Sam Harris has responded to Jonathan Haidt’s article on Edge.org. Harris must be the neo-atheist one-man rapid-reaction force! His reply is instructive for a number of reasons because it perfectly encapsulates the neo-atheist position. As Dawkins calls the article “brilliant as usual,” we can assume it accurately reflects his position as well as Harris’s.
Three points are worth noting as they form the foundation of the neo-atheist critique.
Firstly, although Haidt was talking about American religious people being a bit healthier and giving lots to charity, Harris responds by citing Aztec human sacrifice and Islamic fundamentalism. He seeks to invalidate the point that some religions are a force for good (in this case modern Christianity) on the grounds that the religion of ancient America and some sections of Islam are not. This is the first pillar of the neo-atheist argument. It doesn’t matter if your religion is kind and gentle because some other religions are not or have not been in the past. This is purely guilt by association, which should repel anyone with any liberal sympathies at all.
Harris’s second pillar is that beliefs have consequences. This is undeniably true. However, he takes it as read that a false belief has negative consequences. He cites the individual who thinks that immoral acts will incur the wrath of God. Is this belief a bad thing? We cannot automatically assume that it is. Societies are bound together by shared rules and the fear of God acts as one form of enforcement. It is a particularly important form of enforcement because it remains valid even when no human agency is watching. Harris cites cases where he disagrees with the rules that particular societies have deemed important. His disagreements are largely about sex, which is where his sensibilities conflict most obviously with more traditional values. Haidt’s argument, that the rules and regulations of religion help societies cohere and survive, is completely ignored by Harris. This is despite the fact that sociologists have long recognised that taboos, however, pointless to the outsider, have a valuable role is binding people together.
In Harris’s own words, the third element of the neo-atheist critique “is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it.” Thus, science is the only legitimate way to gain knowledge and belief and the attitude of religious people is invalid because it is at odds with science. The sheer bulk of the philosophical critiques of this argument, once known as logical positivism, is so immense that it is a miracle that any educated person can still hold it.
Harris makes hardly a dent in Haidt’s argument, but he does us all a favour by being so explicit about the pillars of neo-atheism.
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