Friday, September 21, 2012

Why Sam Harris is a second-rate thinker, at best

I'm taking a temporary break from examining the ravings of Cotton Mather to examine the ravings of one of the heroes of the so-called "New Atheist" movement, Sam Harris.

To be a "New" Atheist you can't just disbelieve in deities and magic and all other varieties of woo. You have to be xenophobic too.

The New Atheists are so xenophobic, they actually privilege Christianity over other religions. Previously my go-to example was Richard Dawkins' statement in his book The God Delusion:
"There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death. I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse."
But as of September 19, 2012, Sam Harris has provided me with a much more stunning example:
 The spectrum between rational belief and self-serving delusion has some obvious increments: It is one thing to believe that Jesus existed and was probably a remarkable human being. It is another to accept, as most Christians do, that he was physically resurrected and will return to earth to judge the living and the dead. It is yet another leap of faith too far to imagine, as all good Mormons must, that he will work his cosmic magic from the hallowed ground of Jackson County, Missouri. 
That final, provincial detail matters. It makes Mormonism objectively less plausible than run-of-the-mill Christianity—as does the related claim that Jesus visited the “Nephites” in America at some point after his resurrection. The moment one adds seer stones, sacred underpants, the planet Kolob, and a secret handshake required to win admittance into the highest heaven, Mormonism stands revealed for what it is: the religious equivalent of rhythmic gymnastics.
He literally states that "Mormonism (is) objectively less plausible" than Christianity.  From which we can infer that Sam Harris believes that one set of myths is "objectively" more plausible than another.

Sam Harris actually thinks that because Mormons have additional myths related to the physical resurrection of Jesus, it makes Mormonism less believable than Christianity.

Harris must have only a vague acquaintance with the many and varied myths associated with Christianity, so if he wants to play "which religion is more implausible" I'm ready to go:
  • Mormons don't believe that Jesus' mother Mary was assumed into Heaven on her death. They think she just died like anybody else. 
So chalk one up for Mormons on the "more plausible" side.

Clearly this way lies madness. This is not atheism. This is bullshit disguised as atheism in the defense of xenophobia.

Previously I thought that New Atheists pulled the "Christianity is better" line exclusively against Islam. But here we see that Christianity is also claimed better than Mormonism.

So what does Mormonism and Islam have in common? They're less familiar to the New Atheists than Christianity. Because fundamentally, the New Atheists are conservatives, even if only Christopher Hitchens was obvious about it.

Harris claims to be a liberal in the post I link to:
I am no fan of Romney’s, and I would find the prospect of his presidency risible if it were not so depressing, but he did accurately detect the first bleats of fear in the Obama administration’s reaction to this crisis. Romney got the timing of events wrong—confusing, as many did, a statement made by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for an official government response to the murder of Americans in Libya. But the truth is that the White House struck the same note of apology, disavowing the offending speech while claiming to protect free speech in principle. It may seem a small detail, given the heat of the moment—but so is a quivering lip.
His view of the United States governments' standard diplomatic response to an international crisis is that it's appeasement - a view indistinguishable from that of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

To truly understand the New Atheist paranoid, xenophobic view of adherents of non Judeo-Christianity, consider Harris's statement in the same article I link to:
Some percentage of the world’s Muslims—Five percent? Fifteen? Fifty? It’s not yet clear—is demanding that all non-Muslims conform to the strictures of Islamic law.
Harris has no idea what percentage of the world's Muslims (there are 1.5 billion of them) are making this demand. He throws out as high as 50% but he has nothing to go on. But that doesn't stop him from making the convenient assumption that it is a significant, worrisome percentage.

There are fanatics in every religion. But it is the New Atheist party line to suggest that Islam is more likely to produce religious fanaticism. And their reason is very different from the one given by most anthropologists or sociologists: the socio-economic conditions in the parts of the world that happen to have a high percentage of Muslims.

No, the New Atheists actually believe that it is the mythology of Islam itself that produces violence.

You only need to have the most basic grasp of the history of Christianity to know that it was responsible for holy wars, burning witches, and the Inquisition.

And if you have any grasp of the foundations of logic it would occur to you: Christians believe in the "more plausible" doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Jesus just as much now as they did in the days of the Inquisition. And the raging homicidal Jehovah is, to this very day, in the Old Testament, advising his people on the best way to treat slaves; and wiping out entire cities. And so since the mythologies haven't changed, they can't have had any effect on the change in behavior of their believers.

It's not the mythologies that religious people believe in that make them violent. To paraphrase Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign - it's the socio-economy, stupid.

I would go so far as to suggest that evolutionary psychology is to blame for the Neo-con New Atheists's inability to admit to the socio-economic factors that control human behavior. Dawkins is a leading proponent of evolutionary psychology and Harris appears to believe in evolutionary ethics, although I have yet to link him to "evolutionary psychology" specifically. But a faith in what was once called sociobiology seems to be just as much a part of being a New Atheist as xenophobia. That's why, although Hitchens never actually bothered to learn the basics of the evolutionary psychology system, he argued, half-assed, that women were essentially not funny thanks to evolution.

Although evolutionary psychology proponents give lip service to nurture, in fact they are utterly reflexive about attributing everything to nature. As David Buller demonstrated when he pointed out that David Buss was claiming that female sexual slavery was an example of female sexual preference.

Although EPs sometimes claim that religion itself is an adaptation, that doesn't help much when you are claiming that some religions produce more virtuous behavior than others. And since EPs reflexively discount historical and socio-economic conditions as an explanation for human behavior, what do they have left to explain current events?

The term is "idealism." They don't examine the complex social conditions, they fall back on what the ideologies say.

For an important comparison of the competing explanation of the way human societies work, see R. Brian Ferguson's "Materialist, cultural and biological theories on why Yanomami make war." (the link will download a PDF) Although it's important to understand that while the New Atheists fall into the biological camp when it comes to explaining Yanomami warfare, they fall into the "cultural" camp - a better term is "idealist" - when it comes to explaining religions. They look at what the culture claims about itself, not the socio-economic infrastructure that shaped the culture. And Ferguson, Marvin Harris and I fall into the "materialist" camp, sometimes known as cultural materialism.

But whether EP is to blame or not, there is no excuse for someone who apparently makes a living as a public atheist intellectual to display such astoundingly shoddy thinking when it comes to the relative "plausibility" of religions.

And it's truly embarrassing to me as an atheist for Sam Harris to be touted as some kind of intellectual superstar of atheism. He's a second-rate thinker, at best.

Excellent article in The Nation about how Sam Harris, in addition to Hitchens, made common cause with the Bush administration.