Sam Harris "Science Must Destroy Religion"

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Science Must Destroy Religion” is the latest post from Sam Harris at HuffPo. Disappointingly, much of this article consists of restatements of his previous writings.

Harris’ title, surely chosen to inflame his many critics, was an unfortunate decision. The Religious Right doesn’t need any excuse to parade their persecution complex before the public, and a phrase like “destroy religion” in this context only serves their ends. Now they have another rhetorical example to point to as “proof” of their persecution, their “war” on Xmas, or whatever is currently their crusade du jour.

His declaration that “Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world” is an overstatement. Science wouldn't include simple historical claims (such as the life and teachings of Jesus, for example) although it can decisively rule out alleged miracles, resurrections, and other fables. (Thomas Jefferson did a fine job separating the moral wheat from the biblical chaff, and there's no reason why others cannot follow his example.) Harris is correct that religious faith is "on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas," and here his piece is especially strong:

To win this war of ideas, scientists and other rational people will need to find new ways of talking about ethics and spiritual experience. The distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and non-ordinary states of consciousness from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being rigorous about what is reasonable to conclude on their basis. We must find ways of meeting our emotional needs that do not require the abject embrace of the preposterous. We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity — birth, marriage, death, etc. — without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality. [emphasis added]

update (01/04 at 10:30):

RJ Eskow has posted “Reject Arguments for Intolerance – Even from Atheists” at HuffPo as a rebuttal to Sam Harris. He takes Harris to task for his statement that moderates have an "inability to criticize absurd ideas," saying that:

Harris' argument is flatly wrong. Islamic moderates have issued fatwas condemning terrorism. Christian moderates have been in the forefront of the battle against American fundamentalism. Jimmy Carter is one of our most effective spokesmen against intelligent design.

Eskow is correct to the extent that Christian moderates are willing to be labelled “not Christian” by their co-religionists (as Jerry Falwell did [LINK] when confronted by some non-conservative Christians). Not all moderates, though, are able to stand up to their well-funded fundamentalists within their ranks.

Eskow slams Harris by proclaiming that “logic isn’t Harris’ suit—proclamations are,” and falls prey to the old Hitler-was-an-atheist canard, which is easy to refute for those who care to examine the evidence [LINK]. A question he asks of Harris, “Why isn’t the enemy blind dogma, then, rather than religion?” is a valid and reasonable one that I would like to hear Harris answer.

Eskow tries to refute Harris’ claim that “The maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science,” and provides a counter-example of the pre-fundamentalist Islamic Caliphate’s belief that “scientific research was a form of worship, by studying Allah’s creation.” This may be dogma, but it is clearly not the sort of impediment that Christian fundamentalist has become—particularly in the United States.

In his complaint about Harris choosing to emphasize “militant, bloodthirsty-sounding lines” from religious texts rather than “repeated statements of peace—or of religious tolerance,” Eskow completely misses the point. The presence of contradictory passages in an allegedly “inerrant” text allows adherents to use that text to justify anything: war or peace, ignorance or knowledge, freedom or slavery—thus reducing the text from a moral authority to a convenient rationalization.

One passage from Eskow’s article stands out in illustrating the common-sense common ground that the religious share with the non-religious:

I was struck by Ron Reagan Jr’s response when an interviewer asked him if he planned to run for office. “I can’t get elected in this country,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m an atheist.” That kind of blind prejudice is a tragic flaw in our country, and it should be fought. But it should be fought with wisdom, with sound logic, with compassion – and, for those who believe that way, with faith.


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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on January 3, 2006 1:31 PM.

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