We had another mass murder in America this week, and there’s no way around it: it was by a “none”, someone who hated organized religion, and who described himself as Not Religious, Not Religious, but Spiritual. If he were participating in a survey, we’d embrace him as one of us, part of our growing majority.
There is no need to use the terms “faith” or “belief” when discussing the existence or nonexistence of a god or gods. As a scientist, I draw conclusions based on evidence and logic. That leads me to the following conclusions.
1. I cannot prove there are no gods; therefore I am not an atheist.
2. I cannot prove there is a god; therefore I am not a theist.
3. Therefore, I am an agnostic.
The trouble is that the three points are really logical, not evidential points. And this is part of the problem when discussing atheism and agnosticism: Continue reading My Atheism→
I’d describe #PseudoLiberals as liberals that have something of the Post Modern Relativism about them. They are individuals that form a loose collective that think they are being particularly good lefty liberals by giving unbounded respect to those playing the offence game in the face of criticism – common with regard to the offended religious. Continue reading #PseudoLiberals Go After New Atheists→
New Atheism is being subjected to attacks, and it’s clear from those attacks, from what the critics say, that many really don’t understand New Atheism, and in many cases haven’t read what New Atheists actually say, but rather rely on what other opponents say New Atheists say. There are descriptions of New Atheism around the internet, but many of them don’t really explain what is being missed. So, here’s my take. Continue reading New Atheism→
There’s some serious hypocrisy flying around some quarters of the Free Thought Blogs. Ophelia Benson, PZ Myers and others are fighters for social justice, the feminist cause and the battle against sexual abuse and rape, which can only be applauded, and would be, were it not for their methods. Continue reading Ophelia Benson’s Medicine→
Rape is bad. In similar circumstances the a similar event might be worse for some victims than others. And depending on how it affects the victim what looks superficially like a worse rape, such as by a stranger at knife point, than another rape, such as by a friend on a date, may in fact not be what we expect. One victim might find the date rape far more traumatic than the attack by a stranger, because perhaps the failure of trust between them and the trusted friend might completely fuck up the victim’s capacity to trust and interact with people generally. The victim of a stranger rape might be able to put that into a box, a dreadful box not to be opened again, so that they can get on with their lives. Continue reading Dawkins v Myers: The Slurs Continue→
I had a conversation with an atheist friend recently and I think we surprised each other.
Though an atheist she still felt she needed to believe in ‘something’, though she didn’t quite know in what; and to some extent she envied religious believers in that they had something to turn to, some belief. This surprised me, because though I know of some atheists who feel this way this was my first opportunity to hear it first hand. What surprised me more was her surprise at the nature my atheism. Continue reading What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.→
This is the dumbest piece of God promotion I’ve seen for some time. I wouldn’t have this neuroscientist anywhere near my brain. He says how much he wants to believe, has a specific brain experience that matches reports of experiences by other people, and that’s it – job done, God exists.
1) Auditory hallucinations can be auto-generated in the brain without sound input through the ears, so it’s possible for someone with a brain to ‘hear voices’; and some people who ‘hear voices’ attribute them to God or Jesus. He should know this. Humans hallucinate.
2) The brain perceptions experienced (bright light, vast space, God, etc.), and the reality of the things supposedly conceived (heaven, God), are quite distinct. The experience of the perceptions is no guide to the reality of the thing perceived. That’s why we call them hallucinations. Near-death is a rare experience for a human brain (except for those with a one way ticket, but then they don’t come back to report), so it is difficult to say what we would expect to experience. Novel brain experiences are not a sufficient guide to reality.
3) People will have similar experiences because, duh, they have brains too. We should expect that experiences of near death will be similar, so the similarity of the reports should not be taken as mounting evidence for the thing claimed of the experience.
4) As others have pointed out in the article’s comment stream, similar experiences can be achieved by using drugs. And by stimulation of the brain in the lab or operating theatre. There is no reason to suppose that the perceptions contained during these experiences represent a reality, and plenty of evidence that they don’t.
5) On what grounds does Alexander suppose that his perceived experiences occurred in real-time while he was unconscious? He has no way of knowing, because he was unconscious! Only later, when his consciousness returns, is he able to report on his experiences. For all he knows his brain might be constructing a completely false memory, as if it had occurred, as part of the process of recovering consciousness. Perhaps this is what it’s like when a brain is ‘turned on’ again. Being a neuroscientist he should know of this and many other rational possibilities.
There’s a problem here that theologians, many philosophers, and it appears some scientists, have with the nature of the brain and its relation to our inner thoughts and experiences. Lurking behind views expressed by those like Alexander is a presupposition that the mind is distinct from the brain and that what we experience in the mind has some distinct reality. I call this the primacy of thought problem, where we suppose that the mind and our thoughts, through our Rationalism, is the primary source of knowledge. To some extent this is understandable, since as physical animals we have to wait until our brains achieve a certain degree of complexity and experience before they become self-aware enough to do any reasoned thinking. It’s then as if our ‘mind’ has been switched on, and then is perceived to exist as if it is something independent of the brain. Contributing to this feeling is the fact that our self-awareness, our introspection, can only go so deep. We cannot, for example, perceive the individual neurons firing away as we think. We only perceive the thoughts, not the cause of the thoughts. We have no physical sensation in the brain, like touch or pain, that tells us what is actually going on inside our heads as we think. So, we feel detached, as free-floating consciousness.
In the context of this post Alexander is in no position to say what caused his experience. All he ends up with is a perception of an experience – a brain experience.
What a dumb-ass. He was lost to religion before he started on his unconscious journey; he wanted it; he says as much. Confirmation bias?
Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma…
Is this guy really a neuroscientist? It’s difficult to say to what extent a brain is ‘inactive’ during a coma, or other states where external appearances imply unconsciousness. It’s not even fully understood to what extent there is a real barrier between consciousness and un-conscious activity.
What happened to me demands explanation.
There are plenty answers to choose from. You can go with the simple functioning of a brain under stress and bad health that is capable of inducing perceptual experiences that are not associated with any reality; or you can go for your God explanation, because you want to.
Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also-I now know-defined by love.
Of course this statement tells us more about Alexander’s understanding of ‘knowing’, his views on epistemology and what it is for an animal brain to ‘know’ something, his commitment to Rationalism, than it does about any actuality.
The universe as I experienced it in my coma is – I have come to see with both shock and joy – the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.
It’s hard for this statement to be wrong, because of course it is a fatuous profundity – a deepity, as Dennett would say. Quite meaningless in that it could be taken to mean anything. A straight forward physical interpretations is that yes, the physical brain has physical behaviours that under some conditions give the impression of a spiritual experience while at the same time the very same brain is governed entirely by the natural laws of science as we discover them.
But that belief, that theory [of the brain], now lies broken at our feet.
No, just at his feet, as he perceives it to be broken; as perceived by his broken brain that has had a perceptual experience that has left him with the impression that the imagined content of that experience is real.
When the castle of an old scientific theory begins to show fault lines…
The fault lines are as imagined as the content of his dreams.
… no one wants to pay attention at first … The looks of polite disbelief, especially among my medical friends, soon made me realize what a task I would have getting people to understand the enormity of what I had seen …
Oh dear. The plight of the unbelieved prophet. Everyone else is blind. Why can’t they see?
One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.
No fucking kidding!
I’m still a doctor, and still a man of science every bit as much as I was before I had my experience.
Well, I’d say not. Unless we take this to mean that he was already lost to science in his desire to believe.
I only hope he doesn’t turn into one of these evangelical doctors that you get from time to time. My mother is a believer in God of sorts, but she decided that enough was enough when at her local GP practice (an evangelical husband and wife team) her doctor suggested at the end of a consultation that they should hold hands and pray together for her recovery and well being. Preying on the sick by praying for them. But you can see this coming with Alexander.
Update: Sam Harris has chipped in: This Must Be Heaven covers more detail, including comment by Mark Cohen. As well as going to town on Alexander, he also dishes it out to Newsweek. Harris is as eloquent as usual, so it really is worth a read. Pleas do.
I’ve just come across this site of letters, thanks to a Simon Singh tweet. This was the second letter I read. The site explains enough, and the letter is one of those pieces that you wished you’d written yourself. So I’ll say no more. Just read:
The best bit, and the most crucial bit that applies to all religious books is number 1:
1. This is true
This is the one and only necessary assumption in any religion to make it worthy of the name. It must declare its own truth. Of course (snigger🙂 (more smugness to come) we all know this is pure bollocks don’t we.
I get regular visits from Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are really nice people (at least to ones who visit me are). I think they like me and return often for the following reasons:
(a) I don’t slam the door in their faces;
(b) they haven’t converted me yet, so I suspect, like a lottery rollover, my cache goes up with each rejection;
(c) the religious are masochists (why else invent sin and then admit to bing up to the neck in it).
Anyway, I keep two things handy for when they call.
The first is a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. They always quote from it incorrectly and it’s an easy book to show them they’ve been misled. They do go through some other topics, such as DNA, irreducible complexity, but I usually wing it once we get past Darwin, because it would take too long to go through any book to convince them (“Let’s start with basic chemistry…”). I know, it’s wrong of me, but I argue from authority of knowing just a bit more about this stuff than they do. As much as I can make points against Behe’s arguments generally, if they brought him along as a guest doorstepper I might be screwed on the biology, because I’m not a biologist.
But I digress, again. The second, and most important thing I keep nearby is a piece of paper, oh and a pen – so that’s three things I keep near by, but you know what I mean.
And on that piece of paper I write words to this effect:
This paper contains the word of God as revealed to Ron Murphy. If you’re here while he’s writing this you too must bear witness to this miracle. Now, as your God I command you to ignore the Bible, Koran, gold tablets and any other bollocks you may have come across telling absolute crap about me. I can swear by the way. I am God after all. Though the atheists got it wrong, they got it wrong for the right reasons – they don’t believe any old crap in a document claiming to be the revealed truth. What sort of fucking argument is that?! Anyway, on this occasion it happens to be the truth. However, I’ll forgive you not believing it if you throw it in the bin. On one condition: you throw your crappy book in the bin too and start thinking for yourself.
No, I don’t really write all that, I just feel as though I want to. A sentence or two is usually enough to make the point.
But, miracle of miracles, their faith survives even this cutting blow. What the fuck can I do?
Some time ago Richard Carrier was lured into a debate with Muslim theists which was supposed to propose something like “We can prove God exists”, but at the last minute was changed to “We cannot prove God exists” (can’t remember the details). Carrier went from looking at an easy ride to being knocked out by a sucker punch because he played their game. His opener at the actual event should have been, “I concede we cannot prove God exists, so my opponents win the debate. Now, let’s get down to some interesting points about philosophy and science: this is why I don’t believe in God.”
The title of this debate pretty neutral, but I’d recommend a similar tactic with WLC: that SL doesn’t get into playing WLC’s game, or even necessarily trying to rebut his points. He should simply present his own case, pretty much ignore WLC, and just dismiss his argument totally with fundamental philosophy.
One of WLC’s moves is to concentrate on the ‘failure’ of science to disprove God’s existence, as though atheists think that possible or necessary.
The key points for me are as follows…
We humans have found ourselves to be thinking beings, and this awareness appears to have been sprung upon us some few thousand years ago, at least as far back as we can tell from philosophical and religious writings and artifacts. And with the hindsight of evolution this thinking capacity appears to be a recent acquisition, and we’re not as good at it as WLC likes to think he is, particularly with regard to the metaphysics of things outside our common experience.
The only tools we find provide knowledge consistent over wide areas of our understanding of reality are all tools of science. And science can demonstrate many instances where introspective thinking and the invention of fanciful theistic explanations of events are woefully incorrect and often incoherent. Whatever we think reality might be our only route to it is through science. That someone believes there is a God has no bearing whatsoever on the actual existence of a God, no matter how inventive their logic, because there logic will always come back to the dependence on the presupposition that there is a God – to do the revealing, to inspire or command the authoring of religious texts.
If there’s any proving to be done, or any evidence required, the responsibility is entirely on the theist to provide it. Everything we do come to know about this universe shouts out at us that there is some causal universe that conforms to various patterns, which we understand as the laws of physics. If theists like WLC want to take a pop the limitations of science, then he has to accept that these very limitations apply to him too – he cannot demonstrate a superior capacity to know stuff.
These laws are so pervasive, so in-your-face, every moment of every day conforms to them – except, supposedly, with respect to God, astrology, ESP and a few other unsubstantiated ideas. These latter beliefs are the exceptions – but where is the evidence to support them?
Because they are the exceptions the null hypothesis is that everything conforms to the laws of physics, just as we find, evidentially, empirically. Even our own existence, according to evolution, conforms to these laws; and what’s more, shows us that our predecessors were empirical sensory animals. Our cognitive abilities appear to lie on the same continuum that our physical attributes do, from our evolutionary past. Our particular self-aware introspective cognition is such a late addition we should be very wary of supposing it to be the pinnacle of creation, the precise and acute tool that WLC thinks his mind is, rather than a fallible tool, a temporary blip in an evolutionary history of one particular species. Our intellect appears to be just one more product of evolution, with a primary purpose of helping us survive. There’s no reason to believe that it has any greater capacity than that, no particular reason that it should give us access to some metaphysical supernatural – except to the extent that this very limited intellect mistakenly thinks we can.
These other ideas, these metaphysical speculations, constitute the alternative hypotheses. They have never been demonstrated, with either rationally sound argument or substantial evidence. They remain unsupportable, though irrationally believed to be true. The null hypothesis, that everything conforms to whatever our understanding of physics is, or comes to be, remains intact.
WLC can dress up his arguments all he likes. He can complain that atheists cannot disprove God as long as he likes to hear his own voice profess it – but that’s irrelevant. He misses the point of science entirely. He doesn’t get that science shows us the limitations of our brains to reason about the inaccessible without supporting evidence; and in doing so overestimates his own capacity to know things he claims are true. WLC is just pissing against the wind – and his followers haven’t noticed this because they are too busy admiring his rhetorical big dick.
I do hope (against the odds) that SL doesn’t get bogged down in his favourite ‘problem of evil’ argument. It’s unlikely to survive the irrationality of WLC. Though the problem of evil as dealt with by SL’s ‘God of Eth’ may be convincing to rational minds, it won’t make a dent on the minds of believers if they don’t want it to.
SL should stick to basic philosophy and our current understanding of science. He should call WLC out on the presuppositions that underpin WLC’s otherwise persuasive rhetoric (persuasive to the gullible at least). SL should be thorough in his philsophy and should not try to debate theology. He should just ignore any temptation to try to win the debate and be content with letting his rational arguments land on a few theistic yet open ears.
Update: coincidentally appropriate Jesus and Mo cartoon. WLC thinks he knows more than he can, as do many theists. But to be fair, I’m not a professional philosopher either, so who am I to judge WLC, or my own philosophical capabilities. We have to remain sceptical about our own ability to know stuff – not something WLC seems to suffer from.
1) Why is there anything?
2) What caused the Universe?
3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?
5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?
7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
8) Why is there evil?
Well, here are my answers…
1) Why is there anything?
We don’t know.
It’s not that this question is nonsense, it’s simply that we don’t have access to the data that would answer it. From a philosophical perspective we have no firm response to the solipsist. The best we can do is say that what appears to be the case most forcefully to our minds and senses (given our senses might be an illusion of the mind) is that the material world is so convincing that we might as well use it as a model for reality until we figure out a better one that actually fits with those facts that the ‘apparent’ material world imposes on us.
For example, if we were entirely mental phenomena (or a single phenomenon) why can’t we get past the apparent material death of another mind (or my illusion of another mind)? The material non-supernatural explanation fits this and many other problems so easily that it’s a sufficient model for now.
The rest of the answers are given with respect to this point of view.
2) What caused the Universe?
We don’t know.
So far we, and our instruments, haven’t had physical presence far beyond our solar system, and in person not beyond the moon. So, all our observations of this universe are restricted to hypotheses based on remote (in time and space) observations. Some hypotheses have mathematical reasoning to lend them some weight. But really, we don’t know.
3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
We don’t know. We’d need to resolve problem (2) to get any further with this. We observe regularities, but we can’t explain them in any deep sense.
4) Of the Four Causes in nature…
We don’t know.
This is philosophy going beyond the bounds of available or accessible knowledge and is more akin to theology.
Specifically, do final causes exists? Well, if we could answer some more questions on causality that would be a start. But then we come up against the same problem of accessibility of the data. And, the question isn’t clear on meaning of ‘final cause’.
5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
Given (1) this can only be answered in atheist materialist terms, and within that context the understanding of matter and how life is just a formation of matter in action, and from there on to evolution. I’ll keep this short, but would be glad to expand on request.
All matter responds to interaction with other matter. Things bounce. At some basic levels we have explanations for this – such as the coming together of atoms of my skin with those of the table, where despite that fact that atoms are mostly space, the electric and nuclear forces stop atoms merging or flowing through each other.
Basic life is complex formations of matter. We still don’t know anything concrete about the beginnings of life, abiogenesis, but the basic hypothesis is that early replicators began the process – try thinking of something like growing crystals, though even this seems an inadequate analogy. The problem with all of this, life, is that we only have life on this planet to examine, that the origins are in the distant past, and anywhere the same process began spontaneously it would be consumed by local chemical reactions or organisms.
Form there, simple single cell life forms react in very complex ways compared to simple elements and molecules – but their responses to contact with other inanimate matter and other living organisms is basically physical and chemical. They go around bumping into stuff, and when they do chemical reactions on their surfaces give rise to further activity.
Complex cells formed by the combination of different single celled entities – i.e. mitochondria. Complex multi-cellular organisms formed cohesive bodies and functionality was subsumed to different organs. In a soft celled multi-organ organism think of the combination like a turtle and its shell. The inner soft and delicate organs don’t need protection from the environment if outer organs are dedicated to that task – e.g. skin.
So, at this stage we have complex systems, of which one component is a nervous system that co-ordinates activity for the organism as a whole. Not all organisms use this approach – e.g. plants. But there seems to be a relationship between the motor capabilities of the organism and the complexity of its nervous system.
Given that one aspect of the nervous system is to respond to the environment in order to direct processes in the organism, and to direct it’s motion, required to find food, one natural outcome is that the organism should be able to detect itself. No point in eating your own arm is there. And this is the basis for self awareness, which most organisms have to some degree if they have a nervous system that samples the environment.
Mammals have multi-mode senses – sight, hearing, touch… And these need co-ordination if they are to be useful. The chicken egg answer is that complexity of nervous system and co-ordination of senses probably evolved together, each effecting the development of the other.
It seems a natural progression that when an organism gets to a certain degree of complexity this self-sensing can include sensing the very internal processes of nervous system itself. In us this isn’t complete, since there’s a big part of our sub-conscious nervous system of which we’re not aware. But basically subjectivity is simply what it appears like when an organism senses it’s own nervous system in action.
6) Why is the human mind intentional…
(5) pretty much answers this.
7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artefact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
It’s a subjective (see 5) conceptual product that has evolved in a social sense, but is based on biologically evolved feelings of empathy and sympathy.
See here for more detail.
8) Why is there evil?
There isn’t, in any objective sense, any more than there is moral law (see 7).
Evil is simply a classification of behaviour that humans typically ascribe to the behaviour of other humans.
Sometimes it can be conflated with suffering generally, such as the consequences of natural disasters, but that notion is only the concoction of those religious people who think natural disasters are associated with demons or with divine retribution. remember this?
The floods that have devastated swathes of the country are God’s judgement on the immorality and greed of modern society, according to senior Church of England bishops.
We don’t ascribe the term ‘evil’ to things that animals do which if performed by humans would be classified as evil. This is again due to the confused thinking of the religious who think that humans have some special gift, or some special place in the universe, or some special relationship with some god or other, and that some or all of these misconceptions give special meaning to human actions we generally disapprove of.
Perhaps the main point I’d want to make in all this is that theists are in exactly the same position. They don’t know. But what they do is make up an answer with no substantiating data and claim that to be the case. They think that the combination of ancient tradition and pseudo-profound language gives credibility to their view, but it really exposes their gullibility to ancient stories from a time when such ignorance was excusable for lack of any reasonable data.
There has been no evidence for religious claims that can be substantiated by third party examination. All subjective personal claims about religious experience have plausible explanations in a materialist world view, where various results of brain sciences can replicate or account for those experiences.
I’m sometimes asked if I’m spiritual. Of course I’m not spiritual in the theistic sense, being an atheist, but there are atheists who consider themselves spiritual beings: Carl Sagan, Sam Harris, for example. I don’t think I am, but I do have a sense of wonder and awe about the world, whether it’s about our cosmological origins, or the new ideas in earthly sciences.
I guess this is the closest I’d come to heaven – being surrounded by fascinating people figuring out what makes the world go round, and how to make it go round better. Their enthusiasm is palpable.
For all Christians go on about what their God gives them it just seems pretty lame compared to discovering new stuff about the universe, or creating fascinating new content that solves very human problems.
Science Foo Camp 2009: by Nature Video.
I guess this un-conference format doesn’t make for easy video, and it’s by invite only. But I’d love to be a fly on the wall. Maybe that’s something that could come out of this type of event. We need a really cool new method of experiencing these events as if we were there.
Some scientists and mathematicians can have experiences that can be considered revelations:
The Harris religion and rape issue is inflaming opinion, still. This particular storm is about the comment he made in an interview with Bethany Saltman in 2006, and this particular sentence:
“I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.”
But let’s go back to where it started, with his book, Letter To A Christian Nation, 2006, which prompted the Saltman interview.
Naturally, for religious people that haven’t read the book but who like to pick up on the nasty things atheists say on their journey to eternal damnation in the next life, then the whole concept of comparing their precious religion with rape is pretty shocking. And it looks like Harris has handed them a stick with which they can give him a damned good thrashing.
Trouble is, in their rush to read only the bad, they miss the point. Here’s the section from the book where rape is first raised.
“As a biological phenomenon, religion is the product of cognitive processes that have deep roots in our evolutionary past. Some researchers have speculated that religion itself may have played an important role in getting large groups of prehistoric humans to socially cohere. If this is true, we can say religion has served an important purpose. This does not suggest, however, that it serves an important purpose now. There is, after all nothing more natural than rape. But no one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors. That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.”
Here Harris is clearly using it to point out that because something has natural origins we don’t have to think it acceptable behaviour now. It’s used as an analogy.
But it’s an analogy that many religious people don’t get. And because they don’t get it they’ve come over all of a froth, because of the dreaded word ‘rape’ – such a taboo word.
My pop-psychology point of the day is that religious people are so used to selective reading when it comes to their holy books, so used to interpreting anything they read in order to give an affirmative bias towards their religion and a negative bias against anything that challenges it, that they are simply confused by analogies, not knowing when to read something literally and when to interpret it as an analogy, or even how to figure out what work the analogy is doing.
Here’s a case in point. Suem wonders why there is so much outrage over Xola Skosana’s sermon that included ‘Jesus with HIV analogy‘.
“Don’t people understand that analogies and metaphors are not meant to be definitive statements”
No they don’t!
They don’t get The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or fairy analogies. Here the point of the analogy is not to liken God to the obviously ridiculous FSM or fairies.
The FSM analogy is about the reasoning that gets you from some hypothesis, such as there is a God, or there is an FSM, to a full explanation, a theology, and even descriptions of characteristics of this hypothetical entity, without any evidence whatsoever.
The whole point of picking obvious nonsensical entities as the object of belief is to show that the same reasoning or faith that gives you God can give you these others; and so the reasoning and the faith is a flawed way of acquiring truth about the entity.
So, similarly, the point of Harris using ‘rape’ in this specific case in his book is to show that the analogous aspects of religion and rape is that because they had evolutionary advantage at some point doesn’t make them beneficial now. Here rape is not meant to be analogous to religion directly.
Symbolically it’s like this:
A has some aspect X B has some aspect X
A is religion. Where B is rape, X is the past evolutionary benefit of religion and rape. Where B is the FSM, X is the poor reasoning about theology of religion and the FSM.
So, here’s the argument. A has aspect X, and is therefore good. But B has aspect X, and B is clearly not good. So, having aspect X is no indication of B or A being good.
The religious could save a lot of unnecessary argument if they took the trouble to figure out what the analogy is about.
The Harris – Saltman Interview
As if the religious hadn’t got hold of the wrong end of the stick already, Harris gives them another excuse to fume. And fume they do.
Let’s have a look at what else he says before we get to the crutial point. Though many religious people might disagree with many of his points, there are some who do see his issues with religion when it comes to the more fundamental flavour. Here’s how it goes towards the end of page 1 of The Sun web site version:
Isn’t religion a natural outgrowth of human nature?
It almost certainly is. But everything we do is a natural outgrowth of human nature. Genocide is. Rape is. No one would ever think of arguing that this makes genocide or rape a necessary feature of a civilized society. Even if you had a detailed story about the essential purpose religion has served for the past fifty thousand years, even if you could prove that humanity would not have survived without believing in a creator God, that would not mean that it’s a good idea to believe in a creator God now, in a twenty-first-century world that has been shattered into separate moral communities on the basis of religious ideas.
Traditionally, religion has been the receptacle of some good and ennobling features of our psychology. It’s the arena in which people talk about contemplative experience and ethics. And I do think contemplative experience and ethics are absolutely essential to human happiness. I just think we now have to speak about them without endorsing any divisive mythology.
Note that both genocide and rape are given as examples. Clearly Harris is referring to the analogy, as I described it above. Being a natural human behaviour does not mean that it has any benefit now.
But Harris isn’t saying benefit can’t be derived from religion. To go back to the book, Letter To A Christian Nation, Harris knows full well that some people do derive benefit from religion:
I have no doubt that your acceptance of Christ coincided with some very positive changes in your life. Perhaps you now love other people in a way you never imagined possible. You may even experience feelings of bliss while praying. I do not wish to denigrate any of these experiences. I would point out however, that billions of human beings, in every time and place, have had similar experiences – but they had them while thinking about Krishna, or Allah, or the Buddha, while making art or music, or while contemplating the beauty of nature
So clearly, despite what some critics claim, he doesn’t see all religious experience in the same light. But his main point is that overall it is detrimental to society.
I’ll skip ahead slightly in the interview, past the offending words, just to make it clear Harris isn’t a baby eater.
Even Christian fundamentalists have learned, by and large, to ignore the most barbaric passages in the Bible. …[some details about specific problems]…Now, these people are not evil. They’re just concerned about the wrong things, because they have imbibed these unjustifiable religious taboos. There is no question, however, that these false concerns add to the world’s misery.
If we were to eliminate religious identity, wouldn’t something else take its place?
Not necessarily. Look at what’s going on in Western Europe: some societies there are successfully undoing their commitment to religious identity, and I don’t think it is being replaced by anything. Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Australia, and Japan are all developed societies with a high level of atheism, and the religion they do have is not the populist, fundamentalist, shrill version we have in the U.S. So secularism is achievable…
See, he recognises some religions aren’t so bad.
…I think the human urge to identify with a subset of the population is something that we should be skeptical of in all its forms. Nationalism and tribal affiliations are divisive, too, and therefore dangerous. Even being a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan has its liabilities, if pushed too far.
So you see Buddhist meditation not as a religious practice, but as something that can yield results.
Clearly, there are results to any religious practice. A Christian might say, “If you pray to Jesus, you’ll notice a change in your life.” And I don’t dispute that. The crucial distinction between the teachings of Buddhism and the teachings of Western religions is that with Buddhism, you don’t have to believe anything on faith to get the process started.
Harris Hates All Religions?
Again I need to emphasise the fact that Harris does distinguish between degrees of religious fundamentalism and the associated harms. Remember that when we get to the crunch statement.
Do you think that there is such a thing as a peaceful religion?
Oh, sure. Jainism is the best example that I know of. It emerged in India at more or less the same time as Buddhism. Nonviolence is its core doctrine. Jain “extremists” wear masks in order to avoid breathing in any living thing. To be a practicing Jain, you have to be a vegetarian and a pacifist. So the more “deranged” and dogmatic a Jain becomes, the less likely he or she is to harm living beings. Jains probably believe certain things on insufficient evidence, and that’s not a good idea, in my opinion. I can even imagine a scenario in which Jain dogma could get people killed: I don’t actually know what Jains say on this subject, but let’s say they became unwilling to kill even bacteria and forbade the use of antibiotics.
…They [evangelicals] have a great fear that unless we believe the Bible was written by the creator of the universe, we have no real reason to treat one another well, and I think there’s no evidence for that whatsoever. It’s just fundamentally untrue that people who do not believe in God are more prone to violent crime, for instance. The evidence, if anything, runs the other way. If you look at where we have the most violent crime and the most theft in the United States, it’s not in the secular-leaning blue states. It’s in the red states, with all their religiosity. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the United States are in Texas.
Now, I’m not saying that we can look at this data and say, “Religion causes violence.” But you can look at this data and say that high levels of religious affiliation don’t guarantee that people are going to behave well. Likewise if you look at UN rankings of societies in terms of development — which includes levels of violent crime, infant mortality, and literacy — the most atheistic societies on the planet rank the highest: Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark. So there is no evidence that a strong commitment to the literal truth of one’s religious doctrine is a good indicator of societal health or morality.
So, just to emphasise the point again. Harris does not see all religions as being as bad as each other. Harris does see people gaining some benefits from religion, though he thinks there are better ways. Harris does not think religion is the cause of all evil. Harris does not think all religion is evil. Nowhere does Harris actually call for the forced curtailment of religious belief. In all of this he is making very straight forward arguments about what he finds wrong with religion.
The Evil Atheists
Of course no discussion about religion is complete without a comment on the evil that atheists do. And nearly every religious person gets this point wrong. Saltman is playing devil’s advocate here of course.
Atheism doesn’t always go hand in hand with reason and compassion. Look at the destruction and violence caused by atheist ideology in China and the old Soviet Union.
What I’m really arguing against is dogma, and those communist systems of belief were every bit as dogmatic as religious systems. In fact, I’d call them ‘political religions’. But no culture in human history ever suffered because its people became too reasonable or too desirous of having evidence in defense of their core beliefs. Whenever people start committing genocide or hurling women and children into mass graves, I think it’s worth asking what they believe about the universe. My reading of history suggests that they always believe something that’s obviously indefensible and dogmatic.
And just to re-state the point made countless times, none of this was done in the name of atheism. Atheism isn’t a dogmatic belief system that anyone does anything in the name of. And atheists are not claiming religion is the cause of all ills, or that all atheists are whitere than white. So, can we drop this red herring.
The Magic Wand of Harris
OK. Let’s get to the main point. The offending place is top of page 2.
Your analogy between organized religion and rape is pretty inflammatory. Is that intentional?
I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology. I would not say that all human conflict is born of religion or religious differences, but for the human community to be fractured on the basis of religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible, in an age when nuclear weapons are proliferating, is a terrifying scenario. I think we do the world a disservice when we suggest that religions are generally benign and not fundamentally divisive.
Now, given the context in which the original analogy was used, this is just an extension of that. Here’s the analogy:
A causes an amount of suffering. B causes an amount of suffering.
Here A is rape, and B is religion. And on his assessment religion causes more harm than rape.
So, if he could wish away one of them he thinks the best option would be religion, as removing it would reduce harm the most.
Note that this is a simple thought experiment, wishful thinking, and as such has no specific bad consequences.
For example, if it clearly was a magic wish that did the trick he’d no doubt want all the currently religious people to be simply non-religious – so it’s not as if he would be causing more suffering by removing religion, the newly non-religious wouldn’t feel they were deprived of religion.
And, since rape sometimes occurs during religiously inspired genocides, and since some religious leaders use their status as a cover for sexual abuse and rape, then removing religion would remove some rape.
And we could still carry on trying to stop rape, so it’s not as if Harris is condoning rape. It just happens to be an unwanted human behaviour that he uses in an analogy.
There really isn’t that much to this statement after all, given the context. It’s ridiculous how many religious people have tried to get mileage out of it since he made it.
A More Literal Comparison
But what if he was to have meant it to be taken seriously. Is religion worse than rape? You’ll have to ask Harris yourself, if you still think he’s the son of Satan for uttering the words ‘rape’ and ‘religion’ in the same breath. But here’s my understanding of what he said and how to interpret it, should you want to take it as a literal intention by Harris.
1) Individual rape can ‘harm’ one victim at a time. I’m not aware of any person being able to rape more than one person at once. This is basically a one-on-one act. Annually (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_statistics) it might be 500,000 a year, accounting for unreported rape.
2) Nuclear weapons or biological weapons can ‘kill and harm’ hundreds of thousands or millions at a time. It might take more than one person to achieve this, but the ratios are still pretty high: one-to-hundreds-of-thousands, or one-to-millions.
3) Extreme religion probably has the highest potential for (2) currently.
4) All religions, by setting faith above reason, are self affirming systems that can, under some circumstances, provide the right framework for (3), and hence (2). That framework of extreme religions exists now, and this has been a self-evident fact since 9/11. Some small number of people with religious motivations killed thousands of people, directly and in the aftermath. And 9/11 was the catalyst for a war that kill even more. 9/11 is still invoking religious hatred now at ground zero. That’s before we get to the many conflicts around the world that are going on now that have a religious element, if not done in the name of religion. Harris covers plenty in his book.
Note to liberals: the extensive use of reason on top of faith is not a get out of jail card. Faith plus speculation is a poor move. It just happens to be a really bad move in the hands of terrorist fanatics.
5) The same applies to all dogmas that affirm their beliefs and aren’t subjected to sufficient scepticism. So, it’s not just religion Harris is objecting to. But currently religion is the most dangerous in his view.
Again, a note to easily offended moderates and liberals: just because you’re pretty harmless doesn’t change the fact that religion in the wrong hands is dangerous.
6) Bonus point: without religion there’s no RC church, which reduces the number of rapes and abuses a little. And since many of the genocidal wars around the world also include rape, then if removing religion could reduce the number of such wars then there’d be less rape anyway.
7) Harris isn’t calling for or expecting the abolition of religion – some people have mistaken his statements here for that. Harris believes in freedom of religious belief. His statement was hypothetical wishful thinking. His point being that if it were possible for religion to suddenly vanish, that would be a better outcome than if all men suddenly stopped raping.
Now I know some people don’t like it when we try to evaluate relative harms, when we try to be objective about them. They find something distasteful and taboo about even considering it.
Here’s a response to Harris,
I would like to ask Sam Harris what personal experience he has of rape.
Why is this relevant? What is my experience of rape or being the victim of a suicide bomber? None.
Another question to Harris,
And I wonder how it would feel to have been subjected to rape and then to hear a statement such as Harris’s?
– Or how it would feel to have your family taken by a suicide bomber or abducted and beheaded by terrorists, or killed leaving his place of work, or blown up in an Irish pub.
These are very one sided questions. Do we have to experience every suffering to have any regard for the sufferer? What do you think human empathy is all about? what do you think it is that has been driving your own morals all this time? God?
Having read Letter To A Christian Nation, and the interview with Saltman, I don’t think Harris has said anything particularly controversial. Dispite that being my opinion, of course Harris may well have made the statements specifically to be controversial. Maybe his remark about being inflammatory was calculated. You’ll have to ask Harris. But on first reading it I hadn’t noticed anything particularly bad about it – just a rhetorical flourish. I’m often surprised how the religious, who survive on emotive language, don’t particularly like it when their religion is the target.
We can take any version of his rape statements: analogy of natural evolved benefit no longer being beneficial; a thought experiment, a wish, that religion wasn’t present; or a more literal calculation of least harm. Each interpretation of Harris’s words are really not that controversial – except to the extent that the religious like to find fault with Harris.
Harris, throughout his book and interview is quite gracious about the people of religion. He sees their particular problem as being that they have been misguided by religion. He simply dislikes the principle of religion and faith that can provide a framework for fundamental atrocities.
So, here are the words again:
I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.
Out of context I guess they could be misconstrued. And the problem is they usually are taken out of context – when seen in a blog, referencing another blog, taken from an article, that short changes the original source. And comments are made on the basis of the sentences here, or the fuller paragraph given earlier. But I see them as quite harmless in context, particularly the wider context of the book and the interview.