responsibility for their own failures away. And you’ll never get rid of martyrs willing to kill and die (and both) for an idea, regardless of whether or not that idea has a foundation in the religions we know today.

    Maybe, like in the American Revolution, that idea is the right one. But to the martyr, any idea might seem the “right” one at the time, and only history and objectivity will really tell the difference.

  53. #53 Josh
    January 21, 2007

    Josh wrote:
    Many of the Supreme Court’s establishment clause rulings are in cases brought by religious moderates.

    Another vague, doubtful appeal to authority that it seems unlikely you could back up with any evidence.

    I don’t think you know what that phrase means. I’m not appealing to the Supreme Court as an arbiter of whether religious moderates are good, I raised that in the context of describing the role of religious moderates in opposing religious extremism. Since many of the advances in that battle have come through Supreme Court cases, I feel that it’s a useful measure of whether, as Sam Harris claims “[moderates] fail to denounce those who do harm and continue the spread of irrationality.” If they are filing suit against those who do harm and attempt to spread religion through public institutions that constitutes a counterexample to Harris’s claim.

    And while I said “many,” only one instance would be necessary for the disproof. In Engel v. Vitale, only one of the ten plaintiffs suing over a required prayer in school was agnostic. In McLean v. Arkansas (which didn’t reach the Supreme Court), “[t]he individual plaintiffs include the resident Arkansas Bishops of the United Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic and African Methodist Episcopal Churches, the principal official of the Presbyterian Churches in Arkansas, other United Methodist, Southern Baptist and Presbyterian clergy, as well as several persons who sue as parents and next friends of minor children attending Arkansas public schools. One plaintiff is a high school biology teacher. All are also Arkansas taxpayers. Among the organizational plaintiffs are the American Jewish Congress, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the American Jewish Committee, the Arkansas Education Association, the National Association of Biology Teachers and the national Coalition for Public Education and Religious Liberty, all of which sue on behalf of members living in Arkansas.”

    In Abington v. Schempp, a Unitarian sued to end the practice of Bible reading in classrooms. The appellees in Edwards v. Aguillard included “parents of children attending Louisiana public schools, Louisiana teachers, and religious leaders.” Susan Epperson, of Epperson v. Arkansas fame, was a theistic evolutionist.

    This brief survey of religious moderates actively opposing religious authoritarianism seems to me adequate proof that Sam Harris’s treatment of religious moderates is faulty. They do not, in fact “refus[e] to question the legitimacy of raising children to believe that they are Christians, Muslims, and Jews,” nor do they “tacitly support the religious divisions in our world.” They do not, as a whole “perpetuate the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence in order to have an ethical and spiritual life.” While it’s true that “religious moderates don’t fly planes into buildings, or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy,” it is false to say that “they refuse to deeply question the preposterous ideas of those who do.”

    I consider those acts of questioning to be a vital and admirable act, whether performed by atheists, agnostics, or theists. And I suspect that a coreligionist, by sharing “the logos, the word, in which the multifarious religious experience is expressed” with extremists, they may be in a better position to move extremists to a more moderate position.

  54. #54 Bailey
    January 22, 2007

    Of course Harris’s treatment of religious moderates is faulty, Josh. His whole treatment of religion is faulty, and he is conflating his own SCIENTISM with SCIENCE.

    Harris, Dawkins, a lot of the people who post at your Kansas Citizens for Science site, are just as fundamentalist, in their own way, as Robertson or Falwell.

    What IS funny, is that your crowd loves to rely on the courts to give you the last word, but I’ll bet you sing a differenct term is some tougher decisions on abortion and the like start coming down. (After all, we know a lot more about the state of the fetus at early stages than was known at the time of Roe v Wade…a decision which is based on out dated scienc.)

    We shaall see. (Hey, by the way Josh, I know you are a strong Democrat activist…when are the dems going to end the war?)

  55. #55 Goldstein
    January 22, 2007

    Bailey, don’t take Josh too seriously. Around Lawrence, Kansas, we all know he is an atheist. But he is the master of spinning any point to defend himself. He will even argue that an accepted dictionary definition of a word really means what HE says it means.

    Its hilarious, and borders on irrationality. What I actually think is that he is just an arrogant little hypocrite who thinks that what applies to others does not apply to him, because he is
    SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO superior. Of course, he is at the University of KANSAS. Can you imagine having an advanced academic degree from KANSAS?

    Hahahahahahahahaha

    Oh, and he loves to cuss people out too!

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.