Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Thursday, October 9th, 2014.

The Fantasies of Sam Harris

Middle East, Religion

I find Sam Harris slightly less annoying than, say, Richard Dawkins, but that’s not saying much. Much like Dawkins, Sam Harris is intelligent and articulate and a seething mass of self-deception. He’s a smart guy soaking in his own bullshit, basically.

If you know me at all you know I don’t give a hoo-haw whether someone believes in God or not, as long as they aren’t being missionaries about it, either way. I’m fine with atheists. I call myself that sometimes, although I prefer the label non-theist if I have to be labeled. What bugs me aren’t so much atheists but anti-theists, people with a knee-jerk disdain for all religion. Anti-theists are inevitably ignorant of religion — including non-theistic ones — and assume it all to be just varying degrees of fundamentalism.

Harris also represents another crew I can do without, the true believers of scientism. Scientism — the current and more dogmatic form of what is also called positivism —  is not science; it’s a blind faith that the scientific method is the measure of all truth, and whatever is not subject to falsification by the scientific method is just superstitious nonsense. Scientism is itself unscientific, since its premise is not subject to testing by the scientific method, but the scientismists get very angry when you point that out to them.

You may have heard about the televised flame over Islam among Bill Maher, Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Maher’s show last week. Affleck isn’t the guy I would have chosen to stand up to Harris, and I confess I haven’t taken the time to watch it. (I defer to Juan Cole’s analysis of the event.) Nicolas Kristof was on the show, too, and apparently could get few words in edgewise. But the fallout has been interesting, possibly more so than the flame itself.  People clearly are judging the “winner” based on their prior opinions of Islam. And now Harris writes on his blog that Affleck and Kristof were mean to him. “Affleck and Nicholas Kristof then promptly demonstrated my thesis by mistaking everything Maher and I said about Islam for bigotry toward Muslims,” Harris writes.

But Harris’s bigotry to Muslims, and toward all religion generally, has been commented on for years; he really ought to be used to it by now. For the ultimate analysis of Harris’s twisted worldview, see this 2011 article by Jackson Lears, “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris.”

There is copious data in the field of psychology suggesting that people are not nearly as rational as we think we are, and the myth-making parts of our brains are still churning out myths. Generally without being conscious of it we’re all creating a narrative, a personal myth, that explains us to ourselves. As we go through life we make up a story about ourselves and our role in the world, and who we think we are, and we process our experiences by fitting them into the narrative. I wrote in the book,

In his book The Unpersuadables, which really is the best thing I’ve read on this topic, Will Storr suggests that our thinking skills haven’t evolved beyond the age of myth as much as we think. Our brains are wired to look for connections and meaning, and so we see connections and meaning whether they are there or not. Our experiences are framed by our personal, mythical (and usually self-flattering) narratives, not data. We feel emotions and impulses, generated in the subconscious, that we cannot explain, so we make up stories to explain them. We create our stories from our biases, however, not from objective fact, and that’s how we interpret the world. And we all do this, religious or not.

Indeed, it may be that the most foolish belief of all is the belief that any of us are rational. The only difference between a sensible person and a kook may be that the sensible person holds irrational beliefs that conform to a socially acceptable norm, while the kook is more creative.

Further, the social psychologists tell us our opinions on just about everything are being generated by our subconscious, and without realizing it we then craft a story to tell ourselves why we believe as we do. We’re all being jerked around by biases unless we come to know ourselves very, very well and recognize the emotional cues we’re getting from our ids, and make a conscious choice to ignore them. And that would be one person in a million.

And a bit later in the book, I wrote,

What’s happening with scientism believers (scientismists?), seems to me, is that they very much want to believe they are as entirely rational as computers and utterly unlike those irrational religion-believing people they so dislike. So the myth-making parts of their brains have developed a strong cognitive bias to “confirm” their belief in absolute rationality and of themselves as relentlessly rational. They’re living in a myth that they’re not living in a myth.

I say a person cannot be genuinely rational until he recognizes and acknowledges his own irrationality. Otherwise, he’s just kidding himself.

IMO this is precisely what’s going on with Harris. He is living in a myth that he is entirely rational, and in his mind everything he thinks must be rational because he’s the one thinking it. If you disagree with him, you are being emotional and irrational.

Harris’s and Dawkins’s groupies are just as bad. Find any online article critical of one of the Prophets of New Atheism and you get hundreds of comments sputtering in outrage that anyone dare question the wisdom of The Prophets. It doesn’t matter how clearly the article writer has expressed himself and supported his views; whatever he writes will be dismissed as ad hominem and even as bigoted toward atheism. This is true even if the author acknowledges that he is an atheist himself. (This review of the first volume of Dawkins’s autobiography is a good example. If you read it, then see “John Gray’s scurrilous attack on Richard Dawkins” for the knee-jerk defense of a true believer against anything short of fawning deference toward the Great Man.)

In the book I make mention of Harris’s ideas on science-based morality, which he described in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values and elsewhere, and which I dismantled in some detail. Harris really does see the ideal human as absolutely rational and as logical as a computer, which is nonsense, and as a neuroscientist he ought to know better. In fact, we’re all an oozy mess of biases and various psychological pathologies trying to cope with it all, and our brief moments of pure rational thought are like lightning flashes in the sky of our otherwise muddled understanding. That may sound pessimistic, but it’s the truth, and I honestly don’t believe anyone can be rational at all until he or she owns up to that and makes allowance for it.

Regarding Islam, Harris is stuck in the belief that the ghastly violence and extremism roiling the near and middle east are entirely coming from Islam, which is irrational on its face considering that there really are devout Muslims who are gentle and nonviolent human beings and not violent psycho-pathological killers. New Atheists assume all religion exists on a sliding crazy scale, and the more “devout” one is the more extreme, crazy, and potentially dangerous one is, but it actually doesn’t work that way. As I observed in the book,

Violent religious factions around the globe appear to share some characteristics, and one of these is a tendency to disregard doctrines that counsel putting away hatred and avoiding violence. In fact, the more radical and violent the group, the less likely the fanatics are to accept their religion’s doctrines in any holistic way. Instead, they tend to make a fetish out of some doctrines, usually those involving enforcement of morality and respecting the religion’s deities and symbols, while ignoring deeper spiritual doctrines about humility and compassion. We can see this clearly in radical Islam, but the same tendencies are apparent in hyper-conservative Christianity and Judaism as well as in the militant Buddhist monks.

As I document at some length in the chapter on religious violence, “religious violence” never happens in a vacuum. If you look deeply and objectively at the episodes of religious violence around the world today and back through history, they are never just about religion. Violence happens during a confluence of particular cultural, social, political, historical, and sometimes religious factors, usually combining some kind of “holy cause” — which is not necessarily a religious one — with a fanatical grievance, an unshakable belief that one has been wronged somehow and is entitled to get back at somebody for it, a belief that can manifest in many forms. Sometimes religion is a primary motivator, but more often, when religion is a factor at all, it’s used to package the rage and give atrocity a fig leaf of respectability.

Among New Atheism’s pet dogmas is the belief that religion is the cause of nearly all wars. I understand there is a massive tome called the Encyclopedia of Wars that analyzes wars, mentioned recently in a Timothy Egan column. “Of 1,723 armed conflicts documented in the three-volume ‘Encyclopedia of Wars,’” he says, “only 123, or less than 7 percent, involved a religious cause.” I would have guessed a bit higher than that, frankly, but I will assume that’s accurate.

New Atheists get around apparently non-religious reasons for war by equating all ideological fanaticism as “religious,” even when the fanaticism has a stated anti-religious basis, as in Communism.  In the late Christopher Hitchens’s largely ridiculous book God Is Not Great, Hitch supported his argument that religion is the root of all evil essentially by classifying things he disapproved of as religious and those he approved of as not religious. Thus, Mao Zedong was religious, but Martin Luther King wasn’t. And Hitch believed himself to be entirely rational.

Islam actually is a hugely diverse tradition in which scripture and teachings are interpreted and practiced many different ways, which means anyone who ever speaks of Islam as if it were one monolithic thing should automatically be dismissed as ignorant. And if you can’t see the many historical, cultural, social and political factors fueling violence in the Muslim world, you are blind. There’s just no getting around that; you’ve got to be a blinkered idiot to assume Islam alone is the cause of the current madness. And since Sam Harris sees the world that way, I have to assume there’s something seriously wrong with him, and applied rational thinking isn’t it.

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