Saturday, November 25, 2006

"I know you don't know..."

So this fellow Sam Harris has recently come onto my radar. He's in the Richard Dawkins "religion is pretty immediately harmful and we need to get rid of it" school of thought, and he's published a pair of books (The End of Faith and Letters to a Christian Nation) in which he spells out his position. There's a video of him giving a talk out there, and I think he's a pretty good speaker...

But it might just be because I'm inclined to agree with what he's saying. I've been trying to work this out systematically. There are some very clear ways in which religion-inspired positions can be detrimental to people's health and happiness -- we've got the oft-cited condoms-in-Africa and the stem cell research and the homophobia... and all sorts of positions, say environmental ones, that you would rationally take if you thought that these were the End Times, that Jesus was coming to save the day in the next 50 years or so -- which supposedly almost half the country buys into. And that's just not a healthy belief for people to have, if the rest of us want to establish a sustainable living environment for people in the long-run.

And deep down inside, I think a property of people (for now) is that we want a holy war -- we need something to rally against, some sort of emergency situation to respond to. And we think, "well, this is wrong. These well-meaning people are misled, and it's so pervasive, particularly in this country, and you can't really talk about it..." So they're talking about it, Harris and Dawkins are.

However, I think where Dawkins and Harris fall down is in two major ways:

Firstly, not all religious people take all the purported beliefs of their religion to their logical extremes (and why not is an enormously interesting issue). This is a central point in Harris' argument, and I'm trying to work out what I think about it -- he says that religious moderation and pluralism essentially ropes off faith from rational discourse and makes it okay to believe whatever you want, and nobody's going to question it, which provides cover for extremists... and as moderately-minded folks, we have trouble believing that people really believe this schlock, but he assures us that they do -- and that genocides and jihads really aren't just about economics and education like we want to believe they are, but are honestly religiously motivated.

And yet the world is full of people who identify with one particular faith and still do wonderful things for the world. Many Christians feel the need to be good stewards of the planet, they save the water and the air and the narwhals, they feed the hungry, they provide medical attention all over the world. And many are full of love and hope and tolerance, and they stand up for their gay friends and make beautiful works of art and fill the world with music.

Of course, these people might do these exact same things without religion -- maybe they're just beautiful people. But then, in a world without faith, I wouldn't be writing this post. So it goes.

Secondly: the biblical god is perhaps not in the same class of entities as Zeus or Inari, and I think it's an oversimplification to put statements like "there is a giant diamond buried in my back yard" (an example from Harris) in the same class as statements about the nature of a more abstract deity -- at least without further examination. Now the idea that Jesus is physically coming to end the world soon, maybe that's in the same category as the giant diamond, but what about the proposition that there's an inherent moral structure to the universe, or that your dead friends and family aren't really gone? Or that things Will Ultimately Work Out? ... Of course "I wouldn't want to live in a world where X is not the case" isn't really a knock-down argument to convince us of any of these things.

So anyway, BG, as we'll call it, is something a little different, with a fluid identity somewhere between that of Zeus (the old-testament local sky-god, rooting up the local fertility cults and being mad at some people while briefly favoring others), a mythological sun-hero, and something like a Lucasian Force or the Tao or even identifying with all of the world, like you might find in Spinoza.

Richard Dawkins had quipped that everybody is atheist about most of the gods that have ever been dreamt up -- some of us just go that last step. And I think that's an oversimplification, because for a lot of people, god is just that abstract-orderliness-principle... if your view of god is, like this fellow RJ Eskow puts it, the sheet music of the universe, then this isn't all that different from believing in causality and some initial state of things, is it? And don't a lot of people hold beliefs like that?

I think what Sam Harris really gets at is that it's almost taboo to talk about faith as an absurdity in polite society. Many people get really defensive about their theology, if you bring it up. There's this weird feeling of guilt, at least for me, being an unbeliever bringing this topic up. I don't believe like you believe; in fact, I think you're wrong about some pretty fundamental things and I'm trying to gauge whether it's harmful. And that's where the guilt comes from, I think -- we're faced with the prospect of explaining to our loved ones that they and some large chunk of society hold possibly-destructive beliefs. It feels wrong because we know folks who are nicer people than us (and furthermore more devoted social activists) and it's hard to find fault with them and what they believe -- no harm, no foul, right? Is it so destructive to believe in a universe that has some sort of underlying order to it, that wants, in some sense, for you to be nice to people, wherein you identify the BG with a kind and loving parent?

I mean, it's Wrong, of course. And I still haven't addressed Sam Harris' idea that toleration and letting people believe what they want provides cover for fundamentalists. And the propositions that the wonderful and nice people hold true might even be largely the same as the ones that folks we might label as societally destructive believe in... this is a difficult and tangly problem. The mind is vast and greatly partitioned.

So at a higher level, do we believe in truth and the search for it, or is what we believe pretty much unrelated to any objective world that might be out there? And how can you possibly sit still when you know in your heart that you have this truth that's vitally important for everybody's eternal well-being that snot-nosed AI kids on the internet are calling schlock? Doesn't religious pluralism lead the way to trivializing religion as a whole? The idea that there's some abstract higher truth that's filtered into different societies in different ways is attractive to many, but I think it breaks down when you get into the specifics of what religions are actually saying. Unless everybody's just speaking in metaphors and hyperbole most of the time.

(This last cluster, the "abstract orderliness to the world" has its problems once you try to work out the details, of course. Particularly, it doesn't square with BG as well as many would like -- you start ascribing all of these perfections to BG, maybe with an aim to working out an ontological existence proof and then you're left with The Problem of Evil or justice anyway. Let's leave this to another post, or perhaps a book.)

(although many in Christian contexts have preached against the God-as-the-Force idea in favor of a more personalitied BG, Huston Smith interestingly characterizes Hinduism as encouraging whichever idea about Brahma one personally finds more worshipable)

Here are some interesting blog posts: alls I'm gonna say is that people who argue against Sam Harris seem to mostly rely on ad hominem attacks and the idea that he has a faulty moral compass.

- RJ Eskow: Reptiles of the Mind -- giving thanks for rational atheists
- RJ Eskow: The sad state of atheism today
- Sam Harris: In Defense of Torture (seriously, Sam, wtf?)
- Steven Pinker: Less Faith, More Reason
- Marty Kaplan: Atheists for Cheney


Esther said...

The only link I had time to read was the "yay torture" one, which - from your "nobody's been able to give a good counterargument" comment - I take it you find convincing. Ironically, the collateral damage tactic is one that I once took in a well-received paper, using that as an argument against modern warfare. But then, pacifism obviously doesn't work in the real world; why, it's so obvious that it doesn't work, Harris doesn't even need to bother to give examples or arguments for it. Ditto with the deep psychological damage done on the torturer (not just the tortured), and the problem that this "one chance in a million" of good information from torture is surrounded by 999,999 pieces of information that are just as misleading and time-wasting as a shot in the dark - clearly these are just girly bleeding-heart excuses.

Oh, and by the way, such sound arguments about pluralism and the evils of religion have finally convinced me that Malcolm X was right after all when he said that white people are the devil, and that desegregation is just a word for letting them continue their evil. After all, look at what white people have done to the African continent (or the Asian, or the South American). At best they're vaguely unoffensive - they might even talk about being equal to black people - but as long as white people are allowed to be around, we'll always have the KKK and neo-Nazis lurking at the fringes. Better to get rid of the whites altogether than to allow their poison to continue. Their soft-hearted brethren simply haven't taken their racial identity to its logical extreme, after all.

Harris is also absolutely right that "toleration and letting people believe what they want provides cover for fundamentalists." Heck, that's why I've supported political censorship for years. If people had to be sensible and put aside those fluffy liberal ideals when they conflicted with reasonable government policy, we wouldn't be wasting time justifying our torture and war to them in the first place! Letting people disagree in the marketplace of ideas only allows dangerously wrong notions to proliferate.

(I'm sorry to resort to sarcasm. But arguments like this do nothing to help anyone. Even if religion were utterly harmful, telling people "your most basic beliefs and identity are wrong and dangerous!" is going to do no good at all. One has to look at the level of individual issues - why one must protect the environment, respect gays, etc. - to make any progress. Do you know anyone who's read Harris or Dawkins and said "you know, I was an unquestioning mindless fundamentalist - but now I see the light, it's atheism for me!"?)

(Also, I really hate neo-fascists who try to gloss over the fact that they're advocating trampling on human, political, social, and religious rights in order to "protect" them. The only difference is that this time the neo-fascist wolves are stepping out of their family-values sheep's clothing, now that they've seen that it isn't as politically fool-proof as they thought.)

Martin said...

I think you make a good point about altruism existing without religion. It seems like "bad" behavior should also exist without religion too.

Many genocides, ethnic cleansings and generally bad things happen for atheistic reasons. I would likely say "most." Imagine the largest conflicts you can in the past century: the Holocaust, Asian regimes, the Rwandan conflict, the conflict in Congo. I would take their connection with religion with a grain of salt. Genocide is about cultural conflict. Religion is an aspect of culture.

If Dawkins and Harris feel like atheism could remove the majority of humanity's problems, I feel like they are very misguided. The Western world is becoming atheist and agnostic. Surely that can't mean we don't have to worry about the same old issues.

& I think you agree with me there.

Perhaps the reason you feel bad talking about religion, is because you know how it feels when someone who is religious insinuates that *you* are dangerous because of your lack of god-fearin' moral structure and are on a path to destruction involving eternal damnation.

Certainly I feel bad too. I see a world full of religious fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists alike. They seem to want nothing better than to tell other people what to do and to believe and to shoot others in the face or ban the wearing of certain clothes. Instead, they could be helping to usher in an age of liberalism and chilling-the-fuck-out-amentalism. There are so many *real* problems that need fixing in this world.

Alex R. said...

*furrows brow, confused* So did you just read the "yay torture" link, or did you read what I wrote too? Because I'm not ringingly endorsing these positions (particularly not the torture one!), it should be clear? And I don't see why you're fixating on that; that's mostly not what I'm talking about.

I'm just asking: does pluralism not seem problematic to you? The deep problem faced by everybody who's right is what to do about it. Do you try to convince people, at the risk of alienating them? How important is it? But people do change their minds over time -- it's just a question, I suppose, of when it's okay to question somebody's metaphysical stances. The currently polite answer seems to be "very seldom"; Sam Harris maybe wants to call people out all the time. Personally, I think the answer should be at least "more often than we do now"...

And I dunno about you, but I am the devil.

Hey ya. Chilling-the-fuck-out-amentalism is probably the way to go. I don't think anybody clever out there would say that you can attribute all or maybe even most of our problems to religious differences... but it seems like there's something there, not entirely cultural and ethnic identity. Ideas are really powerful -- people die about them all the time.

Martin said...

Alex, having a roommate with which you can have interesting rational discussions is awesome.

With respect to your comments:

What is acceptable in polite conversation is entirely a social convention.

As long as the majority of the population is religious, it will seem rude to question their beliefs. Compare this to questioning someone's choice of clothes or haircut.

Doesn't Harris actually suggest refusing to acknowledge religious positions due to lack of support? Perhaps reasonable, but certainly Snooty Mc. Snootface and less appropriate in situations that require cooperation.

In any case, this boils down to atheistic proselytism. It will work and feel like the normal religious kind, though even worse since you aren't promising heaven.

I think that if you want to actually convince people, bemoaning a person's philosophic and theologic choices to his face aren't going to win you much success. You're going to have to be more subtle and more politic. Push too hard and you'll only meet resistence. I mean...try it, if you don't believe me.

The way I look at it, religion makes Sam Harris itchy and he wants to scratch every one else. That isn't so much educational as divisive.

And for me:
In what sense does religion not tightly bind to ethnic and cultural identity? In what sense do people die about ideas instead of for the normal animal instincts reasons (perhaps disguised as idealogical differences)?

Just thoughts.

Esther said...

As we discussed on AIM, the post and the posts it linked to pushed some of my buttons fairly effectively, and I apologize if I seemed to overreact.

To answer your questions . . .

I'm just asking: does pluralism not seem problematic to you?

It's certainly problematic, and it's a problem that's only really been tackled by political philosophy in the last decade or two. (I nearly took a class focusing on it this semester, actually.) But it's not problematic in the sense of "less pluralism would be better!"; it's problematic in the sense of "given that we do want to respect everyone's beliefs, to the degree that they don't result in direct harm to other people, how do we help mutually exclusive beliefs to coexist?" Perhaps you don't, but some of the folks under discussion seem to think that the existence of extremists who disagree with them is a bad thing, and I don't.

it's just a question, I suppose, of when it's okay to question somebody's metaphysical stances. . . Personally, I think the answer should be at least "more often than we do now"...

Would you say that's true of religious people, too? I can't recall the last time I went up to an atheist/agnostic friend and said, "How on earth could you think that? Haven't you considered ____?" Should I be doing that more often? I've always taken the approach that people are ultimately capable of making up their own minds. I'll happily listen to someone's reasons for not believing in God, or explain why I do, but it's merely on the level of mutually-interested sharing of information and personal views, not with an explicit intent to proselytize.

Perhaps it's just a personal thing; I've always been much more comfortable with exhortion (getting people to do what they know they probably ought to be doing already) than with persuasion (getting people to believe what they don't currently believe).

Martin Robinson said...

Pardon my last comment, being poorly worded and unfortunate and one which I can illuminate in a conversation. There is sleep that I am lacking.