Sunday, October 07, 2012

Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and all the other "new atheists" need to start providing better evidence for their bigotry

I cited the Jackson Lears Nation essay on Sam Harris in my recent post about Harris in reference to his support for Bush administration activities. 

But I didn't read the entire piece carefully then and that was a mistake because it's a great article about what is wrong with Sam Harris. One thing I noticed is that Lears had a similar response to mine about Harris's blithe ignorance:
...But Harris is not interested in religious experience. He displays an astonishing lack of knowledge or even curiosity about the actual content of religious belief or practice, announcing that “most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths.”  
Harris claims that Mormonism is less "objectively plausible" than "run-of-the-mill Christianity" because he can think of a few extra myths that the Mormons have related to the bodily resurrection of Jesus. My guess is that Harris is ignorant of the vast quantities of sheer implausibilities of even "run-of-the-mill" Christianity. According to Wikipedia his mother is Jewish and his father is a Quaker, which would explain it. But as Lears notes, Harris appears to have no interest in learning more. He knows one example and that's good enough.

I was raised Catholic by very devout parents and so have an extremely good sense of just how full of implausibilities Catholicism is - although I don't know if Harris considers the RC Church run of the mill or not. 

But not only that - I have done some abortion clinic defense work which means that I was toe-to-toe with both Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists and when I read Harris claiming that Mormonism was "objectively" less plausible I immediately thought of a likely source of Mormon-Christian disagreement: the myths surrounding Jesus' mother.

I confess I sometimes amused myself while doing clinic defense by discussing Mary's virginity with fundamentalists within earshot of Catholics or vice-versa. Christians are extremely concerned about the state of Mary's coochie. While they generally agree that Mary was a virgin when impregnated with Jesus, they vehemently disagree about her post-partum sexual practices. Catholics insist that Mary was a perpetual virgin, and one of her standard Catholic titles is "The Blessed Virgin Mary." And so if the fundamentalists heard the Catholics insisting on this perpetuity, or the Catholics heard the fundamentalists deny it - watch out! They'd be at each other for hours, sometimes, even forgetting why they were there, and as a result many young women that day went about their business free of crazy abuse. Good times.

I don't know a great deal about Mormonism but enough to be aware how excessively patriarchal it is, and I suspected that they were much less likely to consider Mary a goddess, as she virtually is in Catholicism. And so I looked it up and sure enough, it turns out that they have no myths concerning Mary's assumption into heaven.

If Harris actually thinks that he has a point to make in comparing religious implausibilities then he should do a thorough job of it, instead of just thinking of one example and declaring a winner.

But that's typical of Harris and his "New Atheist" crowd. Jerry Coyne, in a blog post denying that Sam Harris and the rest are anti-Islamist bigots stated
 Islam is a pernicious religion and its holy book, the Qur’an, is worse than any other sacred book I’ve read in terms of vilification of apostates or nonbelievers, threats of hell, and percentage of the text occupied by stuff that’s scary and threatening. 
He does not offer any justification for this statement. Just like Harris pushing the idea that Mormonism has more and/or more implausible beliefs than Christianity, Coyne can't be bothered to quantify this in any way.

Now in both cases, they might actually be right - but nobody, including them, can say so for sure. They merely have a hunch about something and can't be bothered to offer evidence, but they fully expect you to accept these claims on their say-so. 

I don't think there's a point to either of their arguments, whether they provide evidence or not. For Sam Harris to actually make some kind of accounting of all the beliefs of Mormons vs. Christians, weigh the relative "objective plausibility" of those beliefs and then tally the results is utterly pointless. Does it really matter that Christianity has a 30% "objective plausibility" rating while Mormonism has a 25% rating? Both faiths are exactly that - a reliance on the un-provable and un-testable - at the core. The rest is window-dressing. 

And what would be the point of Coyne counting up all the "scary and threatening" stuff in the Bible and the Qur'an and then determining a scary and threatening rating for each holy book?  Unless Coyne can prove that there is a direct connection between the "scary and threatening" rating of each book and the behavior of the books' adherents, what is the point? 

But if they argue that they aren't really bigots, just careful observers of evidence then let's have the evidence, not just vague assertions.

And it's not as if these assertions are merely an intellectual exercise - Harris proposed and Coyne defended the idea that there should be ethnicity-based profiling. Just as there is a implicit penalty for "driving while black" they want an explicit penalty for flying while swarthy.

I pointed out in my previous post that the New Atheists are all adherents of evolutionary psychology and so routinely discount the infrastructural basis for human behaviors. In other words, they believe that evolutionary psychology has rendered anthropology and sociology obsolete, thanks to the wonders of the "Darwinian algorithm." 

Well I was more right than I realized as the Lears article confirms:
He is especially offended by anthropology. Too often, he says, “the fire-lit scribblings of one or another dazzled ethnographer” have sanctioned some destructive practice (human sacrifice, female genital mutilation) by explaining its adaptive or social function. At their worst, ethnographers have created a cult of the noble savage that celebrates primitive cultures we should rightfully scorn. His scornfulness aside, Harris is not wrong about ethnographic sentimentality, but he thoroughly misunderstands cultural relativism. He seems to think it means cultivating a bland indifference to ethical questions rather than making a serious effort to understand ethical perspectives radically different from our own without abandoning our own... Nor is he aware of the pioneering work of Christine Walley on female genital mutilation in Africa. Walley illuminates the complex significance of the practice without ever expressing tolerance for it, and she uses cross-cultural understanding as a means of connecting with local African women seeking to put an end to it.
Anthropologist Marvin Harris counted evolutionary psychology, called sociobiology at the time, as an anthropological "research strategy" and proceeded to rip it to shreds in  his immortal Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. And in an email from him, which I unfortunately lost since, in 1997, Harris referred to evolutionary psychology as "biologizing inequality."

But unfortunately thanks to the popularity of the "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" book industry, it is sociobiology which has superseded postmodernism as the leading explanation of human cultural behavior, not cultural materialism. 

But it should come as no surprise that Sam Harris doesn't understand other cultures (or doesn't want to) -  Richard Dawkins doesn't understand women in his own culture - or doesn't want to - which is why, when skeptic blogger Rebecca Watson dared to express an opinion about something that happened to her, his response was to have a flaming hissyfit and to mock her for expressing discomfort about a situation because a. he, Richard Dawkins would never have been uncomfortable in that situation and b.  MUSLIM WOMEN ARE BEING ABUSED!

The evolutionary psychologist/New Atheist crowd think that any problems that women in the West have are most likely their own biological fault, as when ev-psych fan Lawrence Summers, while president of Harvard suggested that the primary reason women in the math and science fields had worse careers than men was because of their inferior math/science abilities. 

But they are greatly concerned about Muslim women. Apparently we live in a perfectly egalitarian, abuse-free world and only Muslim women are still oppressed by patriarchy.

Lears sums Sam Harris up at the end of his article:
...His self-confidence is surpassed only by his ignorance, and his writings are the best argument against a scientific morality—or at least one based on his positivist version of science and ex cathedra pronouncements on politics, ethics and the future of humanity. In The Moral Landscape he observes that people (presumably including scientists) often acquire beliefs about the world for emotional and social rather than cognitive reasons: “It is also true that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for.” The description fits Harris all too aptly, as he wanders from neuroscience into ethics and politics. He may well be a fine neuroscientist. He might consider spending more time in his lab.
If there's something that's truly scary and threatening it's Harris' and Coyne's easy slide into evidence-free paranoia and ethnic targeting, while fancying themselves heroes of free-thinking rationality. They have clear authoritarian tendencies, and if they ever do triumph over religion their victory will best be expressed by those 20th century British philosophers The Who: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.