Sunday, July 15, 2007

Review: Letter to a Christian Nation, Part III

Back to Mr. Harris and his distinct problems with fact and logic.

On pp 43-45, Mr. Harris cites some overhyped statistics from studies of religiosity and social health that purport to show that the most religious nations are less "healthy" than the least religious and compare the U.S. to other nations in the developed world.

Although he admits that the correlations do not imply causation, (that religion doesn't necessarily cause social problems) Harris ignores the fact that there are substantial political, economic, historical and cultural differences between the countries being compared. For instance, some of the most religious countries have only recently emerged from decades or even centuries of colonialism. Also, the U.S. is an almost purely capitalist country whereas countries in Europe are predominantly social democracies.

Mr. Harris similarly ignores the difficult of measuring religiosity cross-culturally since the term has significantly different connotations from one society to the next. Unless we can control for all other factors so that religion is the only distinction between the societies being measured and control for the differing cultural interpretations of the word religious, these superficial correlations are meaningless.

Mr. Harris also makes the dreaded mistake of contrasting atheism with religiosity, where countries with low levels of religiosity are assumed to have high levels of atheism, leading to the conclusion that "these statistics prove that atheism is compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society."(p45)

Although I agree that atheism is compatible with civil society, Mr. Harris' reasoning on the matter is deeply flawed for a number of reasons. 1.) Atheism is the opposite of theism, not religion. 2.) There are atheistic religions like Jainism and Buddhism. 3.) There are many theists who reject organized religion and therefore do not consider themselves "religious." 4.) Only a very small percentage of people in the countries being compared actively identify as atheists. 5.) Studies of religious identification show that "nonreligious" and atheist are two completely different things. For example, while the UK is deemed far less religious than the U.S., 71% of the UK's population identifies as Christian compared with 77% of the U.S. population. The differences are not as significant as Mr. Harris would have us believe.

"The dubious link between Christian literalism and Christian values is belied by other indices of social equality. Consider the ratio of salaries paid to top-tier CEO's and those paid to the firms' average employees: in Britain it is 24:1; in France, 15:1; in Sweden, 13:1; in the United States, where 80 percent of the population expects to be called before G-d on Judgment Day, it is 475:1. Many a camel, it would seem, expects to pass through the eye of a needle." (p46)

In three sentences, Mr. Harris manages to get so much wrong that it will take quite a bit more than three sentences to set it right again.

First, Christian literalists are a very small minority in America. "According to a recent study, among the 15% of U. S. citizens that are evangelical Protestants, only 47.8% believe that the Bible is literally true, and 6.5% believe that the Bible is an ancient book full of history and legends. Only about 11% of Catholics and mainline Protestants believe the Bible is literally true..." (Wikipedia) Doing some rough math based on the 77% of Americans who identify as Christian, this would mean that about 12.8% of Americans are Christian literalists, hardly enough to assume that American economic policy is determined by Christian literalism.

As for the four countries mentioned, these countries represent a spectrum of economic beliefs from the U.S. (the most capitalistic) to Britain to France to Sweden (the most socialistic). Is it likely that the ratio of CEO pay to that of the average worker may have something to do with these economic differences? Highly likely.

In fact, the change in the CEO pay ratio in the United States can be traced not to any religious factor but to the emergence of "free agency" for CEO's, who were previously chosen from within companies. As in sports, "free agency" for CEO's brought about a winner-take-all market and drastically increased the pay difference not only between the CEO and average worker but also between the CEO and lesser executives, who are still predominantly chosen from within. (I highly recommend The Winner-Take-All Society by Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook for anyone wishing to understand how these markets emerge and what they mean.)

Finally, I'll refer you to this chart provided by the University of Michigan, which shows the linear relationship between wealth and religiosity in the United States. Note that religiosity declines with increases in wealth. Therefore, it is safe to assume that those who make our nation's economic decisions (including CEO pay and the creation and management of winner-take-all markets) are the least religious amongst us.

"Of course, there had been ample warning that a storm 'of biblical proportions' would strike New Orleans, and the human response to the ensuing disaster was tragically inept. But it was inept only by the light of science. Religion offered no basis for a response at all." (p53)

As someone who fled my home in New Orleans a mere 24 hours before Katrina, I'm personally offended by Harris' cynical manipulation of this event to make his crass little points. But I'll set that aside to deal with the facts.

The destruction of New Orleans had little to do with an "act of G-d" and everything to do with a failure of "science." If the levees (which were not designed by the Christian Church) had not failed, the city would have taken minimal damage, few if any people would have died, and I'd be at Cafe Du Monde right now having beignets with my friends. If it were not for the failures of "science" that led to shipping channels and oil platforms destroying the wetlands, New Orleans would have had a substantial land barrier between it and the Gulf and New Orleans would not have been destroyed.

No, religion couldn't have predicted the hurricane, but neither did science protect us from it. In fact, the opposite is true. Science not only left us completely unprotected, it ensured the destruction of our fair city. That science can now assess its own failures does not change that fact.

As for religion offering no basis for a response, I would point out the millions of religious Americans and dozens of religious organizations that provided assistance to those fleeing the city, helped to evacuate people stuck in the city, and helped Katrina refugees rebuild our lives. I'll also point out the resounding religious condemnation of the American government for failing to act as religious values demand. It seems to me that the government's response has also been deemed inept by by the light of religion.

"It is time we recognized the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. It is time we acknowledged how disgraceful it is for the survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving G-d, while this same G-d drowned infants in their cribs. Once you stop swaddling the reality of the world's suffering in religious fantasies, you will feel in your bones just how precious life is--and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all." (p54)

I think it's about time we recognized the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of a man who can pretend to be the arbiter of reality and reason while writing a polemical screed filled with factual and logical errors; a man who pretends that atheism alone allows one to "feel in your bones just how precious life is"; a man who cannot see that many of his "co-religionists" and fellow scientists have caused "millions of human beings [to] suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all" except that they were deemed unfit to breed due to physical or mental "defects" or deemed unfit to live due to their religious beliefs.

"Unfortunately, expressing such criticism places the nonbeliever at the margins of society. By merely being in touch with reality, he appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors." (p57)

More of the boundless narcissism and self-deceit for which Mr. Harris should be condemned. Again, I am stunned by the man's claims to be the arbiter of reality and reason considering his propensity for gross factual and logical errors. This polemical screed of his is hardly a testament to his "being in touch with reality." By the way, does this remind anyone of the "They hate us because we're free." school of thought? I absolutely condemn anti-atheist bigotry as I condemn bigotry of any form, but pretending that anti-atheist bigotry arises from the general population's bitterness over atheist "superiority" is ridiculous.

"While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in G-d still holds immense prestige in our society." (p67)

I always love encountering this argument. It's so easy to knock down. Belief without evidence is not considered a mark of madness or stupidity in most areas of our lives. Let me just note a few things that people believe in without evidence or despite the evidence so that you can see what I mean: string theory, multiple universes, serial universes born of black holes, the ultimate intelligibility of the universe, that the complexity of the universe can and will be expressed entirely with a few simple laws, that human life holds greater value than that of animals or plants, that science is a highly reliable source of factual information (despite the majority of information produced by science having been falsified), that we will succeed in creating artificial intelligence (despite our failures to get machines to complete tasks of which even small children are capable ). Need I go on? I don't think so.

"It is also worth noting that one can obtain a Ph.D. in any branch of science for no other purpose than to make cynical use of scientific language in an effort to rationalize the glaring inadequacies of the Bible. A handful of Christians appear to have done this; some have even obtained their degrees from reputable universities. No doubt, others will follow in their footsteps. While such people are technically 'scientists,' they are not behaving like scientists. They simply are not engaged in an honest inquiry into the nature of the universe."
(p69-70)

I assume Mr. Harris is referring to proponents of intelligent design here. While his use of the "appeal to motive" fallacy is worth noting, I think it is more interesting that Mr. Harris cannot see how some of the scientists involved may simply be wrong. It is very possible for sincere and honest inquiry to result in a wrong answer. I'd like to know where Mr. Harris got his information on this new strategy of getting a Ph.D. in science (a difficult task indeed) solely for the sake of manipulating science. I also wonder if Mr. Harris realizes that the same dishonest argument could be made against him, that he is seeking a Ph.D. solely to crassly manipulate science to further the "atheist agenda."

"Any honest reading of the biblical account of creation suggests that G-d created all animals and plants as we now see them. There is no question that the Bible is wrong about this."
(p71)

There is also tremendous evidence that the Bible was never meant to be a literal, scientific account of creation. Literalism, is in fact, a relatively new phenomenon dating to the Protestant Reformation and the tit for tat competition between Protestants and Catholics trying to prove their "fidelity" to scripture and therefore their supremacy in religious matters. So, I find it difficult to determine where Mr. Harris gets the authority to assert that the only "honest" reading of the biblical account is a literal one.

"Any being capable of creating a complex world promises to be very complex himself. As the biologist Richard Dawkins has observed repeatedly, the only natural process we know of that could produce a being capable of designing things is evolution."
(p73)

This, I think, would fit in nicely with the "argument from personal incredulity" fallacy. First, because the existence of a deity may simply be a raw fact of the universe. Secondly, just because evolution is the only natural process we know of capable of producing a complex being, that doesn't mean that evolution is the only means by which a complex being can come into existence. Third, we cannot assume that natural processes and natural laws apply to the presumed creator of nature, who must by necessity exist independently of his creation and it processes and laws.

"Any intellectually honest person will admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Religous believers do not." (p74)

Interesting that Mr. Harris refers to intellectual honesty just before treating scientists and religious believers as if these are two mutually exclusive groups. They're not. Mr. Harris's point is therefore ridiculous as it creates the problem of a single person (a religious scientist) who both admits ignorance and does not. Of course, Mr. Harris's statement about religious believers is also false since the question of why G-d created the universe (and thus why the universe exists) is a very old theological conundrum that has led to more than one admission of ignorance on the part of the religious.

I'll stop here. I'll tackle the last pages and provide a general review in upcoming posts.

2 Comments:

Blogger J. J. Ramsey said...

"I'd like to know where Mr. Harris got his information on this new strategy of getting a Ph.D. in science (a difficult task indeed) solely for the sake of manipulating science."

I think he is referring to Marcus Ross, or perhaps Jonathan Wells.

"Let me just note a few things that people believe in without evidence or despite the evidence so that you can see what I mean: string theory, multiple universes, serial universes born of black holes, the ultimate intelligibility of the universe, that the complexity of the universe can and will be expressed entirely with a few simple laws, that human life holds greater value than that of animals or plants, that science is a highly reliable source of factual information (despite the majority of information produced by science having been falsified), that we will succeed in creating artificial intelligence (despite our failures to get machines to complete tasks of which even small children are capable ). Need I go on? I don't think so."

I don't think those are such good examples. String theory is believed to be a possible model of reality, but the current lack of testability is not considered a good thing. Most of the things that you mentioned are considered to be at least partially supported by the evidence.

Nor was it "science" that failed New Orleans, but human error and in some cases, probably corruption as well. I'd say that Greta Christina probably has the most readable discussion on what's good and bad about science, though she herself is a layperson.

Where Harris goes wrong is in treating faith as if it was supposed to be about belief with evidence, which isn't quite accurate. Taner Edis had a brief discussion on that a while back.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Mr. Ramsey,

I'm aware that string theory is considered weak these days as is the multiple universe theory. I think we'd disagree on how much support some of these things have from the evidence. However, my point was simply that belief in things without evidence is not necessarily a mark of madness or stupidity.

As for Ross and Wells, I presumed that's the kind of people he was talking about, but he really is going out on a limb when he makes it sound as if this is some cynical plot. I think these guys are misguided and just plain wrong, but I don't think they got their Ph.D.'s solely to manipulate science. To assign motive in this way, without strong evidence to back it up, is logically fallacious and just plain dishonest.

As for Katrina, I have to be honest. I let my emotions get the best of me there. However, I still fault (to an extent) the failures of the government's environmental impact studies to adequately assess the potential damage to the wetlands and thus the increased vulnerability of the city due to shipping channels and the like.

Don't get me wrong. I love science, but I think we should apply the same healthy skepticism to science as we do to everything else. It's too easy for most non-scientists and even some scientists to fall into the "it's science therefore it's valid" trap.

8:16 AM  

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