Sunday, December 15, 2013

10 Myths and 10 Truths About Atheism: Rejoinder to Sam Harris

Sam Harris, in a recent article carried by the Los Angeles Times, has made, what I consider, an obviously unremarkable attempt to clear up some basic misunderstanding concerning the teachings of atheism. Apparently Harris is disturbed by the degree of stigma attached with atheism and this is his attempt to change the image of the godless and god-hating philosophy. This is my attempt to discuss whether or not I think Harris is successful. Harris lists 10 myths people believe about atheists and then tries to set the record straight.

Myth 1: Atheists believe that life is meaningless.

“Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so.” Harris makes no argument for meaningful lives. He simply makes a statement. Atheism often hides its true colors and avoids the rational implications of its dearly prized presuppositions. Harris unwittingly reveals his true feelings about meaning in his last sentence: Atheists tend to find this fear of meaninglessness … well … meaningless. Harris is so unconcerned with meaninglessness that he makes it his first “myth” that others believe about atheists. That sure sounds like it bothers him to me.

Myth 2: Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in history.

Note that Harris personalizes atheism in myth 1 and depersonalizes it in myth 2. This is because it is a fact of history that atheists like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were responsible for the greatest crimes in history. It is what we call a historically documented fact! Harris, in a bizarre move, attempts to blame this fact on religion, interestingly enough. Apparently, if these atheists had not borrowed dogmatic thinking from religion, they would not have been such monsters.

Myth 3: Atheism is dogmatic.

“Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so prescient of humanity’s needs that they could only have been written under the direction of an omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous.” In reply to Harris, one could rightfully point out that the claims of Christian theism are only ridiculous if one dogmatically holds to the autonomous epistemology espoused by atheism. In other words, Christianity and Atheism have criteria by which beliefs are deemed rational. Both are guilty of dogmatically holding to that criteria. Christianity is just honest about it.

Myth 4: Atheists think everything in the universe around by chance

“No one knows why the universe came into being.” Reply, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. There are only two options in terms of why something exists as opposed to nothing. Either the universe was caused by something other than itself, or it arose somehow by pure chance. It is impossible to miss the level of discomfort Harris feels at this point in his attempt to defend what is obviously indefensible, namely, that something arose from nothing without a cause.

Myth 5: Atheism has no connection with science

“Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe in God — as some scientists seem to manage it — there is no question that an engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than support, religious faith. Taking the U.S. population as an example: Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not. This suggests that there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.” I am always fascinated that men who pride themselves on being scientific or really intellectual fall into such basic informal fallacies like this one. This is the fallacy of appeal to authority, specifically, the authority of the many. Scientists supposed represent the best thinkers, making them the authority in “thinking.” Christianity does not accept scientific criteria as its final authority for faith or justified belief. And that is the very squabble that Harris ignores.

Myth 6: Atheists are arrogant

“Pretending to know things one doesn’t know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion.” Notice that Harris, in his attempt to disown arrogance actually engages in an extremely arrogant statement, pretending that Christians have no good reason for their beliefs. Hello, Mr. Harris, perhaps someone else should have taken up the atheist’s banner on this one.

Myth 7: Atheists are closed to spiritual experience

“There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don’t tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences.” What atheists cannot do is provide any rational justification for these experiences and for why they value them. If we are truly molecules in motion, it only begs the question as to how atheists can be open to spiritual experience as if being so is virtuous somehow. Once again, Harris claims that Christians make unjustifiable claims about the nature of reality is simply wrong. What Christians do is justify their claims to knowledge on the basis of divine revelation. What Harris should do, in the name of intellectual honesty, is simply say that he doesn’t like how Christians justify their claim to knowledge.

Myth 8: Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding

Incredibly, Harris does not offer anything more than baseless speculations about the possibility of advanced extraterrestrial life, that such life would be atheistic of course, and that such life would be even less impressed with the Bible than human atheists would. What a waste of time this myth turned out to be.

Myth 9: Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society

“In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available.” I would love to hear Harris defend the idea of “good.” What does he mean when he says that people should behave well? Moreover, what can he possibly mean by “good reasons?” These statements have morality unavoidably embedded in them. How do we go from slime to fine? How does a biological accident move from nothing to something of value? Atheism has no logical ground for acts of kindness, for nobility, or even for heroes. An atheist who lives a good life does a good thing without a good reason.

Myth 10: Atheism provides no basis for morality

“We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.” Notice that Harris’s answer gives us no good reason to condemn Stalin, Hitler, or Mao. Apparently their decision about morality was different from ours. In addition, what about all the crime, and injustice, and hate that is present in human society. The philosophical problem with Harris’ view is the lack of criteria to get started. How can humanity improve morality without having something “better” to compare it with? By what standard would we look at murder thousands of years ago and contemplate that it should be immoral rather than moral?

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” (Ps. 14:1) The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God,” They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice; There is no one who does good. (Ps. 53:1)

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