Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Friday, January 26, 2007

the problem with religious moderates

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, is not impressed with religious moderates. The problem, he alleges, is that moderates don't really believe, but just use God-talk to keep from rocking the boat:

Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word "God" as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred.

There probably do exist people who fit Harris's description, who value tolerance above all else, but they cannot accurately be called moderates. To elevate tolerance to the point that "right" and "wrong" no longer have meaning is just as extreme as the forceful intolerance of a Fred Phelps or a Jerry Falwell. If tolerance means that we can't make moral judgments at all, then we've lost all sense of balance whatsoever. Moderation, if anything, is about balance. Genuine moderation means avoiding both extremes of absolute certainty and absolute relativism.

Harris's real problem is that religious moderates don't fit into his simplistic view of human nature. He is more interested in bending reality to match his theory than in honestly seeking to understand people who are different from him. Harris bases his disdain for moderates on no less than five false assumptions.

I've already mentioned the first: He confuses "moderate" with "relativist".

Harris's second mistake is to confuse faith with gut-level certainty. Harris would prefer that religious people base their faith on their instincts. He has no use for an honest, soul-searching quest to discover God's will. He wants us all either to know -- without doubt or question -- that what we believe is true, or to dismiss the very idea of God as irrational.

In other words, by Harris's reasoning, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it," is sincere, and, "Now we see in a mirror dimly," is not. But which of these phrases can actually be found in the Bible? Harris can't have it both ways. He can't expect religious people to put their whole trust in a holy book, then ignore the nuances found in that book.

Harris's third mistake is to fail to recognize the limits of reason in making sense of the world. He would like to force every statement through the filter of cold, hard logic. You think God exists? You'll need to propose a battery of tests that we can do to eliminate any competing hypotheses.

The problem is that there are a lot of things in life that are outside the scope of logical inquiry. Consider the arts, for instance. What makes a poem work? Can we subject each line to a battery of tests to determine its veracity?

Consider the chambered nautilus.

When Richard Dawkins looks at a chambered nautilus, he observes that its eye has no lens. It's just a concave collection of light receptors. Nonetheless, it is better than no eye at all. Evolutionary biologists believe the existence of an animal with a lensless eye to be important evidence of the evolution of the eye.

When Oliver Wendell Holmes looked at a chambered nautilus, he saw a stately mansion, a source of inspiration, challenging us to aspire to greatness. Holmes, viewing the nautilus through a poetic filter, saw things a biologist might miss.

Faith, too, is a different filter for viewing the world. Faith does not follow the same rules as logic. Nor does it follow the rules of poetry, although faith can be expressed either in poetic or in logical terms.

Following from this error, Harris makes his fourth mistake, that of not recognizing that people often view the world through multiple filters simultaneously. That's why, for example, a religious moderate might have no problems with the theory of evolution, but at the same time still believe that God created everything. It is not necessary that science be wrong for faith to be right.

Finally, Harris is glibly myopic in comparing the relative progress in religion and science through the centuries:

Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is flat, or that trepanning constitutes a wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach.

First, to say that the 14th century Christian's religious ideas would be beyond reproach today is laughable. The Protestant Reformation brought into question nearly every teaching of the Catholic Church, and gave us a multitude of religious traditions in return. Few if any doctrines remain that are not disputed by one group or another.

Second, Harris cherry picks areas where scientific knowledge was lacking in the 14th century. In other areas, that 14th century Christian might still be considered well educated. The structure of logical syllogisms, for example, has remained unchanged since Aristotle wrote about them. The rules of Euclidean geometry, too, have been known since ancient times. And while it's true that Euclidean geometry is no longer considered an accurate representation of the universe, a person who understands its theorems and its rules for proof is no ignoramus.

But we can go even further. Let's look at one example of a well-educated Christian of the 14th century: William of Ockham. It so happens that Ockham is important to the history of both science and religion. He is most famous today for the rule known as Ockham's Razor: "Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity." In other words, given two equally descriptive explanations for a phenomenon, the simpler one is probably better. It is important to note that Ockham did not invent this idea, but he demonstrated its usefulness by applying it liberally.

The salient point of all this is that Ockham's razor has become one of the foundational axioms of the modern scientific method. How on earth can Sam Harris call Ockham a total ignramus?

In terms of theology, Ockham frequently clashed with the church. Some of his ideas anticipated Protestantism: his insistence, for example, that faith alone could reveal to us the nature of God. As a result of this fideism, Ockham further insisted that all logical proofs for God's existence were necessarily flawed. Ockham was not afraid to challenge even Thomas Aquinas's cosmological argument for the existence of God.

Ockham himself had his critics, and was brought before a papal court to explain himself.

So, though Sam Harris alleges that a well-educated 14th century Christian's theology is "beyond reproach" even today, the facts show that any theology -- whether the Pope's, Aquinas's, or Ockham's -- was not immune from scrutiny even in the 14th century. Since then, the Protestant reformation has led to an even greater theological diversity among Christians. Harris's allegation that religious doctrine can never be questioned is, quite simply, wrong.

Sam Harris tries to make the case against all religion, but in order to do so, he must rely on several dubious assumptions, and a few assumptions that are simply false. In the end, Harris has proved only that he does not understand the basics of religion.

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At 1/26/2007 11:52 AM, Anonymous Mitch said...

Bruce - Very interesting discussion. No purpose for this comment other than to say I appreciated reading it.


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