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Day 4 (Harris): Why Are Atheists So Angry?

From: Sam Harris To: Dennis Prager Subject: Three Ways to Miss the Point Well, we seem to have arrived at the end of our debate without a true meeting of minds. I doubt either of us expected to change the … Read More

By / November 21, 2006
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From: Sam Harris To: Dennis Prager Subject: Three Ways to Miss the Point

Well, we seem to have arrived at the end of our debate without a true meeting of minds. I doubt either of us expected to change the other’s views on religion. Before signing off, I would like to point out that you have relied on a variety of maneuvers that do not (even in combination) lend any support to your position:

1. You have observed that some very smart people, like Francis Collins, believe in God.

As it stands, citing such good company doesn’t amount to an argument—especially when the reasons these illustrious people have for believing in God are risible. Unfortunately, it is your treatment of Collins that is “misleading.” The excerpt I provided represents his own account of the precise moment he had his doubts about Christianity removed. You are rightly embarrassed by this, given your reliance on him as one of the great lights of “sophisticated” faith.

I will leave it to our readers to consult Collins’s book and decide for themselves whether the man arrived at his belief in the risen Christ through the science of molecular biology or by some other route. You, however, would do well to observe that there is an enormous difference between (1) acquiring a picture of the world through dispassionate, scientific study, and (2) acquiring it through emotionality and wishful thinking, then looking to see if can survive contact with science. Collins has clearly done the latter.

The fact that evangelical Christianity can still survive contact with science (because of the gaps in science) does not mean that there are scientific reasons for being an evangelical Christian. And despite your gyrations on the subject, the fact that scientists are, across the board, less religious than nonscientists suggests that science doesn’t tend to support religious belief.

2. You have, rather frequently, ignored the plain meaning of words.

I trust that attentive readers will notice where you have misconstrued me (or rendered a tortured interpretation of Collins, polling data, etc.).

3. You have continually sought to make the case that belief in God is useful.

While the usefulness of religion might be worth debating in another context, it is completely irrelevant to the question of whether God exists. (It is debatable, of course, because the Judeo-Christian tradition, to which you ascribe so much of humanity’s progress, has also spawned much of the world’s misery—and even produced Stalin, the worst of the worst).

The fact that certain religious beliefs might be useful in no way suggests their legitimacy. I can guarantee, for instance, that the following religion, invented by me in the last ten seconds, would be extraordinarily useful. It is called “Scientismo.” Here is its creed: Be kind to others; do not lie, steal, or murder; and oblige your children to master mathematics and science to the best of their abilities or 17 demons will torture you with hot tongs for eternity after death. If I could spread this faith to billions, I have little doubt that we would live in a better world than we do at present. Would this suggest that the 17 demons of Scientismo exist? Useful delusions are not the same thing as true beliefs.

With regard to your wager about the religiosity of murderers and rapists—it depends, of course, on what you mean by “religiously active.” If you are suggesting that these violent offenders rarely believe in your biblical God, I will happily take this bet. The rate of belief among murders and rapists in the U.S. must surely exceed the rate of nonbelief. I would even be willing to handicap it: We can leave aside the thousands of ordained child-rapists in the Catholic Church (or weren’t they “religiously active” by your lights?).

I should also point out that you sealed your last missive with a fallacy. You wrote:

“You are right that this moral clarity and courage among the predominantly religious does not prove the existence of the biblical God. Nothing can prove God’s existence. But it sure is a powerful argument. If society cannot survive without x, there is a good chance x exists.”

No, Dennis, this moral clarity is not a “powerful argument,” or even an argument at all; please keep your x’s straight. If humanity can’t survive without a belief in God, this would only mean that a belief in God exists. It wouldn’t, even remotely, suggest that God exists.

A further irony, of course, is that the civilizational threat that worries us both—Islamic fascism—is purely the product of religious faith, held for precisely the reasons (or pseudo-reasons) you defend. If Muslims didn’t think of themselves as “Muslims”, Jews as “Jews”, and Christians and “Christians”, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Let me assure you that “sophisticated” Muslims resort to the same rationalizations that Francis Collins does to prop up their belief in mighty Allah. Indeed, your “awesome beauty of nature” is one of the chief rationales for faith found in the Koran. How many more people will have to die because of this Iron Age response to the beauty of nature?

If nothing else, our debate clearly reveals how difficult it is to change another person’s mind on this subject. Perhaps some of our readers had their views shifted one way or the other. Whatever the result, I’m very happy we took the time to correspond.

All the best,

Sam

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