Sam Harris Takes On Everything

I’m seeing Sam Harris’ name everywhere. First it was Newsweek and “The New Naysayers.” Then it was Wired Magazine and “The New Atheists.” (Do these magazines share writers?) Now it’s Newsweek again.

On his new platform, Sam Harris rehashes his book The End of Faith (or Letter to a Christian Nation; doesn’t matter, they’re essentially the same) for election day, beginning with this idiotic assertion: “It is, of course, taboo to criticize a person’s religious beliefs.” Attention religious police! Sam Harris is criticizing religious belief again! Or maybe he’s just confusing America with Iran.

Sam Harris really likes assertions. But that’s the way emotivism works. The best emotivists are those who can make the most infallible-sounding assertions the loudest. It goes like this: “You idiot. I can’t believe you believe that stuff. No one believes that anymore. None of that is true; you know it and I know it.” That may be how college professors work with naďve freshmen, but it’s not all that helpful for civilized conversation. Alisdair MacIntyre cites one description of how emotivists function:

“In practice, victory was with those who could speak with the greatest appearance of clear, undoubting conviction and could best use the accents of infallibility” and [John Maynard] Keynes goes on to describe the effectiveness of [emotivists G.E.] Moore’s gasps of incredulity and head-shaking, of [Lyton] Strachey’s grim silences and of Lowes Dickinson’s shrugs. (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 17)

Not that Harris is interested in civilized conversation or actual argument. Here’s one of his assertions: “Consequently, religious people will devote immense energy to so-called moral problems—such as gay marriage—where no real suffering is at issue, and they will happily contribute to the surplus of human misery if it serves their religious beliefs.” C’mon Sam, “no real suffering”? Right, and AIDS has no symptoms and helps its victims to live a full and productive life of 90+ years.

His big example in this regard is embryonic stem cell research, which should play well with the destroy-human-embryos crowd in Missouri.

A case in point: embryonic-stem-cell research is one of the most promising developments in the last century of medicine. [Adult stem cells, what are those?] It could offer therapeutic breakthroughs for every human ailment (for the simple reason that stem cells can become any tissue in the human body), including diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, severe burns, etc. In July, President George W. Bush used his first veto to deny federal funding to this research. He did this on the basis of his religious faith. Like millions of other Americans, President Bush believes that “human life starts at the moment of conception.” Specifically, he believes that there is a soul in every 3-day-old human embryo, and the interests of one soul—the soul of a little girl with burns over 75 percent of her body, for instance—cannot trump the interests of another soul, even if that soul happens to live inside a petri dish. Here, as ever, religious dogmatism impedes genuine wisdom and compassion.

First of all, the President never referenced “his religious faith” in his veto. But that’s not good enough for Harris. He can find nefarious motives at work whenever Christians are involved. (Besides, we all know what Bush was really thinking.) But I’m convinced that Harris just hates Christians. Maybe he got run over by a Corpus Christi parade when he was little. Who knows. By the way, it doesn’t matter what he says; I know what he’s really thinking.

But you can’t really argue with ideological atheists like Harris. It’s no surprise that Harris and Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion) use research on human embryos as a test case. Of course evolution proves that there is a continuum on which both humans and animals lie. Thus, there can be no substantial distinction. After all, if we use “other animals” for experimentation, why not humans? Naturally, their logic doesn’t run the other way–they’re perfectly happy with a ban on all research on animals while encouraging research on humans.

The President finds his way into Harris’ scope once again.

Believing that God has delivered you unto the presidency really seems to entail the belief that you cannot make any catastrophic mistakes while in office. One question we might want to collectively ponder in the future: do we really want to hand the tiller of civilization to a person who thinks this way?

This kind of hyperbole might work in the choir loft, but it’s got nothing to do with actual logic. Whatever Pres. Bush might believe about his decisions, nothing whatsoever about mistakes, catastrophic or otherwise, follows from believing you are where God has put you. How does that even make sense? If I believe that God has put me into this marriage with this woman, does that entail–does it even “really seem” to entail–that I cannot make mistakes in my marriage?

This is what passes for moral debate these days. As if emotivistic assertions–describing Harris’ wishes and desires–have any objective truth to them. He uses sentences that appear to carry meaning about morality, but they are really only worth what use he can derive from them, namely, supporting his thesis that religion is dangerous. Meaning and use have long been separated in moral discourse, but Harris ignores the separation.

“Religion is the one area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give good evidence and valid arguments in defense of their strongly held beliefs,” he writes. One could substitute “Harris’ brand of moral argument” for “religion” in this sentence, and not lose anything. That’s precisely because it is no longer possible, after the Enlightenment, to move from “fact” to “evaluation.” He’s got no good evidence and no valid arguments to give in support of his conception of morality and where it comes from. Just read his book. Sure, you can agree with him, if you feel like it.

His default position on morality is that our human “intuition” tells us what is right and wrong. (If he knew more about what he’s criticizing, he might recognize this, in a Christian framework, as “Natural Law.”) In After Virtue (which Harris significantly omits from his bibliography), MacIntyre wrote:

Twentieth-century moral philosophers have sometimes appealed to their and our intuitions; but one of the things that we ought to have learned from the history of moral philosophy is that the introduction of the word “intuition” by a moral philosopher is always a signal that something has gone badly wrong with an argument. (After Virtue, 69)

Forgetting for the moment that it would be wild exaggeration to call Harris a “moral philosopher,” he seems not to have noticed that his arguments about morality were destroyed twenty-five years ago. Intuitionism and Emotivism are not valid moral foundations.

He is right about one thing, though, as usual, he misses the irony. “Consequently, we are living in a world in which millions of grown men and women can rationalize the violent sacrifice of their own children by recourse to fairy tales.” Fairy tales, he neglects to mention, such as “scientific progress,” “curing all diseases,” and “bioethics.”

I think his conclusion, slightly modified, will work here.

We are living in a world in which millions of [unbelievers] hope to soon be raptured into the stratosphere by [Science] so that they can safely enjoy a sacred genocide that will inaugurate the end of human history. In a world brimming with increasingly destructive technology, our infatuation with [scientistic] myths now poses a tremendous danger. And it is not a danger for which [less] religious faith is a remedy.