Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How would you respond to Sam Harris

In this video (embed wasn't working in preview mode, so you may need to follow the link) Sam Harris takes on three arguments for religion: religion is true, religion is useful, atheism is just another religion (h/t to Lukeprog). How would you respond to his arguments? Do you think he is way off base? Why? I will summarize his counter arguments for each of the three sections below.

Argument 1: Religion is True

Sam Harris responds by pointing out that different religions make conflicting claims so they can't all be true. Now if you want to make a claim in support of one particular religion over any other, you run into problems. For example miracles are not an indication of truth of religion. Jesus is recorded as having performed many miracles. On the other hand Sathya Sai Baba has performed "miracles" and millions believe that he is a god. Records of his miracles can be found on youtube and have happene fairly recently. Most Christians would find this evidence, less than convincing. Some would claim some sort of basis on the texts of the religion. However Sam Harris maintains that there are large failings of most of the ancient holy texts (scientific, ethical, etc.)

Argument 2: Religion is Useful

Even though we like the implications or usefulness of an idea; it doesn't make it true. Religion may give comfort, but it is a false comfort. Sam Harris is quite adament that religion is a poor source of morality. It isn't necessary to have religion to know what is good. We don't need religion to tell us that it is important to love your children. He also points out thtat societies that are less religious tend to have less crime and do more to help the poor and outcast than highly religious countries. Most of all we don't learn that cruelty is wrong from reading the Bible (genocide, sexual slavery, kidnapping, subjugation of women.)
Finally even chimpanzees and other social primates exhibit moral reasoning without any religion.

Argument 3: Atheism is just another religion

Atheism is just saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It is not necessarily dogmatic. He is quick to point out that nothing prevents atheists from having transcendent experiences. However those experiences don't mean that God exists. Some claim that atheism is source of evil like Stalin, Nazis, and Pol Pot. Problem with those examples is that they were ideologies that are too much like religion.