Questionable Motives

June 19, 2014

Why do I hold Sam Harris in such esteem?

Filed under: Harris,Humour — tildeb @ 10:05 am

October 5, 2011

Why is the ‘Atheist regimes have killed millions’ argument historically inaccurate?

Filed under: Atheism,Harris,History,Liars for Jesus,Religion,Steven Pinker — tildeb @ 9:27 am

The short answer is because it’s simply not true. This is not news to those of us who understand that such common and typical lies and deceptions and misrepresentations are promoted by liars for jesus who are determined to paint atheists as the cause for much suffering even when that is not historically true.

Steve Pinker offers us five fatal points to this absurd historical caricature in this pithy counterargument:

1. The premise that Nazism and Communism were “atheist” ideologies makes sense only within a religiocentric worldview that divides political systems into those that are based on Judaeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. They were based on the ideas of Hitler and Marx, not David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and the horrors they inflicted are no more a vindication of Judeao-Christianity than they are of astrology or alchemy or Scientology.

2. Nazism and Fascism were not atheistic in the first place. Hitler thought he was carrying out a divine plan. Nazism received extensive support from many German churches, and no opposition from the Vatican. Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia.

3. According to the most recent compendium of history’s worst atrocities, Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2011), religions have been responsible for 13 of the 100 worst mass killings in history, resulting in 47 million deaths. Communism has been responsible for 6 mass killings and 67 million deaths. If defenders of religion want to crow, “We were only responsible for 47 million murders—Communism was worse!”, they are welcome to do so, but it is not an impressive argument.

4. Many religious massacres took place in centuries in which the world’s population was far smaller. Crusaders, for example, killed 1 million people in world of 400 million, for a genocide rate that exceeds that of the Nazi Holocaust. The death toll from the Thirty Years War was proportionally double that of World War I and in the range of World War II in Europe.

5. When it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between theistic and atheistic regimes. It’s the one between regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions) and secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights. I present data from the political scientist Rudolph Rummel showing that democracies are vastly less murderous than alternatives forms of government.

Enjoy the complete interview by Sam Harris with Steven Pinker.

November 2, 2010

Why do atheists seem to always act so superior-ish?

Filed under: Atheism,Harris,Religion — tildeb @ 4:59 pm

Atheists get their knickers in a knot when someone accuses them of being another kind of religious fundamentalist believer who are just as certain in their belief that there is no god as those who believe there is. So what’s the big deal with this accusation?

It’s important to understand why the notion of belief in the religious sense applied to atheism is antithetical to what it is that drives the atheist to publicly criticize religion: that far too many people simply don’t value the principle of reasoning when it comes to believing in their religious viewpoints and how that belief adversely affects their society. This is no small matter.

Faith as an intellectual condition is, as Sam Harris accurately describes, conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas obscured by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, and so on. The response to this criticism when pointed out in unreasonable specifics is almost always along the lines of “Well, that’s not MY religious faith…,” yet 57% of Americans believe that one must believe in god to have good values and be moral agents, 69% want a president who is guided by strong religious beliefs, 81% believe in heaven, 78% in angels, 70% in Satan, and 70% in hell. Yet on almost every measure of societal health, the less religious it is the better off its members are: life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP, child welfare, economic equality, economic competitiveness, gender equality, health care, investments in education, rates of university enrollment, internet access, environmental protection, lack of corruption, political stability, charity to poorer nations, and so. These levels are all negatively correlated to the rate of religious belief in the society. In addition, the bonus feature of religious commitment in the US is highly correlated with racism. Where’s the discussion about how to change all of this in the forums and blogs of the religious, how to reduce this negative influence? What we see are popular religious sites that make no such attempt to reduce this religious influence in the public domain in the service of their fellow citizens but actively work to support its promotion and influence and continuation.

These hard facts speak out loudly against the claim that religious belief is associated with better societal health, that religious belief is a force for good. Yet when people do speak out against the assumption that religious belief is good, that it is beneficial, that it offers more solutions than it does problems, they are marginalized and criticized for their ‘militancy’ and ‘stridency’ and ‘arrogance’ and ‘fundamentalism’ to the ‘dogma’ of atheistic human secularism. When reasonable folk raise the uncomfortable fact that religious belief is a negative correlate in so much of what makes society beneficial to its members, they are criticized for their alleged incivility, bias, and ignorance how ‘sophisticated’ believers practice their faith.

So where are all these ‘sophisticates’ and why isn’t their influence mitigating the religious adverse affects? They certainly are not the majority of religious believers. Yet the sophisticates play a central role in defending religious belief from legitimate criticism, from religious believers having an honest dialogue about the overwhelming negative effects religious belief correlates to people’s well-being as a society and make it next to impossible to come up with a strategy to implement necessary change to get religious influence out of the public domain where it continues to be a root correlate of societal harm.

Beliefs have consequences. How we arrive at them matters a great deal. It is possible to arrive at them poorly. To paraphrase Harris from his final chapter in The Moral Landscape, it is possible to be wrong and not know it. We call that ignorance. It is possible to be wrong and to know it but be reluctance to admit that we do so to avoid the social stigma of not going along with the majority. We call this hypocrisy. It is possible to dimly glimpse that we may be wrong in our beliefs but allow the fear of being wrong to drive our urge to increase our commitment to the belief set. We call this self-deception. These are not unusual thinking tools used in the service of religious belief. And there is a growing epidemic of scientific illiteracy and ignorance and anti-intellectualism in much of the world that fails to appreciate that few scientific truths are self-evident and many are counter-intuitive. It is intellectual work and effort and discipline of method to come to understand how and why empty space is structured, that we share a common ancestor with fruit flies and carrots. And few things make thinking like a scientist and understanding the world as it really is more difficult than a deep attachment to religious beliefs that offer simple answers regardless if they are true. What some might perceive to be “superior-ish” disrespect for those who think themselves justified to maintain religious beliefs in the face of contrary knowledge, I think is a sense of disdain for those who are unwilling to do this work, to respect the principle of reason, that the product of good reasoning reveals what’s knowable and what’s true, and that what’s true matters more than what one simply wishes to believe.

To then be accused of substituting a simplistic set of answers based on wishful thinking for another such set reveals the depth of just how wide is the gulf between those who respect the principle and product of good reasoning and those who choose to know far too little about it in the service of their religious beliefs.

October 19, 2010

The moral minefield: is there an alternative to the is-ought divide?

Filed under: Harris,Morality,Religion — tildeb @ 9:55 am

Religion and its pervasive role throughout the world in human affairs is an area of tremendous interest to me. Any criticism of religion and its deleterious effects soon runs into the assumption that our moral values require an ethical framework and that religion is a particularly suitable engineer for just this task and so it is a necessary construct that mitigates all its shortcomings in practice . But is this true? Does religion and its varied beliefs in supernatural agencies build a good framework? It is this question that needs serious critical review. Not surprisingly, most atheists tend to avoid this moral landscape because we recognize the pitfalls that divide the is from the the ought. But is this divide unbridgeable, thus allowing religion and all its rational incoherencies the narrow and treacherous escape route it requires from criticism of its actions in moral terms in the human domain?

I have long admired Sam Harris’ veridical writings, presentations, debates, and cogent thoughts. So it is no surprise, then, that I am interested in hearing his thoughts about this moral landscape and his ideas about suggesting that some better framework can, in fact, be used… a framework based on something that allows a better comparison than claims between relative and unverifiable objective moral truths. This framework, Harris suggests, can be built upon the well-being of conscious creatures.

Excerpts from an interview between Salon and Sam Harris about his new book The Moral Landscape:

It just so happens that religion traffics in ideas that are intrinsically divisive, intrinsically insensitive to the actual details of human and animal suffering, and in many cases purposed toward an afterlife that doesn’t exist. That combination of traits leads to a kind of callous disregard for the sane purposes that we would otherwise form for collaboration in this world.

Well-educated, liberal, secular people in the West think you should withhold judgment on certain practices. You look at female genital mutilation in a country like Somalia, and you have to say things like “Well, of course this has to be understood in context. Who are we to say that this is evil in any deep sense?” But my argument is that withholding judgment is tantamount to saying that we know absolutely nothing about human well-being. Maybe cutting off a girl’s genitalia with a septic blade at age 8 is just as good as any other practice in terms of raising them to be happy and well-adjusted people. We know that’s not true. And that’s a scientific claim.

We notice causal patterns in the word, and we tell ourselves stories about these patterns. We do this in science and in religion. Religion just amounts to bad science, in the end. It’s our most primitive effort to describe our origins and the reasons for why things happen. When you don’t understand the weather, when you don’t understand why crops fail, when you don’t understand the origins of disease, you make up explanations. And this is religion. When you develop a methodology by which these things can be understood, you rely on honest observation and clear reasoning, and this is science.

I think we must form a global civilization. We have no choice. We have a global economy, we have a single environment, we have infectious disease that spreads with every airplane flight. The question is, How do we create a civilization in which the greatest proportion of people can thrive, and in which the causes for war become distant memories? Within a nation-state, wars can be a distant memory. The likelihood of a war between Vermont and Florida seems incredibly remote. Why is that? We understand the stability of a single state. We need to engineer a similar degree of stability at the international level. There has to be a way to enforce international law. The question is how to do that, and how helpful is it that 1.5 billion Muslims and 2 billion Christians both think they have the perfect revelation of the creator of the universe, and that the world will end, ushering in the fulfillment of their eschatology. This isn’t helpful at all, and should be terrifying to every rational person.

Religion isn’t the only problem. It’s all the forms of tribalism: nationalism, racism, et cetera. But religious tribalism is the most difficult, because it’s the only one that comes with an ideology that is transcendental. It’s the only one that gets people, for the most part, to celebrate the deaths of their children, because the belief in paradise actually removes the last barrier that sane people have to doing horrendous things and making huge sacrifices for idiotic reasons.

I am intrigued. It’s time for me to buy the book.


August 28, 2010

Do these claims against atheists look familiar?

Excellent article by Edmund Standing over at Butterflies & Wheels well worth the reading in its entirety from which I have taken these excerpts:

Claim 1: If an atheist reads a religion’s ‘holy book’ and find it to be full of vile, ignorant, and divisive material, the atheist is being unsophisticated in his or her approach. The atheist is ‘siding with the fundamentalists’ and consequently is not worth listening to.

Claim 2: If an atheist is to understand a ‘holy book’, they cannot simply read it, but must instead read it through liberal theological interpretive frameworks, and must understand that the ‘true message’ of the ‘holy book’ is something that emerges through the reflection of generations of interpretive communities, not through the plain and clear words that are actually printed on the page.

Neither of these arguments holds water, and are no more impressive when put forward by liberal Muslim apologists than when put forward by liberal Archbishops. These ‘arguments’, in Islam and in Christianity, are fundamentally intellectually dishonest and can only be the result of massive self-deception on the part of their proponents. There is really no case to answer, but I shall quickly knock down these claims again:

Response to Claim 1:

There is no logical reason why a supposed ‘holy book’ should not be taken at face value. This is especially the case in Islam, given a central belief in Islam is the claim that the Qur’an is a perfect, divinely authored text. This is not simply a ‘fundamentalist’ belief, but rather a mainstream belief. In fact, given the centrality of this belief, the use of the term ‘fundamentalist’ in regard to Islam is more problematic than with Judaism and Christianity because, as Sam Harris notes, ‘most Muslims appear to be “fundamentalist” in the Western sense of the word’. That is not to say that most Muslims are violent extremists, but that most at least pay lip service to the idea that they intrinsically view the nature of the Qur’an itself in exactly the same way as the extremists do.

Response to Claim 2:

The idea that ‘scholars’ who present Islam as dividing the world into believers and unbelievers and believe that Islam is supreme amongst religions have somehow ‘misinterpreted’ their faith is farcical, for throughout the Qur’an this is precisely the worldview that emerges. When religious liberals sugarcoat the clear meaning of their religious texts by claiming that we should not look directly at the text but rather at the writings of liberal ‘interpreters’ of the text, they are not basing their argument on anything approaching a logically coherent position, but rather on wishful thinking and self-deception, and they offer no firm, objective criteria by which such ‘interpretation’ can be seen as authentic.

Why attack moderates?

During the debates over religion that occurred during the Enlightenment, which were often framed in extremely harsh language, it was not violent extremists under attack, but the very notion of God, supernatural authority, and so on. The result of those debates ultimately was that religion in Europe took a beating and no longer represents any sort of threat to liberal democracy. Likewise, religious arguments in the political sphere are longer accepted on ‘divine’ authority, but must be articulated in such a way that they make sense in a secular context. While Muslim moderates are doing – or trying to do – good work in hindering extremism, they must also accept that the Enlightenment critique also applies to their beliefs, and that in the adult world people have every right to make criticisms, even of liberal religion, that may appear ‘nasty’ on first reading. If liberal Muslims are willing to trample on the beliefs of their less moderate co-religionists, then they must also be prepared to have their beliefs trampled on as well. No-one would consider that their personal political views should be exempt from criticism just because they are non-violent political views, and it would be an absurd and worrying precedent to be set were that the case. Religion is no different. Despite the fact that religious people seem to have a lot emotionally invested in their ‘faith’, the fact remains that religion, just like politics, is an ideology, and as such it is a perfectly legitimate target for criticism and debate, even if it is liberal and moderate in its nature.

There is one further point about moderates which has been well articulated by Sam Harris. It’s an argument worth considering. In the short run, pragmatically speaking, moderates appear to be a good thing, but their continued identification with a belief system that is extremely open to far less liberal interpretations may actually perpetuate the survival of its more irrational and beligerent forms. While moderate Muslims can criticise Islamism and offer alternative ‘interpretations’ of the Qur’an, they still maintain in doing so that the Qur’an does have some kind of authority.

Ultimately, Islam and the Qur’an do not pose problems because of ‘misinterpretation’, but rather because they belong to a world far from modernity and are actually of no relevance to modernity. Atheists have every right to point this out, even if it means criticising those who are nonetheless doing good work against extremism. Moderate Islam and moderate Quran’ic ‘interpretation’ offer no real bulwark against those who read the text of the Qur’an and take it at face value, as a perfect and divinely authored text. Only by acknowledging that any notion of a divinely authored book is simply false, by accepting the harsh reality that this book is in fact useless (and indeed dangerous) in the modern context, and by embracing human reason and freethinking will the curse of Islamic extremism ultimately be overcome.

June 12, 2010

What’s with the militant and strident tone of New Atheists?

Filed under: Atheism,belief,commentary,Dawkins,Dennett,Harris,Hitchens,Religion — tildeb @ 5:00 pm

I read this complaint all the time: that the New Atheists are militant and strident and should take the advice of religious apologists and change their tone if they wish to communicate more effectively.

“I feel quite certain that a less emotional and less evangelistic atheism would garner far more influence. Atheism has a brand problem.  Lots of the people who do not believe in God refuse to call themselves atheists. Why? Because they don’t want to be associated with proselytizers” says Stephen Prothero over at Killing The Buddha.

Yes, atheism require some help to get its message out, and who better than religious apologists to explain to the likes of Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens why their best-selling books and sold out speaking engagements need more tweaking to be really effective. Yes, it must be all about tone.

It is very frustrating to be told repeatedly that one’s tone is of such tremendous concern when it dares to criticize the central and unjustified motivation of flying of planes into buildings, inserting theology into the science classroom, and undermining human rights and freedoms. The false charges of militancy and stridency about the tone of the message from New Atheists by religious apologists of all stripes is about trying to avoid the very real issue of being called to account, of being held responsible for appeasing the insertion of unjustified and caustic religious belief into the public domain where it has no legitimate place. That’s the issue – one ignored by far too many, and certainly by those of us coddled in the West who should know better.

Rather than be so concerned about the New Atheist’s tone, more of us should give thanks to those willing to stand up and express their (if not our) commitment to respect what is true with intellectual integrity against the excreta spewed by those of us who wish to excuse religiously inspired bullying, intolerance, and ignorance, who stand by and allow a concerted attack by religiously inspired policies, laws, and practices to directly undermine secular enlightenment values, human rights, and the dignity of personhood in the name of piousness and cultural relativity. The practices of religious belief in the public domain need more – not less – public criticism and the undermining of secular rights and freedoms need more – not fewer – public defenders. And if the tone by which this must be done offends, then so be it; it’s high time the tables were turned on those whom, by comparison, seem so accepting of the tone of religious offenders.

May 9, 2010

Do we derive our morality from religion?

Filed under: Biology,Harris,Morality,Religion,Science — tildeb @ 7:03 pm

No. We do not. Without question all the evidence points to the inevitable conclusion that morality (necessarily) precedes religion. If morality precedes religion, then from where does it come? The answer may surprise those who automatically disagree with Sam Harris’ latest offerings that we can use science to determine the ought from the is: morality originates from our biology.

I have come across many such child development studies over the years: indications that morality – a knowledge to differentiate between right and wrong – is present in very young children long before any exposure to religious beliefs that supposedly teach us this difference. This old canard – that we derive morality from sources like the bible – is the basis upon which many people allow an area of biological expertise to rest with theology as if theodicy is the natural home for studying this (innate) trait. But we know that religious inquiry is an oxymoron and reveals nothing not previously assumed to be true. The study of morality as an expression of biology can only be enhanced by further scrutiny of scientific inquiry.

This long (7 pages) article (for a newspaper) supports this notion yet again with children one years old and explains how they tested and what results they gathered.

April 12, 2010

Why is Sam Harris correct that we need to cross the is/ought moral divide?

Filed under: abuse,Culture,Harris,Morality,Religion — tildeb @ 11:10 am

I was thinking about Sam Harris’ latest work urging us to cross the is/ought moral divide and all the criticism he has received that argues in favour of maintaining moral relativism. Then I read this story:

SHUEBA, Yemen (AP) — A 13-year-old Yemeni child bride who bled to death shortly after marriage was tied down and forced to have sex by her husband, according to interviews with the child’s mother, police, and medical reports.

The practice of marrying young girls is widespread in Yemen where a quarter of all females marry before the age of 15, according to a 2009 report by the country’s Ministry of Social Affairs. Traditional families prefer young brides because they are seen as more obedient and are expected to have more children.

Legislation to ban child brides has been stalled by opposition from religious leaders. There has been no government comment over the case.

The practice of marrying young girls is widespread in Yemen and has drawn the attention of international rights groups seeking to pressure the government to outlaw child marriages.

“Early marriage places girls at increased risk of dropping out of school, being exposed to violence, abuse and exploitation, and even losing their lives from pregnancy, childbirth and other complications,” said UNICEF’s regional director Sigrid Kaag, in a statement Wednesday condemning the death.

A February 2009 law set the minimum age for marriage at 17, but it was repealed and sent back to parliament’s constitutional committee for review after some lawmakers called it un-Islamic. The committee is expected to make a final decision on the legislation this month.

I have had an epiphany: how about all those who support maintaining the is/ought divide and the moral relativity that accompanies it undergo a brutal rape themselves before deciding whether or not cultural and religious practices deserve what amounts to a moral exemption for these kinds of actions. Perhaps then we could have a more meaningful and informed discussion about finally determining the basis for an informed universal moral code of conduct.

March 31, 2010

Is morality a question for metaphysics or biology?

Filed under: Harris,Metaphysics,MIT,Morality — tildeb @ 9:35 am

Sam Harris’ proposal that morality can be better informed by facts and science has been met by criticism hot and heavy. Morality, so the common argument goes, is far too subjective and relative to be available to the kind of objective scrutiny used by science.

Is morality too subjective, in the epistemological sense, meaning is how we think about moral issues too individualized to be capable of being objectively studied? Does morality relegate its primary examination to metaphysical considerations? That seems to be the foundation on which much of the argument against Harris’ thesis seems to be based. But is it true?

From MIT News comes this article titled Moral judgments can be altered… by magnets.

To make moral judgments about other people, we often need to infer their intentions — an ability known as “theory of mind.” For example, if one hunter shoots another while on a hunting trip, we need to know what the shooter was thinking: Was he secretly jealous, or did he mistake his fellow hunter for an animal?

MIT neuroscientists have now shown they can influence those judgments by interfering with activity in a specific brain region — a finding that helps reveal how the brain constructs morality.

Previous studies have shown that a brain region known as the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) is highly active when we think about other people’s intentions, thoughts and beliefs. In the new study, the researchers disrupted activity in the right TPJ by inducing a current in the brain using a magnetic field applied to the scalp. They found that the subjects’ ability to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people’s intentions — for example, a failed murder attempt — was impaired.

The study offers “striking evidence” that the right TPJ, located at the brain’s surface above and behind the right ear, is critical for making moral judgments, says Liane Young, lead author of the paper. It’s also startling, since under normal circumstances people are very confident and consistent in these kinds of moral judgments, says Young, a postdoctoral associate in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

“You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior,” she says. “To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”

If how we think informs what we think – if epistemology informs ontology – then facts and science are exactly the right tools we need to investigate how we inform our morality on a biological rather than metaphysical basis. This kind of research could directly challenge with evidence the unjustified assumption that religion has any kind of domain over issues of morality or that science has no place as a separate ‘magesteria’ in moral discourse.

March 30, 2010

Can we understand morality in universal, scientific terms?

Filed under: Harris,Human Rights,Morality,Science — tildeb @ 8:00 pm

Sam Harris thinks so. I posted his TED talk here. He has received a fair amount of criticism from various sources, most notably from Sean Carroll over at Discover. Harris responds to these criticisms here:

Most educated, secular people (and this includes most scientists, academics, and journalists) seem to believe that there is no such thing as moral truth—only moral preference, moral opinion, and emotional reactions that we mistake for genuine knowledge of right and wrong, or good and evil. While I make the case for a universal conception of morality in much greater depth in my forthcoming book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values , I’d like to address the most common criticisms I’ve received thus far in response to my remarks at TED.

I’ve also been busy commenting on other sites because I think this idea of a universal morality – much like universal principles brought forward during the Enlightenment – has been far too long in the wings. We need to put them center stage. One of the most irritating and dangerous tendencies of people luxuriating in the cocoons of secular societies here in the West is to tolerate morally repugnant ideas under the various guises of being sensitive to multiculturalism, group affiliations, religious accommodation, and an honest desire to avoid judging. There seems to be no greater sin possible than judging the morality of practices that directly infringe upon on these Enlightenment achievements like rights and freedoms. It’s time to build on what’s best in humanity and stop tolerating the worst.

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