Day 2 (Harris): Why Are Atheists So Angry?

From: Sam Harris To: Dennis Prager Subject: The Burden of Proof Falls on the Faithful I should clear up a couple misconceptions you have about me. While I am very happy that you have admitted your own ignorance of the … Read More

By / November 17, 2006

From: Sam Harris To: Dennis Prager Subject: The Burden of Proof Falls on the Faithful

I should clear up a couple misconceptions you have about me. While I am very happy that you have admitted your own ignorance of the relevant science, there is no need to attribute this ignorance to me.

While my day job as an infidel has slowed my progress of late, I am in the process of finishing my Ph.D. in neuroscience. This requires that I actually understand recent developments in biology. Let me assure you that I am firmly grounded in the life sciences and am well aware of the kinds of contortions that people like Francis Collins make in the service of their religious myths. Your claim that I would be afraid to debate Collins is especially amusing, given that I offered to debate him several months ago, and he is still considering it. I’ll be sure to invite you to this event if it ever gets scheduled.

You are, however, quite correct to observe that many scientists do believe in God. I indicated as much in my first post (“a person can have sufficient intellectual … resources to build a nuclear bomb …”). But in the developed world this is an American phenomenon. And even in this benighted country of ours, faith in God virtually disappears among the most established scientists.

A recent poll of the National Academy of Sciences (our most elite scientific organization) revealed that only 7% of its members believe in God (compared to 40% of ordinary scientists and 90% of the population at large). Still, I would be the first to admit there is a debate to be waged and won in the scientific community on this point. The fact that 40% of American scientists believe in God does not indicate that there are good reasons to believe in God; it indicates that 60% of scientists aren’t doing their jobs. The faith of people like Collins is invariably propped up by terrible arguments of the sort you have begun to put forward. Let’s look at a few of them.

First, the atheist you have conjured—so chock-full of false certainty—is an utter straw man. This defense of religion is one that Bertrand Russell demolished a century ago with his famous “teapot argument.” As I can’t improve on it, and you clearly have forgotten it amid the many challenges to piety you successfully parried “in high school,” here it is again:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

If a valid retort to Russell has ever seen the light of day, I’m not aware of it.

The faithful do resist the bogus certainties of religion—when they come from any religion but their own. Every Christian knows what it is like to find the claims of Muslims to be deeply suspect. Everyone who is not a Mormon knows at a glance that Mormonism is an obscenely stupid system of beliefs. Everyone has rejected an infinite number of spurious claims about God. The atheist simply rejects one more.

Atheism does not assert that “it is all made by chance.” No one knows why the universe came into being. Most scientists readily admit their ignorance on this point. Religious believers do not. One of the extraordinary ironies of religious discourse can be seen in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while condemning scientists and other nonbelievers for their intellectual arrogance. You have done a fine job of this above. And yet, there is no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: The Creator of the Universe takes an active interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend eternity in hell…

An average believer has achieved a level of arrogance that is simply unimaginable in scientific discourse—and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists.

You suggest that the existence of the universe demonstrates the existence of God. Why? Because everything that exists must have a cause. It is amazing how many people find this argument compelling.

Who is to say that the only thing that could give rise to the universe is a personal God? Even if we accepted that our universe simply had to be designed by a designer, this would not suggest that this designer is the God of Abraham, or that He approves of Judaism or Christianity. If intelligently designed, our universe could be running as a simulation on an alien supercomputer. Or it could be the work of an evil God, or two such gods playing tug-of-war with a larger cosmos.

If God created the universe, what created God? To say that God is uncreated simply begs the question. Why can’t I say that the cosmos is uncreated?

I eagerly await your display of “intellectually sophisticated God-belief,” Dennis. But you’re going to have to do better than that.

Next e-mail: Straw men, teapots, and moral confusion

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