Monday, July 27, 2009

Atheist theology.

Sam Harris, who attacks religion for a living, has an Op-ed in this morning’s New York Times in which he worries about the appointment of Dr. Francis Collins to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins is a religious man, and Mr. Harris has offered some slides from a recent presentation by Dr. Collins as evidence of the latter’s views that Harris finds troubling.

One of these slides, according to Harris, reads:

Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

Versions of this argument abound, but they always seem to boil down to one thing: there must be a god, because if there were no god, that would really suck. In other words, there must be a god because I want there to be a god. I call that argument the “wantological proof” of god’s existence, a nod toward the equally bemusing, if ages older, ontological proof. What these proofs prove is not that god exists, but that Voltaire was right about our need to invent god if he didn’t.

But whatever I may think of the proofs of god’s existence, I am not a fan of the efforts by Mr. Harris – or his noisy co-anti-religionists, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Bill Maher – to take down religion. I do enjoy these guys’ work in their day jobs (except Maher, who makes mean-spirited jokes and then invokes the Eichmann defense that he’s getting paid to do so). But on religion, they don’t seem to understand much about how things get done here in the sublunary realm.

My problem with these guys is that their logic is no better than the logic they attack. Their illogic proceeds on two levels. First, it is impossible to disprove the existence of god. He could just be that smart. Swatting away silly proofs of god’s existence isn’t proof of his non existence. Second, and more important, even if one brings substantial doubt to the questions of god’s existence, none of that demonstrates the net negative impact of organized religion. There does not have to be a god for worship of god to be a good thing.

My favorite metaphor for religiosity is spot bowling. Imagine that you are an accomplished spot bowler, and someone hides the pins so that you cannot see them and cannot know how many you knock down on each roll (we’re playing a simplified game with one ball per frame). At the same time, it is revealed to you that if you do knock down enough pins, you will go to heaven and good things will happen to you in this life. Under those circumstances, wouldn’t the soundest strategy be to keep rolling and to keep hitting the same spots you were hitting before the pins were hidden?

Suppose further that good things do in fact happen on this earth to people who “hit their spots.” Not because they are knocking down their pins (they have no way of knowing if there even are any pins - although they believe there are) but because it just turns out that something in the process of rolling the ball over the appropriate spots creates both prosperity and tranquility as none of the believers tries to knock over anyone else’s pins.

Under these assumptions, it does not matter whether there still are any pins or if there is an afterlife to be affected by our earthly pin count. All that matters is that people are hitting their spots, and good things are happening on earth on account of it. Certainly, arguments against the existence of god will undermine the practice of religion, but if that results in our not hitting our spots and not enjoying the material benefits of doing so, why is that a good thing?

Harris et al. claim that undermining religion would be a good thing because that would prevent all the bad things that have been done in the name of god. And yet they seem not to grasp how religion teaches not only the doing of good things, but, perhaps more important, the not doing of bad things.

Harris has written:

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

This is rather typical of anti-religionist illogic. First comes the straw man who is said to argue that atheistic villains were the “inevitable product of unbelief.” Atheism is not an inevitable cause; it is a but for cause. By arguing (however apodictically and unpersuasively) against inevitability, Harris tries to slip the more reasonable claim that those monsters would not have emerged but for the atheism of their people – and more to the point, the impotence of their people’s churches. Harris is right that the human need for religion often coalesces with atheism in the worship of someone real. But that’s one of theology’s best functions: it can direct the religious urge to an object less likely to kill everyone who owns a plot of ground or a pair of eyeglasses.

Here, from the source linked above, is Harris on the good that religion does:

Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as “wishful thinking” and “self-deception.” There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth.

In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?

His first paragraph is a total non sequitur. The argument that religion is good even if there is no god can hardly be rebutted by the claim that religion’s good works do not prove the existence of god. The thing Harris says we “never seem to realize” are precisely the things we realize don’t matter.

Then Harris gets serious, giving the elitist’s defense of rational morality: one doesn’t need to believe in a non-existent god to behave well. But just as an “inevitable cause” isn’t the same as a “but for cause,” “available” isn’t the same as “usable.” Cherry-picking the good deed of charity, Harris cites “concern for their suffering” as a “reason” for helping the poor. But where does that concern come from? Why should I give a rat’s patoot about someone else’s suffering? Oh, I can build elaborate Kantian and Dawkinsian defenses of altruism, but only because I have the resources to go that route if I choose. But some people have only the time and talent to go with “because god commands it.” We’re a subtle species, and we soon enough internalize god’s commandments regarding charity into genuine unmediated compassion. Still, for many of us, knowing – believing – what Jesus would do is a very useful shortcut.

At the end of the day, the contest is between the good that religion has in fact done, regardless of whether one might speculate on alternative routes to the same outcome, vs. the harm that it has done, and maybe more important, between the good and harm religion may yet do. And there’s the big philosophical rub. A few fundamentalist WMDs can very quickly change the balance. But even there, what is the alternative? Would a world of atheists states, safe from fundamentalist nukes, therefore be safe from nukes? Even if religion does us in, we won’t really know that irreligion would have saved us. Well, Sam Harris will know. But what does he know?

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