I have said some harsh things against religious belief in the past couple of days. In light of that, and in light of the recent publicity that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are receiving recently, I feel obligated to point out where I think both are making a significant (and bigoted) mistake.
The differences between the views that they define and mine are as follows:
(1) Dawkins, Harris: People of faith are to be condemned because their faith leads them to make mistakes that cause them to be a danger to others.
(2) Me: People of faith are to be condemned when their faith leads them to make mistakes that cause them to be a danger to others.
The difference between the two views rests in where a person attaches the wrongness. Dawkins and Harris say that religion (faith) is wrong. I, on the other hand, argue that 'making mistakes that cause a person to be a danger to others' is wrong.
There are two types of cases in which these views diverge.
(1) When faith prevents a person from being a danger to others.
(2) When people without faith make mistakes that cause them to be a danger to others.
Of these two groups, people in Dawkins' and Harris' camp focus attention against Group (1) because they have committed the wrong of 'faith.' They treat membership in Group (2) as a secondary concern.
On the other hand, I focus attention on Group (2) because they have committed the wrong of making mistakes that make them a danger to others. I consider membership in group (1) to be of secondary concern.
Which is why I sit here today criticizing elements of the view that Dawkins and Harris defend - because they are examples of mistakes that make one a danger to others. The danger comes from focusing on the wrong opponent, and ignoring a group of people whose mistakes make them a danger to others.
Ultimately, the view that Dawkins and Harris defend is bigoted. This is easy to see if we look at it through the lens of 'do unto others.'
We can imagine theists taking up the corresponding attitudes:
(1') Atheists are to be condemned because their lack of faith causes them to reject morality and, thus, makes them a danger to others.
(2') Atheists are to be condemned when their lack of faith leads them to make mistakes that cause them to be a danger to others.
People who defend option (1) typically bring up Stalin, Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pott, and the French Revolution as examples of how atheism permits great evil and, thus, must be rejected. Atheists often reply by denying that some of these people were truly atheists. However, the other reply is for the atheist to say, "I am not these people - and it is simple bigotry to lump me with them and call me evil while ignoring all of the relevant difference between me and them."
Yet, is this not a response that others can give to the likes of Dawkins and Harris. Is it not reasonable to ask, "Why are you lumping me in with the terrorists? I did not fly any airplane into a building, and I condemn those who do. I did not vote to criminalize stem cell research, and I condemn those who do."
Harris' response to this is to say that moderate theism is to be condemned because it makes fundamentalist theism possible. Yet, again, this does not survive the 'do unto others' test. Religious people who assert (1') - using the atrocities of Stalin and other communists as examples - can say, "Even though you are not an evil atheists, your support for atheism makes these evils possible."
The answer to this is, "Instead of focusing on atheists, you should focus your attention on genocide and tyrants. If you want to send a clear message that genocide and tyranny are wrong, then condemn it in all instances - without regard as to whether the tyrant believes in God or not."
Even if we accept the assumption that Hitler and Stalin were atheists - it is pure bigotry to condemn me for their crimes because I share their belief that no God exists, as it would be to condemn me for their crimes because, like them, I wear a mustache, am male, am Caucasian, or have the same color eyes.
Theists - those theists who are not a danger to others - are perfectly justified in making the same claim. "Judge me not by my faith. Judge me by whether or not I am actually a threat to others. Do not condemn me because I happen to share some quality with those who are a danger to others when they are a danger to others, and I am not."
In addition, Harris' criticism of moderates has the same flavor as President Bush's claim, after 9/11, that "You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists." This type of black and white - no shades of gray - uncompromising - take no prisoners, form no alliance - demand complete acceptance of your own view as the absolute truth thinking and condemn all deviation - is actually a far greater cause of human suffering than 'faith'.
I hold that people who believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old are unfit for public service because of their demonstrated inability to draw reasonable conclusions from available scientific evidence. Their inability to comprehend science means that they will likely do a poor job picking the best strategy out of the best available evidence.
I hold that those who oppose stem-cell research for religious reasons are no different than those who crash skyscrapers into buildings or seek to detonate weapons of mass destruction for religious reasons. However, their evil does not rest in the fact that they have religious reasons for their actions. Their evil rests in the fact that they act in ways that do significant harm to a large number of people.
There is one item on Dawkins' and Harris' agenda that is important. They have both condemned the idea that religious beliefs ought not to be criticized.
This is a view that became popular particularly in the last few decades in the guise of 'postmodernism' and other forms of social relativism. It is a view that says that none of us can criticize another's position except by bringing his own position to bear against it. There is no 'objective' standard that can be used against views, so each view should be accepted as equal.
Standards of Judgment
To be fair, this is a 'liberal' view that 'conservatives' have been criticizing since it was first invented. Also, please note that 'conservatives' have never been at a loss for words when it comes to criticizing other views - particularly atheists, who have been systemically denigrated to the point that we are the least respected people in the country.
Yet, just below the surface, the idea that we ought not to condemn others because there is no absolute standard is a blatant contradiction. If it is wrong to condemn others, then it is wrong to condemn those who condemn others. If all views are equally plausible then the view that all views are not equally plausible is also equally plausible.
Of course it is the case that everything I believe I assess in relation to everything else I believe, and I will never be able to do anything else. Yet, this does not change the fact that some sets of beliefs allow those who hold them to do a better and easier job predicting and explaining the world around them than other sets.
No Freedom from Criticism
In fact, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion is not to be understood as freedom from criticism. In a free society, people can still be legitimately condemned, and condemned in the harshest possible terms. Condemnation, after all, is also 'free speech.'
Even at its strongest, these rights to freedom of speech, press, and religion are not absolute. They are actually presumptions against the legitimacy of violence and legal penalties that can be outweighed in severe circumstances, in the same way that a presumption of innocence can be outweighed by proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. So, the freedom of speech does not protect the act of yelling, "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater or publishing the plans for Operation Overlord on June 1, 1944.
The freedom of religion also implies a presumption that the practitioners of any given religion are to be left alone. However, it is a presumption that gives way to prudence whenever it can be shown beyond a reasonable doubt to an impartial jury that the practitioners of that religion are a threat to others - sacrificing others on the altar of a God that those others do not worship. So, the freedom of religious practice cannot defend the act of flying an airplane into a sky scraper or supporting legislation that prevents sick people from getting the medical benefits they could get from embryonic stem cell research.
When people adopt views that cause them to do real-world harm to real-world people, we have every reason to criticize them and to condemn them for the harms that they do, and to work to make sure that the next generation have fewer people like them. However, that effort must take the form of persuasion, not the force of law or violence, unless it is possible to make a compelling case capable of overriding even the strong presumption in favor of liberty that the practitioners are a serious threat to others.
So, I have no qualms against criticizing those who hold religious views that make them a danger to others. I also have no qualms against criticizing atheists whose views make them a danger to others. To me, it does not matter to me if the person does or does not believe in God. I am only looking at whether the person has beliefs that make him a danger to others.
One type of view that a person can hold that makes him a danger to others, is to over generalize wrongdoing so that he is casting hatred against whole groups of people - those who do harm to others and those who do not - on the basis of some characteristic they have in common. Unless the speaker can defend some type of causal law connecting the mistake to harm to others in all instances, it is unjust and bigoted to lump those who are harmless in with those who cause harm.