We have long promised to more systematically cover these guys who generate so much fun sniping on our blog here, and as of last Sunday, the full as-of-now-regular podcaster lineup (myself, Seth, Wes, and Dylan; we will still have some guests on, though) recorded a discussion of:
-The first two chapters of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason(2004)
-The last three chapters of Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
These fellows do not so much answer the question “is there a God?” as the question “should we be religious?”
Harris claims that faith, defined as believing something without evidence, is morally irresponsible: it leaves us open to believing all sorts of destructive things, and there are portions of all the major Western religious texts that, if taken literally and without the need for rational justification, command abominable things. Religious moderates, by extension, are on Harris’s view in the awkward position of not being able to condemn the extremists in the way that would be necessary to quash them: the extremists are, after all, just acting out fully the principles commanded by the faith that the moderates profess to embrace.
Hitchens presents a big book of anecdotes about terrible things done in the name of religion. Like Freud, he thinks the fundamental tenets of the worlds religion are superstitions that adults in the modern age have any business believing and thinks religious leaders to be for the most part a bunch of power-grabbing phonies.
Dawkins, a prominent evolutionary biologist, presents a positive argument that a creator-God is problematic, namely that there’s no way such a God could do all that is described of him and still be simple, i.e. not in need of further explanation. Any alien being, for instance, no matter how radically more advanced than ourselves (and godlike in our eyes), would still have had to evolve through something akin to natural selection, so a God conceived as the first explanation of everything almost certainly couldn’t exist.
Dennett is rather the odd duck here, and is likely in this category for publicity reasons more than anything else. His book is not a screed against religion, but instead a presentation of various scientific analyses of religion by other people and an argument that more of this would be good, and that it needs to be done without tiptoeing deferentially around the subject matter. See my notes on the first couple of chapters. Like Harris and the rest of them, though, he is worried about the destructive potential of religion (this whole movement is a reaction to 9/11), and argues against the idea that the persistence of religion must be due to its inherent value to us. Instead, it may be akin to a harmful virus that has evolved ways to ensure its own continued replication (e.g. the self-defensive parts of religion, where you’re not allowed to question it) while not necessarily benefiting its hosts (us). Only continued, rigorous study will tell us.
Spoiler: Dennett wasn’t actually discussed until the last 10 minutes of the episode, by which point most participants were tired enough to have nothing to say about him.)
As a response to a few points made by the above authors (mostly Dawkins), we all read an essay Wes found from Wittgenstein scholar Anthony Kenny: “Knowledge, Belief, and Faith” (abstract here), which you could find in chapter 14 (p. 179-199) of his 2008 book From Empedocles to Wittgenstein: Historical Essays in Philosophy. We’re well aware that there are many many other responses out there to these writers and did read around individually some more. I welcome your submissions when this episode goes up of YouTube and other-podcast ideas for blog posts to counter/supplement what we were able to cover.