A “University Lecturer living in South Korea” calling himself Skepoet responded here to our episode. He gives a nice quote from Julian Baggini and makes some salient points about our discussion.
One of his comments was that we didn’t seem to find an argument in Harris to critique. Here’s the argument as I remember it that we were focusing on:
If you suspend your critical faculties and “have faith,” then you open yourself up to believing all sorts of horrific stuff, such as, most importantly to the rest of society, commands to violence.
The general response is, yes, if faith is actually a matter of “I can’t think for myself! Think for me!” then this is a legitimate concern, and no doubt that is exactly the experience of faith in some people. However:
1. Per Kant and William James, faith about matters over which no experiential deconfirmation is even theoretically possible isn’t irrational in this way. Granted, most actual religions are not Kant-friendly in this way (so it’s kind of goofy that we spent so much time on this when that’s not the new atheists’ target for the most part).
2. As a practical matter, people just don’t get brainwashed to the point of violence. Other forces in human motivation tend to step in to curtail violence, and when violence does occur, you generally find that the perpetrator had more things wrong with him than just the religious motivation. Religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for violence… which is not to say that they’re unconnected in all circumstances or that more critical thinking wouldn’t be very helpful in preventing the spread of violence. To the extent that religion is against critical thinking, it’s a detriment to any society.
I think we all (on the podcast) agree that a lot of religion is superstitious nonsense: dubious historical claims, ad hoc explanations for natural phenomena, and in some cases commands that wrongfully override the moral sense of any decent person. Even the most religious person believes that lots of the claims of other religions fall into these categories. Using this case as an example, I think that religion can have a deleterious effect on the critical faculties of even someone smart, conscientious, and striving to be impartial in an investigation.
I think we (meaning Wes vs. me and Dylan at least) have some disagreement among us re. this whole “science itself is a form of faith” response. I don’t buy it at all; particular scientific claims just don’t resist contrary evidence in the way that religious dogmatics do. There is an interesting discussion to be had about Kantian “regulatory principles,” e.g. the principle of causality itself is not one that an experiment proves, but rather is presupposed by all experiments. However, as in the case of quantum mechanics, even this fundamental principle can be questioned as a result of experimentation. None of the new atheists seem inclined to grapple with this issue.
Many arguments about religion have the problem of being intolerably vague: if you argue “all religion is subject to” [some fatal flaw], then I can likely show you a variety of religion that doesn’t have this flaw. I prefer more specific debates: I don’t buy Kierkegaard’s defense of the morality (or rather the moral immunity) of Abraham’s actions (not to mention God’s) in the matter of the near-sacrifice of Issac in “Fear and Trembling.” I don’t buy creationism or the historical accuracy of many Bible stories or spiritual uncleanliness or the power of prayer to affect events in the world or any number of other specific things that this or that religious person may believe. Those specific arguments, though, are more contextualized than many other philosophical debates: you’re arguing against specific people, trying to convince them, or work your way out of some beliefs that have been binding you. Monologues aimed either at straw men or at people not open to rational discourse are not the paradigm of generally engaging philosophy.
Harris’s strategy is not to politically argue against the bad outcomes of some religion (i.e. violence) or the faulty beliefs engendered by gullibility encouraged by religion (e.g. creationism), but to go at faith itself, which he considers the root of the problem. This is politically problematic, as I think we pointed out repeatedly on the episode: it’s not going to convince those who have faith, because you’re essentially calling them stupid, which will close their ears to you.
Instead, we already have routes to political action designed to achieve the same effect available to us: First, act against actual violence and stupid policy (by voting, etc.). Second, enforce separation of church and state; we all admit we’re going to have different opinions about things like abortion, and we really need policies determined based on foundations that more or less all of us can agree on, which are going to be secular ones. Third, try in general (as we do through this podcast) to promote critical thinking, which will not eradicate faith but will help people to be circumspect about their faith, which can lessen the number of unfounded policies that might flow from it. As Dylan repeatedly said on the episode, the goal in a liberal democracy is to figure out how to get people to coexist peacefully with others regardless of their beliefs, not to regulate what people are allowed to think. (Incidentally, I think Dennett presents a better model than Harris in trying to diagnose and bring to light virulent strains in religion and saying something about how religious beliefs form in comparison to other sorts of cultural accretions.)