Sam Harris’ Basic Message

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 30, 2010 in Reviews

end of faithI’m blogging my way through the book that launched the New Atheist movement: Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Please read the earliest posts in this series before reading this one.

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Harris sets out the messages of his book:

Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings.

…There seems, however, to be a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs about the world: they are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another…

Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility… [and] the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. One a person believes – really believes – that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.

…Our technical advances in the art of war have finally rendered our religious differences… antithetical to our survival… Words like “God” and “Allah” must go the way of “Apollo” and “Baal,” or they will unmake our world.1

Now that is pleasurable prose to read, but we might object: wait a minute, what about all the religious people who are tolerant? Surely they prove that intolerance is not intrinsic to every creed. Harris responds:

Of course, people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused. [But] religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. [In contrast] I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance… is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.

…[Even] intellectuals as diverse as H.G. Wells, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, Max Planck, Freeman Dyson, and Stephen Jay Gould have declared the war between reason and faith to be long over… [But] it is only because the church has been politically hobbled in the West that anyone can afford to think this way. In places were scholars can still be stoned to death for doubting the veracity of the Koran, Gould’s notion of a “loving concordat” between faith and reason would be perfectly delusional.2

Before I respond, we will next look more closely at Harris’ indictment of religious moderates.

  1. The End of Faith, pages 12-13. []
  2. Ibid, pages 14-16. []

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Zeb April 30, 2010 at 6:28 am

Is it really true that “most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book”? I don’t think that’s the teaching of Catholics, Orthodox, or Anglicans, who are more than half of all Christians. Do any large non-Christian religions other than Islam believe they have a direct message from God?

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Zeb April 30, 2010 at 6:29 am

Oh and Judaism of course.

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Bill Snedden April 30, 2010 at 6:41 am

Zeb: “Is it really true that “most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book”?”

A rather odd question. ALL Christians believe the Bible to be “the Word of God”. This includes Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox as well as Protestants of every stripe. It also includes “quasi-Christian” religions like LDS and Jehovah’s Witness. This is the sense in which Harris is speaking. So, when you add in adherents to revelatory religions like Muslims and Jews, yes it is indeed true that “most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book”.

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Justfinethanks April 30, 2010 at 6:42 am

Is it really true that “most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book”?

If you are making a distinction between “written by God” and “written by men who are inspired by God” that seems like an unnecessary quibble.

Like this quote from the Chicago statement of inerrancy, which i think most protestants would affirm:

Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches

And the Catholic encyclopdia seems to affirm the inspiration of the Bible here.

So no, Christians generally don’t believe that God actually put his finger to parchment to write the Bible. But he did inspire the men who did write it, which is functionally the same.

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Larry Tanner April 30, 2010 at 6:47 am

So no, Christians generally don’t believe that God actually put his finger to parchment to write the Bible.But he did inspire the men who did write it, which is functionally the same.

Traditional Judaism, however, maintains that (1) God spoke directly to the entire nation of Israel at Sinai, and (2) the original Decalogue was inscribed by God Himself.

I may have #2 incorrect. I’ll need to look it up.

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noen April 30, 2010 at 8:29 am

“Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. One a person believes – really believes – that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers.”

Yes, that describes Sam Harris and the New atheists very well. They also believe that certain ideas lead to maximum happiness and therefore cannot tolerate any possibility humanity might be led astray.

The fallacy here is of course that intolerance is not a feature of religious ideology only but in fact characteristic of all human ideologies, Atheism included.

We can also see another common atheist fallacy at work here. The fallacy that all religious belief is Fundamentalist in character. Thus atheists cannot even imagine how it could be that not every Christian is a blood thirsty fundie just waiting to strap on an explosive vest and walk into an abortion clinic.

I stopped listening to the moral outrage of atheists when Sam Harris told me that torturing those evil brown mooooooslims was a good thing.

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Charles April 30, 2010 at 9:22 am

Thus atheists cannot even imagine how it could be that not every Christian is a blood thirsty fundie just waiting to strap on an explosive vest and walk into an abortion clinic.  

I hope you mean ‘New Atheists’ when you say that.

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g April 30, 2010 at 11:07 am

I hope he doesn’t even mean “New Atheists”, since even the most firebreathing of the “New Atheists” are of course perfectly well aware that not every Christian is a bloodthirsty fundamentalist or likely to start blowing things up. (As is indicated, inter alia, by one of the extracts from Sam Harris that Luke quoted right here just now.)

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Chris April 30, 2010 at 11:41 am

Yes, that describes Sam Harris and the New atheists very well. They also believe that certain ideas lead to maximum happiness and therefore cannot tolerate any possibility humanity might be led astray.  (Quote)

Harris is not just worried about being “led astray.” Unless by that you mean “blown up.”

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al friedlander April 30, 2010 at 1:27 pm

“We can also see another common atheist fallacy at work here. The fallacy that all religious belief is Fundamentalist in character. ”

I’m not sure I would consider this as a ‘common atheist fallacy’. From what I’ve seen, most atheists acknowledge it is only a proportion of theists that are fundamentalists (I happen to be good friends with many kind/friendly Christians, so I know this firsthand). What they -are- worried about, however, is the ‘potential’ for abuse. You can do some pretty nasty things ‘in the name of’ religion. (Not so much in the ‘name of atheism’.)

“I stopped listening to the moral outrage of atheists when Sam Harris told me that torturing those evil brown mooooooslims was a good thing”

Sorry, I’m not too familiar with what you’re referencing here. But -even if- Harris said some questionable things, I’m don’t believe that necessarily negates the ‘moral outrage of atheists’ altogether. I do believe that there are many things that atheists can be legitimately troubled by, in terms of the morality that theism presents.

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Silver Bullet April 30, 2010 at 2:17 pm

noen,

If you’d just read what Luke has quoted above, you will see that Harris is not guilty of the “fallacy that all religious belief is Fundamentalist in character”. Here is exactly what Luke quoted from Harris:

“Of course, people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused.”

Harris hasn’t said that there is but one route to human happiness (and well-being, which is more complex than just happiness). He argues for a moral landscape with peaks and valleys. The peaks represent routes to well being – and there are many of them. What is important is that these peaks can be objectively distinguished from the valleys. As he has said, morality might be analogous to food: there are a variety of choices that are nutritious, but we can still distinguish food from poison.

It seems to me that it is the world’s various religions that claim to know the one way to happiness (in this world and/or the next). Sam is not doing that at all – though he argues that as the relatively new science of human well being progresses, we will obtain better and better ideas of the various ways it might be achieved. This should at least have the potential to avoid being dogmatic, as it will rest upon open, reproducible, scientific principles.

Sounds better than getting the key to the good life by interpreting the cryptic and often contradictory messages of a magical, wish-granting, sky-daddy who can’t be distinguished from iron-age myth to me.

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Hermes April 30, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Charles & G, don’t bother giving the troll any serious replies. I’ve caught it making up facts whole cloth, and others are quite puzzled by some of the out of touch statements it’s made. Expect nothing serious. Mock if you like.

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mattr May 1, 2010 at 12:05 am

It seems to me that it is the world’s various religions that claim to know the one way to happiness (in this world and/or the next). Sam is not doing that at all – though he argues that as the relatively new science of human well being progresses, we will obtain better and better ideas of the various ways it might be achieved. This should at least have the potential to avoid being dogmatic, as it will rest upon open, reproducible, scientific principles.

The “relatively new science of human well being”? ? Which science is that exactly–neurosalusology? beneficology? Sorry, SilverBullet, but this reads like something out of H.G. Wells (or BF Skinner, as I´ve said here before): it’s just 19th-Century scientific positivism redux. Lenin called Socialism “Soviet power plus electrification” and expressed the typical hope of many different ideological types about 100 years ago that Science would soon lead to Shangrala on Earth. I’d much rather read Lenin than Sam Harris, but we know where scientific utopianism leads.

As for peaks and valleys, this sort of rhetoric is indistinguishable from a thousand different religious teachings that also speak of an objective good that can only be realized in a relative way on Planet Earth. Dinesh DSouza, who is about as subtle as Sam Harris on these issues, talks about the unbridgeable (peaks, valleys, bridges–you get the idea) gap between the “God World” and the human world. Sam Harris just wants to replace DSouza’s God with his own (“Science”), and although I’m a committed atheist, I’d almost choose the Chrisitan God over the God of moral engineering that Harris advocates.

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mattr May 1, 2010 at 12:08 am

…oh yeah, and noen is right on the mark about new atheistic fundamentalism. i wonder if torture is a peak or a valley.

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mattr May 1, 2010 at 12:15 am

Hermes, what is the difference between a “troll” and somebody who contributes to a blog discussion from an opposing perspective? I don´t know what else noen has written here, and I’d probably disagree with much of it if it’s pro-Christian, but this sort of “stomp the troll” rhetoric is schoolyard crap and not worthy of the kinds of discussions/debates that take place here.

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Hermes May 1, 2010 at 6:09 am

Mattr, my perspective from a few decades of dealing with them. This one specifically has spent too much effort on outlandish and inflammatory claims that just aren’t even close to being plausible. Look at the reaction and lack of interaction that has been generated by it’s comments. Is this a good contribution?

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Chris Hallquist May 1, 2010 at 7:58 am

The question of what most people believe about their scriptures is actually really interesting. If we take Harris’ statement “most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book” in a strong sense of implying the infallibility of scripture (which seems to be the main concern), he’s probably wrong, though the numbers are still frighteningly high.

Belief in the inerrancy of the Qur’an is pretty solid among Muslims, from what I’ve read. The Catholic church used to teach inerrancy, but doesn’t anymore, though of course there are Catholics who still believe it. More conservative Protestants tend to believe in inerrancy, though lots and lots of Protestants aren’t all that conservative. Also, according to this article belief in the inerrancy of the Vedas has traditionally been important to Hinduism, though I’m skeptical of how common it is in practice. I think belief in inerrant scripture is pretty rare among other religions.

Wikipedia says there are 6.8b people total in the world, 1.6b Muslims, 2.2b Christians, and 1b Hindus. Even assuming all Muslims accept inerrancy (which can’t be right), you’d need over 80% of Christians accepting inerrancy to make Muslim and Christians inerrantists be a majority of the world’s population, but I doubt that many Christians are inerrantists. However, Hindus might make up the gap, and even if only 80% of Muslims and 50% of Christians accepted inerrancy (plus 0% of Hindus), you’d still have about a third of the world’s population as inerrantists.

I suspect the true percentage of inerrantists among humanity is somewhere between one-third and one-half. That’s still kinda frightening, when you think about it.

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noen May 1, 2010 at 10:14 am

It is important to notice what Sam Harris says here:

“the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed.”

and in stark contrast he says:

“[But] religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. [In contrast] I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance… is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.

Or in other words, religious intolerance is an irreducible evil but my intolerance is good and right. Yes, that is the function of ideology, that is how it works. Ideology renders one’s own inner phenomenological experience as sacrosanct, thereby elevating it to the level of the sublime, and renders everyone else’s subjective life as worthless and worthy of extermination.

Ideology is the eye that sees evil as residing in the Other and never in oneself.

But this is an illusion. The eye that sees itself surrounded by evil is itself evil. That’s what evil IS. That is it’s very definition. The inability to see oneself reflected in the other.

A common reaction to all this is to claim that we cannot tolerate intolerance. This doesn’t seem to me to be very helpful because it is obviously self contradictory and fails to offer a course of action. In the face of bigotry and intolerance, whether religious or secular in origin, what does one do?

There is an answer to that question ya know.

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rvkevin May 1, 2010 at 11:27 am

A common reaction to all this is to claim that we cannot tolerate intolerance. This doesn’t seem to me to be very helpful because it is obviously self contradictory and fails to offer a course of action. In the face of bigotry and intolerance, whether religious or secular in origin, what does one do?

“The Western world needs to make some things clear, some things about our culture are not negotiable and can’t change and one of them is freedom of speech, separation of church and state is another, not negotiable, women are allowed to work here and you can’t beat them, not negotiable, this is how we roll, and this is why our system is better, and if you don’t get that and you still want to kill someone over a stupid cartoon, please make it Garfield.” -Bill Maher

Harris is not intolerant against all religions. He is just saying here that we should subject religious beliefs to the same standards we have towards other beliefs. When someone discriminates against homosexuals on the basis of religion, we shouldn’t just tolerate it just because it is religion. When someone makes violent threats against someone for making a cartoon, we shouldn’t just tolerate it just because it is religion. This is not to say that he is intolerant of religion, he has said on more than one occasion that religious belief falls on a spectrum; some are harmless (i.e. Jainism), while others are particularly harmful (i.e. Islam). We are intolerant of things that are harmful, and religion should not get a free pass.

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lukeprog May 1, 2010 at 11:56 am

Chris,

Wow. Yes, a scary thought.

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noen May 1, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Well, I’ll pass on taking the chest thumping Bill Maher seriously on anything other than how to make people laugh. What he said above is exactly what I am opposed to and no different than any other braying jackass on Fox News.

Yes, you should tolerate the beliefs of others. Equally, you should not tolerate violent behavior by anyone.

Is that really so hard?

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Hermes May 1, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Mattr, for your consideration on the issue of tolling;

“I’ll refrain from snide remarkes when you stop telling me that I am being just like Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler because I don’t join with Dawkins et al in your pogroms against all religion.”

Source: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=7706

Note the comments that appear prior to the above quote, specifically what al friedlander wrote (and what he was replying to) as well as the citation I provided following Al’s comment.

Conclusion: This person has no interest or no knowledge of the facts, and is interested in inciting others without making any insightful and valuable input themselves. You know what? It seems to be working, and people are being suckered into spending time on this person. Thus, my original puerile recommendation.

If you have not yet done so, this should be enough for you to reassess your previous judgments on this issue even if they remain unchanged after that new assessment.

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rvkevin May 1, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Yes, you should tolerate the beliefs of others. Equally, you should not tolerate violent behavior by anyone.Is that really so hard?  

Did I imply otherwise? One of the things mentioned was freedom of speech itself, it is not negotiable. How you got from freedom of speech to being intolerant to another person’s right to hold a particular belief is beyond me. Its been said that there is no law against stupidity, though we should not praise it when we see it, nor tolerate it if it results in actions that cause harm.

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Silver Bullet May 3, 2010 at 4:02 pm

mattr,

I’ll let you watch Harris’ TED talk and visit the pages at his site where he addresses criticism, as Sam does a better job of it than I do. As a neuroscientist, I consider him to be in a much better position than me to defend the “science of well being” and its potential future. If you have specific criticism, please address it there.

Suffice it to say that Sam is not alone: Richard Carrier and goal theory are in line, as are others.

I think that what Sam argues makes sense, at least in principle.

Time will tell…

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