Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Finally on the Reason Project

Now that the dust has settled somewhat, I’m in a position to see what people made of my debate with Sam Harris. Most of the discussion seems to have happened on what it seems we are meant now to call New Atheist sites, such as richarddawkins.net and Pharyngula, so I guess there is, let’s say, a certain angle to it. But I have the impression that some people who follow this sort of thing have already decided which boxes exist, and it’s just a matter of determining which ones to put us in. Thus my position is characterised as that of an accommodationist who figures that religion is here to stay so we might as well make our peace with it. OK then, once more: I haven’t the faintest idea if religion is an inevitable aspect of human culture. Neither have you. Neither has Sam. So let’s, please, not bother ourselves about taking positions on that. What I say is that, thus far in history, religion or movements like it (Maoism, Stalinism, Nazism, to name a few of the ones that might make us glad of a cup of tea with the vicar) have tended to occur pretty much everywhere. I humbly suggest there might be something worth learning from that, and that this something perhaps amounts to a little more than that people are suckers for idols to worship (though that probably plays a role). I suggest that it might also derive from rather more than that people have just been given bad information. So what else is there to it? I’d hoped we might talk about that.

But I guess that if you shout in a crowded marketplace, you can’t expect much nuance to survive.

A lot of folks feared that I am out of touch with what religious people think, by which they seem to mean that I’m out of touch with what the religious people they know think. Religious people think an awful lot of different things. But one key question is whether, to make an analogy, we judge communism by Marx or by Stalin. Frankly, I’m undecided about that. Or another way: do we judge or music by Stravinsky, or Andrew Lloyd Webber? Or do you start to get the feeling that this is the wrong question? (However, I can’t help feeling we get closer to the core of music by considering Stravinsky.)

Inevitably, there is a lot one might say about Sam’s final response, appended to the end of our debate. From most, I will try hard to restrain myself. But I want to comment on one issue because it seems an interesting and revealing one. Sam says:

Let’s look more closely at Ball’s notion of life’s daunting complexity (from his last post):

You say ‘You do not seem to see what an astonishing number of the world’s conflicts and missed opportunities arise from people’s false knowledge about God’. Which are you going to cite – Northern Ireland? Iraq? The Crusades? If only it wasn’t for that pesky God and his offspring, all these places would have lived in blissful peace! The Taliban? – why, they’d be lovely folks if they weren’t Muslim extremists! How wonderful, how simple and easy, to be able to blame all these things on a false belief in gods! Gosh, this counterfactual history is easier than I ever imagined!

Sorry, facetiousness is no help. I am afraid that I fall into it here as a substitute for real anger, because I find it maddening to see the suggestion that sectarian violence in Belfast, tribal conflict in Iraq, Hindu-Muslim violence in India, and goodness knows how much else suffering in the world could be solved if we could just persuade people to give up their ridiculous faiths. I fully accept that it is no good either to simply say, as I know some do, ‘Oh, it’s only human nature, and religion is just the excuse.’ No, the truth is, sadly, much more complicated. And that is why I think the answers are too. But I have been left from our exchange with the feeling that ‘complicated’ is for you just a cop-out. I guess maybe that is where we fundamentally disagree. You seem to feel that any attempt to introduce into the debate considerations about culture, history, society and politics are unwelcome and even willfully deceitful diversions from the main business of demolishing religions for believing in things for which there is no evidence. That seems to be your ‘point’ – I’m afraid I simply can’t accept it.

This is the sort of stuff that could make a person angry all over again… Ball is trying have things both ways (as he was throughout our debate): on the one hand, the fundamental problem is NOT religion (and I’m a simpleton for thinking that it is); on the other, OF COURSE religion is sometimes involved, so he’s well aware of the problem of religion (and it’s very bad form for me not to acknowledge how clear he has been in his opposition to the bad effects of religious “extremism”). [PB: Is the notion that ‘religion is not the fundamental problem but that religious extremism often is a problem’ really ‘trying to have things both ways’, or just making a rather straightforward claim?] Okay… Let’s try to map this onto the world. Take the Taliban for starters: Who does Ball imagine the Taliban would be if they weren’t “Muslim extremists”? They are, after all, Homo sapiens like the rest of us. Let’s change them by one increment: wave a magic wand and make them all Muslim moderates… Now how does the world look? Do members of the Taliban still kill people for adultery? Do they still throw acid in the faces of little girls for attempting to go to school? No. The specific character of their religious ideology—and its direct and unambiguous link to their behavior—is the most salient thing about the Taliban. In fact, it is the most salient thing about them from their own point of view. All they talk about is their religion and what it obliges them to do…

Would there be conflict over land and other resources without religion? Yes. Are there other forms of tribalism and in-group/out-group thinking that have nothing to do with religion? Of course. But what seems to me to be undeniable, is that there are countless instances of terrible things done (and noble things left undone) because of specific religious beliefs. Some of the conflicts Ball cites would not have occurred (or would have been vastly ameliorated) without the influence of religion. A million people died during the partitioning of India and Pakistan. Would a million people have died if there had been Hindus on both sides? Very likely not. In fact, it is doubtful that the subcontinent would have been partitioned in the first place. Would the violence in Iraq be the same if it were all Sunni or all Shiite? Of course not. (The country may even be more coherently united against its western occupiers, but that is another matter, and one that is also energized by religious difference).

The first thing to notice is that here Sam seems to imply the same view as I hold, namely that what is objectionable about a group like the Taliban is not that they are religious but that they are religious zealots who believe their religion compels them to throw acid in little girls’ faces. If that problem can be solved by waving a wand and turning them into moderates (we’ll come back to that…), isn’t that what we’d really want? Do we really then need to worry too that they are then Muslim moderates and not atheists?

This highlights a persistent problem I’ve felt in our debate. It seems that Sam objects both to the fact that such people are dangerous religious fanatics and that they are religious. I object only to the first (so long as neither group tries to foist their belief on others, and I fully recognize that some do try). This position seems guaranteed to make Sam consider that I am being selective and wanting it both ways – ‘oh, of course I object to that, but not to this’. Anyone who sits between two poles is bound to be accused of looking both ways. But I don’t see why this position need be so problematic, nor inconsistent. Sam seems in this example to hint that it is a tenable one, at least insofar as it addresses the issue that perhaps concerns both him and me most of all: the use of religion for oppressive and violent ends.

But Sam’s example and solution here reveal the crux of my argument about culture and society. Clearly he believes it is possible to be a Muslim without feeling the need to throw acid in people’s faces. In other words, the chosen religion of the Taliban does not compel them to believe as they do. It is their particular (mis)interpretation of that religion which does that. What this suggests to me is that the problem is not (in this case) Islam but that certain groups elect to adopt extreme and oppressive interpretations of it. The same is true, of course, for other religions: some Christians feel that their belief compels them to be pacifists, others that it compels them to shoot abortion doctors. My point is then that surely what is important is to understand why some cultural groups adopt one interpretation and some another. In the case of the Taliban, one clear aspect of their belief is that it commends the oppression of women. This is very obviously not a uniquely religious imperative, and so I suspect the real problem here is why a particular set of cultural circumstances have led this group to take a misogynist attitude while other circumstances allow another group, reading from the same book, to act otherwise.

Look at it another way. Sam suggests a thought experiment (that magic wand) in which we alter nothing about the Taliban but their inclination to interpret Islam in violent and oppressive ways. My view is that this has no real meaning. Of course it would solve the problem if we could take a bunch of zealots and simply pluck out their zealotry. But is it likely that one could do so? Isn’t the source of that zealotry likely to be found in a broader range of social, historical and cultural factors, given that it is evidently not an inevitable aspect of their religious book? And purely from a pragmatic view, isn’t it more likely that we might find ways of encouraging the spread of religious moderates than that we can hope to stamp out the religion entirely while needing to make no other social or cultural changes?

The comment about Sunni and Shiite sects in Iraq is particularly revealing. So Sam thinks this is basically an argument not between different tribal factions but about people who think that they need to kill one another because of a disagreement over who was Mohammed’s true successor? And presumably Protestants kill Catholics in Northern Ireland because the Catholics fail to heed Martin Luther?

There’s plenty more, but I think an awful lot resides in Sam’s assertion that it is “the people who spend all their time reading the Qur’an and the hadith, seeking fatwas for the their every action, and long to die as martyrs in the jihad because they are certain that every word of scripture is true” who are the ‘deeply religious’ ones. To Sam, being ‘deeply religious’ is apparently about how strongly you feel and how well you can recite your Holy Book, not about how well you understand it or how wisely you use it. It is, to return to my earlier metaphor, the people who weep at Lloyd Webber musicals who are the most ‘deeply musical’. From that starting point, I guess it’s inevitable that we wouldn’t find much convergence.

This, however, leads Sam to raise some interesting questions while apparently thinking them to be rhetorical and not questions at all. “Is the Pope a sufficient representative of Catholicism—or is he too “superficial”? Does he not “know his theology”?” Well Sam, what do you think? Does he? I’m not sure you have the faintest idea. The question doesn’t answer itself simply because he is the Pope. Whose theology, in any event? “Did Aquinas or Augustine know theirs?”, Sam asks. But Aquinas didn’t always agree with Augustine. Does Rowan Williams agree with the Pope on the interpretation of Augustine’s notion of original sin? I’d be surprised if he did. Does Augustine’s ‘original sin’ agree with what is said in the Bible? Some theologists think not. I am well aware of the attitude of “who gives a damn anyway, because they’re all wrong”, and I can appreciate why someone might say that. But I find it hard to see how one can truly argue against ‘religious belief’ without some notion of the range of what that belief is, and the merits of each.

Sadly, (honestly, it pains me) one other thing has to be mentioned. Sam addresses the complaint “Why didn’t you admit that you misinterpreted—and, therefore, unfairly attacked—Ball’s original article?”, by saying “I didn’t admit this because I don’t believe it to be true—as evidenced by virtually everything Ball has written subsequently.”

I was happy to let this go, really I was – but Sam wants to return to it again (like the compulsion to return to the scene of the crime?). This is really so simple. Sam’s letter to Nature claimed “Mr. Ball assures us that … there is no deeper contradiction to be found between scientific rationality and religious faith. “ I pointed out that I made no such statement, and that I didn’t think it was true. So: no misinterpretation? Sam went on: “As evidence of this underlying harmony, we are asked to contemplate the existence of The BioLogos Foundation” I pointed out that I didn’t offer any endorsement of the BioLogos Foundation, and didn’t wish to do so. I then called them ‘irenic’; Sam didn’t seem to know what this meant, but when I explained that, he moved swiftly on...

Certainly, the debate we had subsequently showed that we disagree over many things, and that Sam feels I am far too tolerant of religion. Fine. But on the issue of whether my article was misinterpreted in Sam’s letter to Nature, there really is no question. It is all there in black and white. Ah, but you see, Sam says “What I was hoping to avoid, and what Ball continually tried to provoke, was a tit-for-tat style of debate—you said I said X, but what I really said (or meant) was Y. Such exchanges are deadly boring.” Oh, too true. But when you get things wrong, you may be called upon to say so.

Finally, “All of Ball’s specific complaints about my misinterpreting his original article struck me as spurious.” But he will not say why. I think the reason is now pretty plain.

There is another way I could respond to this, which is to point out that Sam wants all scientists who are religious believers to be sacked from their departments and stripped of their qualifications. Of course Sam will respond by saying that he has never said anything of the sort, but I will simply say that the truth of my assertion is “evidenced by virtually everything Harris has written” and that to discuss the details would be too boring.

The fact is that this is all indeed a minor matter, and could have been easily dealt with by a brief acknowledgement that would allow us to move on. But Sam seems to have a real fear of making any concession whatsoever – a sign of a brittle position? – which regrettably turns this into an issue of intellectual honesty.

However, however. The truly sad thing about this exchange is that it has turned into adversaries two people who are unambiguously atheist, deplore the encroachment of creationism and fundamentalism, and are deeply opposed to the oppressive and anti-intellectual practices of some religious groups. I entered into this debate believing that we would find some way of agreeing to disagree. I leave it feeling that the kind of hardline atheism Sam espouses is, in its unyielding purism, potentially undermining of the very aims it claims to have.


Archduke Chocula said...

"Ball is trying have things both ways (as he was throughout our debate): on the one hand, the fundamental problem is NOT religion (and I’m a simpleton for thinking that it is); on the other, OF COURSE religion is sometimes involved, so he’s well aware of the problem of religion (and it’s very bad form for me not to acknowledge how clear he has been in his opposition to the bad effects of religious “extremism”)."

Isn't he presenting a silly false dichotomy here? He claims you're trying to have it "both ways", but I see no contradiction in the following statements

1) The fundamental problem is NOT religion
2) OF COURSE religion is sometimes involved

As I see it the most obvious conclusion of these two statments is the following: religion can be, and often is, a problem. But it is not the fundamental, ultimate problem - it is often proximate, in varying degrees, and often a mere variable in a more complex equation.

I see no way this can be intrepreted as "having it both ways" - it is logically consistent.

"What I was hoping to avoid, and what Ball continually tried to provoke, was a tit-for-tat style of debate—you said I said X, but what I really said (or meant) was Y."

You have already pointed out the obvious flaw in this approach, in that it allows one to attribute any such nonsense to someone without being held accountable for it. ("It's boring, let's not pause for the sake of accuracy!") "Garbage in, garbage out" as they say. And by dismissing the need for accuracy Sam is avoiding any quality control for "truth". Indeed, this seems to fly in the face of one of his coarser objectives - the elimination of falsehoods.

In other words, how can you complain about "garbage in, garbage out" if you are allowing garbage in? (Because it's too boring? Give me a break. Is he assuming that he is incapable of misinterpreting something and doesn't want to revisit something?)

JimmyGiro said...

Since Sam is one of the 'Horsemen of the Apocalypse', along with Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, I'm surprised his absolutism has not caused a rift with the others, who seem a fairly disparate bunch to start with.

Dan and Richard seem to be closest to each other, almost like a double act, and I'm sure that their use of meme in their talks to 'explain' the evolutionary mechanisms of religion could end up stumbling upon an 'evolutionary need'; and as someone once said: "Evolution is smarter than you".

Either way, I feel confident that as world events heat up, not least in America if and when they wake from the Obama daydream, the "New Atheism" will engender a self split in the atheist camp.

Is the New Atheism akin to the "Committee for Public Safety". Don't think that citizen, unless Sam Robespierre gives the nod.

Part of why I'm an atheist is that I don't care for people to do my thinking for me, not even by proxy, or with all the best will in the world, for the greater good of the people, blah blah blah. I reserve the right to make my own mistakes when it comes to politics, and atheism, new or old, is just politics, and will never be any more precious for that.

Colin said...

So, PB, you've developed your arguments pretty clearly and compellingly here.

I think there is a lot of clear blue water between your position and that of the hardline - irrational? - atheists as well as those like, say, Russell Stannard, who are scientists but want to accommodate God in their work.

Any chance of you writing a book exploring and further clarifying your arguments? An intelligent and rational corrective - or, dare I say it, third way - would do much to turn what has become a sterile debate into something worth engaging in.


Archduke Chocula said...

Few more thoughts...

Would there be conflict over land and other resources without religion? Yes. Are there other forms of tribalism and in-group/out-group thinking that have nothing to do with religion? Of course.

If we apply Sam's own standards, how is this NOT "having things both ways?" Hell, this is "having things both ways" squared! It's okay for him to have things both ways but not anybody else!

Would a million people have died if there had been Hindus on both sides? Very likely not.

Let's examine that claim.

Sam is arguing that without religion there would have only been N number of deaths. We'll call this the Natural death count. However since they were of different religions, the reality is there were N + R deaths. (R being the religious influence.) Reasonable enough.

But when Sam suggests there would have been less deaths were both sides Hindu he is arguing there would be less than N + R deaths. The obvious error here is that he is failing to consider that, were both sides Hindus, the possibility of N - R deaths. In otherwords, he is selectively highlighting the repulsive forces of religion while ignoring the attractive forces.

Philip Ball said...

Thank you all. Archduke, glad you can see my points. Jim, I suspect you're right that a rift looks likely - Chris Mooney ('Unscientific America') has already been expelled from the brotherhood because of his damnable 'accommodationism'. Colin - thanks for the vote of confidence, but it would be a grim task, not exactly thankless perhaps but calling down the deluge. That's not a good reason alone not to do it, but others are apparently doing so. I've not read Karen Armstrong's latest book, and judging from the reviews I won't agree with it all (if God is that ineffable, what is left to discuss, or to revere?) - but I'm sure she does a fine job of exposing the theological naivety of some New Atheism.

Mark Yoxon said...

Just thought I'd leave a comment in support of your admirably lucid and restrained contribution to a fist fight. ;)

I thought this particularly on-the-mark:
One somewhat frustrating aspect of this exchange for me has been that you seem to insist that any disagreement with your point of view is not genuine disagreement as such but is missing the point.

n_mcguire said...

I'm coming in late to this particular debate, but I've heard similar arguments in other forums. I have come to think that angry, absolutist atheism is just another form of religious extremism. (See Karen Armstrong's book, The Battle for God. She claims that fundamentalists of all religions have more in common with each other than with their more moderate co-religionists.) I have to wonder -- if all religious people were "moderate", would any of them have the passion necessary to build the soaring cathedrals, compose the majestic oratorios, build the schools, hospitals, etc etc etc that we hold up as the very best that our civilization has to offer? I belong to a religious humanist organization (where beilief in deities is strictly optional and largely beside the point), and frankly, I get a craving for a bit of baroque pipe organ now and then. I have taken to calling myself a "nontheist" to avoid being lumped in with angry either/or fundamentalism of the "new atheists".

Jhon said...

I feel confident that as world events heat up, not least in America if and when they wake from the Obama daydream, the "New Atheism" will engender a self split in the atheist camp.

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