Monday, April 18, 2011

Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape," Part 5

Today Nick Peters delivers the last in a series on this popular work.


We are now on the final chapter with which I will conclude this review. Harris is writing here about the future of happiness and right at the start, it is a wonder that someone could write a chapter like this. On page 177 he writes “Despite our perennial bad behavior, our moral progress seems to me unmistakable.”

Indeed: Because we can all watch the evening news and say America is getting better and better.

Harris tells us on the same page that of course the twentieth century delivered “some” unprecedented horrors. (Parentheses mine)

World War 1, World War 2, the Holocaust, Khmer Rouge, Hiroshima and Nagasaki….

Yes. Just “some” horrors. If you want to overlook world wars and killing on a scale never before seen, yes. We only saw some horrors.

Fortunately, according to Harris, we in the developed world became disturbed by our capacity to do harm to our fellow man.

After all, we know all of the above atrocities took place in third world countries and Russia and Germany were not at all developed….

Harris goes on to write about how he has developed his argument, if you want to call it that, in the book. There is nothing new aside from the idea that we must depend on science. Now then is a good time to consider my overall look at Harris’ book.

I have stated before that I think Harris is the worst researcher amongst the new atheists. He consistently denies citing his opponents and even though Polkinghorne and N.T. Wright are referenced in this book, their positions are not dealt with. This is not to say that they are automatically right, but that if Harris wants to say that someone like Collins tells us to read these people and has the implication that this is a bad argument, he should tell us why. What is wrong with the position of Polkinghorne? What is wrong with that of Wright?

I also believe Harris’ whole thesis in facts works against him. If our brains are meant to uncover moral truths about the world, then does this not imply a teleology for us? A proper-functioning brain is one that does happen to discover that acts of genocide are wrong. Why should the brain uncover moral truths however? (Or any truths for that matter?) Why should there be a relation between the way I “feel” and the way the world is? (In saying such, I am not saying morality is a matter of feeling of course.)

At my writing of this, Harris has just concluded recently a debate with William Lane Craig where Harris was thoroughly outmatched. While I do not agree with all of Craig’s positions, Harris’ arguments boiled down to ideas like “YHWH condoned genocide” and “Why should a good Hindu go to Hell?” Harris simply ranted and consistently played the card of “no evidence” thinking that all Christians everywhere eschew the idea of evidence for a position.

It is ironic that the new atheists tend to think simply asserting their position counts as an argument. They do not give evidence that Christians eschew evidence. They do not give evidence that faith is believing something without reason. They do not interact with the arguments of the other side seriously, all the while chiding Christians for doing the same.

It is my hope in fact that the new atheists keep up the march that they’re on. The more that they argue as they do, the better and better the state of affairs gets for their opposition. They have lowered the intellectual level of atheism. When atheists start thinking people like Harris and Dawkins are well-read in the philosophy and theology they critique, we are in good hands. Of course, this does not mean that we avoid our intellectual commitments, but if we sharpen ours blades while our opponents dull theirs, we will have an advantage.

If you are an atheist, I do urge you that if you want Christians to take your arguments seriously, avoid the new atheists like the plague. Never cite them except as a negative example. Look in their bibliographies and indexes and notes and see how much they have paid attention to the other side, and then read their opposition. In fact, read the opposition before the new atheists ever came out to see the new atheists are dealing with arguments that have been dealt with numerous times before. There is indeed nothing new under the sun.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape," Part 4

As I get ready for a road trip, it's nice to have a guest post to use, and in the after,math of the Craig/Harris debate, we have the next installment of Nick Peters' look at The Moral Landscape. The Ticker will return on Wednesday as I will be out of town Monday.


Now we come to the fun part. Harris is going to make an argument against religion. The reality however is that one will more likely picture Harris foaming at the mouth through much of this rather than making an argument.

To begin with, Harris says on page 145 that despite explicit separation of church and state provided for by the U.S. Constitution (Where?) the level of belief in religion and its significance even in political discourse rivals a number of theocracies.

Of course, the separation of church and state comes from a letter from Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Church. However, Harris seems to construe the idea of religious belief with theocracy. What is the basis for this? Harris doesn’t give it. Because I’m a Christian, I’m automatically a believer in theonomy?

This isn’t a shock considering Harris sees Islam which is like this and assumes all religion must be like this. In reality, it is because of the idea of Christianity that religious freedom exists here in America. For we Christians, generally, while we disagree with Islam, we should support the right of Muslims to build mosques. (I am against one at ground zero, but that is not because I am opposed to a Muslim’s freedom of religion.)

What do we know about a person’s religious beliefs? Harris cites a Boyer who says “explicit theologies and consciously held dogmas are not a reliable indicator of the real contents or causes of a person’s religious beliefs.”

Because we all know that the worst way to understand a person’s belief system is to ask them what they believe….

In a number of places in this chapter, Harris also paints the exceptional as the normative. For instance, Harris speaks about a Christian group that let a toddler die of starvation for not saying “Amen” before meals. Harris does not mention that this was not a Christian group however but a group called “1 Mind Ministries.” See information about this group below.

Of course, for Harris, it doesn’t matter that this group is identified as a cult by Christians. They still fall under the same label.

Harris shortly afterwards begins a long rant. He starts by stating that because some scientists do not detect any conflict with religious faith and science only proves that a juxtaposition of good and bad ideas is possible. Why not the reverse? Why not that some people think there is a conflict proves that the juxtaposition of good and bad ideas is possible?

Who is Harris’s main target? Francis Collins. Collins, says Harris, is “widely considered the most impressive example of sophisticated faith in action.” (Page 160)

Widely by whom? While I am glad that Collins is a Christian, if you asked me to name leading defenders of Christianity today, it would take me awhile to get to Collins. Collins’s main work is not in defending Christianity, which is fine with me. We can’t expect everyone to be an apologist. Perhaps Harris should have interacted with some.

I read Michael Ruse’s review also of this book. Ruse is an atheist but does not hold back on Harris and I agree with him on this point. Harris starts his look at Collins with this paragraph on page 160 that Ruse also quotes:

The Language of God is a genuinely astonishing book. To read it is to witness nothing less than an intellectual suicide. It is, however, a suicide that has gone almost entirely unacknowledged: the body yielded to the rope; the neck snapped; the breath subsided; and the corpse dangles in ghastly discomposure even now—and yet polite people everywhere continue to celebrate the great man’s health.

If you’ve also read Ruse and think Ruse is using hyperbole to describe what Harris does here, I assure you he is not. This rant against Collins literally continues until page 174. That is fifteen pages. You read that right. Harris takes one Christian he does not like in a book on ethics and spends fifteen pages arguing against him. He would have been better off to have actually interacted with Christian ideas, such as Aquinas’s treatment of Natural Law.

Harris asks if it would be possible that Collins would be running the NIH if he were an outspoken polytheist. I say “Why not?” It doesn’t matter to me. When it comes to him giving us knowledge of the human genome, I only care about one thing. Does he have the credentials to do so? Now I believe him being a Christian is a bonus due to his attitudinal position, but I believe the knowledge of the human genome can be gained the same way. It is done through science and not revelation. If Collins was praying that God would reveal the genome to him without doing any research, I would have a problem. Unlike Harris, I don’t make that big a deal about the position that Collins holds otherwise.

When Collins writes of his conversion experience, Harris says one hopes they would see “Dear Diary” before it. Granted, I don’t place much stock necessarily in one’s experiences, but I don’t exclude them entirely either. I don’t know the full context either of what happened, but at this point in my copy of the book I literally wrote on this part “Get a grip, Harris.” I could picture him literally frothing at the mouth.

Harris also tells us that Collins believes in canonical miracles such as the virgin birth and literal resurrection and how he cites N.T. Wright and John Polkinghorne. Now I would not go with Polkinghorne, but Harris says that when Collins is pressed on finer points of theology, he recommends that people consult books by others for further illumination.

Okay. The problem? If you’re not an authority in a field, refer to someone else. Am I to think that Harris would never recommend that I read others on topics that he’s not skilled on? Or, is Harris skilled equally in history, geometry, mathematics, philosophy, logic, science, literature, poetry, music, etc. (Of course, I am open to him being equally weak in all.)

Harris in fact does this. When he writes about the distorted text of the New Testament in his opinion, he simply has an endnote to Ehrman. Note that this is just two pages after he complains that Collins has us read other people. You have to love the new atheists when they do stuff like this.

When looking at Collins’s religious beliefs, Harris asks how many scientific laws are violated by this. I can answer the question quite easily for him. None. Not a one. Harris does not understand the relationship between miracles and so-called laws of science.

On page 169, we see the idea that for Harris, it remains taboo to criticize mainstream religion. Keep in mind everyone that Harris is saying this in his third book criticizing mainstream religion and shortly after writing this paragraph, he will refer to books and articles by atheists. Yes. Obviously there is a taboo at work.

On page 173, Harris asks us “Is it really wise to entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible, while our resurrection from death is inevitable?” Hmmm. Let me think about that.


Why? Because the science is the same. I can accept science regardless of the source. An experiment done by a Christian will produce a result. If done in the same way by an atheist, it should produce the same or a similar result. Simply have Collins’s work go through peer-review like anyone else’s should.

On page 174, Harris tells us that there are several works claiming that Harris and his cohorts in the new atheists do not understand religion, that they caricature it and use extremes as norms. Harris claims that they do no such thing. They just do what Collins does and take the specific claims seriously.

I simply ask the reader to go back through here (when they’re done laughing) and see how Harris does indeed do what he says he hasn’t. I have yet to read anything in one of these books worthy of making someone blink. Harris could have a case if he actually interacted with more Christian literature. Note that in this chapter, he never interacts with N.T. Wright for instance, though Wright shows up in his bibliography. I have written on this elsewhere and at the bottom is a link to my post on my blog on the shoddy research of the new atheism.
Naturally, Harris has the same idea as well that faith is conviction without sufficient reason and warning that we better be careful or the Christian mob will burn down the library of Alexandria again. Links are included again dealing with both of these.

Harris then asks on page 175 “But let’s admit which side in this debate currently views our neighbors as dangerous children and which views them as adults who might prefer not to be completely mistaken about the nature of reality.”
I agree. That would be the Christian side rather than the atheist side always speaking about indoctrination and being delusional without doing sufficient research on the topic.

In conclusion, Harris’s chapter reveals nothing on religion really nor does it deal with religious theories of moral knowledge. It is simply a rant, but alas, have we not come to expect this from the new atheists?

One Mind Ministries by Apologetics Index

Shoddy Research of New Atheists

Faith defined

Library of Alexandria