In my continuing weekend series discussing the presentations at Beyond Belief 2006, we are at the end of the second-to-last episode. We have heard presentations from Sam Harris, Jim Woodward, and Melvin Konner on the nature of morality and religion. At the conference itself, this seemed to be an alliance of Konner and Wooodward against Harris. (Soon, Richard Dawkins would take the stage as Harris’ ally.)
I hold that Woodward made the strongest case, while Konner presented the worst case. In fact, I would nominate Konner for giving the most intellectually bankrupt presentation at the conference. I discussed many of his mistakes and misinterpretations in my discussion of his presentation. The discussion that followed brings to bear another of his mistakes.
Konner’s Response to Harris
At one point in his presentation, Konner pointed out the difficulty in convincing religious people to give up their religion. He said that they know all of the arguments – arguments about God’s evil character, the contradictions that can be found in scripture, the scientific evidence that overwhelmingly supports theories that the believer rejects. Dawkins and Harris are not saying anything new. It would be foolish for them to expect that their efforts would have any effect.
After giving an inventory of these arguments that fail to impact religious belief, Konner gives Harris’ definition of faith as something that closes down discourse. It closes the mind to evidence, allowing the faithful to hold on to their belief no matter what. In response to this, Konner simply said, “Yes, that’s what it is. Get over it.”
Taking these objections [to religion] we need to recognize that none of them is new. All of them have been heard or independently thought of by most intelligent people, and most important none has posed or is likely to pose a serious obstacle to belief in the minds of the vast majority of believers. . . . [M]ost religious people don’t care about proofs. It is not news to them that religion has caused great harm, or that their sacred texts are flawed, or that science explains most things. They have been meeting these objections with aplomb for centuries. Most don’t care, they will proudly tell you, about argument. They don’t care about evidence. They don’t even care that they can’t clearly define ‘God’. Most think that all these conversations are silly.
So what do they care about? Faith, defined in Letter to the Hebrews as ‘…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ Sam [Harris’] definition is or one of his basic statements is, ‘Religious faith . . . forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity – a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.’
Yes, that’s what it is, Sam.
Get over it.
Now, I would like you to imagine a person giving a presentation in which he pointed out all of the various ways in which rapists rationalize their actions – giving them a cloak of legitimacy, ignoring any evidence about the harmfulness of rape and the incoherence of their own attempts to rationalize it. He also makes claims about the high recidivism rate for sex offenders and how hard it is to convince people not to commit rape. After all of this, the speaker says, “Smith defines rape as sexual penetration without consent. Yes, that’s what it is, Smith. Get over it.”
Get over it?
A short digression. A religious fundamentalist or anybody else with more interest in scoring rhetorical points than intellectual honest debate would say, “How dare you compare faith to rape!” As a matter of fact, I said nothing to compare faith to rape. What I did was compare an statement about faith to a statement about rape to show that the statement of faith contained certain question-begging assumptions that will become clear shortly.
Faith as a Vice
Harris is not presenting the case against faith as a matter of competing beliefs. Harris is presenting faith as a moral problem – as a pattern of behavior which is extremely dangerous and the cause of significant harm to others. The command to “get over it” is a command to stand by with one’s hands in one’s pockets while innocent people around the world are being made to suffer and die horrible deaths, without lifting even a finger to help protect those innocent lives. For a morally concerned individual, that is not an option.
Konner’s response, “Get over it,” assumes either that there is nothing morally culpable in an act of faith. Konner accepts many of Harris’ points in favor of thinking of faith as an a vice. Yet, ultimately, he says, “Yes, we have all of these reasons to condemn faith. But you should simply accept it.”
One possible reason to accept faith, in spite of its social costs, is because we cannot eliminate it. There will always be people who will engage in faith-based thinking. The idea that we can turn everybody into perfect reason-based thinkers is simply wishful thinking.
However, this same argument can be applied to any moral objective – and it fails against all of them. There is no way in which we can convince everybody to be perfectly honest, yet this is not an argument against raising moral objections against those who lie, bear false witness, or engineer false beliefs. We will never be able to completely eliminate theft, yet we still have many good reasons to condemn theft. And there will certainly be rapes far into the foreseeable future, but this does not imply that we must accept and tolerate rape.
Nor is the fact that there will always be faith-based thinkers imply that we must passively accept faith-based thinking; particularly when it is responsible for far more death and suffering than lies, theft, and rape.
That is how Harris’ argument goes, and Konner’s response does not even begin to touch it.
Intellectual Recklessness as Vice
At this point, I want to make another careful distinction. It is a distinction between, “Harris’ argument is that faith is a vice,” and “Faith is a vice.” I can present Harris’ argument here, and point out that Konner fails to address it, without agreeing with Harris on the claim that faith is a vice. In fact, I do not agree with Harris on this matter.
Intellectual recklessness is a vice. However, the wrong of intellectual recklessness is like the wrong of drunk driving. Drunk driving is wrong when it puts the well-being of others at risk. However, if the drunk driver confines himself to his own 10,000 acre ranch, on which nobody else is permitted to trespass, he threatens nobody, and he does no wrong.
Similarly, reckless thinking is a vice when it is done in areas that put others at risk of harm, but not when it is confined to beliefs that only affect the thinker. A person who believes that a God exists, that he will survive death, and that God will allow him into heaven if he is good to others, and who is not reckless about what constitutes good for others, is not somebody we need to worry about. Yes, he is a reckless thinker, but he is reckless only in the privacy of his own life.
Harris speaks as somebody who would condemn even reckless driving on one’s own property on the grounds that allowing even a little bit of reckless driving would tear down the walls that would otherwise keep people from reckless driving in public. In fact, Harris’ argument would actually be more like saying that all drinking is to be condemned because, if we allow drinking, we will inevitably suffer the effects of those who choose to drink and drive. By refusing to condemn all drinking, Harris’ argument would say, we give license to those who would drink and drive.
Regular readers will remember that I had harsh words last week for Konner when he said that Harris and Dawkins were arguing for a religious version of Prohibition. They argued for no such thing. My argument here does not accuse Harris of arguing for religious prohibition. There is no inconsistency in condemning something while, at the same time, saying that it is foolish to pass a law against it. A person can argue for abolition while saying that the only legitimate force for abolition is moral persuasion.
I (and many atheists) apply these same principles to the greatest absurdities of religion. Though we hold that those who speak these absurdities deserve ridicule and scorn, and condemnation where they prey on others who are vulnerable, we would object to any legal prohibitions against these speech acts. Moral persuasion and the force of reason are the only legitimate tools to use in these cases. The force of law is off-limits.
So, here I compare Harris’ condemnation of all faith as a response to harmful acts based on faith to the condemnation of all drinking as a response to drunk driving. I, on the other hand, argue that faith becomes worthy of condemnation only when it becomes a risk to others, in the same way that drinking becomes worthy of condemnation when it becomes a risk to others.
If somebody were to come to me with a belief in God and the afterlife, with a belief that God will save those who promote goodness in the real world, that scripture is clearly a poor moral guide, and that reason provides a better tool for determining the difference between what is good and what is bad, I would rather have him as my neighbor than many of the atheists that I have come across. Here is somebody who confines his reckless thinking to areas which do not cause him to be a threat to others. While many atheists, who get the right answer with respect to God’s existence, can still be extremely reckless thinkers when it comes to what causes harm to others.
This consideration of faith as a vice also explains and, if the premises are correct, wold justify the harsh language that Harris uses.
There are two ways to get a person to change their attitude towards something. Belief is an attitude that a proposition is true or false. The way that one affects beliefs is through reason – by showing evidence against the proposition, thus proving to the listener that the proposition is false. Desire, on the other hand, is a mental force that motivates an agent to make or keep a proposition true. We affect desire through praise and blame, reward (for those good, clear, rational thinkers) and punishment (e.g., in cases such as medical malpractice where intellectual recklessness can be directly linked to harm to others).
It is simply absurd to treat a love of faith as a matter for reason. If faith is a vice then, like all vices, we have good and strong reason to inhibit its influence by morally condemning those who engage in faith-based thinking. The goal is to make them feel embarrassed and ashamed, so that these emotions will inhibit them from continuing to engage in behavior that is a threat to others.
Once again, I believe that Harris’ objection to faith itself is much too broad. Therefore, I would argue that harsh language directed at all the targets that Harris would commend directing it is not always just. However, to the degree that Harris is correct in his claim that faith is a vice, to that degree it does follow that harsh language against those who engage in the practice of faith is appropriate.
Limits of Condemnation
At the same time, it is important not to go overboard in this condemnation of alternative ways of thinking. Too often, those who assert that others are being reckless and who call for punishment tend to be the poorer thinkers themselves. We do require a certain amount of humility, where we give others the benefit of the doubt. We shall presume another person’s thinking to be within moral bounds.
It shall not be a crime to disagree with another person, even when a person’s argument is pathetically poor. However, when poor belief causes a person to pick up a weapon (or conspire to wield a weapon) to kill or maim others, then it is time to step in and physically restrain the reckless thinker.
These are the standards that I have used throughout this blog. The only legitimate response to words are counter-words. The only legitimate response to a political campaign in an open society is a counter-campaign. Only when one side picks up weapons is it permissible to take up arms in self-defense.
Failure to abide by these rules – and even failure to use praise and reward to promote them, while using condemnation and punishment to inhibit violations – risks moving us towards, if not actually to, a state much like that of Baghdad.