Sam Harris is completing his doctorate in neuroscience, studying the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). I'm sure it's all just a matter of detached scientific curiosity, after all, according to Sam, his work has been discussed in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, The Economist, The Guardian, The Independent, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, and many other journals.
Harris also just happens to be author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. As such he makes regular appearances on television and radio to discuss the risks that religion now poses to modern societies. Another Public Face for Science.
Sam is also afraid of ID. His fear is quite evident in a recent essay he wrote for The Huffington Post, entitled the Politics of Ignorance: "The Trojan Horse has passed the innermost gates of the city, and scary religious imbeciles are now spilling out."
Since ID and its "scary imbeciles" have triggered Harris's autonomic and limbic systems, he's looking for a fight. He is another who calls upon his scientific colleagues to "stop hiding their light under a bushel and make this emphatically obvious to everyone." Gee, and what could the light be?
It turns out Sam Harris is yet another scientist trying to convince the public that science paves the way to the enlightened state of Atheism. He writes:
Stephen Jay Gould's notion of "non-overlapping magisteria" served only the religious dogmatists who realize, quite rightly, that there is only one magisterium. Whether a person is religious or secular, there is nothing more sacred than the facts. Either Jesus was born of a virgin, or he wasn't; either there is a God who despises homosexuals, or there isn't. It is time that sane human beings agreed on the standards of evidence necessary to substantiate truth-claims of this sort.
I'd like to say that Sam's words reflect a keen wisdom that lays a truly novel way of looking at things on the table. But alas, we've heard this song before. Why, it was just yesterday……..
This was the soothing contention of the famed paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who argued that science and religion were separate "magisteria," or domains of teaching"¦. So, what should evolutionists and their supporters say to parents who don't want their children to become atheists and who may even hold firm to the virgin birth and the parting of the Red Sea? That it's time for them to finally let go of their quaint superstitions?
But wait. I seem to recall…..ah, yes:
Sir – I was horrified to read the recent Editorial "Where theology matters" (Nature 432, 657; 2004) in the world's foremost science journal. Not only did the Editorial appear to support the position that science and religion deal with different aspects of reality (which they do not: for example, either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn't – clearly a scientific question), but it also implied that religion has some privileged position in ethical debates. "“ Letter to Nature, D. J. Hosken, Centre for Ecology and Conservation, The University of Exeter in Cornwall
Where might all these complaints be coming from? Here's a wild suggestion:
In any case, the belief that religion and science occupy separate magisteria is dishonest. It founders on the undeniable fact that religions still make claims about the world that on analysis turn out to be scientific claims"¦.The Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the raising of Lazarus, even the Old Testament miracles, all are freely used for religious propaganda, and they are very effective with an audience of unsophisticates and children. Every one of these miracles amounts to a violation of the normal running of the natural world. Theologians should make a choice. You can claim your own magisterium, separate from science's but still deserving of respect. But in that case, you must renounce miracles. Or you can keep your Lourdes and your miracles and enjoy their huge recruiting potential among the uneducated. But then you must kiss goodbye to separate magisteria and your high-minded aspiration to converge with science. "“ Richard Dawkins, Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University
Might we be dealin' with Dawkins Spawn. Hmmmm. Let's get to Sam's argument:
The issue is not, as ID advocates allege, whether science can "rule out" the existence of the biblical God. There are an infinite number of ludicrous ideas that science could not "rule out," but which no sensible person would entertain. The issue is whether there is any good reason to believe the sorts of things that religious dogmatists believe — that God exists and takes an interest in the affairs of human beings; that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception (and, therefore, that blastocysts are the moral equivalents of persons); etc. There simply is no good reason to believe such things, and scientists should stop hiding their light under a bushel and make this emphatically obvious to everyone.
Imagine President Bush addressing the National Prayer Breakfast in these terms: "Behind all of life and all history there is a dedication and a purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful Zeus." Imagine his speech to Congress containing the sentence "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that Apollo is not neutral between them." Clearly, the commonplaces of language conceal the vacuity and strangeness of many of our beliefs.
Yeah, yeah, but where have I heard something much like this before? Can it be?
Agnostic conciliation, which is the decent liberal bending over backward to concede as much as possible to anybody who shouts loud enough, reaches ludicrous lengths in the following common piece of sloppy thinking. It goes roughly like this: You can't prove a negative (so far so good). Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true). Therefore, belief or disbelief in a supreme being is a matter of pure, individual inclination, and both are therefore equally deserving of respectful attention! When you say it like that, the fallacy is almost self-evident; we hardly need spell out the reductio ad absurdum. As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbit around the planet Pluto. We can't disprove it. But that doesn't mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn't.
Now, if it be retorted that there actually are reasons X, Y, and Z for finding a supreme being more plausible than a teapot, then X, Y, and Z should be spelled out–because, if legitimate, they are proper scientific arguments that should be evaluated. Don't protect them from scrutiny behind a screen of agnostic tolerance. If religious arguments are actually better than Atkins' teapot theory, let us hear the case. Otherwise, let those who call themselves agnostic with respect to religion add that they are equally agnostic about orbiting teapots. At the same time, modern theists might acknowledge that, when it comes to Baal and the golden calf, Thor and Wotan, Poseidon and Apollo, Mithras and Ammon Ra, they are actually atheists. We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further. "“ Dawkins (same link as above)
Looks like Dawkins should be a proud Meme-Daddy.
I saved the best for last.
There may be a couple of you who think this whole debate is about science and evolution. Really? Harris doesn't think so:
It is time that scientists and other public intellectuals observed that the contest between faith and reason is zero-sum. There is no question but that nominally religious scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth R. Miller are doing lasting harm to our discourse by the accommodations they have made to religious irrationality.
Wow. How much more clear can it be? Collins and Miller accept evolution in its mainstream formulations, are supposedly only "nominally religious" , yet they are GUILTY of doing "lasting harm." It turns out they are part of the problem. It may be obvious to some of us that Sam Harris is a true Fundamentalist with a secular creed (a mirror-image of the people who frighten him), but that gets us nowhere as its okay to be a the right type of fundamentalist in certain circles. Just keep your eye on the ball. In his mind, and the mind of many of his colleagues, there is no room for religious faith. The faith of someone like Ken Miller does "lasting harm" as it looks to "accommodate" the "religious irrationality."
And you thought it was about evolution and science.
[For fun, readers might want to tally all the similarities between the Weisberg and Harris articles (written no more than eight days apart) in the comments section]