Day 3 (Harris): Why Are Atheists So Angry?

From: Sam Harris To: Dennis Prager Subject: An Irrelevant Argument and Its Imaginary Facts This debate is fast drawing to a close, Dennis, and you have neither addressed my arguments nor presented any substantive arguments of your own. I certainly … Read More

By / November 20, 2006

From: Sam Harris To: Dennis Prager Subject: An Irrelevant Argument and Its Imaginary Facts

This debate is fast drawing to a close, Dennis, and you have neither addressed my arguments nor presented any substantive arguments of your own.

I certainly did not claim that I possessed Collins’s level of expertise. I am, however, sufficiently conversant with the relevant science to know that Collins does not hold his beliefs about God for compelling, scientific reasons. You appear rather over-awed by the man’s academic credentials. Let me assure you that even very accomplished scientists can be terrible philosophers.

Collins, as you probably know, has just published a book-length defense of religious faith entitled The Language of God. It is a masterpiece of simple-mindedness. For instance, Collins describes the moment that he, a top-tier scientist, became convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ:

"On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains…the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ."

A recent profile of Collins in Time adds a priceless detail: The waterfall was frozen in three streams, and this put the good doctor in mind of the Trinity! Earlier you wrote that I would not “even understand” the evidence that a genius like Francis Collins would put forward in defense of his faith. I confess you may be right about this.

I hope it is immediately obvious to you, and to every one of our readers, that there is nothing about seeing a frozen waterfall (no matter how frozen) that offers the slightest corroboration of the doctrine of Christianity. If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus is the son of God, then it can mean anything at all.

Let’s say I saw that same waterfall, and its three streams made me think of Romulus, Remus, and the She-wolf—the mythical founders of Rome. I just knew, from that moment forward, that Italy would one day win the World Cup. This epiphany, while perfectly psychotic, would actually put me on firmer ground than Collins. (Because Italy did win the World Cup.)

The reason science (especially in America) doesn’t better inoculate its practitioners against the belief that Jesus was the son of God (or that Joseph Smith received God’s final revelation on golden plates from the angel Maroni) is because it is taboo to seriously challenge a person’s religious faith in our society. I wonder what you make of the fact that some significant number of Hindu scientists believe in a plurality of gods. Does this suggest to you that polytheism has been borne out by dispassionate scientific research?

You also appear to have drawn the wrong conclusion from the statistics. There is little question that exposure to a scientific education reduces the likelihood that a person will believe in God, and does so in a more or less linear fashion (about 10% of the general population are atheists/agnostics, 40% of doctors, 60% of research scientists, and 93% of National Academy members).

An article in Nature recently reported that no scientists doubt the existence of God more than biologists, followed closely by physicists and astronomers. I’m not aware of the data you cite on social scientists, but if it is as you report, and they are more atheistic still, it would not surprise me. After all, these people spend a lot of time thinking about things like self-deception, wishful thinking, cognitive biases, and the other enemies of intellectual honesty that keep religion in such good standing in our society.

Tell me why it is more reasonable to believe in Yahweh than in Zeus. I have little doubt that if Francis Collins grew up in a culture in which nine out of ten people venerated the gods of Mount Olympus, that frozen waterfall would have carried a decidedly pagan message (perhaps he would have thought “trident” before “trinity” and hit upon Poseidon as his favorite deity).

Your job is to either produce a rational argument for the unique legitimacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition (one that reveals why one billion Hindus are utterly in error about the nature of the cosmos), or to admit that you cannot do this. I am willing to bet the farm that you cannot.

I raised the teapot argument because you accused me (and all atheists) of being certain that God does not exist, inviting our readers to appreciate just how absurd and intellectually dishonest such certainty is. Russell’s argument reveals why an atheist need never pretend to such certainty (as I don’t). The burden is upon those who believe in Yahweh, Zeus, or celestial teapots to provide evidence in support of their doctrines. Russell’s argument does indeed apply to you. And it will apply to your children’s children if we don’t get our heads straight as a civilization.

You wrote: “In the West, people and societies who reject the God of Judeo-Christian religions are more likely to become morally confused and foolish than believing Jews and Christians are.”

As you are well aware, the United States is unique among wealthy democracies in its level of religious adherence. It is also uniquely beleaguered by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen-pregnancy, STD infection, and infant mortality. Southern and Midwestern states, characterized by the highest levels of religious literalism, are especially plagued by the above miseries, while the comparatively secular states of the Northeast conform to European norms. Clearly, strong religious commitment does little to guarantee moral behavior or societal health.

But there is a far more important point for you and our readers to understand. Even if your claim about the link between faith and morality were true, it would offer no support whatsoever for your religious beliefs. Even if atheism led straight to moral chaos, this would not suggest that the doctrine of Judaism is true. Islam might be true in that case. Or all religions might function like placebos. As descriptions of the universe, they could be utterly false but extraordinarily useful. Contrary to your opinion, however, the evidence suggests that they are both false and dangerous.

I suspect, Dennis, that you and I agree about many questions of morality. I trust we both feel that slavery was an abomination, despite the fact that no matter how you squint your eyes the Bible tells us that it is okay to keep slaves. (Who decides what is good in the Good Book? Answer: We do. Our moral intuitions are still primary. It makes absolutely no sense, therefore, to think that we get our basic sense of right and wrong out of scripture). We surely agree that political correctness has undermined the intellectual and moral integrity of much of our discourse, both within our universities and elsewhere.

But the linkage you have drawn between immorality and atheism is spurious. And, needless to say, the taboo that got Lawrence Summers fired is the same taboo that would keep an atheist professor from criticizing the lunatic religious convictions of his students. What we need, across the board, is intellectual honesty—not more dogmatism.

It seems that your attachment to religion results, at least in part, from your abhorrence of moral relativism. I fully share your concern here and spend a considerable portion of my professional energies trying to free secularism from the dangerous nonsense with which it is often entangled. I strongly suspect that you and I have similar views of the risks posed to civilization by the spread of Islam. We probably draw some of the same lessons from the failures of multiculturalism in Western Europe: All the backwardness and barbarism that goes by the name of European Islam (the forced marriages, honor killings, anti-Semitism, hostility to free speech, and so forth) has to be reamed out of those immigrant populations or the whole continent is headed over the falls.

But it is clear from our debate that you and I differ on the location of the problem. In your view, the problem must be that Europe has lost the moral backbone that only religion can provide (and Islam just happens to be the wrong religion.) In my view, our world has been shattered, quite unnecessarily, by religion itself. As I said, even if you were right, and the only people who could summon the moral courage to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim world were the religious lunatics of the West, this would suggest nothing at all about the existence of the biblical God. It would only show that a belief in Him might be politically necessary, in a given time and place, to motivate people to fight (as our inimitable President says) “the evildoers.”

I am reasonably sure you are wrong about this. But again, this is quite irrelevant to the question before us.

Next E-Mail: Secularism's Useful Idiots

Tagged with: