Friday, April 25, 2008

E2.0: Sam Harris: The End of Religion

This is the 33rd in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s "Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.". I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

The next speaker in this series was Sam Harris, the ‘New Atheist’ author of “The End of Faith.”

I believe that I have come to see something of Harris’ claims in a different light, and it came from how Harris answered a particular question from the studio audience.

There has always been a certain tension in Harris’ writings. In some places, he explicitly recognizes that some religions are worse than others. He compares the Djin to radical Islam to show that it is possible for a person to have a religion that does not make them a threat to others. At the same time, he write about the end of faith – the end of religion – as if all religion is bad. As I read him, this takes the form of the bigot’s fallacy: “Some members of group X are evil; therefore, all members of X are to be condemned.”

However, after giving his speech, a member of the studio audience once again pointed out that it is not the case that all religions are bad. In response to this, Harris said, “That’s why I don’t like the word ‘religion’.”

When Harris says that all religion is bad, he doesn’t like the word ‘religion’, because when he uses the word people take him to be saying something that he is not saying. They then criticize what they think he is saying (which is certainly supported by the title of his book, The End of Faith), and . . . apparently . . . miss what he is actually saying.

So, if Harris is not actually interested in the end of religion, what is it that he wants to end? How does this actual goal relate to the ‘religion’ that makes ‘religion’ seem close to the right term?

Here is one thing that Harris clearly wants to see end. He wants an end to the social taboo against criticizing beliefs that are grounded on nothing but faith. On Harris’s view, some religious beliefs cause those who have them to behave in ways harmful to others (suicide bombings, a community established to institute the rape of pubescent girls, campaigns to block embryonic stem-cell research and prohibit homosexual marriage), When religion causes people to behave in ways harmful to others, Harris thinks we should be free to condemn that religion.

Currently, religion is taken to be a safe haven for those who seek to ‘justify’ behavior harmful to others. If an attack on the well-being of others springs from a set of religious beliefs, we are not allowed to attack their alleged ‘justification’ for their harmful behavior. Their ‘justification’ (which is typically asserted as being a matter of ‘faith’) is not to be challenged. This implies that we have a lot of behavior that is harmful to others that is not being challenged the way that it should be. And we have a lot of suffering as a result.

At this point, we have a conclusion that says that, “Religions may be challenged to the degree that they are used to defend behavior that is harmful to others.” This is fully consistent with the idea that not all religions are equally bad. Those that do not motivate behavior harmful to others can be set aside, while we focus on those that do motivate behavior that is harmful to others.

Notice that the argument above also says that we are focusing on a particular set of justifications that we are not socially permitted to condemn. There is one and only one set of beliefs that we are not socially permitted to condemn – religious beliefs. If a person tries to justify behavior harmful to others on any other standard, we are free to have it him and point out how that standard leads to harm to others. However, if the agent retreats into saying that he holds his standard as a matter of religious faith, this is considered a trump card, and the critic is then expected to back off – even to apologize – for daring to criticize somebody else’s religion.

The proposition, “Religion is not to be considered a sacred ground immune from criticism” is not the same as saying that “All of religion is to be criticized.” The former proposition is fully compatible with saying, “Some religions deserve more criticism than others; and some are so mild that they scarcely deserve our attention (because those who adhere to them are not a threat to others).”

“The end of faith” on this interpretation becomes “the end of a safe area from which behavior that is harmful to others can spring without being criticized – and, in particular, criticized for the harm that it causes people to do to others.”

I see this as being a perfectly reasonable position to take – and the position that I take in this blog. I do not defend atheism in this blog. I condemn behavior harmful to others, and I do not permit ‘this is a matter of faith’ to be used as a shield to criticism for behavior that is harmful to others. At the same time, I do not waste my effort criticizing beliefs that do not lead to behavior harmful to others.

When Harris speaks, this is taken as an attack on all religion. This is because Harris uses the term ‘religion’ to refer to this zone of beliefs that we are socially prohibited from criticizing. However, we can remove the special immunity from criticism from religious beliefs and still have religious beliefs. What remains qualifies as a second definition of religion – the beliefs themselves. We can have zero beliefs that have a special immunity from criticism, and still have religious beliefs, so the set ‘religious beliefs’ and ‘beliefs that have a special immunity from criticism’ are not identical.

Harris switches back and forth between these two concepts without clearly indicating when he using one term and when he is using another. He might not even be clear on the distinction in his own mind – constantly equivocating between the two definitions. Or, he might have the two concepts distinct in his own mind and simply fail to communicate them to his audience.

It is not impossible for a set of religious beliefs to withstand criticism. It is possible that some set of religious beliefs are true. I do not believe that any of them are true, but I could be wrong. Some beliefs withstand criticism better than others.

There is the claim that Harris and other “New Atheists” have made that even moderate religion is to be blamed for shielding the fanatics from criticism. This can be taken as simply another aspect of the claim that all religion (in the broad second sense) is bad. However, once we bring this new, narrower definition into play, this means something else. It means that the religious moderate’s insistence that some beliefs are not to be question is an attitude that shields the religious fanatic. “As long as you keep saying that your beliefs are never to be questioned, you side with the fanatics when they protest the questioning of their beliefs.”

It’s not the end of religion that we are aiming for. It’s the end of faith as an accepted defense of behavior harmful to others. This might result in the end of religion – and some people certainly think that this is the case. Yet, this ‘might’ is consistent with ‘might not’. The question remains as to whether ‘moderate’ religions can find a way to defend their beliefs without giving sanctuary to the fanatics who use the same tools to defend despicably harmful actions.

Since the focus here is on groundless defense of behavior harmful to others, neutral and beneficial religions that at least try for a more substantive defense might get by for quite some time without attracting attention. Rational critics will focus their attention first on the failures of those religions whose beliefs inspire the most harmful actions – leaving the rest alone. The goal is to prevent harm, not to destroy religion; and only to destroy religions to the degree that a particular religion inspires its followers to do harm to others.

I might be reading a lot into a simple answer to a simple question. Yet, there is a principle in charity that in selecting the correct interpretation of a document one must give the author the benefits of all doubt. Harris’ response to this question, that he does not like the word ‘religion’ because it is overly general, gives me reason to doubt that Harris actually committed the bigot’s fallacy, “Some religious people did a bad thing; therefore, all religion is bad.”

Perhaps what he really meant to say is, “The practice of causing harm to others and then ducking criticism by saying, ‘God told me to do it,’ has to come an end. Religions are free to try to defend themselves by more rational means; that’s not the issue. Religions are not free to engage in behavior harmful to others without having a defense that sits on a more solid foundation than ‘faith’. Those whom the practitioners of that religion do harm to have a right to demand better from those who do them harm.

The 'end of faith' is not necessarily the same as 'the end of religion', and criticism of Harris as calling for 'the end of religion' (rather than the narrower 'end to claiming that behavior harmful to others can be defended by appealing to faith') need not actually defeat the proposal to end the special status of religious belief that Harris was principally attacking.


Cayden said...

Sam Harris should have just titled his book 'The End of Stupidity'.

Cameron said...

I haven't made it very far into Harris' book, but from what I remember of the first few chapters, you reached the right conclusion.

He goes on to say that the moderates of a religion can be blamed insofar as they're unwilling to say that the tenants of their religions should be subject to scrutiny, and makes a point about how the extremists of any religion are really just the ones that have taken this concept all the way to its natural conclusion.

Hume's Ghost said...

When I posted something about The End of Faith I noted that Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World is better at defending reason from superstition. The Council for Secular Humanism's representative to the UN - Austin Dacey - has recently put out a book that argues the point of this post, but better than Harris. (Although Dacey is more interested in addressing secular liberals who believe that religion should not be criticized.)

Its titled The Secular Conscience. Not incidentally, Sam Harris is one of the blurbs on the back cover praising the book.

Hume's Ghost said...

Here's a link to a podcast discussion with Dacey on the book.