First off, very little of this will be in my own words, but in the words of Sam Harris. This is basically a transcript of the opening speech that Sam gave in a debate about religion. I know that if I tried I could not put it more beautifully, simply or more elegantly than he did. If I was tempted to call anything the poetry of rational arguments, this would be it.
Please don’t view this as an attack on what you believe – it’s not meant to be mean spirited. Picture as you read this, someone who is exhausted and saddened at the fact that debates like this still needs to take place.
I think I’m bound to offend somebody reading this, because we live in a country where 90% of the people claim to believe in biblical God. I just want to assure you upfront that I’m not being deliberately provocative. The point is not to offend you. I’m just extremely worried about the roll that religion is playing in our world. I happen to think that religion is the most divisive and dangerous ideology we have ever concocted, and it keeps me awake at night.
Ever since those 19 terrorists showed our pious nation just how beneficial religious certainty can be I have argued against the claims that religion plays a positive role in our society.
I’ve come to see that really there are only 3 ways of rising to the defence of religion. There aren’t hundreds, or even many –
Either a person argues that a specific religion is true, or he argues that religion in general is useful and so useful that it is necessary to society, or they attack atheism as another religion – being dogmatic, intolerant, irrational or otherwise worthy of contempt. I want to separate these claims because any conversation between a believer and a non-believer tends to find one of these ruts.
First let’s start with the claim that any one religion is true
there are at least two problems with taking this route, the first of which is simple, they can’t all be true – this is something that Bertrand Russell pointed out 100 years ago.
Even if we knew that one of our religions was absolutely true and this was God’s multiple choice exam -
is it A Judaism B Christianity C Islam, etc.
Given the bewildering profusion of the offered doctrines and given their bewildering incompatibilities – every believer should expect damnation, purely as a matter of probability. It seems to me that this should give religious people pause when they espouse their certainties, but it never does.
The deeper problem of arguing for the truth of your religion is that the evidence for any given religion is either nonexistent or terrible. And this encompasses all claims about personal religious feelings, the divine origins of religious texts, the virgin birth of certain people, the veracity of ancient miracles.
Take Christianity for example, Christianity is completely founded on the claim that the gospel account of the miracles of Jesus is true. There are certain Christians who may want to hedge their bet here, but most Christians, most of the time, take some compliment of these miracles as true. The most important of these seems to be the resurrection. The problem with this is the only thing that testifies to these miracles ever having occurred is the gospel.
There are no extra-biblical descriptions of these events. Everyone agrees that the gospels were written decades after the events they report – those are the earliest gospels. The problem is that even if the evidence were much better than that, even if we had hundreds of eyewitness accounts of these miracles that would still not be good enough evidence to cash out the claims of Christianity.
Well, the problem is that in the 21st century, reports of miracles are still quite common. There have been literally hundreds of western-educated men and women who think that their favourite Hindu or Buddhist guru has divine powers. The reports of miracles are quite current, there are Hindu yogis and mystics who reportedly walked on water, and raise the dead and fly without any aid, and read minds and divine the future.
Take someone like Sathya Sai Baba– the south Indian guru. All of these miracles are attributed to him. He even claims to be born of a virgin, which incidentally is not such a rare claim in the history of religion or in history generally. Genghis Kahn was supposedly born of a virgin, Alexander the Great was born of a virgin. Parthenogenesis does not guarantee that you’re going to turn the other cheek, apparently.
Consider this, Sathya Sai Baba has these miracles attributed to him by literally thousands upon thousands of living eye witnesses – he is not the David Koresh of Hinduism. His devotees threw a birthday party for him a few years ago and a million people showed up. There are millions of people who believe he is a living god. Consider for the first time the foundational claims of Christianity – the claim is that miracle stories of a sort surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba today, which are compelling to no one other than his followers – suddenly become especially credible if you place them in the pre-scientific context of the first century roman empire, decades after their supposed occurrence. Sathya Sai Baba’s miracles don’t even merit an hour on the discovery channel. And yet, place these miracles in an ancient text, and half the people on this earth think it a legitimate project to organise their lives around them.
Does anyone else see a problem with that?
Let’s leave aside questions of religions truth.
The second way of arguing in defence of God is to say that religion is useful, and so useful that it may be necessary. The most common way of arguing its usefulness is to say that it makes people moral, it consoles them, it gives their lives meaning. There are several problems with this line of argument. The first is, as a defence of God’s existence, it is a total non sequitur. The usefulness of religion does not give you the slightest reason to believe that god actually exists. Every religion could function like a placebo. It could be totally barren of real content, and yet extremely useful in certain senses.
Let’s say that the cosmologists and physicists came forward and said “sorry for the misunderstanding, there actually is a God and he does have a plan for you” Let’s just say that happened. The fact that this idea would be consoling wouldn’t provide an additional reason to believe it. If we have conquered any ground at all in the career of our rationality, it is on this distinction that there is a world of difference between wanting to believe something and having good reasons for believing in it. This is exactly why we have phrases like “wishful thinking” and “experimenter bias”. This is exactly why scientists do double blind controlled studies whenever they can and submit their data for peer review.
So that’s the crucial piece. When you hear someone arguing the link between morality and religion or the fact that it gives people meaning in their lives, this is an argument for the usefulness and not an argument for the plausibility of any specific religious doctrine. The other problem with arguing the usefulness of religion is that the dangers of religion are testified to now on a daily basis by bomb blasts. Honestly, how useful is it that millions of Muslims in this world believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom? How useful is it that the Shia and Sunni in Iraq have such heartfelt religious differences? How useful is it that so many Jewish settlers think that the creator of the universe promised them a patch of desert on the Mediterranean? How useful has Christianity’s anxiety about sex been these last 70 generations?
Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that their holy books are so profound, so prescient of humanity’s needs that they could only have been written under the direction of an omniscient deity.
An Atheist is simple someone who has considered this claim, read the books, and found the claim to be ridiculous. There is nothing that needs to be presupposed on insufficient evidence in order to reject the biblical god. What dogma have we all embraced to not take Zeus and Poseidon and Apollo into account on a daily basis? What dogma have we all used to reject the thousands and thousands of dead gods who now lie buried in that mass grave we call mythology? Would it be dogmatic to doubt that the Iliad or the Odyssey was written by the creator of the universe? This is not dogmatism, as Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. That is all you need for Atheism. If ever there were an antidote to dogmatism, that’s it.
There’s a related claim that atheism is arrogant, or that science in general is arrogant in its dismissal of religion. This is really ironic, and this claim reverberates ceaselessly in the echo chamber of American religious discourse. But it is a profound irony to see religious people praising themselves for their humility while essentially making claims about cosmology, and physics, and astrology, and geology and biology and planetology, and dozens of specific sciences that no scientist could make. Every religious person who takes the Genesis account of creation seriously – 53% of Americans seemingly take it literally - but just even dignifying it is informative is essentially saying to someone like Stephen hawking “Stephen, you’re a smart guy, I see you’ve got a lot of equations over there, but, you actually don’t know enough about cosmology because here in this book, we’ve got God doing it all in six days, then he rested on the 7th. I can see if you want to take it as slightly metaphorical, but I don’t think you’re really grappling with the nuances here.” They’re essentially saying to someone like Richard Dawkins, or Robert Trivers, or any evolutionary biologist, “you’re saying all this stuff about DNA and the fossil record and radio carbon dating, but it says here that man was made in a separate act of creation and I think we should ponder over that.”
This kind of covert ignorance would be amusing, possibly downright funny if it weren’t having such a disastrous effect on the teachings of science in this country. There are biology teachers that don’t even mention evolution because they don’t want to deal with the lunacy of the students and their parents.
This really is impeding medical research, and this really is eroding the prestige of our country in the eyes of the rest of the world. In a republican debate in the United States if you ask “how many of you reject evolution?” Three hands go up!
Not only are these people seeking public office, but these people are inheriting more power and more responsibility than and person has had in the entirety of human history.
Nothing of what was said above should be taken as an assault of good ethics and morals. Or even an assault on spirituality. You can be a deeply, deeply spiritual person, and perfectly committed to transforming your moment to moment perception of the world, and use techniques like meditation and fasting to achieve it. You can go into a cave for a year and be a mystic if you want to. None of that requires presupposing anything on insufficient evidence, and none of that requires that we lie to ourselves, or to our children about our state of knowledge about the world. The problem I have with religion on every point of the spectrum from moderate to extreme is that it stands as a permanent denial of developing a truly modern and rational open ended discussion about the true nature of our subjectivity – about the possibility of ethics and spirituality truly in conformity with our rationality as it exists now. Every religious person, every person who is committed to still being a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist, is essentially giving an endorsement to the religious divisions in our world. They are essentially saying that we need some measure of mythology, and fairy tale. That we need to pretend on some occasions that we know things that we do not know, and it’s simply untrue.