Saturday, March 17, 2007

Sam Harris's Circles of Belief

Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, has had an opinion piece published in the LA Times entitled God’s dupes. In this essay, Harris suggests that a moderate believer in a religious faith inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism.’ Along with this assertion he expresses a desire that the spell of religion be broken en masse because, for Harris, ’[e]verything of value that people get from religion can be had more honestly, without presuming anything on insufficient evidence. The rest is self-deception, set to music.’

Implicit in Harris’s essay is the argument that religious fundamentalists, like terrorists, are sheltered from criticism in our society by moderate religious believers who are hanging on to the self-deception of their religious beliefs. In supporting this idea, Harris asks the reader to imagine a series of concentric circles where, as one works toward the centre, one finds increasing levels of ’diminishing reasonableness’. As we move outward from the centre, we obviously find, according to Harris, increasing reasonableness. In order to make this ’spectrum of belief’ clearer, I have placed the descriptions of Harris’s various examples on a continuum. You can click on the image to the right see my As I describe Harris’s points along the continuum, I will apply them to Christianity - clearly one of the faiths that Harris has in mind.

On the left side of the continuum is true belief. Here we would find the fanatical Christian fundamentalist who, according to Harris’s model, would be completely irrational and would, probably, condone violence to further the cause. Christians who blow up abortion clinics might be an example of this category of believer. Harris describes these people as ’maniacs’.

Moving to the right on the continuum, we meet the person who shares the beliefs with the true believer but without the zealousness that leads to fanatical and extreme behaviour. In relation to Christianity, these people may, to continue the example above, be against abortion but wouldn’t engage in acts of violence to further that cause.

The next position to the right on the continuum is for those who essentially agree with the first two groups on belief but disagree on minor points. So a Christian who accepts all the fundamental beliefs of the first two groups but who, perhaps, disagrees on minor issues such as style of worship, would sit in this group.

Continuing to the right is the moderate, liberal believer who is quite happy to live with doubt and uncertainty and may disagree with many (most? all?) of the doctrines of mainstream Christianity (for example).

Although Harris doesn’t include the last position I have included on the continuum, it is the logical right-most point in the trajectory of rationality that Harris wants us to accept. Here we would find the unbeliever (ie, unbeliever in terms of religious faith) who has abandoned, or never adopted, religious beliefs and, instead, acquires ’[e]verything of value that people get from religion ... more honestly, without presuming anything on insufficient evidence.’ Clearly, this is where we are meant to find individuals such as atheists.

This ’spectrum of belief’, it seems to me, is quite useful. But does it make sense to suggest, as Harris does, that the existence of people at any point on the continuum ’shelter’ those to the left of the continuum from public criticism and condemnation? Harris’s implication is quite clear: if we are to ensure that the true believer (e.g. terrorists) are exposed to the censure of society, we need to rid the continuum from those who stick with some form of belief or faith despite how "rational" they might be. It would seem that, for Harris, there shouldn’t be a continuum of belief at all. We need to have everyone at the most "rational" position of religious unbelief. That is, in matters of religion, atheists who are "obviously" rational and who eschew any hint of religion. Anyone else clearly engages in various forms of religious irrationality.

Although Harris hasn’t come out and said it explicitly, his ’spectrum of belief’ approach clearly implies that, for him, any person who has any form of religious belief is providing a shelter for those who are religious ’maniacs’ and who perpetrate wars, terrorism, and other evils in the name of religion. All this is really to say that religious believers, however moderate, are in the end, and in some sense, responsible for these evils. After all, if you provide protective shelter for a murderer, aren’t you complicit?

Despite the possible practical usefulness of Harris’s spectrum of belief, the use he has made of it is completely inappropriate. It only works if Harris sees himself (and those agreeing with him) outside the spectrum altogether. Harris does this by not mentioning the right-most category of unbelief in describing his spectrum. That means that Harris understands himself to be completely separate from the continuum of belief. He does this by only applying the spectrum to religious beliefs. But if Harris wants to work on the principle that those to the right on the continuum are somehow responsible for the evils on the left, then he needs to use this continuum for all forms of belief because it is clear that all belief systems have, at some time, been used by some people, for evil. Let’s look at one belief system - evolution.

At the left of the continuum we would have a fanatical, fundamentalist, zealous evolutionist who is intolerant of those who do not accept, or have doubts about, the evolutionary paradigm. As Woodward has documented in his two books, Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design and Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design, there are plenty of fundamentalist evolutionists who persist in misrepresenting and attacking those who disagree that evolution theory satisfactorily explains the complexity of nature as observed empirically. I am not suggesting that fundamentalist evolutionists have perpetrated violence against those who disagree with them. My point is that one can find "true believers" in any system of thought.

Moving to the right on the continuum, we would find evolutionists who believe absolutely in evolutionary theory but do not have the zeal that leads them to shower ad hominem attacks (for example) on their "enemies". We would then move to the right again and find evolutionists who accept evolution but respectfully disagree with their more fundamentalist colleagues on various minor points. There are quite a large number of evolutionists whom one could identify in this position. Then there would be evolutionists who live with significant doubts and uncertainties about evolutionary "truths" and, therefore, would be considered as more moderate or liberal in their beliefs.

And finally, we come to the unbeliever in evolution. And, just like Harris distances himself from his own continuum, these "unbelievers" consider themselves to be looking at the empirical evidence more fairly and rationally concluding that evolutionary theory should be abandoned - and there are some of these within the scientific community (although the true believer evolutionist wouldn’t consider them as part of that community).

Now, given this, would it be fair to argue that the evolutionist who disagrees with minor points of evolutionary "doctrine" is sheltering the fundamentalist evolutionists from public criticism? Does that mean the moderate believer in evolution is, in some sense, responsible for the behaviour of the fundamentalist evolutionist? Clearly this is nonense.

The point of this example is not to argue over whether evolution is true or not. The content of the belief system is unimportant. What matters is that we can construct the spectrum of belief in any way we want in order to construe those we disagree with as being more irrational than we are and, hence, responsible for the bad behaviour of the fanatic. This elasticity of use of the spectrum of belief makes it completely inappropriate for apportioning responsibility for fanaticism leading to evils of any sort. There will always be humans within any belief system who will be fanatical about their beliefs. That is human nature. But to engage in some sort of guilt by association argument like Harris does in this opinion piece, to blame all religious believers for sheltering those who perpetrate evil, has some of the marks of fundamentalism itself.

There is an underlying arrogance in many of these arguments from atheists. They seem to think that their belief systems are completely devoid of any self-deception and that all their beliefs rest on sufficient evidence. Belief and faith are much more ubiquitous than these people would accept. They seem to believe they have a corner on truth. And they frequently misrepresent religious faith as being divorced from reason.

Harris’s rhetoric is seductive. That doesn’t make it true. Under the heading for Harris’s op-ed piece, is this sentence: ’Moderate believers give cover to religious fanatics - and are every bit as deluded.’ If Harris genuinely believes that all religious believers are the same, that they are all equally deluded, that there is no difference between an abortion-clinic-bombing Christian and Mother Teresa, then I have to wonder who is really deluding themselves.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo, Steve.

    The "debate" between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan on Beliefnet incorporated some of your arguments. I tried to read it but eventually gave up. As long as militant atheists like Sam Harris state that the mere fact of believing in a higher power makes one irrational, there is no use talking to them. You would be better off beating your head against a brick wall.

    I guess the only reply to this is that we'll all find out in the end--and I suspect my answer to Sam Harris and those like him will be, "Nyah nyah nyah."