Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sam Harris and Phillip Ball on Atheistic Accomodation

There is a great exchange between Sam Harris and Phillip Ball which pretty much sums up the intellectual chasm that always grows up when this discussions take place. This paragraph from Harris pretty much sums up my view of the issue:

First off, it is undeniable that most humans are “ritualistically inculcated into stupidity” from birth onwards by their religious parents. Second, it is a perverse (and highly condescending) article of faith among secular academics that people can never be reasoned out of their religious convictions. I have heard from literally thousands of people who used to believe in the God of Abraham—indeed, many used to be scriptural literalists—who were stripped of their faith after a proper collision with Reason. It is quite possible for people to notice how “woolly” their thinking has been, how they were part of a culture grown incandescent with lies, how their parents and elders raised them in a near total vacuum of critical thinking and in complete ignorance of the scientific worldview. Indeed, I once had the pleasure of having dinner with a woman who could pinpoint the very moment she lost her faith, as it had been purged from her mind that morning while reading one of my books. Her overwhelming feeling was of regret for all the time she had wasted over the course of her life. No doubt such a terrific sense of sunk cost keeps many people stuck to a pew. Perhaps not everyone can be reasoned out of his or her faith—but the problem is that we don’t know how fully people’s minds could change because we haven’t really tried (please don’t feel tempted to make yet another tendentious excursion into history and bring up the French Revolution or the gulag). You’d do well to notice how easily children can be reasoned out of their belief in Santa Claus. The all enter school as devout believers, and they all exit as perfect sceptics. How is this dialectical miracle accomplished? Quite simply: there is no cultural support for a belief in Santa past a certain age, and no one likes to be laughed at. Do we replace Santa Claus with anything? No. We just oblige people to grow up.

That's pretty much it. And yes, accomodationists all, hear me when I say I realize that some people cannot be wrested from their faith positions by mere reason (who was it that said what was put there by something other than reason cannot be removed with reason?). Those we leave to you to cajole, persuade, and incrementalize their way to enlightenment. But for some people, a swift kick in the intellectual ass is exactly what they need, and many of us know it because we've had it happen to us, and we've seen it effective in others. Sometimes all someone needs is to have a person carrying intellectual respect to say point blank [best George Carlin voice here] "This is fucking stupid!", and begin a rational dissection.

Hat tip: PZ Myers.

5 comments:

Luke said...

Extremely interesting discussion, but rather long. I've skimmed about 3/4 of it. A couple things jump right out. I'll admit I'm not neutral -- I agree almost entirely with Phil's first two points.

Forgive me any incorrect terminology for particular viewpoints. It is just a convenience for discussion.

What we have here are rationalists forming denominations. One denomination requires abandoning religion altogether, the other hold that rational people may have faith in certain aspects. This is no different from Christian denominations that require faith to the extreme, e.g. conservative Southern Baptist, or accept and even encourage a rational view, e.g. Unitarians, or most of the Episcopal Church USA.

The dispute is counterproductive. The scientific worldview needs all the allies that it can get. Even if the absolutist view is correct, is it more important to be right or to make progress? So, Harris and Ball should agree to disagree and work together where they have common ground. Do you think that would be easier for Harris, or for Ball? You have the right idea:

Those we leave to you to cajole, persuade, and incrementalize their way to enlightenment.

So, you realize that your approach may not be the right one for everyone, just for some people. There are good reasons why denominations form, the problem only comes when they start to fight with each other over matters of style.

There is a process whereby advocates become radicalized. The poster child for this is PETA. They were once in favor of ethical treatment of animals, an agenda which could have garnered broad support. But over time they drove away the more moderate because they were willing to compromise on such things as raising animals for food and clothing. Now PETA is a laughingstock gone totally off the deep end, railing at the tossing of dead sea-kittens, content in their ideological purity, but totally unable to affect change. If you want an example to the right, the NRA isn't quite as far gone, and still has considerable influence, but risks losing it to the radicals.

An emphasis on conversion as a singular event, strikes me as odd. (It shows up in evangelical Christianity too, where I also think it is odd.) Is it important that someone have a "this is f---ing stupid!" moment? Conversion from an unreasoned, unscientific (calling it religious begs the question) viewpoint to a reasoned, scientific view is for most people a journey, often a painful one, not a moment. Even when they remember a moment, it is in truth just the point at which they become aware of a process.

(BTW, I don't think it is a good idea to use profanity in these discussions. Profanity is more about emotion than reason, and comes across as either angry or uncultured. It worked for Carlin, but he was a professional. Don't try this at home. )

Glenn Borchardt said...

Great post! I sort of agree with Luke. That singular event was preceded by a good deal of doubt and much education. Otherwise, why read Sam Harris? On the otherhand, there always has to be some point at which time one gets off the assumptive fence and jumps either way. This is much like the "Tipping Point" of Gladwell or the revolution of any type when "the momentum for change becomes unstoppable."

It is true that there still is a sucker born every minute, but today's world is different. Kids no longer have to read the forbidden atheistic literature with a flashlight under the covers. It now is only a click away...

Glenn Borchardt (https://thescientificworldview.blogspot.com)

alex said...

If you succeed in getting a thousand religious devotees to abandon their religion and just settle for deism, would you consider that to be a success or a failure? (And if two thousand agnostics, meanwhile, decided to join a church?)

ScienceAvenger said...

Luke said:

"What we have here are rationalists forming denominations. One denomination requires abandoning religion altogether, the other hold that rational people may have faith in certain aspects. This is no different from Christian denominations that require faith to the extreme, e.g. conservative Southern Baptist, or accept and even encourage a rational view, e.g. Unitarians, or most of the Episcopal Church USA."

It is entirely different, and I'd argue that ignoring that crucial difference does far more harm than any intra-atheist factional wars could do. The differences among religious sects are based on arbitrary differences in faiths. The differences among atheists are in opinion as to what strategy is best for mainstreaming us into society and shedding the baby-eaters label so many shackle us with.

The notion that we should pretend there is no difference between our approach and that of the religious (as you did) is about as sure a path to defeat as I could devise, and completely extreme. Dinesh D'Souza, Ken Ham, and all the other charletans on the faith side of the discussion would proudly welcome you as an ally with notions like that.

ScienceAvenger said...

I agree with your internet comments Glenn. Religions held power for so long, in part, on controlling information. Now that the internet makes that nearly impossible, their hold as a major force in society will continue to wither away over time. The question is how many young atheists do we leave afraid to come out with their new understanding because we are too timid to call fucking stupidity what it is.

And yes Luke, I prefer to avoid profanity when I can, and when it isn't appropriate. I can think of no more appropriate time than when people of otherwise sound minds start promoting political strategies that empower their enemies and deny reality.