The “arrogant claim” of Sam Harris that the universe just happened “by chance”

November 28, 2006 | By | 7 Replies More

Published here, you can read the ongoing lively debate between Sam Harris and Dennis Prager, who hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show. 

Here’s how Harris responded to the common claim that atheists are arrogant believers that everything “just happened”:

Atheism does not assert that “it is all made by chance.” No one knows why the universe came into being. Most scientists readily admit their ignorance on this point. Religious believers do not. One of the extraordinary ironies of religious discourse can be seen in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while condemning scientists and other nonbelievers for their intellectual arrogance. You have done a fine job of this above. And yet, there is no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: The Creator of the Universe takes an active interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend eternity in hell…

An average believer has achieved a level of arrogance that is simply unimaginable in scientific discourse—and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists.

Prager argues here that God’s existence is proved by the alleged lack of moral fiber found in secular societies.

My argument is that unlike Judeo-Christian America, secular societies—generally meaning those of Western Europe—lose their will to survive (by not reproducing), and stand for nothing (they were largely morally worthless in the Cold War against Communism and are worthless or worse in helping to keep Israel alive against Muslims who vow to exterminate the Jewish state.) When people realize this, they may conclude that something that is necessary for society to survive—belief in the God of Israel—may in fact exist.Judeo-Christian Values?

Although Prager’s examples are clouded by numerous confounding variables, I find this to be an interesting issue. Atheists certainly aren’t as willing as Believers to pick up guns to impose their philosophical viewpoint on others.  For example, there haven’t been any atheist Inquisitions.  On the other hand, doesn’t a strong shared religious belief system provide an advantage to a community that is forced to defend itself against an external enemy?   Consider, for instance, the melding of religious and political outlook in post 9/11 America.  It brings to mind David Sloan Wilson’s suggestion (in Darwin’s Cathedral) that religion can serve to coordinate numerous individuals into a socially cohesive super-entity, similar to the way in which human cells cohere into human bodies. 

I’m suggesting that societies that are religiously charged-up might be better socially coordinated and, therefore, more effective than secular societies at carrying out warfare.  I’m not suggesting that such an advantage (to the extent that it really exists) makes a society smarter.  In fact, probably the opposite.  Where action is emphasized, thought is de-emphasized.  Highly religious societies are (I believe) much more likely to do things like demonizing and attacking the wrong country (e.g., Iraq).  I don’t agree, then, that Prager’s data set proves his point (that secular societies “have less will to survive”), but I think that the point is worthy of further consideration.  Maybe I’d term it this way:  Do theists make better fighters?  To avoid confusion, whether or not God actually exists is an entirely separate question.

The argument between Harris and Prager often returns to the burden of proof.   Who bears the burden of proof on whether God exists?  Skeptics often cite Carl Sagan’s “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  In this particular debate, Harris cites Bertrand Russell’s orbiting China teapot example

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Using his own burdern of proof argument, Prager ends with a quote by Rabbi Milton Steinberg:

“The believer in God has to account for the existence of unjust suffering; the atheist has to account for the existence of everything else.”

And that is why your task, Sam, is infinitely greater than mine.


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Category: American Culture, Good and Evil, Iraq, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, War

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 (7)

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  1. Jason Rayl says:

    Will to survive…

    As what?

    The problem with Prager–and those like him–is that he is unwilling to question whether the entity he is attempting to preserve–a vital State–is actually worth saving. Nationalism has been at the root of most of the catastrophic human calamities of the 20th Century, and appears to be staking a good claim to being so for the 21st. If The State is such a great idea, why is it that it seems to cost so much in blood and suffering to maintain it?

    Rather than criticize Europe for being a continent of gutless wonders–which is his implication–maybee instead he should consider the idea that they are evolving their societies beyond the need for Nationlist credos which substitute bloody-minded Us vs Them policies for genuine problem solving.

    The test for Prager seems to be whether or not we're willing–as a people–to go kick somebody around to prove our mettle. Schoolyard childishness at its worst–except we, as a nation, can do it much better, till thousands die.

    By the way, I would argue that the Greatest Generation–you know, the folks who whipped Hitler and Tojo and then built the greatest economy ever–was a product of a secular society. There has never been a state religion in this country and aside from the lip-service of several presidents, until the 60s and 70s people managed to keep their politics and religion separate.

  2. Bill says:

    We (atheists) need to stop using the teapot example. It's not reconcilable to the notion of God. It may be reconcilable to the specific God, but to an ultimate conscious beginning of the Universe and a potential transcendent meaning to life. No teapot can be divised for such purposes, God can. Personally I like the idea that God was created in the image of mankind to account for well "the existence of everything else" and then somehow connect this with suffering which simply is a part of life just or unjust.

    As far as motivation for defense and warfare. I'd say it can be religious or secular. Atheists are attacked all the time for the attrocities led by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and that Chinese guy. The motivation for these horrendous crimes was as Sam Harris points out idealogical and dogmatic in nature. While there wasn't some sort of religious paradise or Godly purpose behind them, I think there was a fictitious yet conceivable goal to the public and an allegiance to state that enabled strong motivation, a sort of earthly paradise that put their state or idealogy at the forefront.

    I agree with Sam Harris and his claim of religious arrogance.

  3. Martian says:

    It's actually been pretty well demonstrated that secular nations are in general far better off than religious nations.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    I've thought some more about Prager's claim that staunch believers are willing to stand up and fight for what is good and moral. But they apparently fight more in general, committing more spouse abuse and child abuse than those who aren't fundamentalists. Here's an article describing some of the relevant research.

    The site discusses The Tragedy of Wife Abuse in the Christian Home (1989) by James and Phyllis Alsdurf. That research suggests that "the probability of wife abuse increases with the rigidity of a church's teachings, especially teachings pertaining to gender roles and hierarchy." Fundamentalism has also been found to hamper the process of helping battered women.

    Another study found that membership in a fundamentalist Protestant church is not a predictor of marital satisfaction. Even PK itself, despite its opposition to divorce, reports that 20 percent of the men who attended the group's first eight stadium conferences this year described themselves in surveys as either "divorced" or "remarried."

    Fundamentalist parents are more likely to use of corporal punishment on their children.

    "Parents who hold that the Bible is inerrant spanked or slapped their toddler or preschooler (aged one to four years) .884 times more per week (or nearly fifty times more each year) and are 50 percent more likely to have spanked or slapped their grade-school-aged child than nonfundamentalist parents."

    Another study cited found that "the strongest predictor of corporal punishment is religious affiliation, with Baptist affiliation having a greater direct effect on the frequency of spankings than gender, race, size of residence, age, and parents' social class."

    Here are the author's conclusions:

    This link between corporal punishment and fundamentalism builds on consistent findings that fundamentalists tend to be authoritarians. To measure this, Bob Altemeyer's Right-wing Authoritarianism scale is generally accepted as reliable. As discussed in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1995) by Gary Leak and Brandy Randall, "individuals who score high on the RWA scale are prone to aggress against unpopular or unconventional groups, feel morally superior and self-righteous, possess a mean-spiritedness that is coupled with vindictiveness and a `secret pleasure' when others experience misfortune, and appear prejudiced toward out-groups."

    Given the indiscriminativeness of authoritarians' prejudice, Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger labeled them "equal-opportunity bigots, disliking all `different' people regardless of race, creed, or color." Research by Linda Wylie and James Forest of the University of Manitoba also found that authoritarianism is highly correlated with religious fundamentalism and an important predictor of racial and ethnic prejudice, homophobia, and punitiveness. Lee Kirkpatrick at the College of William and Mary surveyed college students and found that "fundamentalism was correlated more positively than Christian orthodoxy" with discriminatory attitudes toward blacks, women, homosexuals, and communists.

    Therefore, willingness to fight for one's country is coupled with more aggression in general.

  5. Thanks for the information linking abusiveness to Christians. For my own safety, I will remember to associate with heathens only from now on. 😛


  6. Deb says:

    I found the study cited by Martin to be fascinating, and extremely useful. THanks for pointing that out.

    I'm a 'born-again heretic' meaning I was part of fundamentalist Christianity for years. I began to actually think about it when I noticed how badly Christians treat others, even other Christians, and the number of scams they perpetrate using the church. I think I've mentioned this before, but my favorite example is the scheme one church member described to me, where he was the victim of a scheme that had been perpetrated against him by another member of his congregation. When he went to the pastor to complain, the pastor replied that he had received other complaints about the same member, but that he didn't want to get involved. So the pastor left the cheater's business card on the church bulletin board, allowing the victimizing to continue, the pastor's version of 'not getting involved.'

    So it has only been the last few years that I have been 'out of the fold' and subject to the comments made against non religious (or in my case anti-religious) persons. I was amazed to hear that people thought I had lost all my morals when I cast religion aside. It had never occurred to me, even as a religious person, that nonbelievers did not have morals. I just thought they had a different source (maybe just a sense of right and wrong). Imagine my surprise to learn that suddenly (at least to me), I'm immoral.

    If I am immoral because I do not subscribe to organized religion, my immorality is better and 'gooder' than than theirs. I don't post business cards up in the grocery store hoping to connive some poor soul into giving me their money.

  7. tithulta says:

    “The believer in God has to account for the existence of unjust suffering; the atheist has to account for the existence of everything else.”

    And that is why your task, Sam, is infinitely greater than mine.

    -Rabbi Milton Steinberg:

    Unfortunately for you, Milton, if Sam Harris is wrong, it does not make your beliefs right. Good start, though.

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