Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A Problem with Faith?

When I read Sam Harris' Atheist Manifesto I get the sense that I am reading a summons to participate in the atheist version of a jihad or crusade against those who do not think as I do - those who engage in faith-based thinking. He itemizes the list of religious conflicts in the world’s past and present: Christian vs. Protestant, Protestant vs. Protestant, Christian vs. Islam, Shiite vs. Sunni, Muslim vs. Hindu. To this list, Harris appears to be asking that I add one more: Atheist vs Theist.

I am disinclined to acquiesce to his proposal.

To his credit, Harris is not making a call for violent conflict. He insists that we dispense with the dogma of faith, and explains why it would be useful to do so, but he does not say much about how we should do so. He does say that we need a moral permission to condemn (violent) faith and to be rid of the idea that all religions are equal. Some religions - particularly those that call their followers to inflict harm on others - are evil. We cannot have peace in the world until we rid the world of violent religions, which means (at the very least) being able to say, "That is a violent religion and, as such, those who follow that religion are to be condemned."

A main argument for this position is that faith-based thinkers have no way to resolve conflict except through violence. The mere fact that their conclusions are faith-based rather than evidence-based means that they cannot go to those who disagree with them and say, "Look at the evidence. This proves that I am right." The very definition of faith-based thinking is that it is thinking that does not appeal to evidence. There is no non-violent method of persuasion available.

Consequently, faith-based people inevitably end up in faith-based wars. They drum up religious hatred towards those who do not share their faith. One particular drum that gets beaten is to equate morality with religion and to say, "Only those who share our faith are fully moral. They are to be respected and left in peace. All others are less moral and do not deserve the same consideration." This allows people of faith to justify in their own mind any brutalities that they might inflict on “the infidel” who is “attacking us and (our) God – the source of all that is good and right.”

Yet, I could not find a way of interpreting this argument thta did not contradict itself. Is it not the case that Harris is claiming the "we" reason-based thinkers are more moral than "they" who are faith-based thinkers? People of faith may have no way to talk to people of a different faith but through force of arms. Yet, people of reason also have no way to talk to people of faith but through force of arms. After all, it is true ex hypothesi that people of faith have decided not to listen to reason. What methods, then, are there to put an end to faith, but to use the same technique of religious war that one religion uses on another?

Religious wars between the faithless and faithful promise to be no less bloody than the wars between Christian and Muslim, Muslim and Muslim, Catholic and Protestant, Hindu and Muslim, or Protestant and Protestant that have plagued the world in the past. Is this type of conflict really such a good idea?

We atheists are – or, at least, we claim to be – people of reason. As people of reason, can we not see that we have reason not to add one more realm of conflict to those that already exist?

In reading some of Sam Harris' work, such as the Myth of Secular Moral Chaos and listening to him speak, I have noticed a specific logical error in the relationship he draws between morality and faith. In answering the question of whether God is needed for morality, he does not respond directly to this question. Instead, he answers with example of specific religions where their moral claims are objectionable.

This is a bit like answering the question of whether science can explain the origin of humans through evolution by pointing out that scientists were wrong, for a time, about Piltdown Man. It is like saying that we should reject scientific claims about the nature of disease because one can find in scientific literature that there once was a claim that malaria, for example, was caused by “bad air.”

Specific examples of error does not disprove the idea that morality requires God. Specific examples of error are compatible with the belief that, even though morality requires God, we fallible humans sometimes make mistakes in understanding what God wants us to do.

We can, however, take Harris’ observations down a different road to a different conclusion. This is a conclusion that raises as many problems for systems of ethics popular among atheists as it does for religious morality.

Harris' observations tell us that few people, at least in America, actually get their morals from any religious text. Rather, they get their morals from “another source,” and quote religious texts only when it agrees with that “other source.”

Those who claim to believe in a religious morality obviously pick and choose among biblical commandments and requirements which to obey and which to ignore. Christians today not only refuse to execute those who work on the day of the Sabbath, but often work on the day of the Sabbath themselves. They not only refuse to execute those who collect interest on loans, but have interest-bearing savings accounts and purchase CDs and bonds. Furthermore, they allow literature on such things as laddered bonds and structured annuities to be posted in plain view where any child could stumble across them. Instead of obeying the biblical command to execute any child who talks back to his parent, they advocate the execution of parents who would kill their child for such trivial reasons. They have come to condemn slavery, though the Bible condones slavery.

On the other side of the coin, as I have illustrated several times in this blog, many of these people follow a religion that commands them not to bear false witness. Yet, "bearing false witness" is such a central pillar of their political and social life that this "other source" -- whatever it may be -- has be a source that takes deception to be a virtue.

I know that the advocates of religous morality claim that their moral standard comes from religious text. Furthermore, it is only natural that we take their word for it. Yet, against this, empirical observation gives us plain and irrefutable evidence that this is not true. Their claims run in flat contradition to the observed fact that they get their morality from an "other source" -- a source other than religoius text.

When a theist claims that his morality comes from God through the Bible or some other text, our proper and accurate response should be to say, "You are wrong. You clearly do not use the Bible as a source of moral knowledge, and I can prove it." Then prove it, using evidence such as that which I cited above (which is only a small fraction of the evidence available).

“You, sir or madam, draw completely subjective and unfounded opinions about what parts of the Bible you will obey and which you will ignore, and base your morality on those opinions. Not, contrary to what you claim, on the bible. If I am wrong about this, then you would be making these moral assertions that I clearly do not hear you making.”

Given that the claim that people derive their morality from religious text is demonstrably false, it is a mistake to launch a campaign to condemn the practice. What we need to do is to condemn the practice that people use in fact that is causing these problems. However, it is a practice that is as popular among atheists as it is among theists -- and those atheists who use this system are as potentially dangerous as any theists who use this system.

Let us ask the question, "What is your source of moral knowledge that you not only draw upon it, but that you consider so much superior to the Bible that you readily discard Biblical commands that contradict this source and only quote those commands that this source will endorse?”

Ultimately, I would argue that the following theory describes what is going on in most theists' heads when they make moral judgments more accurately than the 'biblical source' theory.

Their moral practice is grounded on the belief that God has written an infallible moral code onto their soul. This moral text, available only through intraspection is the “other source” they draw upon for moral truth. If there appears to be conflict between this "other source" and the Bible, they conclude that their interpretation of the Bible must be in error -- they change their interpretation so that it conforms to this "other source” -- this internal source -- of moral knowledge.

Here, I want to note that many atheists use almost exactly the same method. They simply replace "moral truth written on the soul" with some other reason to think that intraspection gives access to claims that have special moral authoritity.

One popular story replaces the claim that God wrote moral truth on our soul with the claim that evolution wrote a moral code into our genes. Except for this change in the identity of the author of our moral code, morality functions the same way. We gain moral knowledge through intraspection where we read our genes (or, more precisely, our genetically-influenced sentiments) in order to determine the difference between right and wrong.

The common subjectivist (perhaps the most common moral view among atheists) also uses this same system. The common subjectivist says, “Of course I am basing morality on my own personal sentiments. Furthermore, I deny the need to try to explain how a personal and unfounded sentiment that others are to be harmed actually justifies harming them. It is sufficient that I have this sentiment -- that is justification enough for doing harm.” The system is still the same – “justifying” harm to others on the basis of a personal desire or sentiment to do harm.

When we combine this fact – that atheists and theists have functionally identical moral systems – with Harris’ thesis that theist moral system is dangerous – we draw some unsettling conclusions about two of the most popular atheist moral views as well. This is not a problem that distinguishes the faithful from the faithless. This is a problem that applies to all people who think that they can acquire moral truth (or, at least, moral justification) through intraspection. Depending on the culture that a person is raised in, when they turn their attention inward to determine who may or may not be harmed, they can easily find a lot of justification for doing harm. This makes these people dangerous.

All three views make it easy to "justify" doing harm to others.

(1) “I have an affection for doing harm to people such as yourself. This affection was written onto my soul by God. Therefore, I am justified in harming people such as yourself.”

(2) “I have an affection for doing harm to people such as yourself. This affection is the product of a long history of evolution. Therefore, I am justified in harming people such as yourself.”

(3) “I have an affection for doing harm to people such as yourself. Therefore, I am justified in harming people such as yourself. No further explanation is necessary.”

These are manifestations of the same general human tendency. It is a mistake, I think, to claim that this is simply a problem with faith.


Sadiq said...


Anonymous said...

I like this a lot. This is the very kind of insight I have often tried to reveal on other atheist websites and often find myself heaped with abuse because of it. I will say I have never been able to articulate it so well.

Still, I think pdf23ds has a point that needs to be addressed. If I could add my own criticism, you seem to outline the problem well, but don't offer much in the way of a solution. What basis would not result in a morality where it was somtimes deemed justifiable to do harm? A system of morality, if nothing else, delineates right and wrong. Is there never any deed so wrong that causing harm in return wouldn't be an imperative?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

In various places throughout this blog, I have given elements of a theory that I think avoids these problems -- a view that I describe briefly in an article called Desire Utilitarianism".

Anonymous said...

Religious wars between the faithless and faithful promise to be no less bloody than the wars between Christian and Muslim, Muslim and Muslim, Catholic and Protestant, Hindu and Muslim, or Protestant and Protestant that have plagued the world in the past. Is this type of conflict really such a good idea?

You're off base here, and it makes the rest of the argument rather irrelevent. In fact the "war" between the faithless and the faithful is completely different from the prior (and ongoing) internecine wars between faiths. We do not resort to violence.

Our final war can only begin in an environment in which religious intolerance has given way to secularism. Ironically, it is the bloody wars between the sects that has paved the way for the war against faith itself. Once an society has embraced pluralism for the sake of its own survival in the face of the violence of religious hatreds, it is ripe for true dissent. We do not wish to destroy faith by taking up arms, for we surely would be overwhealmed by the numbers of the faithful. Instead our attack is rhetorical; logical argument, discourse and analogy, irony and satire, joke and ridicule -- these are our weapons.

I will defend secularism with violence, if necessary, but that's a battle in which many minority creeds will be our allies. Once won, we will win again by turning the minds of the young with our words, not by killing their parents.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jack: But why not go to war against faith?

Once we accept the claim of our own moral superiority (because we use reason instead of faith), accept the view that "they" are a threat for no reason other than the fact that they accept faith, that we cannot reason with them because they refuse to use reason, and that even "moderates" are a part of the problem, it seems that the only thing preventing a true war against faith is the fact that "we" do not have a big enough army.

You speak of a "we" (as in "We do not resort to violence") as if atheists represent a homogonous group in perfect agreement on such matters.

Yet, "we" are a diverse group and we are fully human. Generate enough fear and hatred of the faithful, add a dose of power, and you can generate atheist attrocities that will rival those of any religious sect. Look at the French Revolution for an example.

In a previous post called "Fundamentalism" I argued that secularism is a middle ground between extremes -- the extreme of religious fundamentalism and atheist fundamentalism (or the extreme between the fundamentalisms of different religions). Thus, secularism keeps the peace. Consequently, I am not arguing against secularism.

Far from it. Secularism is not a war on faith. It is a tolerance of faith. Secularism is a way of saying, "I don't need to put an end to faith, but can live with those who have faith -- just as it asserts that those of faith do not have to rid the world of the faithless, and can live with us."

Ultimately, in this blog, mine is not a war against faith. It is a war against attitudes that tend to promote misery and suffering. If a person believes that a benevolent God demands that he be kind to his neighbors and help them when they are need, I see no reason to protest.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I think that I am going to get a couple of posts out of your comments here. I started to write a reply, but it just kept getting longer and longer and longer. Ergo . . . they will be posts.

Those posts will take two stands.

(1) There is no such thing as a 'sense of morality'. Furthermore, belief in this mythical 'sense of morality' is the cause of the bulk of the evils that Sam Harris wants to attribute to 'faith.'

(2) The concept of 'convince someone else of a moral value' needs some development. I hold that the phrase is ambiguous.

I hold that you can convince somebody that something is wrong, he can accept your explanation, then shrug his shoulders and say, 'Ah, but I don't care,' and do whatever evil he originally intended.

There is another sense of 'convince someone else of a moral value' that will actually change his behavior. However, to do that, you need to actually change his desires. You speak about an appeal to the desires that the agent already has. I deny that morality can be found in what will fulfill an agent's actual desires. You need to do more than show him how morality fulfills his desires -- you need to actually change his desires into those that morality will fulfill.

More to come.