Real intellectual honesty

By | September 11, 2011

The Washington Post has a blog called On Faith that runs articles from various people, both religious and non-religious, on the topic of religion. These blog posts are generally interesting, but the one I read today was pretty absurd.

The author, Sam Harris, starts by mentioning his daughter asking him where gravity comes from. That’s normal enough, kids ask questions. His answer ends up being, “I don’t know.” That’s fair enough. He continues:

What if I had said, “Gravity comes from God”? That would be merely to stifle her intelligence—and to teach her to stifle it. What if I told her, “Gravity is God’s way of dragging people to hell, where they burn in fire. And you will burn there forever if you doubt that God exists”?

What if, indeed? But then he makes this rather absurd claim:

No Christian or Muslim can offer a compelling reason why I shouldn’t say such a thing—or something morally equivalent—and yet this would be nothing less than the emotional and intellectual abuse of a child.

I have a couple of problems with this. First and foremost is that as a Christian, I could offer several compelling reasons he shouldn’t say any such thing — not the least of which is that it’s not even vaguely true. God doesn’t drag people to hell, and merely not believing in God will not result in “burn[ing] there forever”. (Granted, some Christian sects, such as the Catholics, do believe that last part, but I’m Christian and I don’t, so I’m sticking with it.)

Second is that he made himself a get-out-of-jail-free card: the phrase “or something morally equivalent”. That lets him dismiss anything I might say he should tell his kids instead as “something morally equivalent”. After all, anything a Christian would tell us to tell our kids on this subject cannot possibly be anything other than emotional and intellectual abuse of a child, right?

As a Christian, I can say with certainty it that if and when my daughter asks me that same question, my answer won’t be “gravity comes from God”, nor will my answer be “I don’t know.” I’m not saying “I don’t know” is the wrong answer; I don’t know Sam Harris or his daughter, so I can’t judge how well she’d be able to understand. But my answer to my daughter will be “big things pull on small things, and we call that gravity.”

Now, it is true that I believe God created the universe. Indirectly, God is responsible for gravity, just as God is responsible for, well, everything. But it’s a rather large stretch from there to “God made gravity so that he could burn people in hell for not believing in him”, and frankly, it’s intellectually dishonest to try to equate the two.

I actually agree with the reason Sam gives for why 9/11 happened:

… because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions of our ignorant ancestors. The worst of these ideas continue to thrive—and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children.

I also agree with him when he says we have to stop teaching our children certain things:

That means we should not terrify our children with thoughts of hell, or poison them with hatred for infidels. We should not teach our sons to consider women their future property, or convince our daughters that they are property even now.

However, his characterization of the belief that God created the universe is less than intellectually honest:

And we must decline to tell our children that human history began with magic and will end with bloody magic—perhaps soon, in a glorious war between the righteous and the rest.

I see no magic in the story of the creation found in the scriptures. At least, no more magic than I see in my science textbook.

“But wait!” you’re about to say. “There’s no magic in science textbooks!” And guess what? You’re right. There isn’t. There’s no magic in the creation story, either.

One the one hand, we have the Bible telling us that God said “Let there be light”, and there was light.

On the other hand, we have our science textbooks telling us that something caused a pinpoint of energy to destabilize and explode into an entire universe. (Don’t try to tell me that nothing caused it. All effects have a cause, and the Big Bang was one whopper of an effect.)

Is it not possible — logical, even — that these books are describing the same event? There, no magic, and all I needed to use to show it was a little plain and simple logic.

As for the world ending with “bloody magic”, well, the same basic logic applies. I see no magic involved in the descriptions of the Second Coming (and in fact the vast majority of those descriptions are merely things we’ll be doing to ourselves long before Christ shows up). Unfortunately, Sam Harris does not see fit to explain his argument, and merely assumes we will believe his description. As such, I won’t spend any more time on it, other than to say that he’s clearly describing it that way for the shock value.

Next, he lays out what has to be one of the most eloquent trolls I’ve ever read:

One must be religious to fail the young so abysmally—to derange them with fear, bigotry, and superstition even as their minds are forming—and one cannot be a serious Christian, Muslim, or Jew without doing so in some measure.

There are two “arguments” here — I say “arguments” because he provides absolutely no support for his claim — and they are as follows:

  1. The deepest failures in educating our young are only achievable by religious people.
  2. If you are a “serious” Christian, it is inevitable that you will derange your children with fear, bigotry, and superstition to some degree.

Wow. Derange? Really? Is this post supposed to be a coherent argument against religion? Because I’m pretty sure I accidentally read a mudslinging match instead.

For the first claim, well, history can show otherwise. Hitler’s youth rallies are perhaps the best example, and for that matter it’s one that allows me to leave it at that and move on.

The second claim is rather more easily disassembled. There are two points I will make.

  1. If I show otherwise for any particular Christian, Sam will point to “serious” and conclude that my exemplar is not a “serious” Christian.
  2. If I show an indisputably “serious” Christian who has raised a scientifically enlightened Christian child, then Sam will merely point to the child’s belief in God as proof of “superstition” and conclude that he was correct.

In other words, Sam has presented an “argument” with enough loopholes that he can apply it to pretty much any parent-child relationship in a religious family. This is not the stuff of logical debate, it’s an elaborate troll.

Such sins against reason and compassion do not represent the totality of religion, of course—but they lie at its core.

Here Sam begins to show what he’s going to be getting at. He isn’t arguing that certain religions go contrary to reason and compassion (compassion? how?) — he’s arguing that religion inherently goes against reason. And of course, yet again he provides no evidence to back up the claim.

His next paragraph attempts to anticipate the objections that “people of faith” will have: that religion has done so much good in the world, etc etc. Unfortunately, he fails to address the actual objections that any half-intelligent reader will have. Amusingly, he claims…

The groves of faith are now ringed by a forest of non sequiturs.

Kettle, meet pot.

Now, even worse, he proceeds to directly and openly contradict himself, and then doesn’t bother explaining the contradiction:

… it remains a fact that some of the most terrifying instances of human conflict and stupidity would be unthinkable without religion. And the other ideologies that inspire people to behave like monsters—Stalinism, fascism, etc.—are dangerous precisely because they so resemble religions. Sacrifice for the Dear Leader, however secular, is an act of cultic conformity and worship. Whenever human obsession is channeled in these ways, we can see the ancient framework upon which every religion was built.

In other words, he is arguing that:

  1. Only religions are capable of the worst atrocities.
  2. Some of those atrocities were committed by groups other than religions, but they’re kind of cultish so they’re basically religions, so we can keep pretending non-religious groups can’t do stuff like these non-religious groups did.
  3. These non-religious groups use some of the same social frameworks that religions use, therefore let’s blame religions for everything.

Man. I’m choking on the non sequiturs, even just paraphrasing the claims.

Put more simply, Sam redefines “religion” to include all non-religious groups that did really bad things, and then concludes that all religions are therefore bad.

I trust I don’t have to explain why that’s a stupid argument?

Sam’s second-to-last paragraph attempts one last jab at all religions:

What defenders of religion cannot say is that anyone has ever gone berserk, or that a society ever failed, because people became too reasonable, intellectually honest, or unwilling to be duped by the dogmatism of their neighbors. This skeptical attitude, born of equal parts care and curiosity, is all that “atheists” recommend—and it is typical of nearly every intellectual pursuit apart from theology. Only on the subject of God can smart people still imagine that they reap the fruits of human intelligence even as they plow them under.

Talk about non sequiturs! His first sentence is irrelevant, but nonetheless incorrect; for example, a rather strong argument can be made that the Soviet Union’s fall was in part caused by its attempt to suppress all forms of religion among its citizens. (In other words, the attempt to deliberately suppress religion can and does damage society.)

Furthermore, a “skeptical attitude” is not all that Sam and his fellow atheists recommend. Talk about intellectual dishonesty! He spends an entire article arguing that religion is harmful and all Christians who teach their children about God are abusing their kids, and then tries to pretend that he’s merely advocating skepticism?

Come on, Sam… How stupid do you think your readers are?

In conclusion, I want to point out that Sam’s agenda is not all bad. I do agree with what he thinks should be our goal:

But humanity has a larger project—to become sane. If September 11, 2001, should have taught us anything, it is that we must find honest consolation in our capacity for love, creativity, and understanding.

However, his methods leave much to be desired. He talks about striving for love and understanding while simultaneously arguing that the people he disagrees with are child abusers merely because they believe in God.

For an article purporting to demand intellectual honesty, Sam, you’ve sure done your best to avoid it.

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