Friday, October 27, 2006

My Basic Problem with Dawkins and Harris

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

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.

Atheist Bigotry

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.


michael u said...

A close friend of mine has pointed out that in terms of ethics, there are four camps (in regards to the atheist/theist debate): ethical atheists, unethical atheists, ethical theists, unethical theists. I don't think that Dawkins or Harris would disagree with this statement. Where I think Dawkins and Harris are coming is from is that theists ultimately do not operate rationally because the very foundation of their belief system is rooted in a deep irrationality. If a person acts irrationally and harms no one, then the fact that they acted irrationally would be irrelevant. I think, however, when it comes down to issues that determine the direction of society, how exactly do we measure the harm caused by irrational views (such as, for example, religious reasoning against stem cell research, etc.).

I'd also like to point out that neither Dawkins nor Harris are ethicists. Something I have noticed about their literature is that they often and wisely choose to leave the basis of ethics that should "replace" religion should be better left to moral philosophers. I think what both of these men do repeatedly and insistently demand is that people approach the world rationally. Above all, I would argue that Dawkins and Harris are rationalists. (And I'd like to point out, as they themselves have, that neither is calling for an enforcement of rationality, politically or otherwise, they are making an appeal to and for. No one is attacking the freedom of religion itself; merely the foundations and effects of theism, its relationship to rationalism, etc. [and appealing for change in the individual]).

I have question, however: If theism is deeply influential and irrational, and the widespread influence of unreason is harmful (as it has proved always proved to be) wouldn't theism be an agent of harm and therefore something to be excised (but not irrationally excised, such as through eugenics programs or anything of the kind -- but rather rationally excised, through the use of reasonable discourse [such as that presented by Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and others])?

Sorry, that was kind of convoluted, but I hope I made my question clear.

michael u said...

Sorry to leave another comment, but another thought occurred to me, mainly regarding this statement: "If it is wrong to condemn others, then it is wrong to condemn those who condemn others."

Let me extrapolate. Tolerance is, of course, a virtue, but I'm afraid that I don't quite understand how a tolerant individual can coexist with an intolerant individual ideologically. I'd say that modern liberalism has been atempting that in many ways, but what we see is not an increase of tolerance but in many ways a decrease of tolerance.

It reminds me of the pacifism problem, namely, how do pacifists survive in a world where nonpacifists exist? Of course, I think most people who think about it would agree that one can be ethical and nonviolent and still protect oneself from attack, etc. So how does this same idea not translate to tolerance? Isn't the ideological concept of tolerance permitted to defend itself against intolerance by denouncing it? Intolerance is the absolute antithesis of tolerance, so how can tolerance further itself if it cannot decry intolerance?

I'm reminded of the Unitarian Universalist Church, in which tolerance is provided to anyone provided that one is reasonably tolerant. Of course, there is disagreement within individual churches, but tolerance is a requirement (so I am told).

michael u said...

And, lastly, I'm sorry I'm not being as articulate as I might. I'm trying to write from work, and there's a lot of interference. I don't know how or if you respond to comments, but I can be reached at if you so desire.

Chris said...

The problem with faith is not that every belief based on faith is wrong and harmful, but that faith has no defense against beliefs that are wrong and harmful. This is because faith is the refusal to attempt to distinguish a true idea from a false one.

Believing things based on faith is thus reckless, because it causes an increased risk of stumbling into a false and harmful belief. Just as someone who drives blindfolded is deserving of condemnation even if they are lucky enough not to hit anyone, someone who holds beliefs without attempting to see if they are true is deserving of condemnation even if they are lucky enough not to be led into any beliefs that cause them to behave in a way that harms others. They acted in a reckless way that created a large and unnecessary risk of harm.

Faith is choosing your beliefs blindfolded. That's what's wrong with it. Even if you get lucky and don't hurt anyone, it was reckless and irresponsible to behave in such a way in the first place.

Of course, faith is not limited to religious faith. Many people had faith in communism and acted on that faith. Some people have faith in the authority of a strong leader to protect the nation (an idea formerly known as fascism). If they hold those beliefs without examining them first, if they shield those beliefs from criticism that could refute them, then they are believing blindfolded and they belong in the same category of reckless believers as bin Laden. Theism vs. atheism is the wrong place to draw that line, and I think Dawkins at least would agree with me there. Those who believe without good reasons to support that belief are irresponsible and deserving of condemnation, whether they are theists or atheists.

Joe Otten said...

Alonzo, can you quote me something from Dawkins' writings that suggests he thinks that "People of faith are to be condemned".

I have recently read "The God Delusion" and I don't recall that particular sentiment being expressed.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Joe Otten

In a web site on Dawkins quotes, there are quite a few, in fact, that condemn those who hold religious beliefs.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I agree with the claim that it is reckless to wear a blindfold while driving. In fact, I have used this myself in condemning the use of religious belief in decisions on how to run a country or any actions that put others at risk.

However, people are not always driving busses, meaning that there are a great many times when it is quite permissible to wear a blindfold. Just, not when the blindfold puts others at risk of harm.

Again, the determining factor in determining right from wrong is not 'wearing a blindfold' but 'putting others at risk of harm'.

We simply do not have time to hold all of our beliefs up to rational review. Because of our limited resources, we have to do a type of 'belief triage' - putting our beliefs into categories that range from, "those that I do not have time to check and I am simply going to accept," to "those that deserve careful consideration."

And the criteria that I argue for using when categorizing beliefs is "risk of harm to self and others." A belief is not 'reckless' unless it fits in this category of putting others at risk. Not all beliefs generate these types of risks.

It is not always wrong to wear a blindfold - only when one is driving.

Nor is it the case that we must prohibit the wearing of blindfolds under all circumstances because, if we permit any type of blindfold wearing, somebody may get the idea to wear a blindfold while driving.

Joe Otten said...

Sorry, Alonzo, can you give an example? Those quotes seem to be condemning the beliefs rather than the believers.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Sorry, Joe. The idea of "condemning a belief" makes no sense to me. It is like condemning a rock. Beliefs are incapable of performing intentional actions. Beliefs are intentional states, they do not have intentional states - and condemnation is a tool for changing the intentional states that a moral agent has.

If there is condemnation being done, and if that condemnation makes sense, then it must always be a person (a being with intentional states) that is being condemned.

Joe Otten said...

Alonzo, you wrote "The proper object for condemnation is intellectual recklessness causing one to act in ways where they do harm to others."


This seems to me to be more or less what Dawkins is doing, since to the best of our knowledge religion is an example of intellectual recklessness that often does harm.

I think Dawkins is speaking the language not of your virtue ethics but of "act ethics", if that is the term. The wrong act to you may be the act that somebody with the wrong desires would perform, and therefore act condemnation is implicitly person condemnation. But it is not implicit if you are not condemning the act as a virtue ethicist.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Joe Otten

Yes, I make a big fuss about intellectuall recklessness (and intellectual laziness) - arguing that they are far worse than, for example, drunk driving or other forms of recklessness, because of the amount of destruction they risk creating.

However, something is not "recklessness' unless it actually generates this type of risk.

This ties in with my response to Chris above. Wearing a blindfold while driving is reckless. However, it is quite invalid to argue that because wearing a blindfold while driving is reckless, it is always wrong to wear a blindfold.

I see Dawkins and Harris using just this type of overgeneralization.

I will easily condemn a religiously-based belief when I have evidence that it is a threat to the well-being of others. Whether it is stem-cell research, or the idea that we need not concern ourselves with asteroid impacts because "God would never allow something like that to happen to the Earth), or abstinence-only education, or teaching blatantly false doctrine in high-school science classes - I will condemn all of those things.

As I have argued, "This is my religion," is no defense of an action or a belief when holding it makes one a threat to the well-being of others.

However, I criticize religion WHEN it is a threat to others and I can demonstrate that threat. When a theist is not threatening others (and in particular when he is helping others), I see no reason to condemn him. Particularly since being an atheist does not automatically prevent a person from having bizarre and unfounded beliefs.

tedlove said...

i see youve written before that you find only find faith indefensible when it results in harm to others. i would defend harris/dawkins here though. i think the blindfold analogy is apropos. not all faith-based beliefs are reckless, true. but we should consider the potential for harm, should we not? if a man is given a loaded gun, we should be cautious around him; whether or not he chooses to fire it...

here is another way to look at it. try a small thought experiment: say you are an evangelical christian who keeps his beliefs to himself, but is very adamant. Now say you have a child some years down the road. you pass your beliefs on to your son and he worships as you do. now, your son has a child, who absorbs your beleifs too. say that child grows up to become active in a anti-abortion group and eventually bombs a clinic, killing some doctors.

how are we to know at the start, that your beliefs are going to cause harm (two generations later)? i mean, its one thing to condemn observable harm from faith, but what happens when its not immediately observable? how else do we prevent this type of situation from happening?

let me know what you think... i could be convinced otherwise, but it might take some work.

i like the blog though!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The concept of "recklessness" is not a concern with actual harm, but a concern with potential for harm.

For example, I would not argue that the drunk driver is to be condemned only when he does harm others - but if he makes it home safely he has done nothing wrong. I condemn the drunk driver for creating a risk to others - something he has no right to do. Even if he happens to make it home safely, he is still to be condemned.

However, the fact that drunk driving is reckless does not translate into the conclusion that it is wrong to be drunk - as long as one does so in a way that does not create a risk to others.

The theist who holds that, through science, we can discover the laws that God built into the universe, that this God wants him to help others and do no harm, and that this means taking care that he makes no careless mistakes, then I have no complaints against such a person.

The paradigm example of this are the scientific and philosophical deists of the 18th century, who were not atheists, but who trusted to science and felt that we can even discover moral laws through the application of reason to man 'in a state of nature' and, where these scientific and moral discoveries contradicted the church, then the church was wrong. I consider many of these people admirable, and refuse to classify them as villains because they still happened to believe in a God.

When it comes to intellectually reckless behavior - behavior that puts at risk the well-being of innocent people - I include near the top of my list the habit of overgeneralized wrongdoing. This list includes the type of thinking that says, for example, "You are an atheist. Stalin was an atheist. Stalin did great evil. Therefore, you are to be condemned for being like Stalin."

Or, comparably, saying to the theist, "You believe in a God. Islamic terrorists believe in a God. Islamic terrorists are evil. Therefore, you are evil."

If I am going to condemn the first type of argument (as I often do), then consistency demands that I condemn the second.

tedlove said...

i do not mean to imply that i think all theists are evil - from generalization.

i would put it that "faith" is like "driving drunk". just being drunk, or just driving are seperately dangerous and irrelevant here. so when a person takes somethign on faith, they are (according to our analogy) getting in the car drunk. but im not sure this analogy works the best though, and i would still use the loaded gun analogy.

allowing someone to use faith is inherently dangerous - just as a loaded gun is. but depending on who the person is with the gun, they will react differently. so good people will do good things (put down the gun), bad people will do bad things(shoot someone with the gun). and sometimes the good people will do bad things (maybe by accidentally pulling the trigger).

so i guess what i am arguing is just that faith is potentially harmful, intellectually dangerous, but more importantly: unneccesary. which is my real point - so what if most people dont actually kill others based on faith alone? if we got rid of faith we would all be better off for it.

menscheskind said...

One can certainly condemn a belief system, meaning to express a strong disapproval for that belief. Dawkins says that it is religion itself that is to be disapproved because it is unrational and anti-scientific.

Facism was condemnable, not just the people who believed in it. As a matter of fact there were many believers in National Socialism who commited no crimes. But the fact that the facist National Socialism existed was of itself condemnable. Maoism and Stalinism were to be condemned, not just the people who put these twisted concepts into place.

Religion is a perverted reality. It is a denial of that which is real and true. It is not a search for the truth, but rather makes up its story out of whole cloth as it goes along.

Ideas that are perverted and distoritons of reality can and should be condemned because we act according to what we believe is true. For many people, religion is the prime motivator of their actions.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


What do you mean when you talk about condemning a belief system.

Aren't you really talking about condemning anybody who holds such a system?

When you condemn rape, aren't you really condemning any person who would commit rape? I would hold that condemning a rape itself is nonsense - as if the rape did something wrong, a rape should feel guilty, and a rape should not do such things. No, it is the rapist we condemn, not the rape itself.

It makes just as little sense to condemn a belief system - as if a belief system can do something wrong, feel guilty, and should act differently. This makes no sense.

I certainly hold that false beliefs should be corrected - to the degree that those false beliefs tend to cause harm to others.

However, recall my point that 'religion' is not the only set of false beliefs out there. In fact, I hold that with respect to morality, most atheists hold false beliefs that are as poorly founded, as false, and as dangerous as theists. So, changing people from theists to atheists will not automatically make them good people or make the world safer.

And not all theists are dangerous.

As long as there are some theists who are less dangerous than some atheists, I hold that the proper focus is on what actually makes people dangerous.

Attacking theism captures a lot of not-dangerous people, while it lets a lot of dangerous people off the hook - and that, in itself, is dangerous.

Joe Otten said...

How do you suggest I make my moral view felt on a subject such as human cloning?

It would be impossible to condemn or praise it, because there isn't anybody who has done it. And you are saying that condemnation and praise only make sense applied to people.

I suppose I could condemn or praise a hypothetical person who might do it in the future, but this seems as close to condeming or praising the act rather than the person as makes no difference.

For one thing, the hypothetical person isn't a complete person, they are just a stereotype, a placeholder for the act. And a real person might have extenuating circumstances and demand a more nuanced response.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Joe Otten

Praise those who are working to bring about human cloning. Condemn those who are fighting against it -in particular, those who are opposed due to stupid reasons.

For example:

Against a Prohibition on Human Cloning

Anonymous said...

I've read and listend to both Harris and Dawkins at length (and produced videos with them). Maybe I'm a simpleton and can't keep up with this at times rather technical philosophical debate. To me Harris and Dawkins are primarily describing that the emperor has no clothes, and they are highlighting the horrible abuses that are happening as a direct cause of arbitrary but deep seated beliefs. Yeah, some folks raising similar critiques might be hiding behind phrases like: "I can't really blame them, because... insert some polite rationalization". Well, on occasion Harris and Dawkins dispense with the niceties. I'm with them.
As for blaming the moderates: I applaud that because they don't seem to exert much moderating influence on the extremists, but the extremists are clearly their offspring. They bred them, in a way, and are hence responsible for their actions akin to parents are responsible for the actions of their children (or generals of their soldiers - unless, of course they are American generals in which case low ranking "bad apples" go to prison while Rumsfeld goes free).
The "person to person" approach of assessing someone's guilt or co-responsibility is all fine and well but if there's an eternal truth it is this: Masses are asses. Add to that the power of emotionally charged nonsense and you get a prediction regarding the longevity of the human race that is not favorable.
The key point in all of this is that billions of people believe nonsense and organize their life and actions around it. If saying this out loud means to blame them - well, yes, but it is still true. Whether is is the polite thing to say, or helpful, are matters of tactics and social norms.
The debate reminds of the difficulty reasonable people were faced with when listening to the average indoctrinated Republican Fox viewer. They're demonstrably wrong in key points of their belief (ie WMDs were found and used, the world stood behind Bush in attacking Iraq, Hussein = Al Quada) and yet how do you get them to 'repent'? How do you tell people that they were wrong when they are so wedded to their false ideas without insulting them? And about guilt: Do these indoctrinated people share the guilt and responsibility for the war that Bush/Cheney waged against Iraq (now over 600.000 dead)? Hell, yes! No one has any problems of condemning the population of Nazi Germany as 'co-conspirators' or enablers, and I have none regarding the US population that swallowed the shallowest of lies at a time when the European press offered all the counter-intelligence.
Back to religion: faith based funding. Clearly against the constitution, but made into law by vast majorities of religious voters from both parties. Harmless? Demonstrably not. You have seen the recent series of articles in the NYT and the Denver Post that went into detail on how religious outfits enjoy incomparable priviledges over secular non-profits and businesses doing the same work, while allowed to ignore otherwise legally prescribed processes for non-discriminatory hiring, regulatory oversight, employees rights, and taxation. And most of that is enjoyed by the religious moderates that make up the bulk of the religious constituency. So yes: harm.
I think it's really quite easy: Religion has a high nonsense content. Nonsense - despite being moderated by common sense - guarantees a higher than necessary output of harmful and detrimental consequences. So what it amounts to is wreckless negligence because it was chosen to rely on religious dogma rather than rationally defensible tools for decision making. Is it proper to blame people for wreckless negligence? I sure think so.

Peter said...

Should we also condemn those people who hold religious beliefs that cause them to go against their natural selfish, abusive tendencies and perform the most amazing acts of self sacrifice for the betterment of others- all in the name of the God they claim to worship?

Anonymous said...

When people, solely because of their faith, disown their family members, break up with their SO, divorce, estrange themselves from friends, etc. they are not a danger to others.

However, there is certainly harm done.

Nope. Faith is bad, ALWAYS.

Vincent said...

I am speaking outside my expertise, so forgive any naivete.

My understanding of the Dawkins or Harris view on moderate relious people, is that they provide example and therefore encouragement to people to adopt a system that rejects rational thought.

Thus by providing an example (and a generally praised example) they do harm to others by permitting a system of irrationality to continue.

Rejection of rational thought is seen by D & H as harmful. How much greater contribution could the philosopher have given to the world if he had not been restrained by the limits of his religious upbringing?

Also, how easy is it to live a religious life without passing that irrationality on to others. It is the passing on, even passively, that D & H condemn. From that way of thinking, you cannot have religion without causing harm.

Anonymous said...

So the only counter argument made, despite heavy-handed words and convoluted examples, to refute Alonzo is "people don't kill people, guns kill people." According to the misguided lack of logic in the refutations, I should, as the comedian said, "Blame my pencil for misspelled words." Evil and violent action is wrong, ideology is not. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, and just because someone claims to be a rationalist due to their lack of belief in a god, doesn't make it any less of a "leap of faith". Unfortunately, in a world where 70 percent of the population holds some religious belief, the burden of extraordinary proof is on the atheist.

Brian said...

Alonzo's post is based on a misunderstanding of Harris on several levels, though I am not familiar with Dawkins and can't say about him.

"(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."

I'm going to set aside objections regarding the troubling elevation of actus reus over intent here.

The word "when" obviously does not mean "while", rather it means that at all times, we can describe past present and future actions of a person of faith undertaken because of that faith as good, bad, or neither. We can compare those to actions that would have been taken under perfect understanding of our godless world.

Harris agrees that delusions can be sometimes be ameliorative. Because he disagrees with Alonzo regarding the effects of moderate religion, he finds all worth condemning. The question is whether there is a useful way to distinguish which religious movements will be a net good in the future and which will be a net bad. If religion will cause more aggregate future harm than good and there is no good way to distinguish, one can oppose all religion under formula (2). It was unnecessary for Alonzo to ascribe (1) to Harris when (2) works just as well under assumptions Harris is known to hold. Also, (1) is clearly a misstatement without including "too often" before "be", considering Harris' acknowledgement of the good religion can do.

At a second level, Harris is extremely pragmatic. He does not advocate always telling people they are wrong. He simply advocates disagreeing with ideas that are probably false. His disagreement with terrible ideas is often internal. The use of the word "condemn" is wrong or misleading, since it implies expression. Harris suggests personally disagreeing with things that are wrong, and his views on expression are more complex.

"Harris' criticism of moderates has the same flavor as President Bush's claim..."

He argues against the idea of an "atheist" movement in favor of two complementary approaches.

Were we to diagram people and their epistemologies with circles we could make the center one "fundamentalists who endanger us". A broader circle encompassing that would be "all fundamentalists". Around that would be "religious moderates", around that "all religion", and around that "conspiracy theorists who simply fail to use sound reason but happen to not conclude there is a supernatural".

Whichever circle of people ones struggles against, there are trade offs. The outer ones allow a coherent message and defense against hypocrisy yet make enemies who are not doing harm. The inner ones allow one to focus your resources and enlist allies from within outer circles, but prevent you from using arguments that would also harm your allies and prevent your cause from having coherence.

Harris argues against embracing an "atheist" struggle against the "all religion" group. He favors a broader, pro-reason struggle that attacks everything within the circles, but has the advantage of being for something instead of merely being against religion. He thinks this is a practical way to fight fundamentalism, especially over the long term.

As a practical matter, he also favors concentrating on the most harmful fundamentalists, and not excessively attacking Christians and moderate Muslims. It is false to accuse him of a "take no prisoners" attitude.

Brian said...

(2) When people without faith make mistakes that cause them to be a danger to others...I focus attention on Group (2) because they have committed the wrong of making mistakes that make them a danger to others.

Group (2) is spectacularly uninteresting because there are an infinite number of false dogmas. It is trivial to take someone with an incomplete picture of reality, i.e. anyone, and replace one of their beliefs (true or false) with a false one that causes them to act more morally. It is not necessarily true that giving them a true belief would do this, arguably giving them every true belief might.

Surely over the long term the best way to have our actions be moral is to have beliefs about reality that are as true as possible, so we can best determine how to act.

"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.""

It is true that some false beliefs about the world could prevent such immorality. So what. The argument for God from morality is one of the worst. Less bad is the argument that eudemonia includes promoting flawed logic, but I still disagree with that.

This actually isn't parallel to the argument atheists make to each other. The crux of this argument is supposed to be that theism is more likely to be true than atheism because atheism is a part of this falsified philosophy. The counter is the objection that this is the part/whole fallacy, and that the speaker needs to show atheism was the important error in the philosophy.

Atheists sometimes make an argument parallel to the one above, except that Harris provides an explanatory mechanism for why all religion causes harm (it always promotes (at least one) false belief(s) about the world and morality depends on squaring our actions with the way the world really is), while religions advocate replacing a true proposition (atheism) with one that would lead to better outcomes. He satisfies (1)'s demand for a "because" where (1') fails.

Yet outside of "interfaith" arguments, when an atheist tells another atheist that religion causes evil he is not arguing that it is therefore untrue. His point is that it should be opposed, subject to a cost benefit analysis. That permeates Harris' work. Convince him moderate religion has no cost and only benefit, and Harris will support it (be forewarned: irrationality may have costs). Convince him that the best thing to do is promote moderate Islam and religious and intellectual dishonesty in the Muslim world, and he will favor politicians who will do that. Don't pretend he advocates maximum truth-telling regardless of the consequences or has any other dogma.

"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."

It's dishonest to imply Harris advocates anything other than what you did in that paragraph.

I can provide sources for any attribution to Harris. I don't know which are not already known to people.