It appears that the propagandists for anti-atheist bigotry have found a weapon to use in a quote from Sam Harris’ book “The End of Faith.” There, Harris wrote:
[S]ome propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing in them.
This is being used around the internet in a campaign of fear, representing Harris (and those who approve of his work) of arguing for a state much like the Inquisition, where people are arrested and executed merely for having the wrong beliefs.
As posted on A Load of Bright in “Misquoting Harris”, this quote is taken out of context. Harris is talking about somebody whose beliefs cause him to threaten others. His account would apply, for example, to a case where a neighbor of mine took seriously the commandment that those who work on the Sabbath shall be put to death. Noting that I publish blog entries every day of the week and deciding that this constitutes work, he decides that I must be put to death. While I am sitting on my patio working on my next post, he comes over with a machete in order to execute God’s will.
Clearly, I would have the right to defend myself and to use deadly force to do so. Of course, additional principles such as a clear and present danger also apply – nothing in Harris’ actual quote even hints at overruling these caveats. Yet, those who wish to believe otherwise are free to add their own (false) assumptions in order to season the words to taste.
A consistent use of the principles employed by some hard-core fundamentalists may dispute this conclusion that I would have a right to defend myself. They may protest that any act of self-defense on my part constitutes ‘militant atheism’ – an attempt on my part to force my religious views (that there is no wrong in working on the Sabbath) on my neighbor by preventing him from freely exercising his religious requirement to kill me. These are people who refuse to recognize that a “freedom of religion” is not an absolute moral permission to do whatever one wants, to whomever one wants, as long as one can find a piece of scripture to support it.
Yet, let’s leave these anomalies aside, and work within the common-sense view that the right to freedom of religion is still constrained by moral limits that are higher than scripture – limits that would allow me to defend myself from my religious neighbor’s attack regardless of his ability to find biblical passages to support his view.
In this context, his ‘belief’ – and the fact that it has driven him to be a danger to others – justifies a lethal act of self-defense.
Harris’ quote, taken out of this context, is an extremely useful tool for those whose business is the manufacture and untaxed sale of hatred (since contributions to religious institutions are not taxed) against atheists. As such, it is reasonable to expect that some would find this business hard to resist. Moral prohibitions against bearing false witness against others, lying, sophistry (engineering false beliefs) and intellectual recklessness are of no concern to such people – only the profitability (in terms of cash and power) of their product.
This is the point that I want to make in this posting. It is not that there are people who have taken Harris’ statement out of context in order to manufacture hate. It is not the fact that what they have done is morally contemptible. A morally responsible person would have checked the quote to determine if it was accurate, and refused to use it if it was not.
No, the real issue is that these people are part of a vast and powerful culture that have absolutely no respect for the intellectual virtues. Intellectual recklessness, bearing false witness, sophistry (manufacturing false beliefs), and deliberate deception – they shrug off these moral crimes with a lack of guilt that would make them the envy of any sociopath.
As I work on this blog, I have often thought of what might happen if my writings somehow became noticed by the members of this culture. I suspect that they would immediately cast me as somebody who says that people may do whatever they desire because fulfilling desire is the root of all value.
Yes, I say that all value consists of relationships between states of affairs and desires. However, these people would likely choose to ignore (because they care nothing about truth) that this implies that the value of certain desires rests in their tendency to fulfill other desires. Thus, it is not the case that all desires are equal – some are clearly better than others. Some desires (those that tend to fulfill the desires of others), we have reason to promote and encourage. Other desires (desires that do harm to or otherwise thwart the desires of others) we have reason to inhibit.
However, once this propaganda machine gets up to speed, there is little that I, with my little corner blog and the need to spend a good portion of my day working for a living, could do anything to stop it. Those who read the words of people who would bear false witness against me equally will accept the accusations as true. This is because they share in this culture of intellectual irresponsibility – it is a part of their culture. Reading the words of others through a lens of moral responsibility is simply out of the question.
There are, then, three responses to an incident such as this wrong committed against Harris. The first response is to simply point out that the author made a mistake. The second response is to condemn the author, because a morally responsible agent would not have made a mistake. The third response is to condemn the culture to which that agent belongs – a culture that cares nothing about intellectual integrity, and a great deal about doing harm to others through careless and deliberate falsehoods.
Culture of Intellectual Recklessness
Who are the members of this culture of intellectual recklessness? To find out, all we need to do is to trace the thread of this misquote through the internet. Everywhere it stops and obtains an implicit endorsement is another person who is part of this intellectually reckless culture.
It is not surprising to find a link between intellectual recklessness and religious fundamentalism either. Fundamentalism teaches intellectual recklessness. It is, in fact, a primary requirement for membership. This is not to say that all intellectually reckless people are fundamentalists. Nor is it to say that all religious people are intellectually reckless (because not all religious people are fundamentalists). It is only to say that religious fundamentalism is intellectually reckless.
Do we wish to see how far this intellectually reckless attitude – this fundamental disregard for truth – goes? Our current day and age gives us a handy tool to do so. All we need to do is search the Intranet, and we can track intellectual recklessness through the strands of the world wide web.
Note that I am not talking about tracking religious fundamentalism through the web and using that as a marker for intellectual recklessness and a fundamental disregard for the truth. I am talking about tracking something where the intellectual recklessness can be more easily noted. In this case, it is in the many examples of bearing false witness – either recklessly or through deliberate and malicious deception – against Sam Harris.
That these people show the same moral failing if intellectual irresponsibility on matters of religious belief as they show here is simply another piece of evidence in what criminal lawyers would call “establishing a pattern of behavior” which, with enough examples, is sufficient to prove moral culpability.
Promoting Intellectual Responsibility
One lesson that I wish to draw from this is that it is possible to criticize and to condemn religious fundamentalists without once bringing God or religion into the picture at all. People suffering from the vice of intellectual irresponsibility are bound to use it even in areas outside of religion – areas that have real effects on real people (e.g., global warming, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) costing real lives and real suffering. When these types of opportunities come up, blaming the cult of intellectual irresponsibility for the harms done – for the lives lost, the injuries, the suffering – will have a real-world significance that will pay dividends against other instances of intellectual recklessness.
The point is to say more than, “You are mistaken,” but to go further and say, “Your mistake is either reckless or deliberately malicious and, in either case, is morally reprehensible,” to the final charge (where bad reasoning can be shown to have been picked up and spread around by others), “You are a part of a morally irresponsible culture that appears to embrace intellectual recklessness, bearing false witness, engineering false beliefs, and even deliberate deception, with all of the evils that such people bring to the world.”
Note that my accusation in this case applies to those whose moral irresponsibility applies to misquoting Sam Harris - an easily demonstrable example of, at best, moral recklessness and, at worse, deliberate and malicious deception. Yet, its targets are also those who are morally irresponsibile in other ways.
To the degree that intellectual irresponsibility in all of its harmful forms can be reduced, to that degree we will all live longer, healthier, and happier lives, and to that degree even harmless unreasonable beliefs will fade away.