Sam Harris on problems with religious moderates and agnostics

July 14, 2006 | By | 8 Replies More

In the 2004 New York Times bestseller, The End of Faith, Sam Harris wrote that

…120 million of us place the big bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer. If our polls are to be trusted, nearly 230 million Americans believe that a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent deity.

Harris, author of the Atheist manifesto, was interviewed by Truthdig.com.  Despite the above-described unsubstantiated beliefs of many theists, it is somehow the atheists who have become “America’s least trusted minority group, “trusted less than Muslims, recent immigrants and homosexuals.”

Harris lays much of the blame for the success of fundamentalists on religious moderates, whose “political correctness” serves to protect long-overdue criticism of the fundamentalists:

religious moderates are giving cover to fundamentalists because of the respect that moderates demand of faith-based talk. Religious moderation doesn’t allow us to say the really critical things we must say about the abject stupidity of religious fundamentalism. And as a result, it keeps fundamentalism in play, and fundamentalists make very cynical and artful use of the cover they’re getting by the political correctness in our discourse.

Harris also takes aim at those who call themselves “agnostic,” because they are not “intellectually honest.”  Per Harris, agnostics refuse to disavow claims for which there isn’t a drop of evidence.

[E]veryone is walking around presuming to know that there isn’t a Zeus, there isn’t a Poseidon, and there isn’t a Thor. Can you prove that Thor with his hammer isn’t sending down lightning bolts? No, you can’t prove it. But that’s not the right question. The right question is, “Is there any reason whatsoever to think there’s a god named Thor?” And of course there isn’t. There are many good reasons to think that he was a fictional character. The Batman of Scandinavia. The problem for religious people is that the god of the Bible is on no firmer footing, epistemologically, than these dead gods. Which is to say that nobody ever discovered that Thor doesn’t exist, but that the biblical god really does. So we have learned to talk and use the word ‘god’ in a way so as not to notice that we’re using a very strange word and evoking a very vacuous concept, like the concept of Thor.

Harris also points out that religion is treated differently in many places outside of the United States.  In America, there is “a thriving marketplace of ignorance.”  For instance, in the U.S., “83 percent of people believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead, while the Swedes are living in a society where basically that same percentage of people are atheists.”

Click here to see the full interview at Truthdig.com.

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Category: American Culture, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (8)

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  1. John says:

    Interesting. I believe that Harris was interviewed on the Colbert Report several weeks ago. I seem to remember the comment that everyone is atheist in relation to some god or other (the example used was, I think, Zeus or Thor).

  2. J_Fritch says:

    Last I read Atheism was belief in no deity. not disbelief in certain/specific deities.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    John: In Breaking the Spell (p. 210), Daniel Dennett cites Richard Dawkins: "We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."

    J_Fritch: Isn't disbelief in All specific deities the same as belief in no deity? I would suspect that almost all people calling themselves atheists would qualify on both accounts. But perhaps I am missing your point?

  4. Sujay says:

    As much of an agnostic as I am, I have to agree with many of the claims made here. Agnositicism is no excuse to keep quiet on important issues. To me, what is more important is the tone of statement.

    For instance, on the evolution debate, a statement such as the one below would be fine by me :

    "Evolution is supported by much more scientific evidence than Creationism. In fact Creationism relies purely on negative evidence. Hence these must be not treated equally. In fact, Creationism has such little support, it does not even warrant a mention in school books."

    This, to me, is much better than "Do not give in to the lunacy and abject stupidity of religious fundamentalism." For all you know, religious fundamentalism might just be 'lunacy', but I would buy it only when properly backed up with facts. Atheism, does have to be justification for vileness, or major leaps in logic while expressing oneself. Does it?

  5. J_Fritch says:

    To Erich: Forgive me for not going in depth with my post. I was about to fall asleep. I meant to say that Atheism is disbelief in all deities. Belief in one or more deities means you are not an atheist (i do not mean you personally).

    I do not follow the bible, I am neither Christian, nor Catholic, however I am not an Atheist. I do not follow Buddah, or Shiva, nor do I follow Jahova [spelling?]. That does not make me an Atheist. I am Pagan, and I believe in deities of earth, air, fire and water.

    Atheism is belief in no deities. Not disbelief in all except __________ (fill in the blank)

  6. J_Fritch says:

    When a discussion about evolution vs. creation/intelligent design comes up I am forced to remember a certain moth in england.

    Shortly before the industrial age there were these white moths on the white trees. Blended in very nicely. Industrial age hits, smoke and stuff comes and lands on the trees, turning them black. The white moths get picked off by birds, so they slowly and over a few generations turn black.

    Then, industrial age ends, trees turn white again, and uh-oh! Black moths are getting eaten left and right! So, poof, evolution steps back in and in a few generations the moths are white again.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    J_Fritch: Those who fear the consequences of evolution have developed an entire lore around the peppered moth. It only seems like such a straight-forward story, they claim. Here's an example of how they work really hard to attempt to destroy a simple naturalistic phenomenon, stirring in ad hominem attacks along the way. They also claim, with impatience, that the process that (they would say "allegedly") changed colors of a population of moths could not possibly change a reptilian jaw bone into a mammalian ear bone, for instance. They work hard to distinguish "macro" and "micro" evolution, as though these two things (changing features versus changing species) don't represent the same basic process viewed over different time frames.

    For a (notably self-critical) scientific view of the peppered moth issue, see here.

    Why do I prefer the scientific view on this issue? It's easy. As is their wont, those who fear evolution spend great energy finding small gaps and inconsistencies in the science story (science, of course, usually admits its own pimples and even points them out –that's how the creationists learn about them). These same creationists, on the other hand, spend enormous energy refusing to recognize the gargantuan gaps in their own story.  For instance, ask them why Jesus of Galilea is not discussed in any Christian (or non-Christian) writings for at least 40 years following the alleged death of Jesus.  How could it possibly be that the birth and miracles of Jesus wouldn't even be mentioned for 40 years after his death? It's not because his followers wouldn't have been interested in such information. To read more about this huge gap, see here and here.

    Tiny inconsistencies in the peppered moth observations? "Huge problem." Huge inconsistencies documenting whether the Epistles are even about Jesus (as opposed to stories about a heavenly Christ)? "Tiny problem."  Actually, why stop there?  "NO problem," they universally say, contradicting this enormous gap in the "most important Book in the world," a book most of them rarely read.  If you think I'm being harsh, just quiz your favorite five Christians on some of the basic facts of the bible and see the extent to which most of them are actually familiar with that book.  To me, that's another HUGE inconsistency, demonstrated by the same people who quibble with a fairly straight-forward (though not perfect) observation about moths.

    Those who take the time to be self-critical spend real effort to work out their own inconsistencies.  They tend to have a rather uniform skepticism "thermostat."  In other words, first rate thinkers don't revel in selective nihilism.  Creationists, on the other hand, are always cranking their skepticism thermostats up and down, all day long.  They crank it up whenever they don't want to believe the Earth is more than 6,000 years old or when they don't want to believe that the decreasing efficiency of antibiotics is a result of evolution.  When their preacher tells them that a virgin had a baby, though, they crank down that thermostat while shrugging and mumbling "What problem?"

    The peppered moth, then, is yet another portal (one of many) into that topsy-turvy alleged debate into which creationists have dragged real scientists . . . you know . . . the kinds of scientists that help design airplanes that really fly and drugs that really save lives.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    J_Fritch: Thanks for the clarification on "atheism." I do understand your point now. Richard Dawkins was making the point that with regard to EACH of those gods in which you don't believe, you are an atheist. Admittedly, you might not (if you believed in one God out of the 6,000 possible types of God in which one can believe) really be an atheist, as that term is normally used.

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