And another thing…
My exchange with Sam Harris below has attracted some interesting comment on the Reason Project site. While it is natural that a web site like that one will have its share of cheerleaders, I’m heartened that there were several rather more thoughtful and even-handed comments than the posting of my original Nature article in the ‘Hall of Shame’ seemed to provoke. (Incidentally, now that the Hall of Shame has had a bit longer to develop, it seems clearer what kind of articles it will contain: anything that fails to match up to Sam’s uncompromising position. It’ll be a crowded hall.)
I have been thinking a little more about Sam’s last set of comments, and in particular the remark that ‘A person cannot (or least should not be able to) believe something because it “makes him feel better.” ’ I don’t want to fall for the tendency, which I saw in much of Sam’s comments, to plump always for the ‘worse case’ interpretation of any remark that permits of more than one. But I do wonder what he is implying here. It is hard to see it as anything other than an injunction that ‘you should not be free to choose what you believe.’ I guess that if all Sam mean is that we should not leave people so ill-informed that they have no reasonable basis on which to make those decisions, then fair enough. But it does seem to go further – to say that ‘you should not be permitted to choose what you believe, simply because it makes you feel better.’ Doesn’t this sound a little like a Marxist denouncement of ‘false consciousness’, with the implication that it needs to be corrected forthwith? I think (I hope?) we can at least agree that there are different categories of belief - that to believe one’s children are the loveliest in the world because that makes you feel better is a permissible (even laudable) thing. But I slightly shudder at the notion, hinted here, that a well-informed person should not be allowed to choose their belief freely. This doesn’t mean that we should desist from trying to persuade them of alternatives (so long as we do not do so with incessant and intemperate hectoring). And it doesn’t mean we must approve of their attempting to persuade others to share their belief. But surely we cannot let ourselves become proscriptive to this degree?
Although it seems to have perhaps flushed out Sam’s intolerance, however, I must say that my suggestion that for someone to believe in a religious doctrine “because it helps them in life and makes them feel better” … “seems a pretty good reason” isn’t the most transparent way I might have put it. Here, at least, Sam’s interpretation, while by no means unique, is not perverse. That’s to say, I can see how someone might imagine me to be implying not (as intended) that such behaviour is understandable, in a certain sense rational, and can in itself be socially tolerated, but that it is valid in some abstract logical way. All the more so given that this appears to be the only criterion of ‘correct behaviour’ Sam will accept. So let me be more explicit: I see no reason to try to argue out of their point of view someone who quietly and thoughtfully holds a religious faith that offers them support and solace in their life.
This raises the issue of whether or not we should actually approve of such a decision. I am honestly not sure how to answer that. I guess I feel that someone who finds comfort in religion, rather than being oppressed by it or using it as a reason to be judgemental, bigoted or dogmatic, is, in my own terms, seemingly making good use of a belief that I happen not to share.
Sam says “for a belief to be justified, our acceptance of it must be dependent upon its actually being true”. I think his subsequent comment hints at his suspicion that philosophers would tear this statement apart. I believe there was a Big Bang. Is it true? There’s very good reason to think so – but that is utterly different from the Big Bang being true. To think otherwise is to misunderstand science badly (which is why I actually suspect Sam does not mean quite what he says here).
Sam thinks that ‘my religious friends’ (I am in fact not simply arguing from my experience with friends who have a religious belief) are mistaking hope for knowledge. He says “If these friends of yours are really religious—that is, really conforming to the doctrine of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.—they will have taken a further step toward delusion and mistaken this hope for a form of knowledge.” I have sad news, then, for ‘these friends of mine’: Sam Harris says you are not truly religious. Apparently Sam wants to ensure that ‘religious believers’ include only those people whose beliefs he can most easily attack. Well, that’s one way to win an argument, I suppose.