The Irrational Atheist (notes in the margin, part 3)

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 5, 2010 in Reviews

irrational atheistThe Irrational Atheist is a response to the New Atheists written by the ever-controversial Vox Day, with whom I’ve been having an exchange of letters these past few weeks.

Instead of writing a review of  the book, here are my “notes in the margin” to Vox as I read through it. (Index of notes.)


Last time, I summarized Vox’s response to Sam Harris. Harris’ equation seems to be:

Science (incl. warfare technology) + Religious Superstition = End of the World

Harris says we must, then, eliminate religious superstition.

Vox points out that:

Science is not inevitable… the end of science is a much more practical goal for humanity than the end of faith.1

The point is that for thousands of years, mankind lived in barbarism and ignorance under religion, but at least it could not destroy the whole planet. Now that science has made mankind so much more effective, chances are good that some madman will eventually start a nuclear war or otherwise destroy everything. And since faith is more fundamental to the human condition than science, our best response is to eliminate science, not faith.

If you accept Harris’ equation.

I do not.

First, let’s consider a more plausible equation:

Science + evil desires (or a lack of good desires) = End of the World

There’s nothing special about religion that would use powerful technology to end the world as we know it. As Stalin and Pol Pot proved, one need not be religious to commit grand acts of destruction. So the real problem is evil desires, not religion.

But now, evil desires are also more fundamental to the human condition than science. If the combination is likely to result in the end of the world at some point, it will be easier to eliminate science than to eliminate evil desires.

But here’s the problem. Perhaps science is inevitable, too. If so, and if the above equation is true, then this might mean that the End of the World is inevitably probable. Many futurists have worried this might be the case. Maybe the reason we haven’t heard from any advanced alien civilizations is because all civilizations destroy themselves before they become smart enough to achieve interstellar communication.

Indeed, I think science is inevitable. Especially by now. Even if most of the countries could be persuaded to stop scientific research – and even that is an absurd, unrealizable scenario – there would still be other countries who would realize that science would give them the upper hand, and these countries would continue scientific research. Indeed, they might continue research with a greater focus on weaponry and tools of domination.

So we’re stuck. Scientific progress must continue, and we cannot easily eliminate evil desires. How can we avoid The End of the World?

First, we can eliminate as many evil desires as we can. We can use the tools of praise and condemnation, punishment and reward. These tools have worked wonders in the past. Within a single century, most people in the West changed from desiring to own slaves to finding the notion distasteful. And it wasn’t because we employed morality-enhancing neurosurgery on people’s brains. It was because millions of determined people continuously condemned slavery and praised equality and freedom.

Second, we can encourage scientific research that saves and protects lives, and discourage scientific research that may destroy us. Luckily, research on weapons of mass destruction is currently very expensive and can only be performed by a few governments in the world. If these governments can be persuaded by their citizens to put aside their own goals of domination for the greater good, we may be able to avoid many nightmare scenarios. We can also develop advanced defenses against specific threats – for example massive underground shelters in case of nuclear or biological warfare.

Third, we can work to make sure our eggs are no longer in one basket. Right now we have the Earth, and that’s it. And we’re not taking very good care of it, nor ensuring it’s safety. But with enough money and enough research, we could feasibly develop civilizations on asteroids and maybe even moons and other planets. Alonzo Fyfe writes a lot about the mechanics and ethics of space development.

  1. The Irrational Atheist, pages 53-54. []

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Maher March 5, 2010 at 6:41 am

A good example of science being inevitable is the Large Hadron Collider. They would not build it in the USA, so it ended up in Switzerland. The same thing goes for the USA’s ban on cloning and stem cell research.


ImagingGekk March 5, 2010 at 8:18 am

I have to agree with you that Sam Harris has things wrong. The communists were (in theory, anyways) non-religious, and yet they managed to use science to pretty horrid uses. You don’t need to be religious to put technology to nefarious uses – although I’m sure the godly mindset makes it easier to rationalise such activities…

Luckily, research on weapons of mass destruction is currently very expensive and can only be performed by a few governments in the world

I have to quibble with you here – unfortunately, biological can chemical weapons are not the purview of the super-rich nations. Anyone with a bachelors degree in chemistry or biology has the basic knowledge to build such devices, although arguably you need to move upto the MSc/PhD level of training before they have the practical experience needed to actually produce the required poisons/pathogens.

The proof is in the pudding, so to speak – an extremist religious group (Aum Shinrikyo) in Japan successfully employed a simple chemical weapon, and attempted attacks with biological weapons. Simple biological weapons have been successfully employed by another small religious group. In 1984 the Rajneeshee infected hundreds in Oregon with Salmonella Typhimurium.

And its looking like nuclear weapons may soon join that group – N. Korea and possibly Iran have nukes; neither of those would be considered overly wealthy or developed.

Granted, none of these are end-of-the-world type scenarios, but if a handful of loons lacking little formal education can pull off that kind of stuff, imagine what a poor state, or even larger religious (or other) group could do.


Erika March 5, 2010 at 10:19 am

In context, was Vox’s claim that “the end of science is a much more practical goal for humanity than the end of faith” meant to be a claim that it would actually be a good idea to end science or was it just rhetorical flourish?


lukeprog March 5, 2010 at 10:36 am


He’s saying that IF we take Harris’ apparent equation seriously, then we ‘should’ stop either faith or science. But because faith is natural to humans and science is definitely not, it would be easier to end science. Eradicating faith from humanity might be impossible.


Alex March 5, 2010 at 5:48 pm

First, let’s consider a more plausible equation:

Science + evil desires (or a lack of good desires) = End of the World

There’s nothing special about religion that would use powerful technology to end the world as we know it.

I disagree with you in this regard, religion makes it much easier for otherwise perfectly sane people to hold insane beliefs.

Going back to your equation, the people with the ‘evil desires’ (not sure I’d use those words) also need to be able to acquire the necessary technology. In other words you need a bunch of seriously intelligent people who also hold some seriously crazy beliefs, I would argue that religion is most likely to provide the magic combo.


Bill Maher March 5, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Alex, they do not necessarily have to be smart. After the USSR fell apart, Russian Mobs stole all sorts of military tech. One of them even had a nuclear sub.


Vox Teleos March 7, 2010 at 1:51 am

I just read TIA and found myself unduly distracted by the author’s insistence on using “‘s” for s-ended possessives for Hitchens (Hitchens’s), Dawkins (Dawkins’s), and Harris (well, you get it). While this is acceptable according to some style sources, it is fairly uncommon in modern usage.

That out of the way, the book is deeply flawed but the flaws are at least acceptable by virtue of the cheap price I paid for it (free). Among the flaws are the use of boorish attacks on the nominal targets of the book. This appears to be the author’s style based on other cited sources, but is as distracting and irrelevant as the possessives issue. Better editing would have helped shape the lashes into something that would have not led the independent mind to immediately regard the author with healthy skepticism.

Next, the author is obsessed with articulating an intellectual history that equates any governance with flawed utopian aspirations. Again, largely irrelevant to the thesis and designed to smear the semantics of socialism onto atheism (and promote the chimeric hybrid of American Libertarian Xtian). But the problem of governance doesn’t just end there. The author commits to diminishing the role of religion in even the human sacrifices of Mesoamerica, insisting nearly all murderous tragedy was in service to power struggles (how quaintly Marxist), but then reinvests in a special role for atheism in the communist regimes. There is no appreciation of the irony, either, which at least would have been appreciated.

The statistical analysis presented concerning issues like divorce rates is as flawed as the original presentation in Harris (which I haven’t read and only skimmed in the Dawkins rehash). Citing the Pew studies of more recent years would have helped but dented the counterargument. The interesting questions are why are there high rates of divorce among evangelicals (young marriages, perhaps?) and high rates of cohabitation among atheists (high ones in the absurd TIA taxonomy; perhaps a general disinterest in arbitrary societal standards?), rather than the unquestioned assumption that subtracting out the “never marrieds” increased the base rate of divorces among atheists is somehow insightful. But then the differences are all likely in the noise, defusing both the TIA and New Atheist arguments that religion or non-religion have anything at all to do with divorce rates. Perhaps more research is needed?

The interesting work–and there is some (I support reading TIA if you have time)–is in the strange theodicy near the end that abandons much traditional theology in favor or what is considered Open Theism and, amusingly, “warfare” theodicy. There is a Manichean and almost gnostic quality to the discussions in this section that I somewhat sympathized with if only because the discussed computer science is old hat for me. It certainly isn’t what ordinary xtians believe, nor is it what Plantinga or WLC believes, and so its strange novelty is worth a peak, like the strange novelty of PK Dick’s Valis work that the author cites in Luke’s blog.

It’s worth reading, lightly unbalanced, but no more so than Dawkins’, Hitchens’, or Harris’ work (note posessives).



Vox Teleos March 7, 2010 at 2:25 am

Eh, one added thought on TIA: the author seems obsessed with Freudianesque psychobabble concerning the motivations of the New Atheists, suggesting intellectual immaturity in their motivations. Yet, the goals of several of the works were largely in accord with TIA’s goals: give voice to the inchoate doubts of young atheists/believers (respectively). I’ve never thought a theist thought ever, having been gifted with an upbringing that valued liberal thinking, so conversion/deconversion stories are like parables for me. I do, however, consider libertarianism to be part of my ideological adolescence and something I grew out of (the problem of the public space surrounding property–the commons–was enough for me), so I again and often found an ironic smile as I parsed TIA.


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