Saturday, July 07, 2007

Review: Letter to a Christian Nation, Part II

In part II, we see Mr. Harris play with oxymorons and stereotypes and blatant hypocrisy.

"But we can easily think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a lawgiving G-d. For there to be objective moral truths worth knowing, there need be only better and worse ways to seek happiness in this world." (p23)

The term "objective morality" is an oxymoron. We cannot test two moral standards by empirical methods and determine which is true or at least more true. We cannot compare moral truths to reality and see which ones fit.

The truth of this matter lies within Mr. Harris' own statement. For a moral truth to be objective, it would have to be viewed as equally valid by anyone who considers it. "Better and worse ways to seek happiness" are necessarily subjective.

Imagine being tied up and beaten with a whip. For most, this is suffering. For a masochist, this is pleasure. Can we have an objective moral rule for the production of happiness that says, "Don't tie people up and beat them with whips?" If this moral rule would deny pleasure to the masochist and thus would not be viewed favorably by him, it would be neither objective nor conducive to universal happiness.

"Indeed, religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral--that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings. This explains why Christians like yourself expend more 'moral' energy opposing abortion than genocide." (p25)

There are a few major problems with this statement. The first is covered in a limited way above. The term moral is so system-dependent that there is no objective way to define the term. Moral or immoral will be determined by a person or group's ethical system, whatever that may be.

Secondly, he assumes that his audience views abortion and genocide as two distinct moral issues. This is absolutely not the case. Although I would fervently disagree with this interpretation, we have to acknowledge that for pro-life Christians, abortion and genocide are the same thing. They view abortion as the taking of an innocent life without just cause aka murder. They view widespread abortion as the widespread, officially sanctioned murder of innocent "undesirables" on a massive scale. They view it as tantamount to genocide. For those who fight in the pro-life movement, what they are doing is nothing less that combatting genocide in their own country. As they could rightly believe that they as citizens and taxpayers are more likely to be successful at combatting "genocide" here than abroad, it would be quite reasonable for them to expend their moral energy here.

Third, many conservative and fundamentalist Christian organizations and individuals expend their "moral energy" lobbying the government to take a firmer stance and decisive action on a variety of human rights issues, such as genocide, human trafficking, child pornography, slavery, etc. There is great diversity within the religious right. Undoubtedly, we can find many instances where they are on the "wrong" side of an issue, but we can also find many instances where they are on the "right" side. In fact, when movements based on "scientific rationality" promoted the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of innocent men and women, the strongest opposition came from religious fundamentalists. When movements based on "scientific rationality" promoted euthanasia (not including assisted suicide), the strongest opposition came from religious fundamentalists.

"Your qualms about embryonic stem-cell research are similarly obscene. Here are the facts: stem-cell research is one of the most promising developments in the last century of medicine." (p29)

Mr. Harris then goes on to excoriate Christians for their opposition to stem cell research, including arguing that their "beliefs about the human soul are, at this very moment, prolonging the scarcely endurable misery of tens of millions of human beings." (p31)

While I can understand Mr. Harris' anger at the current anti-stem cell research movement and his faith in the potential of that research, what I do not understand is how he can then praise the Jainists, holding them up as a positive example of what Christian morality should be. (pp 11-12, 22-23) The Jainists do in fact have moral prescriptions against causing any living creature physical, psychological, or spiritual suffering. However, there is also a moral prescription against benefitting from the suffering of any living creature. The Jainists are therefore completely opposed to animal experimentation or the use of animal products in medicine. Unlike stem cell research, which has mere potential, animal experimentation and animal-based medicines have been repeatedly proven effective in easing human suffering and preserving human life. Is this mere inconsistency or outright hypocrisy? Or is Mr. Harris' giving Jainists a pass simply because they haven't yet been successful in getting a ban on animal research or having it defunded?

"Christians like yourself invariably declare that monsters like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Kim Il Sung spring from the womb of atheism. While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational." (p40)

"Auschwitz, the Soviet gulags, and the killing fields of Cambodia are not examples of what happens to people when they become too reasonable. To the contrary, these horrors testify to the dangers of political and racist dogmatism. It is time that Christians like yourself stop pretending that a rational rejection of your faith entails the blind embrace of atheism as a dogma......I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs." (p42-43)

What a conceit! Atheism and atheists are here described as "especially rational," "what happens to people when they become too reasonable," "a rational rejection of [Christianity]," and "desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs." None of this is true. Even if we concede that there are no deities, it is highly possible for a person to embrace atheism for nonrational and even irrational reasons. Even if we concede atheism as the "rational" conclusion, this does not imply anything about the rationality of atheists as a group nor does it imply that atheists necessarily reject political or racist dogmatism. Nothing in the true definitions of atheism and atheist requires a person to "rationally" reject theism or any particular religion or desire "evidence in support of their core beliefs."

A person can be raised an atheist and thus simply accept what his parents have told him is true based on their authority. A person can reject theism because of negative feelings towards his parents and religious upbringing. I am not saying that these examples are true for all atheists, only that they show that the opposite is not true for all atheists. The capacities for reason and irrationality are not dependent upon one's atheism or theism.

Mr. Harris is right that the examples given do not prove anything negative about atheism and atheists in general. However, it is also true that the Inquisition (for one example) does not prove anything negative about theism and theists in general. What these examples do prove is that neither atheism nor theism is necessary or sufficient for cruelty and brutality. Given what we know of war and predation in nonhuman species, it is more likely that war and predation are tied to natural human capacities. This doesn't mean that humans will be violent in all circumstances, only that given particular circumstances, humans have the innate capacity to become violent. Justifications for that violence will take a multitude of forms due to the diversity of human cultures.

I'll end this part here. In part III, we'll see more of Mr. Harris disproving his assertions that atheists are "especially rational."


Blogger Tyler said...

I greatly appreciate thought-out responses such as this. The vast majority of commentary I’ve read regarding this book, and any other issue that deals with God and religion, is shamefully lacking. Many theists’ responses do not fully (or at all) address the issues discussed, and far too many atheists disregard reasonable objections to atheism’s polemics because they perceive the person who points out the flaws in their logic as inherently illogical and unreasonable because of their being a theist.

Particularly I appreciate the response to Harris’ dismissal of numerable examples where atheists have been extremely violent both for political reasons and in defence of an atheist state. He basically says that these examples do not count because the leaders were not rational and thus not his ideal example of atheism, yet he has no trouble counting any acts of violence done by religious people, even if these acts are clearly not supported by the agent’s religion, or even done in the name of that religion.

9:23 AM  

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