Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Folly of Sam Harris

Newsweek features a conversation between atheist Sam Harris and Christian pastor Rick Warren:

Harris: [T]here are many testimonials about miracles, every bit as amazing as the miracles of Jesus, in other literature of the world's religions. Even contemporary miracles. There are millions of people who believe that Sathya Sai Baba, the south Indian guru, was born of a virgin, has raised the dead and materializes objects. I mean, you can watch some of his miracles on YouTube. Prepare to be underwhelmed. He's a stage magician. As a Christian, you can say Sathya Sai Baba's miracle stories are not interesting, let's not pay attention to them, but if you set them within the prescientific religious milieu of the first-century Roman Empire, suddenly miracle stories become especially compelling.

I find this response fascinating. The prescientific religious milieu has nothing to do with the compelling nature of miracles. We do our ancestors a tremendous disservice when we make them out to be total morons. Take, for instance, the story of Lazarus. It didn't take very much scientific knowledge for the Jews to ascertain that when Jesus raised him from the dead something unusual had occurred. In point of fact, the Pharisees, so opposed to the strange preacher from Nazareth, never denied his miracles. They simply attributed them to Satan. Which is, incidentally, precisely what I would do when it came to the miracles of the Indian guru.

Harris: I'm not at all a moral relativist. I think it's quite common among religious people to believe that atheism entails moral relativism. I think there is an absolute right and wrong.

But Harris does not tell us where this comes from. Nor can he. And this is the fundamental flaw of atheistic systems of morals and ethics. Nietzsche, the most logical and lucid of the atheistic philosophers, had it right: if God is dead, morality is wholly subjective. From the chaos and the cacophony may come the Superman, but make no mistake about it, atheism, if widespread, will lead to moral anarchy.

Harris: This really is one of the great canards of religious discourse, the idea that the greatest crimes of the 20th century were perpetrated because of atheism. The core problem for me is divisive dogmatism.

Given the fact that 1) the 20th century was the world's bloodiest; 2) although atheism has been around for ages, it became fashionable, especially among "intellectuals" during this same century; and 3) the three bloodiest ideologies: communism, feminism--due to the tragedy of mass abortions, and nazism, were all partaken by those who had rejected Judeo-Christian morality, many of whom were explicitly atheist, I should think this is all readily obvious. If dogmatism was truly that problematic, history should have demonstrated that religious dogmatism leads quickly to hell, something it--Christianity especially--seldom does. In fact, Communists, Nazis, and pro-abortion feminists are divisively dogmatic, showing just how much human beings hate the vacuum which occupies the space left by the rejected objective moral code. As even Harris must realize, dogma is essential if he is to have his absolute right and wrong. The important thing is not that it is dogmatic; it must be so. The important thing is that the dogma is correct. That would be my one great complaint with so many of the ideologues of the 20th century.

Harris: No society in human history has ever suffered because it has become too reasonable.

Unfortunately this is completely untrue. For, as Chesterton points out so brilliantly in the first chapter of Orthodoxy:

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination... Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

The point is plain, and hardly needs to be expounded upon. Sooner or later, Harris may take his reason to its logical extreme and see his head split. It is reasonable to attack religion in general and Christianity in particular; most religions are absurd, most Christians are somewhat ridiculous. I happen to feel that even absurd religions and ridiculous followers are, at the very least, instinctually approximately correct in their gropings at higher truths, not accessible by human reason alone; but it is not really reasonable to take reason all the way in regards to atheism. There ends the chaos of Nietzsche's superman, the wholly subjective will-to-power. For Nietzsche himself, that brilliant German philosopher, ended in madness.

As for me, I prefer not to end in madness, so I'll just end right here.


troutsky said...

I disagree with everybody. Harris, for his over-reliance on reason, you for your over-reliance on a book of stories, and Chesterton for not being able to think up some mad poets.(ten come to mind readily)
I would also question the assertion that Russian society was any bloodier post revolution than pre, that feminists can be equated with athiests or that Nazism was not also infected with a Christian exceptionalism.(hated Jews)Franco and Mussolini were pretty cozy with a certain Church as well.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

As always, I give you props for having the temerity to state your position.

Immediately prior to the quotation from Chesterton, he writes:

Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great
English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad
by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination.
Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him
in health.

Thus I would be quite interested in you pointing out other mad poets.

Allow me a moment of bluntness. I disagree with you for your reliance on a philosophy which is founded on nonsensical premises, and has been proven itself to be barbaric in practice. I respect you, even when I disagree with you, which is often, but you are not always very good with history.

When you say, "I would also question the assertion that Russian society was any bloodier post revolution than pre," the only response I can manage is a chuckle, followed by wonderment. Have you even read a history book concerning Communist Russia, whose ideology you share? Have you read statements of famous Marxists who noted the necessity of blood and revolution?

There may be a defense for socialism, though I rather doubt it; but there is no defense for the crimes of the Communist Revolution. And denying that the crimes were significant is downright embarrassing. I expect better of you, Troutsky.

Feminism, in its radical form, is a rejection of the Judeo-Christian mentality replaced with a subjective Epicurean mindset. Fortunately, such mindsets tend to be as untenable as they are indefensible, at least insofar as a large community is concerned.

The Nazis were not in the least ways Christians. Hitler, like Marx, was greatly influenced by Hegel and Nietzsche. Christianity preached universal salvation; National Socialism was only for the Aryan race. The two are mutually exclusive. A case could be made that the Nazis were neo-pagans, but they were certainly not Christians.

I haven't time to dwell on Franco and Mussolini, though I find it fascinating that when people point to the crimes of atheists, it is inevitably asserted that Christians are really the ones to be feared even though 1) Christianity has been far more prevalent, and thus Christians should be expected to commit a more significant amount of crimes than their numerically less significant atheist brethren and 2) these crimes take place infrequently, and are of such a lesser degree than crimes of modern atheists as to render comparison all but laughable. Comparing Mussolini and Franco to Stalin is absurd. But then people have long equated the Holocaust, the Great Purge and the Great Leap Forward with the Spanish Inquisition.

So long as Harris and Troutsky types continue to be so irrational, we can at least take solace in the fact that they will not go mad.

Steve said...

If there was a god (like the type you and yours asserts) the one sure thing would be that nobody doubted its existence.