Thursday, February 22, 2007

Sam Harris Essay Contest

In a recent guest editorial called “Beyond the Believers” in Free Inquiry magazine, Sam Harris established something of an essay contest for those who wanted to come up with short answers to many claims made in defense of faith at the Beyond Belief seminar.

He identified four related sets of propositions, each of which he assumed to be false, and asked readers to provide a short (200 word maximum) retorts to each of these sets of claims with a small prize given to each winner – without actually defining what a “winner” is.

Obviously, it is a violation of my very nature to keep any of my writing short. Fortunately, I am covering the Beyond Belief series that Harris spoke about in my weekend posts, and that will give me the opportunity to provide more elaborate answers. In fact, tomorrow’s posting will cover the first of Harris’ sets of propositions. So, I’ll use this opportunity to see what I can accomplish in the “short essay” category.

1. Even though I’m an atheist, my friends are atheists, and we all get along fine without pretending to know that one of our books was written by the Creator of the universe, other people really do need religion. It is, therefore, wrong to criticize their faith.

Before I get to my response, I want to add some context from the Beyond Belief seminar to this context. The actual discussion (or, I think, the discussion that Harris was referring to, in the middle of Session 3) concerned “pulling the rug out from under” people who could not handle the struggles of everyday life without their religion.

My response:

“Other people” need religion like an alcoholic needs a drink.

It may be extremely difficult for an alcoholic to get through the day sober, but this does not imply that it would be bad for him to try.

If we are talking about somebody who 'needs' religion in this sense, we are talking about a psychological dependence. Specifically, we are talking about a psychological dependence in a faerie tail - like 'needing' to believe in Santa Clause.

It is also important to note that this is a learned dependence. There seem to be a lot of people who do not need such a thing and the factors that determine whether one acquires them appear to be environmental. This means that we can’t stop with just asking, “Do people have this need?” We must ask, “Should we be causing people to acquire this need?” What good does it do to make people psychologically dependent on a faerie tail?

I am more than happy to allow a person his harmless addictions. However, when an addiction causes people to harm others, we have reason to prevent people from acquiring such an addiction – to say they should not be caused to have this need.

2. People are not really motivated by religion. Religion is used as a rationale for other aims—political, economic, and social. Consequently, the specific content of religious doctrines is beside the point.

Do people do not pray? They do not attend church? Do they not make references to religious text? Do they not make these references in the belief that they will alter the behavior of others? Do they not quite reasonably think that those attempts are sometimes successful? What of those who refuse blood transfusions, or who sit in the chapel and pray while their child is in surgery?

We need a theory that best explains and predicts these intentional actions. The claim that religious beliefs have nothing to do with these actions is one of those extraordinary claims that will require extraordinary proof.

If we are forced to admit that religious beliefs are a part of the best explanation of some actions, then it is strange to exclude them when explaining political, economic, and social action.

Even if we take the initial assertion as true – that religion is being used as a rationale for political, economic, or social aims – and those political, economic, and social actions involve maiming and killing others, or writing laws that cost others life, limb, liberty, and fulfillment, we scarcely have an argument for holding religious beliefs to be irrelevant.

3. It is useless to argue against the veracity of religious doctrines, because religious people are not actually making claims about reality. Their claims are metaphorical or otherwise without real content. Hence, there is no conflict between religion and science.

To my understanding, metaphors have content. "A is like B" is true if and only if A is like B in the way specified. That content might not be very precise, but it is there.

Furthermore, those metaphors are being used to influence behavior. They are being used to draw lessons about how to act – lessons that do have content.

Some people hold that the lesson is to engage in behavior that is, in fact, harmful to others. That the agent denies that there is harm, or insists that the harm serves a greater good (where that greater good is as mythical as leprechauns), those conclusions have content.

And they have consequences.

To the degree that we have reason to avoid the worst of those consequences, we have reason to be concerned about their causes. It does not matter whether those causes are called ‘metaphors’ or ‘beliefs.’ The harm that they cause give us reason for concern.

4. Religion will always be with us. The idea that we might rid ourselves of it to any significant degree is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Dawkins and other strident opponents of religious faith are just wasting their time.

False beliefs will always be with is. The idea that we might rid ourselves of false beliefs to any significant degree is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Advocates of education are just wasting their time.

Or, if one prefers a moral response

Child abuse will always be with us. The idea that we can rid ourselves of child abuse is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Opponents of child abuse are wasting their time.

Those who are familiar with the rules of logic will recognize these as examples of a disproof by counter-example. They demonstrate that even if the premises are true, the inference to the conclusion is invalid. It simply states a false dichotomy to assert that we must either be totally successful or we are wasting our time. Progress is measured in degrees, not in absolutes.

If we add a taste of economic analysis we can see that the initial efforts can be aimed at harvesting the low-hanging fruit - the options with the best potential for positive gains. We can save the less efficient options for when we have more resources.


I want to make it clear that though the contest put the question in terms of a battle between faith and science, none of my answers follow that distinction. Those answers remain true to the principle that the only reasons for action that exist are desires, and that if a belief does no harm (thwarts no desires), we have no genuine reasons for action to be concerned about them. Any reasons for action we make up that are not tied to desires are just that – made up, and of no relevance in the real world.

Consequently, I am concerned only with (1) harmful addictions; (2) political, economic, and social actions involve maiming and killing others, or writing laws that cost others life, limb, liberty, and fulfillment; (3) avoiding the worst consequences; and (4) the best potential for positive gains.

When it comes to reasons for action, the question is not one of faith or no faith, but one of harm or no harm.


Anonymous said...

@ 2. I will grant you that religious doctrines are certainly not "beside the point". However, where criticism as well as defense of religion goes wrong is to assume that religious belief has the same epistemological character as scientific truth. The problem is not so much convincing religious people that their beliefs are wrong but rather convincing them that their beliefs have nothing to do with scientific truth.

Religion is not wrong because it is not an epistemological endeavour, it is indeed a social structure and its beliefs function to structure these institutions as well as make people happpy. Scientists should not try to encourage the conflict between the religious and th scientific types, but rather seek to (1) as you said, scientifically understand religion and the purpose of religious belief but also (2) explain that religion has mistakenly taken itself to be in the business of scientific truth, but it actually isnt.

tedlove said...


I don't know why you distinguish between beliefs that are "wrong" and beliefs that don't have "scientific truth"... Aren't they one and the same? How can a belief be wrong, but still have scientific truth, or how can a belief not have scientific truth but be right? Maybe I am misunderstanding you.

You say that "religion isn't wrong because it's not an epistemological endeavor"... but it most certainly is. How else are we to explain the claims made by all religions regarding the origins of the universe, what happens when we die, etc? Every religion makes an attempt, albeit a lame attempt, at describing our world. Science makes the same attempts, but does so successfully.

bpabbott said...

Alonzo wrote: "[...] the only reasons for action that exist are desires, and that if a belief does no harm (thwarts no desires), we have no genuine reasons for action to be concerned about them [...]"

Alonzo, your point that actions originate from desires is an excellent one. It resonates with me a bit more each time I read it.

In the context of this occasion, a related question came to my mind. Perhaps you've discussed it before ... in which case I missed it :-(

My question is: Could "beliefs" also originate from desires, just as actions do?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I have written that if a person makes a mistake - adopts a belief without evidence or takes an invalid argument as valid - that there must be a reason (explanation) for this event.

Specifically, there are an infinite number of beliefs that a person can adopt without evidence. So, when a person adopts belief 'B' without evidence, we can ask, "Why belief 'B'?"

Similarly, people seem quite adept at spotting fallacious logic at some times but not on others. Here, too, it is reasonable to ask for an explanation. "Why did the agent not see claim C1 as an instance of fallacy 'F', when he clearly identified C2 as an instance of fallacy 'F'?

When we ask these types of questions, often the best answer has to do with what the agent desires.

An agent has been taught to hate atheists. His hatred will cause him to believe derogatory claims about atheists. He adopts these positions, not because they make sense, but because, "If they are true, then it is okay to hate atheists," and he wants it to be okay to hate atheists.

In another case, a person does not want to admit that he is an alcoholic. So, he adopts all sorts of rationalizations for his drinking. He adopts beliefs that are not true, because admitting the truth means he would have to do something about it.

So, yes, desires influence what we believe. However, desires do not influence what is true. The inference, 'It would be really great if 'P'; therefore, 'P'" is not valid. It happens, but it is never good reasoning.

By the way, this is a danger for all of us. All of us need to keep on guard for beliefs we adopt or arguments we judge valid out of convenience.

bpabbott said...

alonzo posted: "By the way, this is a danger for all of us. All of us need to keep on guard for beliefs we adopt or arguments we judge valid out of convenience."

I agree.

I am quick to question all "sacred cows" ... and while I undoubtedly fall short of questioning my own, I do strive to keep track of the merits of my beliefs.

Thanks for the reply