The Sciences

A Reply to Sam Harris Regarding Unscientific America

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneySep 15, 2009 2:49 PM


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I have always deeply admired the way Sam Harris argues a point with passion. I happen to disagree with him about Francis Collins, but I have to credit the force of Harris's take-no-prisoners approach with regard to all forms of "faith"--even when I think it goes too far. In the process of taking on Collins, Harris also argues against us and against Unscientific America--and for some time, I have been meaning to answer him on this. Life intervened until now; but I trust it is not too late. Harris quotes one of our book’s passages in which we argue that if we can depolarize the science versus religion battle, we can likely broaden public acceptance of evolution. It’s an argument, Harris says, “that, I fear, most people would accept.” Unlike many New Atheists, then, Harris implicitly realizes the obvious and, indeed, commonsensical force of our argument--even though he rejects it. Why does Harris reject our case? Let’s run through:

The first thing to notice is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are confused about the nature of the problem. The goal is not to get more Americans to merely accept the truth of evolution (or any other scientific theory); the goal is to get them to value the principles of reasoning and educated discourse that now make a belief in evolution obligatory. Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying problem; the problem is faith itself—conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas occluded by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc. Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to imagine that we can get people to value intellectual honesty by lying to them.

I agree with Harris about the importance of not only knowing the truth about evolution, but knowing something about critical thinking and the scientific method (which is after all how we know that evolution is good science in the first place). Yet it isn’t a lie that, as we write in the book, “A great many scientists believe in God with no sense of internal contradiction, just as many religious believers accept evolution as the correct theory to explain the development, diversity, and inter-relatedness of life on Earth.” This statement is factually true. Harris may think these people are wrong, but he can’t claim they don’t exist. Furthermore, insofar as Harris thinks these people wrong, his disagreement with them is philosophical or theological in nature--not scientific. That’s also fine: But we’re talking about the promotion of science, not an atheistic worldview, in our book. Harris continues:

While it is invariably advertised as an expression of “respect” for people of faith, this accommodationism is nothing more than naked condescension, motivated by fear. Mooney and Kirshenbaum assure us that people will choose religion over science, no matter how good a case is made against religion. In certain contexts, this fear is probably warranted. I wouldn’t be eager to spell out the irrationality of Islam while standing in the Great Mosque in Mecca. But let’s be honest about how Mooney and Kirshenbaum view public discourse in the United States: watch what you say, or the Christian mob will burn down the library of Alexandria all over again.

There is a bit of bravado here. The point is not to watch what you say, but to understand the context in which you are trying to communicate—and to recognize that most Americans are not going to be dragged all the way from fundamentalism to atheism thanks to the force of reasoned arguments. No matter how much we may wish it, it just isn’t going to happen. Giving them some more moderate stopping off points along the way is the only common sense approach if you want to change minds, or change the culture. In this sense, what is derided as "accommodationism" is actually an extremely important position between two poles on the intellectual spectrum, a position where many people will want to reside--right or wrong. Harris again:

By comparison, the “combativeness” of the “New Atheists” seems entirely collegial. We merely assume that our fellow Homo sapiens possess the requisite intelligence and emotional maturity to respond to rational argument, satire, and ridicule on the subject of religion—just as they respond to these discursive pressures on all other subjects. Of course, we could be wrong. But let’s admit which side in this debate currently views our neighbors as dangerous children and which views them as adults who might prefer not to be utterly mistaken about the nature of reality.

I strongly question the "collegiality" claim, but that's another story. As for Harris, it seems to me he is simply being an idealist. There are worse things to be, of course. But the reality is that people don’t want to give up their beliefs, and will fight to hold on to them, dismissing many or all direct assaults. This is human nature. We need a narrative, an internal sense of who we are—and once we’ve got one, we fiercely protect it. (Also be sure to read Jean Kazez on whether ridicule works at changing minds.) We don’t view our neighbors as “dangerous children,” then; we view all humans as members of a species know for fiercely clinging to its own beliefs. That includes, most emphatically, the New Atheists. But that's another post.....

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