Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sam Harris's challenge

Sam Harris offers us passes on four egregiously stupid assertions and asks us to offer concise (200 words or fewer) rebuttals.
  1. Even though I’m an atheist, my friends are atheists, and we all get along fine without pretending to know that one of our books was written by the Creator of the universe, other people really do need religion. It is, therefore, wrong to criticize their faith.
  2. People are not really motivated by religion. Religion is used as a rationale for other aims—political, economic, and social. Consequently, the specific content of religious doctrines is beside the point.
  3. It is useless to argue against the veracity of religious doctrines, because religious people are not actually making claims about reality. Their claims are metaphorical or otherwise without real content. Hence, there is no conflict between religion and science.
  4. Religion will always be with us. The idea that we might rid ourselves of it to any significant degree is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Dawkins and other strident opponents of religious faith are just wasting their time.

I already have Harris's books and $100 ain't even bus fare in California, so I'm just going to put my answers here.

Even though I’m an atheist, my friends are atheists, and we all get along fine without pretending to know that one of our books was written by the Creator of the universe, other people really do need religion.

First Answer: Nobody's forcing anyone to give up their beliefs. This is a free country, and everyone's entitled to his beliefs, however stupid and delusional I happen to think--or say--they are. If their beliefs can't stand a little criticism, how badly can they need them?

Second Answer: Sweet! Go read Machiavelli, Leo Strauss, and the biography of our Great Leader, George W. Bush. I predict a fine future for you in the next neoconservative administration bombing the shit out of brown people.

People are not really motivated by religion. Religion is used as a rationale for other aims—political, economic, and social. Consequently, the specific content of religious doctrines is beside the point.

If religion is being used, then don't you think just maybe we ought to know what it is, what it's being used for, and, if we don't like what it's being used for, how to change that use?

It is useless to argue against the veracity of religious doctrines, because religious people are not actually making claims about reality. Their claims are metaphorical or otherwise without real content. Hence, there is no conflict between religion and science.

I would love it if religious people had no more ontological commitment to their beliefs than the average baseball fan: When was the last time a Mets fan flew a plane full of people into Yankee Stadium?

Religion will always be with us. The idea that we might rid ourselves of it to any significant degree is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Dawkins and other strident opponents of religious faith are just wasting their time.

Pseudoscience will always be with us too, so why don't you quit wasting your time in your scientific job and work as an astrology columnist, a homeopath or an acupuncturist?

Good grief. Where's my clue-by-four?

Update: I wrote the original in haste, and my wife pointed out that I implied the assertions were Harris's own. They're not. They're assertions Harris has heard and which have justifiably irritated him. The clue-by-four is to be applied to the questioners, not to Harris.

3 comments:

  1. I think Harris' challenge here is a good one. We tend to think that long, detailed, subtle argumentation will win the day -- and as a professional purveyor of long-winded, detailed, and occassionally subtle argumentation in my "real" work I think it is essential -- but in terms of rhetorical force, we need snappy. We need bumperstickers that can then be backed up. We need concise clear statements about what is wrong with these views. there are two things at issue -- being right and winning the debate -- and they ain't the same.

    I propose that the phrase "magical man in the sky hypothesis" be used more widely in these discussions.

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  2. Personally, I think every college freshman should simply be required to take a class on the comedy of George Carlin (PBUH). Even the theology students. Especially the theology students. If your faith can't stand the criticism of a comedian, you have no business professing it.

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  3. steveg: I agree that we need something like sound bites backed up by good argumentation. There are those who can't be reasoned out of something they weren't reasoned into, and there are also the fence sitters at whom Dawkins takes aim.

    Here's a bumper sticker I saw the other day:
    FUNDAMENTALISM
    Means never having to change your mind.

    Re: "magical man in the sky"
    I've heard "Sky Daddy." Shorter, but perhaps more flippant.

    BB: I think you need to catch them earlier than the freshman year of college; the religious begin their indoctrination as soon as a child can understand human speech. Although I don't label my young children, a practice that Dawkins decries, I don't have any problem telling them that the Bible is "just stories." Do you think that's any less the "child abuse" that labeling might be? I know some of my relatives would call it that.

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