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What should science do? Sam Harris v. Philip Ball


Posted: June 23, 2009.

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Sam Harris and Philip Ball discuss the conflict between religion and science. They do not agree…


Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. He worked at Nature for over 20 years, first as an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a Consultant Editor. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology. Philip is the author of several popular books on science, including works on the nature of water, pattern formation in the natural world, colour in art, and the science of social and political philosophy. Philip continues to write for Nature’s online news, especially for the editorial column Muse. He has contributed to publications ranging from New Scientist to the New York Times, the Guardian, the Financial Times and New Statesman. He is the regular science columnist for Prospect magazine, and also a columnist for Chemistry World and Nature Materials. He has broadcast on many occasions on radio and TV, and in June 2004 he presented a three-part serial on nanotechnology, ‘Small Worlds’, on BBC Radio 4. He is also Science Writer in Residence at the Department of Chemistry, University College London. Philip has a BA in Chemistry from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Physics from the University of Bristol.

DAY 1

Dear Phil—

Well, we seem to have a tempest in a teapot brewing. You were good enough to notice the birth of my foundation, The Reason Project, in your column in Nature (“How much reason do you want?” Nature News 14 May 2009), and I repaid this kindness by hurling you into the Reason Project Hall of Shame for perceived indiscretions of rational thought. You then responded to your confinement on your blog (“Whatever you do, don’t call them militant” 19 May 2009)—and life on earth has not been the same since.

I wonder whether you would like to have a direct exchange on these issues. I’m not entirely sure where our respective misunderstandings leave off and our genuine differences of opinion begin, but it might be interesting for readers to watch us struggle to sort things out.

Please let me know your thoughts.

Best,

Sam

Sam Harris
Co-Founder and CEO
The Reason Project

Dear Sam,

Thanks for this message. A tempest in a teapot seems an apt way to express it. I do suspect that most of our disagreement hinges on misunderstandings rather than genuine differences, although of course there’s no harm in the latter.

I can appreciate that you wouldn’t welcome the mildly skeptical tone of my Nature article, but I’m still puzzled about why you found it sufficiently objectionable to (as you say) hurl it into your Hall of Shame. (I assume this particular pit is not intended for all critics, but only for those whose message you find especially abhorrent or misguided.) At this point, I’m forced to guess that perhaps you share the views of those who have commented unfavourably about the piece on your site. The primary objections there seem predicated on two notions:

1. That I have said religion and science are compatible.
2. That I am parading Francis Collins and others who seek a conciliatory position as the good guys.

I sincerely believe that you will find neither of these points of view actually stated in my piece, and for the simple reason that I don’t believe them. Perhaps my blog post made it a little clearer. My points are that:

1. There seems little point in making religion per se the ‘enemy of reason’. That creates a big and, frankly, invincible foe. And it’s a foe that doesn’t need to be vanquished. Plenty of religious people – certainly, just about all those I know – are perfectly happy to accept the tenets of science that the fundamentalists find so distasteful, which are mostly connected with questions of origin. That there are logical inconsistencies in that position really doesn’t seem to me to be a big deal – we live with all kinds of contradictions, and often because we don’t feel any compulsion to chart our all beliefs with philosophical rigour until we discover where they clash. For many Christians (the religious community I am most familiar with), the Virgin Birth, the biblical miracles, as well as angels, saints and, goodness knows, even heaven and hell aren’t notions they particularly cling to or think about very much at all. They simply find that religion addresses some of their needs. I’m not even sure that I would consider this use of religion irrational – merely woolly.
  This is what I meant when I referred to a ‘false dichotomy’ – the fact that I think science and religion can in principle coexist (as they always have done, even if not always comfortably) does not mean that I think they are logically compatible. I know some will say that this is a complacent view, because religion is (outside Western Europe) growing both in its strength and in its intolerance. That is absolutely a cause for concern. But it doesn’t pit religion per se against science per se. It’s a primarily political issue.

2. Religion is not a delusion to be corrected with a little hard science. A lot of the current ‘rationalist’ criticism of religion reminds me of the old deficit model that used to motivate the Public Understanding of Science movement: just give people the right facts, and then they’ll agree with us. This is not just deluded, but lazy. It’s trivial to take religious texts and show how, literally interpreted, they are utter nonsense. But we have to engage with (and sometimes do battle with, it is true) religion as it exists in the world. This is more challenging. On the longer version of my Nature article posted on my blog, I cite the example of Galileo. If we choose to believe that the Catholic Church condemned his heliocentrism because it conflicted with scripture, we have an unassailable case against superstitious dogma. If we recognize that the issue was at least as much about maintaining the Church’s authority, we have to concede some (Machiavellian) rationality in the papal position, however repugnant the motives. (And incidentally, let’s please not hear any more about Giordano Bruno being martyred for his heliocentrism. That’s the kind of contempt for history that polarized positions encourage.)
I claim that religion needs to be seen as a social construct, with all kinds of social functions. Some of the most thoughtful commentators on theology, such as Karen Armstrong, recognise the value and perhaps even necessity of the kind of myth that religion embodies. Many are now happy to accept that aspects of the Bible, and other religious texts, should be read in this allegorical way. We can’t meaningfully engage in religion without recognizing this social and cultural aspect - it often functions as a component of how people construct their cultural identity. It seemed to me that this was really what the Royal Society’s former director of education Michael Reiss was trying to say when he suggested that it was best to understand religiously motivated delusions such as creationism as world views rather than as mere ignorance. Reiss’s remarks incited such outrage among a few vocal, prominent scientists that he was of course forced to resign. It troubles me when scientists (and others) get such horrors about religion that they seem no longer able to entertain or even notice any nuance of opinion in these matters. It all starts to sound disturbingly like George W. Bush’s comment that you’re either for us or against us.

The comments on your blog left me dismayed that the initiative you have started might tend to attract those whose views on religion are instead of the most simplistic and reductive sort (‘But it’s just wrong!’). But I also realise, on reflection, that it is unfair to judge an organization by its web feedback. Nature would not fare at all well if that were applied to them.

I am in favour of any movement that campaigns to kick out of schools the invidious misinformation of creationism, intelligent design and the rest of the shoddy fundamentalist agenda. I am very much in favour of a movement that aims to denounce religious intolerance and that attacks the kind of harmful and ignorant nonsense that seems increasingly to be coming from the Vatican. On my blog, I reacted to your actions and to the comments on your site with a mixture of amusement and irritation, neither of which is terribly constructive, because I have to choose words carefully within the incredibly constrained format that a Nature Muse allows and so am frustrated when they aren’t read carefully. But it is possible too that I did not choose them carefully enough. And certainly, I would not want to misrepresent what you are trying to achieve, which I am sure includes much that I would support.

Best wishes,
Phil

DAY 2

Dear Phil—

Thank you for a favorable and very substantive response to my invitation. I appreciate your willingness to have this exchange in a public forum. First, I should say that while I can’t necessarily endorse every comment that appears beneath your article on the Reason Project website (in fact, there may be many I haven’t read), I suspect there is not much daylight between me and some of the more vociferous critics you encountered there. As evidence of this fact, here is the Letter to the Editor I wrote in response to your column. While I am its principal author, many members of my advisory board have read it, offered minor suggestions, and generally approve its contents. I have told your Editor in Chief, Philip Campbell, that he can print it with multiple signatories, or not, whichever is more attractive to him.

Sir—
In his column, “How much reason do you want?” (Nature News 14 May 2009)  Philip Ball, a consultant editor at this journal, takes members of The Reason Project to task for being too critical of religion. While he accepts the value of “knowledge”, “learning,” and “intellectualism,” he argues that these virtues need not, in principle, undermine the religious commitments of law-abiding men and women in the 21st century. Mr. Ball assures us that while the “abuse” of religion “to justify suppression of human rights, maltreatment and murder is abhorrent,” there is no deeper contradiction to be found between scientific rationality and religious faith. As evidence of this underlying harmony, we are asked to contemplate the existence of The BioLogos Foundation, whose purpose (in the words of its mission statement) is to demonstrate “the compatibility of the Christian faith with what science has discovered about the origins of the universe and life.”
To give you a sense of how bizarre Mr. Ball’s opinions will appear to rational people everywhere, imagine reading a column in Nature that criticized scientists for taking too adversarial a stance with respect to witchcraft—even in Africa, where a belief in the efficacy of magic spells, invisible spirits, and the occasional human sacrifice remains widespread. If the analogy between religion and witchcraft seems hyperbolic, please take a moment to review the actual tenets of the world’s major religions.

For instance, a reconciliation between science and Christianity (the explicit goal of The BioLogos Foundation) would mean squaring physics, chemistry, biology, and a basic understanding of probabilistic reasoning with a raft of patently ridiculous, Iron Age convictions. In its most generic and well-subscribed form, Christianity amounts to the following claims: Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days. He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven”—where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings. Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and sceptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on Mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos. Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will (probably) be consigned to a fiery hell for all eternity. 

On Mr. Ball’s account, there is nothing in the scientific worldview, or in the intellectual rigor and self-criticism that gave rise to it, that casts such convictions in an unfavorable light. This learned opinion is, frankly, amazing to me and to the other members of The Reason Project. One would have thought it might also amaze Mr. Ball’s fellow editors at Nature.

Sam Harris
Co-Founder and CEO
The Reason Project
www.reasonproject.org

I suspect that you find this response indicative of the some of the misunderstandings and militancy you refer to in your blog post. I’m sorry to say, however, that your subsequent writings—both on your blog and in this exchange—only dig the hole I perceive you to be in deeper still.

On your blog you say the following:

But what depresses me is that the Reason Project and many of its supporters are so sure of the battle-lines that they have lost the ability of basic English comprehension. It is this that has earned me the delightful honour of a place in the Reason Project’s Hall of Shame, no less – because it has decided that I am placing the irenic BioLogos Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, and other apologists, on a pedestal, making them the nice, friendly good guys who only want us all to get along. Does my article say that? No, it simply quotes from the BioLogos mission statement (just as it quotes from the Reason Project mission statement). That this is taken as registering approval is a bit disturbing. The fact that I suggest the Reason Project in some respects ‘should be applauded’, and say no such thing about the BioLogos Foundation, doesn’t seem to be noticed. (The fact is that I’m utterly indifferent to the BioLogos Foundation. I find its aims uninspiring and its current statements about the relation of science and religion somewhat shallow.)


While you clearly expect a paragraph like this to fully acquit you, there is, even here, much to offend the sensibilities of reasonable people who are sensitive to the problem of religion. Please consider how your choice of words strikes a reader who desperately wants to believe that you, a scientist and an editor at the most prestigious scientific journal on earth, has his head on straight:

1. To call the BioLogos Foundation “irenic” is far too charitable. It is, rather, obscurantist and phantasmagorically stupid. If you took a moment to examine what its founder, Francis Collins, actually believes, as well as the means by which he came to believe it, you will see that he is engaged in an obscene re-branding of otherworldly hope and craving as a legitimate arm of science. I’m sorry to say that your charity toward Collins is part of a pattern at Nature, which I have pointed out previously in the pages of the journal. According to Nature, Collins’ atrocious book, The Language of God, represented a “moving” and “laudible” exercise of building “a bridge across the social and intellectual divide that exists between most of US academia and the so-called heartlands.” And here is Collins, hard at work on that bridge:

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted….

God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.

Half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old; our president had just used his first veto to block federal funding for the most promising medical research in all of biology on religious grounds; and one of the foremost scientists in the land had that to say. Stranger still, the most influential scientific publication on earth couldn’t find a nit to pick here. Collins’ scientific reputation has been undiminished by these ejaculations—indeed, he seems destined to be President Obama’s choice to run the National Institutes of Health—and yet his thinking here, as elsewhere, is a quite a bit worse than “woolly,” as you put it: it constitutes a perfect repudiation of scientific principles and intellectual honesty.

2. The way in which you paired The Reason Project and The BioLogos Foundation in your Nature column conveyed the sense—quite common in journalism—that the truth must lie somewhere between the two extremes on offer: On the one hand we have some extreme rationalists (who think that most basic standards of intellectual integrity should not be traduced at the highest levels of our discourse out of deference to the uneducated opinions of first century scribes); on the other, we have a man who is convinced that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord and eternal saviour of the earth because he happened to come upon a frozen waterfall while hiking and found it inexplicably beautiful. These two frames of mind are not equally scientific. I think you owe it to yourself, and to your readers, to clearly distinguish them.

There was much else in your column, blog post, and first volley here, that I have not addressed—of particular interest to me is the claim that religion is both an “invincible” and unnecessary foe. Perhaps we’ll touch on that subject later on.

Best,
Sam


Dear Sam,
I’m a little clearer now about what I’m being accused of, but no more so about why. Your letter to Nature repeats the claim that I say there is no contradiction between scientific rationality and religious faith, and repeats the failure to state where I say that. In fact, I state in my previous response that there are contradictions. Can we accept at least that this charge should be substantiated or dropped? That seems to me to be the rational way to proceed.

Your account of Christianity’s ‘most generic and well subscribed’ form is the scriptural literalist one. It is probably close to the medieval view, but I’d want more evidence that it is the generic view today. It is not the view of the head of the Church of England, which I suspect should count for something. But in any event, my point is, and always was, not that we need accept religious (and in your portrait, undoubtedly nonsensical) views as compatible with science but that you are not going to get very far by simply insisting to people who hold them that they are irrational and therefore should be abandoned forthwith. Rather, you need to consider the sociological questions of why people have a range of religious faiths, why religions as social institutions are so widespread, and why fundamentalism seems to be becoming a powerful political force in some religions in some parts of the world. (I don’t believe there is a universal answer to the last one – look at the resurgence of Hinduism in India, for example.)

To call the Biologos Foundation irenic is to use the word in its literal sense – they seek reconciliation of science and religion. It is simply a description, not a judgement. It may well be that no such reconciliation is logically possible – that doesn’t mean the Biologos Foundation cannot seek it, however misguidedly. There is not the slightest reason why one cannot be irenic for phantasmagorially stupid reasons. And then you’re off again, making criticisms of positions that simply don’t appear in my article. Criticize Nature’s other statements on Collins by all means – they are nothing to do with me or my views.

You end with a further supposition – that by describing two polar positions, I am suggesting that the truth lies in between. That’s your interpretation, and based on nothing I said. My view (and it’s not hard to see this, I think, from the strapline of my article) is that a more productive way to approach the issues lies elsewhere.

Sam, you’re calling yourselves the Reason Project and repeatedly stressing your scientific perspective. Science proceeds by inspecting the evidence objectively, not by prejudging what it means. The evidence here are the words I wrote, but they don’t seem to have been terribly germane to your comments so far.

Best wishes,
Phil

DAY 3

Dear Phil –

You still appear to be missing the point: the point is not that there is some legalistic parsing of your Nature column that allows for an (almost) exculpatory reading; the point is that everything you have written on this subject represents a basic failure to acknowledge (1) just how contradictory religious faith and scientific rationality are as modes of thought, (2) the actual profundity and scope of humankind’s religious bewilderment in the year 2009, and (3) the real world effects of (1)&(2). The most charitable interpretation I can find of what you have written is this: such truths could well be acknowledged, if we thought it wise—but it is not wise. If one wants to slay the Dragon of Ignorance, one shouldn’t first wake the Dragon, offend it, and then challenge it to fight to the death; one must be more cunning than this, or the whole project is doomed from the start. If THIS is what you intend to say, then fine, we can debate questions of secular/scientific strategy and marketing (and perhaps your own writing is an attempt to implement such a subtle strategy). But much of what you’ve written suggests that, whether or not you are chiefly concerned about such practical matters, you are also confused about points 1-3.

First off, the generic form of Christianity I described in my Letter to the Editor is not merely “the scriptural literalist one.” Without question, the beliefs I’ve highlighted summarize the majority view of Christianity. You seem to be, frankly, unaware of what most Christians (and perhaps religious people generally) claim to believe. Even your reference to the Church of England (which, I will grant, is more liberal than many) seems to ignore its actual doctrine. The C of E wears the resurrection of Jesus and other hocus pocus right on its sleeve. More generally, I could cite any number of opinion poll results and the doctrinal statements of the largest churches—all would conduce to the general boredom our readers, but would establish, beyond peradventure, that Christianity without a belief in miracles and magic books is not Christianity. And for everything that I would say about Christianity, there is worse to be said about Islam at this moment in history, as you surely must know.

As for your actual words, here is a quotation from your Nature piece, with some trivial modifications. I wonder if you see anything wrong with it:

In other words, this is not a matter of science versus faith [in witchcraft], but of the rejection of scientific ideas that challenge power structures… That’s not to minimize the problem, but recognizing it for what it is will avoid false dichotomies, and perhaps make it easier to find solutions.

So there is little to be gained from trying to topple the temple [of Magic] — it’s the false priests who are the menace. If we can recognize that [witchcraft], like any ideology, is a social construct — with benefits, dangers, arbitrary inventions and, most of all, roots in human nature – then we might forgo a lot of empty argument and get back to the worldly wonders of the lab bench.


Wouldn’t it be a tad strange to read this in the pages of Nature? Doesn’t it matter what people believe about the nature of reality? Doesn’t the nature of reality itself matter? If the basic claims of religion are true, the scientific worldview is so blinkered and susceptible to spiritual modification as to render the whole enterprise ridiculous. If the basic claims of religion are false, most people are living in a state of abject confusion, beset by absurd hopes and fears, and tending to waste their time and attention—often with tragic results. Is this really a “false dichotomy”?

Best,
Sam

Dear Sam,
You accuse me of “a basic failure to acknowledge just how contradictory religious faith and scientific rationality are as modes of thought”. Given what I have said previously, I must now interpret this as your way of saying “you acknowledge that religious faith and scientific rationality are contradictory, but fail to say that loudly enough”. (We needn’t argue further about whether my original Nature article said otherwise; my words can speak for themselves.)
So it seems that my sin, perhaps more venial than mortal, is not that of defending religion but of failing to attack it with sufficient vigour. This, you say, is a position that “will appear bizarre to rational people everywhere”. I will trust rational people everywhere to be the judge of that. You seem very keen to construct statements that Nature readers will find bizarre, but I think most will not find at all bizarre the notion that it is not science’s duty to eradicate all traces of religion in the world. This is not in any degree a weird or fringe position and it seems a pointless game to find ways of making it appear such.

From what you say, I suspect that what you object to most is my suggestion that the contradictions between science and faith need not in themselves be a big deal. By this I mean that I see no need to be so desperately worried about them when religious leaders and believers are moderates rather than are not scriptural literalists. I see no great threat to science from the kind of Anglicanism advocated by its current leader, or from the liberal forms of Islam that are held by thinkers such as Ziauddin Sardar. There are plenty of people, including many scientists, who are quite able to live with (or open to exploring) the contradictions and feel no need to rewrite or deny the mainstream scientific consensus. And these people are, in my experience, not at all “living in a state of abject confusion, beset by absurd hopes and fears”. It hardly needs to be said that science can thrive in societies in which religion is present (perhaps even strong) – it has done so throughout all of history.

That is why I don’t feel a need to cast this in terms of science versus faith. It seems to me that our difference here is that you feel unwilling to live in a world where the contradictions between science and faith are tolerated, whereas I am not.

So I see no dragon that needs slaying, either by might or by stealth. If you accept that anthropology is anything of a science, this monolithic view of religion is in any event unscientific. Are you really saying that Christian fundamentalism, Indonesian Buddhism, African tribal beliefs and Chinese state-sponsored Confucianism are all part of the same beast, with the same causes and the same vulnerabilities? All, I agree, entail irrationality to some degree or another, and all are (as I’ve said) social constructs. But the reasons why, let’s say, fundamentalist Islam is in the ascendant in some parts of the world, and Hindu nationalism in others, are social, cultural and political. You might say that, regardless of the causes, the kinds of problems that ensue would be removed by simply eradicating all religion everywhere. But I don’t think you’d be so naïve.

I find your approach of highlighting and ridiculing all the most absurd and irrational aspects of these belief systems too easy. I too find the things you list as irrational (albeit perhaps not always as offensive) as you do. But the problems that religions can cause will be addressed only by engaging with them as social and cultural institutions, not as a string of silly ideas.

I did not say (sorry, this again) that the C of E shares none of the views you listed in your sketch of Christian belief. I said that its position is not that which you sketched, particularly in terms of the part that I suspect we both (and most other non-believers) find most objectionable: “Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will (probably) be consigned to a fiery hell for all eternity.” Neither this nor a creationist viewpoint is an essential or inevitable component of Christianity today. If those beliefs are nevertheless on the rise (I simply don’t know if they are – creationism has always been strong in the US), then that is a problem with societal causes and needs to be seen and tackled as such.

Your minor rephrasing of my Nature article makes for interesting reading. To begin with, I’d challenge your implication that all religion is witchcraft – but before you leap down my throat, I do so because I would say instead that it is more accurate and more productive to say that religions and witchcraft are both examples of social constructs based on beliefs and ideologies that cannot be demonstrated and that, among other things, formalize social structures and hierarchies. Like it or not, it seems to be part of human nature to create such constructs. And they are not always expressed as religion.

With that in mind, I see nothing at all objectionable in the second paragraph. Benefits of witchcraft? There are very probably social benefits for the societies that practise it. They don’t necessarily outweigh the problems, and they don’t in any way justify witchcraft. But they help explain it, and we won’t understand these superstitious systems unless we recognize them.

I think that actually the meaning of my first paragraph remains pretty much unscathed too. The point here is that all kinds of irrational belief systems will accept a great deal of science, but some selectively reject those aspects that conflict with their power base. So all I am saying is that, strategically speaking, it seems to make sense to recognize a distinction between ideologies that systematically deny all of science (I’m not in fact sure if there are any such) and ones that exclude only the inconvenient truths. It seems to me that those two positions are likely to have different origins, and thus warrant different solutions.

Best wishes,
Phil

DAY 4

Dear Phil –

I trust that many of our readers will share my frustration at this point, as well as my sense that we have failed to get at the heart of the matter. As is so often the case in debates of this kind, more points get raised in each volley than can be addressed in the next—so permit me to ignore what seem like peripheral issues in an attempt to make some sense.

I will say one thing in passing, however, by way of addressing several specific points (your use of the term “irenic”, etc.): you frequently complain that I have either misrepresented what you have written or have drawn the wrong implications from it. While it is tempting to argue otherwise, it is too tiresome to rebut each specific charge. There is another principle at work that I think you should notice: our disagreement draws at least as much energy from what you have not said. To use an admittedly crude example: if the only thing a person can think to say about the morality of Adolph Hitler is that he was a “committed vegetarian,” this would say rather more by way of omission. In your Nature column, and in this exchange, what you haven’t said matters more than you seem to realize.

I am not suggesting that it is “science’s duty to eradicate all traces of religion in the world.” Nor am I denying that science can be practiced alongside religion (in most forms), or that religious people can become scientists, or that smart scientists can sometimes harbor incredible religious beliefs, or that religious imbeciles can hanker after the products of science. Clearly, a juxtaposition between bad ideas/methods and good ones is possible—in a single brain, in an institution, in a culture, etc. And as far as science itself is concerned, it has become all too obvious that many scientists practice their discipline like a trade, without ever attempting to form a truly consilient, or even consistent, view of the world.

But the fact that such things are possible does not in the least suggest that they are optimal—or, indeed, that they do not come at a terrible price. I think it would be very difficult to find instances where incoherence, wishful thinking, and dogmatism have aided scientific progress—or, in fact, progress of any kind. The argument that there is no deep conflict between scientific rationality and religious faith because some scientists are religious, and all religious people value some science, is a false one—and it has become a stultifying shibboleth. Is there generally no conflict between marriage and adultery simply because the two are so often found together? Would it matter if the BioLechery Foundation produced adulterers who could attest, without blinking, to their clarity of conscience? The analogy isn’t perfect, but perhaps you see my point. The cuckold, incidentally, is not merely science itself, but everyone everywhere, and those yet unborn. Who knows how much better our world would be if we had birthed a culture of genuine intellectual honesty in the year 1200 (or 2000)?

So the fact that you find yourself surrounded by scientists and other smart people who may be a little “woolly” on the subject of God is evidence of absolutely nothing worth discussing (on my account), apart from the fact that it seems to have led you to miss the bigger picture and to speak and write in such a way as to give shelter to the deeply religious, powerfully irrational, and shockingly retrograde convictions of entire cultures and subcultures. This is not (as you have charged) to paint religion with a broad brush. I am very quick to distinguish gradations of bad ideas; some clearly have no consequences at all (or at least not yet); some put civilization itself in peril. The problem with dogmatism, however, is that one can never quite predict how terrible its costs will be. To use one of my favorite examples, consider the Christian dogma that human life begins at the moment of conception: On its face, this belief seems likely to only improve our world. After all, it is the very quintessence of a life-affirming doctrine.

Enter embryonic stem-cell research. Suddenly, this “life begins at the moment of conception” business becomes the chief impediment to medical progress. Who would have thought that such an innocuous idea could unnecessarily prolong the agony of tens of millions of people? This is the problem with dogmatism, no matter how seemingly benign: it is unresponsive to reality. Dogmatism is a failure of cognition (as well as a commitment to such failure); it is the state of being closed to new evidence and new arguments. And this frame of mind is rightly despised in every area of culture, on every subject, except where it goes by the name of “religious faith.” In this guise, parading its most grotesque faults as virtues, it is granted a special dispensation, even in the pages of Nature.

Your frequent claim that we must understand religious belief as a “social construct,” produced by “societal causes,” dependent upon “social and cultural institutions,” admitting of “sociological questions,” and the like, while it will warm the hearts of most anthropologists, is either trivially true or obscurantist. It is part and parcel of the double standard that so worries me—the demolition of which is the explicit aim of The Reason Project.

Epidemiology is also a “social construct” with “societal causes,” etc.—but this doesn’t mean that the germ theory of disease isn’t true or that any rival “construct”—like one suggesting that child rape will cure AIDS—isn’t a dangerous, deplorable, and unnecessary eruption of primeval stupidity. We either have good reasons or bad reasons for what we believe; we can be open to evidence and argument, or we can be closed; we can tolerate (and even seek) criticism of our most cherished views, or we can hide behind authority, sanctity, and dogma. The main reason why children are still raised to think that the universe is 6,000 years old is not because religion as a “social institution” hasn’t been appropriately coddled and cajoled, but because polite people (and scientists terrified of losing their funding) haven’t laughed this belief off the face of the earth.

We did not lose a decade of progress on stem-cell research in the United States because of religion as a “social construct”; we lost it because of the behavioural and emotional consequences of a specific belief. If there were a line in the book of Genesis that read – “The soul enters the womb on the hundredth day (you idiots)” – we wouldn’t have lost a step on stem-cell research, and there would not be a Christian or Jew anywhere who would worry about souls in Petri dishes suffering the torments of the damned. The beliefs currently rattling around in the heads of human beings are some of the most potent forces on earth; some of the craziest and most divisive of these are “religious,” and so-dubbed they are treated with absurd deference, even in the halls of science; this is a very bad combination—that is my point.

For the purposes of this discussion, the only “social construct” that I am worried about is the one which convinces a journal like Nature that its paramount duty is to be polite in the face of Iron Age delusions. If ever there were a place to call a spade a “spade,” it is in the pages of the world’s most authoritative scientific publication. Let me remind you that the physiologist Rupert Sheldrake had his scientific career neatly decapitated, in a single stroke, by a Nature editorial. Did his vaguely “woolly” thesis about “morphogenetic fields” deserve at least a ride in a tumbrel? Perhaps. Was his book, A New Science of Life, as flagrantly unscientific as Francis Collins’, The Language of God? Not by a long shot.  As I have pointed out, the journal’s treatment of Collin’s risible theology has been abject. You’ve also cited Ziauddin Sardar with admiration—but his whitewash of Islam in the pages of Nature was a travesty. Here again is the “social construct” and the double standard that you fail to acknowledge. Religion is probably the most consequential and divisive species of ignorance at work in the world today, and yet it is systematically shielded from criticism, even where it explicitly conflicts with science, and even in the world’s most important scientific journal. Amazing.

Of course, all that you have written is of a piece with the inertia felt in the rest of the scientific community: most scientists are simply out of touch with the religious infatuations that rule the better part of humanity; when in touch, they can’t be bothered to take them seriously. I have met anthropologists who will say, with a straight face, that no one in the Muslim world actually believes in martyrdom, and no jihadist has ever blown himself up with an expectation of entering paradise: it’s all politics and terrestrial grievances and “social constructs” and “societal causes” as far as the eye can see. A quip by Steven Weinberg comes to mind (said in reference, I think, to post-modern critiques of science): “You have to be very learned to be that wrong.” Indeed, one does—and many are. If there is anything good that can be said about the Bible-thumpers in my country, it is that they understand that the Muslim world is ablaze with old-time religion. Needless to say, devout Muslims return the favor.  It is the scientists, secularists, and religious moderates—still licking their spoons of Karen Armstrong’s latest pabulum—who are so often confused, mistaking even their confusion itself for wisdom.

Best,
Sam

Dear Sam,

From what you say, it seems that my article tapped into a reservoir of ill will towards Nature on this issue. Perhaps that explains some of the vehemence of your response. But I am not in any sense speaking ‘for’ Nature, and any views the journal has published on these matters in the past were not mine.

In any case, I think we are (this may surprise you) agreed on the nature of the problem in some respects. That’s to say, I share your view that many of the alleged ‘facts’ that comprise most religious belief – the existence of a deity (or deities), that deity’s capacity to intervene in the world in supernatural ways, the whole paraphernalia of miracles, afterlife, saints, sin, absolution, virgin births, resurrections – are not just outside of science but fundamentally incompatible with a scientific view of the world. And while some agnostics might insist that we cannot ‘know’ that a god does not exist, this does not compel us to give the ‘for’ and ‘against’ possibilities equal weight. We shouldn’t imagine things into being without good reason to do so.

Where we part company is largely (though not entirely) over the practical question of what is the appropriate response to all this. If I have understood it correctly, your view is that, while science need not embark on a crusade to wipe out religion, scientists should at every opportunity criticize religious belief for being a groundless fantasy that encumbers people with false hopes and obstructive (even destructive) dogma. My view is that science need not feel so threatened by religion. Clearly, science sometimes has been and is explicitly threatened and hindered by religion – the stem-cell issue is one such. But I don’t regard this as inevitable (after all, by no means all Christians were opposed to stem-cell research). When scientific advance is blocked because of superstitious beliefs, we should be unequivocal in condemning that (and elsewhere I have done so). However, I believe that sometimes resistance to new technologies and research has come from religious quarters for ethical reasons that one might also hold as an atheist, and which are defensible even if I don’t agree with them. So we need to consider those distinctions carefully.

You say it would be very difficult to find instances where ‘incoherence, wishful thinking, and dogmatism have aided scientific progress—or, in fact, progress of any kind.’ I’m not sure whether you mean to include all manifestations of religious faith as part of this ‘incoherence, wishful thinking, and dogmatism’, but one can certainly make a case that religion has sometimes played a role in promoting a scientific outlook. Since the time of William of Conches in the twelfth century, some people have considered it a religious duty to explore and understand ‘God’s creation’. It seems quite likely that one’s objectivity in doing that is likely to be ultimately compromised if one insists on continuing to see it as God’s creation; but as it happened, this exploration, initiated as a religious imperative, in the end found ever less use for God. Similarly, the value accorded to scientific learning in the Muslim world in the eighth to the twelfth centuries drew some impetus from the interpretation of Islam then in favour.

You might say ‘But wouldn’t have it been even better if people had studied science without reference to God at all?’ But this, as well as your suggestion that we might have ‘birthed a culture of genuine intellectual honesty in the year 1200’, seems to me ahistorical. I can think of no plausible route from the embers of the Roman Empire to the Enlightenment that would not have been centred in Christianity (unless the Muslims had conquered Europe, perhaps – but that was never really their wish). I’m not wishing to make religion the champion of free thought here (God forbid), but only to suggest that the issues are more complex than you seem to want to allow.

Moreover, there is plenty of non-religious dogma that has hindered science too – think of Lysenkoism and the Nazis’ criticisms of ‘Jewish science’. I realise that of course you will deplore these too – but my point is that if, by some bizarre circumstance, Europe had ditched religion in 1200, I’m not sure we could necessarily expect the state of knowledge to be any better today than it is. Some other social construct seems likely to have come along and foiled the Baconian utopia. That, sadly, is what we humans do.

I think we also differ in that you are more of an idealist – perhaps more of an optimist – and I am more of a realist. I think that religion, or ideologies that are mostly indistinguishable from it, are a part of human society. I feel that science needs to find ways of working with that. And I say this not as a defeatist statement of resignation, but just as a recognition of the nature of humanity. I happen to feel – in fact, I am fully confident of it – that religion has made positive contributions to the human condition, as well as unambiguously negative ones. You might again argue that those things, such as charity, can and do exist without religion, and this is surely true. But to my mind, religion is for many people an expression of the very human impulses that allow us to be (for example) charitable. In any event, I suspect that we can no more expect to eliminate religion (or something like it) from society than we can eliminate music.

If that is the case, I feel that science does need to find some way of working alongside religion rather than pouring scorn on it at every opportunity. The relationship doesn’t have to be cosy and convivial, and indeed I think in general it will be, and probably should be, a tense one. But I believe it can be good enough to prevent us from having to tilt at windmills. I agree with you that there should be no reason to handle religion with kid gloves for fear of offending. But neither do I see a need to thrash it like a furious parent, vilify it as though it were a loathsome criminal, or deride it as idiotic. I think we can afford to treat some aspects of religion in a forthright yet adult-to-adult fashion.

Perhaps the crux of the matter is your statement that, although the coexistence of science and religion in societies and in individuals is of course possible, it ‘does not in the least suggest that they are optimal—or, indeed, that they do not come at a terrible price.’ There is a great deal of distance between those two possibilities. If it is simply ‘not optimal’, it doesn’t seem a big deal. If it comes at a terrible price, we should worry. I suspect that both of those things, and all others in between, have applied at different times and places.

Incidentally, your ‘Hitler’ analogy sounds rather compelling until you consider that what you’re saying seems more like the following: rather than say ‘Hitler was German chancellor from 1933 to 1945’, one is always obliged to say ‘Hitler (in my opinion a vile and deranged antisemite) was chancellor from 1933 to 1945’. What is not said doesn’t always imply a particular point of view.

Best wishes,
Phil

DAY 5

Dear Phil –

I think we may be seeing the first rays of daylight. As I suspected, our dispute seems to be mostly about practical issues—When should we be scrupulously honest? How can science be best communicated given the state of popular opinion? Etc.—with regard to which intelligent people can have differences of opinion, while sharing the same a worldview. This is not to say that our differences of opinion are inconsequential. I happen to think that that the approach you advocate generally splits the baby and is currently doing much harm to the integrity of science. Perhaps I should mention in this context that I have just heard back from your employer regarding my letter to the editor. It was declined (with a form letter). While I don’t want to read too much into this, let me tell you why Nature’s behavior amazes me (and should amaze our readers) and how it exemplifies many of the problems we have been discussing:

1. Philip Campbell (Nature’s Editor in Chief) contacted me personally in response to your article’s inclusion in The Reason Project Hall of Shame. He wrote to say that, as your views did not represent those of the journal, we appeared to be condemning Nature for printing “individual points of view.” This complaint struck me as something less than a masterpiece of candor, given Nature’s repeated coddling of religion and the fact that you are not just any scientist; rather, you are a “consultant editor for Nature” (and had been a physical sciences editor there for over a decade). But okay, I thought, perhaps I was wrong to assume that your column might in some way reflect the current position of the journal. Needless to say, I told Mr. Campbell that I was overjoyed that he published “individual points view.” Perhaps, he would consider printing another—and then I appended my letter to the editor.

2. In submitting this letter to Campbell, I made it clear that some of the most prominent scientists on the Reason Project advisory board had contributed to it and were eager to sign it as co-authors, if this would make it more attractive to him from a publishing point of view. I didn’t name names, but I more or less gave him his pick of a dozen 800 lb gorillas. Campbell told me that the journal would be back in touch soon.

3. Weeks passed. You were kind enough to check on the letter’s fate and learned that there was some speculation on Nature’s part about whether our debate-in-progress might make such a letter “redundant.”  Nevertheless, you heard that it might still be published, perhaps with a few edits.

4. This morning, some nameless correspondence editor or intern (email address = correspondence@nature.com) sent me a form letter regretting that my letter could not be published due to “limited space.” There was no offer of publication on Nature’s website.

So, here is where we stand: Nature‘s editors have just rejected a strongly worded letter written, as far as they know, by any possible combination of RP advisors. Again I don’t want to read too much into this, but given that we are talking about some of the most influential scientists and public intellectuals around, I find this a pretty remarkable editorial decision. Needless to say, “limited space” is euphemism—especially given the possibility of publication on the Internet.

It seems to me that there is still something that you (and Campbell) haven’t quite absorbed about the problem with, as you say, “working alongside religion.” By remaining politely silent and hoping to just get on with its work, the culture of science has enabled religious delusions of all kinds—because whenever it opens its mouth, all (real) religion claims to describe reality as it is. Silence in the face of these assertions is generally indistinguishable from assent. Of course, intellectual apathy on the part of individual scientists and their leading journals would be a bad thing all on its own, but add to this the advocacy of organizations like the Templeton Foundation, which uses its 1.5 billion dollar endowment to carefully blur the line between reason and faith, and the effect is an almost a total ceding of the argument in favor of religion.

Here is an example of “working alongside religion” in practice. You may remember that Nature recently published an editorial that read like a press release for the Templeton Foundation:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v454/n7202/full/454253b.html

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While it included a few mumbled lines about the difference between science and religion, the piece amounted to an almost giddy endorsement of John Templeton and the work of his foundation. Indeed, the greatest sin attributed to the Templeton foundation was that it sometimes supports areas of research deemed “marginal” by some scientists. And the examples Nature chose to highlight—positive psychology and cosmological theories that posit multiple universes—are, it seems to me, perfectly respectable fields of inquiry. The editorial included several unctuous and embarrassing assertions about John Templeton being “deeply spiritual” and inspired by “his love of science and his God”—as though statements of this kind begged no questions at all from the point of view of science. In its effort to keep “working alongside religion” (again, your phrase), Nature counselled “strict atheists” (who, by implication, must be outliers in the scientific community) to just “happily ignore” Templeton. The journal concluded that “critics’ total opposition to the Templeton Foundation’s unusual mix of science and spirituality is unwarranted.” While I can imagine Campbell felt he had struck a deft balance here, all things considered, this editorial constituted as forthright an act of fellatio as Templeton could have ever hoped to receive from the world’s leading scientific journal.

The Templeton Foundation’s work is quite a bit more insidious (and clever) than funding marginal research, or even obscenely silly projects like Collins’ BioLogos Foundation. Two examples of their work should suffice:

1. http://www.templeton.org/evolution/

2. http://www.templetonprize.org/currentwinner.html


Templeton’s recent advertisement about evolution (1. above), which appeared in almost every major newspaper and magazine in the United States, represents a very clever manipulation of scientific opinion. When faced with the question “Does Evolution Explain Human Nature?” even I would have said something like “Not entirely.” Of course, Templeton knows that most people will only read the titles of these essays. The general effect of the page is to communicate the inadequacy of evolutionary theory and the perpetual incompleteness of science—and to encourage readers to draw the further the inference that one needs religion/faith to get all the way home to the Truth. It is an especially nice touch that the one unequivocal “Yes” comes from the journalist Robert Wright, who has become a committed apologist for religion. (Leave it to Francis Collins to deliver the eminently reasonable, “Not entirely.”) Thus, whichever door one opens in this fun house of obfuscation, one finds a message that is comforting to religion. An earlier ad entitled “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” played the same game with a carefully picked sample of respondents. Out of 12 responses, only two were direct answers of “No.” Glancing at the ad, one could only conclude that atheism must be a minority opinion in science. These ads amount to religious propaganda, pure and simple. And the Templeton foundation has spent millions of dollars on them (Full disclosure: I was asked to participate in an earlier series of ads, where I was told that the entire campaign would consist of one page of my heresy set against one page written by Francis Collins, to be placed in every major newspaper and magazine in the land. I declined.)

The d’Espagnat citation (2. above) produces a similar effect, at nauseating length. I’m not in a position to quibble with d’Espagnat’s science, nor do I intend to impugn him as a recipient of the Templeton Prize. But this citation represents another instance of religious propaganda. Reading it, one is given to understand that d’Espagnat would throw the full weight of his scientific reputation behind the following assertions: there is a hidden reality; science can’t quite glimpse it; religion offers a glimpse of its own; thus, religion and science are complimentary—but religion is likely the deeper of the two. Of course, the juxtaposition of a brilliant scientist and the “world’s largest annual award given to an individual” makes the Templeton Foundation appear both very important and intellectually credible. Whereas, in reality, all they are is a great pot of money surrounded by some very “woolly” ideas.

How is it possible that Campbell doesn’t see the problem with all this?  Why wouldn’t Nature feel that it was editorially bound to draw the CLEAREST POSSIBLE distinction between real science and ancient delusions? After all, Nature fancies that it can distinguish groundbreaking science from merely pedestrian science—publishing only the former. Why can’t it see that there is a distinction of much greater consequence to society, and to the future of science, that it should also make: there is a difference, after all, between having good reasons for what one believes and having bad ones. Incidentally, this is the only distinction one needs to become a “strict” atheist.

All of this runs to the larger issue of intellectual honesty. Perhaps we can define “intellectual honesty” as the ratio between what a person has good reason to believe and what he will assert to be true. In the ideal case, this number would equal 1, and in science it approaches as near to 1 as it does anywhere in human discourse. It seems to me that most religions subsist, and even thrive, on values that can be brought arbitrarily close to zero for centuries on end—and, indeed, grow smaller the longer any religious authority speaks about content of the faith. This disparity between what counts for honesty in serious discourse, depending on the topic, is as strange as it is consequential. Is it really so “idealistic” to think that a journal like Nature might object to it?

Best,
Sam


Dear Sam,
I’m glad that you see ‘some rays of daylight’, by which I take you to mean, if not convergence then at least understanding of our positions. I’d like to feel that it should always be possible to be scrupulously honest in these matters, as well as polite as far as is warranted – I’m not sure there should ever be reason to hold back from saying to a religious believer ‘I feel there is no credible evidence for what you believe’ (so long as they don’t have a gun in their hand). But neither do I feel an obligation to say that at every opportunity, or to think that the debate ends there.

Incidentally, I note that I will no doubt be seen as one of those atheists who Richard Dawkins laments under the rubric ‘I’m an atheist but…’. But I’m not bowled over by Richard’s responses to the five variants he lists. For example, in suggesting that religion is a social construct I might be construed as a Type 1: “I’m an atheist, but religion is here to stay. You think you can get rid of religion? Good luck to you! You want to get rid of religion? What planet are you living on? Religion is a fixture. Get over it!’ That is (I hope this is clear by now) not at all how I’d put it, and frankly I don’t know whether it is ‘here to stay’ or not (who could?). I simply observe that since time immemorial human societies have organized themselves into hierarchical systems based on more or less arbitrary tenets, of which religions are a prominent example. That’s what we’re dealing with. I think this is probably a more productive way to regard the situation than to think that humans are ritualistically inculcated into stupidity for which a dose of cold reason is the cure. (It’s a shame, incidentally, that Richard doesn’t really address this position, but just caricatures it.)

And let’s not forget that, however much you might disagree with my position, it makes me closer to your own than Darwin was. (There is no tenable defence of the idea that he called himself an ‘agnostic’ rather than an atheist merely to spare people’s feelings.) But I don’t figure on seeing Darwin in your Hall of Shame any time soon…

It’s a pity that Nature rejected your letter, not least because that issue clearly preoccupied you in your last response. The problem is that I am not Nature, nor a spokesperson for Nature, nor in any way disposed to defend its decisions. The matters you cite had nothing to do with me. And while it is true that both Phil Campbell and I feel there is something to be said for ‘working alongside religion’, I don’t intend this to mean ‘remaining politely silent and hoping to just get on with its work’. I simply feel we need to choose our battles. And while you suggest that the distinction between science and religion is that of ‘having good reasons for what one believes and having bad ones’, I would disagree. By ‘good reasons’, you presumably mean ones that can be logically defended on the basis of objective evidence. I know plenty of religious people who believe because it helps them in life and makes them feel better. That seems a pretty good reason to me, even if I don’t share the view. (I hope it’s clear that, if ‘good reasons’ like that lead people to deny evolution or refuse blood transfusions, my magnanimity soon evaporates. I guess that makes me one of those British empiricists.) 

I’ll say this about the Nature decision, however. I’m not a fan of form letters, although I worked long enough as an editor to understand the occasional need for them. My problem is that, as you say, they are euphemistic and often give little clue to the real reasons for a decision. I simply don’t know what the reason was in this case – it may really have been ‘limited space’, for all I know (for indeed space is limited). But I wish that had been made more explicit. However, bear in mind that it is almost unheard of for a letter about an opinion piece published only online to be given even a moment’s consideration for the print journal – normally the position is that the online-only content is completely separate from the print content, and so the latter does not carry comment on the former. Bear in mind also that you do not need permission to comment on the website – the feedback facility is open to all. (I suspect, however, that you were thinking in terms of something more than that.) There is also the consideration that the editors knew you intend to put some form of our dialogue online, and may feel that this will address the matter more adequately and comprehensively than a letter might have.

I was happy to help discover what Nature intended to do with your letter, but otherwise had no role in the decision (nor would it have been proper that I did, of course). I confess, however, to being a little surprised that you wanted to press on with having it published in the light of this exchange, which I feel has shown that your criticisms fall on a somewhat different target to the one the appears in your letter. I had hoped to assiduously avoid revisiting the issue, but the fact is that you have never refuted my argument that the letter misrepresents and misinterprets what I said, however much you continue to feel that I let religion too lightly off the hook. I’d be interested to know if any of ‘the most influential scientists and public intellectuals around’ would be inclined to defend putting their names to the letter in the light of this. I have deep respect for the scientists on your board, and would consider myself to be on warm terms with several of them – but even the most weighty of thinkers have to justify their positions. 

All the best,
Phil

DAY 6

Dear Phil –

Perhaps I was wrong about that daylight…

In any case, I think our debate has run its course. I’ve participated in enough of these exchanges to no longer be surprised when a proper meeting of the minds fails to occur. But I must say that my feelings of futility and boredom are always compounded, in a way that I fear will be shared by many of our readers, whenever I find myself grappling with the vapors of “I’m an atheist but…” The problem with this view—which I agree, well summarizes your own—is that it so often takes the form of simply missing the point. In fact, “I’m an atheist but…” generally represents a commitment to missing the point—as it derives most of its content from simply not seeing what all the fuss is about. Such obliviousness can always be given a positive spin (“we need to choose our battles”), but there is no escaping the fact that yours is the perspective of one who does not quite see the depth and scope of the problem. This position is easy enough to maintain: all one need do is avert one’s eyes. Indeed, the “I’m an atheist but…” school generally believes that ignoring the problem of religion is the wisest course of action (some call this “realism”). I hope it does not seem ad hominem when I say that your view of these matters strikes me as intellectually lazy—but it is lazy in the extreme. There is a certain genius in laziness, however, as it can never be proven wrong. Or, rather, it can never be made to notice when it has been, again and again.

While I have little hope of getting through to you at this late hour, I should address a few points in closing:  First, you seem to view my focus on Nature’s accommodation of religion as some kind of personal obsession and a distraction from the subject of our exchange. Here you have, I’m afraid, missed the point of our exchange (or at least missed my point in initiating it). In my view, your article was remarkable and worth debating for two reasons: (1) it appeared in Nature, and (2) it represented a further instance of Nature’s blinkered appeasement of religion. The point I have made repeatedly, and will now make one final time, is that it really matters that the world’s most influential scientific journal seems both deluded about religion and committed to remaining so. Had your article appeared in the Guardian, there would have been no reason for us to have this debate. (While I find it depressing, I actually expect a newspaper like the Guardian to pander to religion.)

Secondly, the fact that you can unselfconsciously assert that people believe in one or another religious doctrine “because it helps them in life and makes them feel better” and then say that this “seems a pretty good reason” to you indicates how little you have thought about the conflict between religion and science. If I told you that I believed that the H5N1 virus will never become a pandemic, or that string theory will be fully vindicated in the near future, or that complex life first developed on Mars and was later transferred to earth, and I gave as my reason for holding these beliefs that each “makes me feel better,” I am confident that your response would not be this “seems a pretty good reason to me.” Don’t you see how bizarre it is to accept such shoddy thinking with respect to the existence of a personal God or the divine origin of a specific book? A person cannot (or least should not be able to) believe something because it “makes him feel better.” The fact that people occasionally do manage such contortions is what renders phrases like “self-deception,” “wishful thinking,” “experimenter bias,” etc., so important to keep on hand.  Please notice that these phrases describe how it looks from the outside when people believe a proposition because “it makes them feel better.” Please also notice that this frame of mind represents a failure of cognition and reasoning that all sane people decry in every area of serious discourse but one.

A world in which people believe propositions merely because these propositions “make them feel better” is a world gone utterly mad. It is a world of private and irreconcilable epistemologies. It is a world where communication, even on the most important issues—perhaps especially on the most important issues—is guaranteed to fail. Of course, you have tried to arrest your slide into the abyss in your parenthetical remark about evolution and blood transfusions—but one can draw no such boundary unless one draws it based on some deeper principle. You cannot say that a person’s reason for believing in the virgin birth is “good” just so long as this belief has no negative consequences on his behavior. Whether a belief is well founded or not has nothing to do with its consequences.

Generally speaking, for a belief to be justified, our acceptance of it must be dependent upon its actually being true (and not be dependent upon how its being true would make us feel). [Note of clarification (6/26/09): The preceding sentence appears to have confused a few people, including Ball. I obviously do not mean that we can stand outside our minds and check that our beliefs correspond with reality before we believe them. I mean that to believe a proposition is to tacitly believe that you believe it because it is true—i.e. because you are situated in the world in such a way as to have received reliable evidence, arguments, etc. that support the belief; that you have not been misled, lied to, etc.; that your senses are intact; that you are not suffering a disorder of thought, etc. The point is, nothing but the apparent truth of a proposition should lead to the conviction that it is true. ] Needless to say, the preceding sentence does not suffice as full account of epistemology: uniting both science and commonsense and reconciling their frequent disagreements. But there can be no doubt about the difference between a belief that is overtly motivated by emotional bias (and other non-epistemic factors) and a belief that is comparatively free of such bias. I wonder if we will live to see the day when scientists and their leading journals might be counted upon to recognize this difference without having to be pilloried by “strict” atheists.

Your blithe acceptance that belief can be something other than epistemic—something other than an effort to reliably map reality in our thoughts—makes it impossible to differentiate belief from mere hope. I’m sure many people you know hope that there is a God; they hope that they will see their friends and loved ones after death; they hope that their lives are aligned with some larger cosmic purpose; and they are disposed to make much of this hope—to celebrate it, and to gather with others who hope for these same things. Your friends might say that this hope has enriched their lives or has in some way become indispensable to their functioning in the world. But if these friends of yours are really religious—that is, really conforming to the doctrine of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.—they will have taken a further step toward delusion and mistaken this hope for a form of knowledge. They may have yanked their bootstraps this way: “How could I find this hope so consoling if it were not, in fact, well founded? Perhaps this feeling of hopefulness itself attests to the truth of thing hoped for… Praise be to God!” Of course there are many other ways to chase one’s tail under the aegis of religion. Such “woolly” thinking is enabled by the fact that it almost never meets resistance, even from scientists (who, as we know, must “choose their battles”). It should be abundantly clear, however, that mere hope does not constitute knowledge, no matter how lovingly one tends it and props it up in the wind.

In your last email you summarize the situation as follows:

I simply observe that since time immemorial human societies have organized themselves into hierarchical systems based on more or less arbitrary tenets, of which religions are a prominent example. That’s what we’re dealing with. I think this is probably a more productive way to regard the situation than to think that humans are ritualistically inculcated into stupidity for which a dose of cold reason is the cure.


It is amazing that you can advance this as a serious position. First off, it is undeniable that most humans are “ritualistically inculcated into stupidity” from birth onwards by their religious parents. Second, it is a perverse (and highly condescending) article of faith among secular academics that people can never be reasoned out of their religious convictions. I have heard from literally thousands of people who used to believe in the God of Abraham—indeed, many used to be scriptural literalists—who were stripped of their faith after a proper collision with Reason. It is quite possible for people to notice how “woolly” their thinking has been, how they were part of a culture grown incandescent with lies, how their parents and elders raised them in a near total vacuum of critical thinking and in complete ignorance of the scientific worldview. Indeed, I once had the pleasure of having dinner with a woman who could pinpoint the very moment she lost her faith, as it had been purged from her mind that morning while reading one of my books. Her overwhelming feeling was of regret for all the time she had wasted over the course of her life. No doubt such a terrific sense of sunk cost keeps many people stuck to a pew. Perhaps not everyone can be reasoned out of his or her faith—but the problem is that we don’t know how fully people’s minds could change because we haven’t really tried (please don’t feel tempted to make yet another tendentious excursion into history and bring up the French Revolution or the gulag). You’d do well to notice how easily children can be reasoned out of their belief in Santa Claus. The all enter school as devout believers, and they all exit as perfect sceptics. How is this dialectical miracle accomplished? Quite simply: there is no cultural support for a belief in Santa past a certain age, and no one likes to be laughed at. Do we replace Santa Claus with anything? No. We just oblige people to grow up.

In any case, the problem isn’t that human societies are organized in “hierarchical systems based on more or less arbitrary tenets” (can you really be serious? It is rare to find such a crystalline example of academic cant. I think you’d be wise to remove the letters H-I-E-R-A from your keyboard for a while). The problem is that intellectual honesty is still a very scarce commodity in our world; we are rather bad at producing it, and it is taboo to even try once the conversation turns to the subject of God.

I realize that my tone of chastisement has probably grown very tedious and could be mistaken for hostility. But I can’t help but feel that there is a great asymmetry between our points of view – both in how fully they have been thought out and in their degree of the moral seriousness. I see the perpetuation of ancient tribalism and ignorance (read “religion”) to be a grave problem, and the source of much unnecessary suffering in the world; you claim that the problem is either not very serious or that it is unavoidable—in either case there is not much to be done. You do not seem to see what an astonishing number of the world’s conflicts and missed opportunities arise from people’s false knowledge about God, and when specific instances are pointed out to you, you deem them to be inevitable (if it’s not religion it would be something else), or you defensively say, well of course I object to that instance of religious stupidity: parents shouldn’t withhold blood transfusions from their children!... But the truth is, a comprehensive response to the problem of religious ignorance is possible, and a piecemeal response is totally unprincipled and bound to seem so. Our world has be shattered, and is reliably shattered anew with each subsequent generation, by irreconcilable claims about God and his magic books. Until we stop enabling these competing delusions—by our silence and by our silly attempts to change the subject—we will have no one to blame but ourselves when medieval ideas come crashing into public life—as they do, and will, to our great detriment.

But enough… As I said at the outset, I sincerely appreciate your willingness to debate these issues at length. I remain hopeful that exchanges like this are useful (for someone, somewhere, sometime), whether or not the participants themselves budge an inch.

Thanks for your time, Phil. I wish you all the best,

Sam

 

Dear Sam,

One somewhat frustrating aspect of this exchange for me has been that you seem to insist that any disagreement with your point of view is not genuine disagreement as such but is missing the point. My sense is that you cannot conceive how any sane, rational person can hold a point of view different from your own, so that if they insist on doing so, they are obviously being either obtuse or stupid. Your first long paragraph is all rhetoric along those lines. I’d add here that, while I won’t accuse you of intellectual laziness, I do feel that your absolutism is, like most absolutisms, the easy way out. There is then always a right answer, and your convictions supply it ready-made. I understand everything you say about religion being generally filled with irrational beliefs, and it would be very easy for me too to say that ‘people should not believe anything for bad or invalid or flaky reasons, and therefore we must strive to ensure that they never do.’ I suspect that philosophers might find that an epistemologically dodgy position to take, but I can see that it makes life easy. I don’t find it either attractive or useful, however.

In your second paragraph, I fear that – dare I say – you have yourself missed the point in regard to Nature. Had I written a column saying that thank goodness the Reason Project has finally appeared to blast away Francis Collins and all apologists of that ilk, Nature would have published it. It is a matter of indifference to me whether you will scoff at this statement; I simply know it to be true. I can see that as it stood, my column fed into your disenchantment with what Nature has said before. But it is utterly independent of that, and to think otherwise is to become a conspiracy theorist.

But to the meat of your argument. I stated in my original article that at least your position can claim some philosophical rigour. I think this is the one aspect of the piece I might now have to withdraw. You say:

“If I told you that I believed that the H5N1 virus will never become a pandemic, or that string theory will be fully vindicated in the near future, or that complex life first developed on Mars and was later transferred to earth, and I gave as my reason for holding these beliefs that each “makes me feel better,” I am confident that your response would not be this “seems a pretty good reason to me.” Don’t you see how bizarre it is to accept such shoddy thinking with respect to the existence of a personal God or the divine origin of a specific book? A person cannot (or least should not be able to) believe something because it “makes him feel better.””

There are two answers to this. One is at the human level. Let’s imagine a person, say a well educated doctor, who has thought deeply about the religious faith he feels, and concludes that it is something he cherishes and finds meaningful and doesn’t interfere with his trust in science. His faith in God is valuable to him. Now, you will say he is deluded and hasn’t thought deeply enough about all the contradictions this creates. I believe that he holds an incorrect belief about the world. But do I think that it is intolerable that he should continue to find solace in his belief? No, I think that the fact that he finds solace in it makes it perfectly rational on one level for him to maintain that belief, even if it is irrational in other respects. It is rational to do what makes us feel good. That doesn’t always make it right for us to do so, but that’s another matter. Your charge is that the problem comes because this chap considers he has a form of knowledge – he thinks he knows there is a God. Yes, often this is what happens for people who are superficially religious, and many, many are. And here they are plain wrong, I don’t dispute that. If my chap thinks this way, he is mistaken. Hold the front page: ‘Man is mistaken’. But if he knows his theology, he knows why religion – and in honesty I only really know about Christianity here – emphasizes faith, not knowledge.

Let me add that it strikes me that we have different imaginary ‘believers’ in sight. I agree with you that it would be condescending to think that no believer could ever be dissuaded from their belief by logical argument. Indeed, if they’ve been insulated from any logical thinking, they might very well be susceptible to that approach. But it is equally condescending to think that believers only believe because they’ve never thought seriously about the issues. I suspect that the ‘convert’ you mention had never had the opportunity or means to do so. Not all believers are like her.

Here is my other answer to your passage above. If you told me you believed those things about bird flu and string theory and life on Mars because they make you feel better, I’d say, well, we’ll find out won’t we? We’ll some day have objective evidence that proves or disproves your belief. If you told me that you believed in God because this gives your life meaning, am I going to say the same thing? Not if I know the first thing about philosophy. Despite what Richard Dawkins has asserted, the existence of God is not amenable to scientific testing. Or rather, we could come across evidence that God exists, but not that he doesn’t. But that’s the problem, you say! Yes, that is the problem. That is why belief in God holds no meaning for me. But it also means that your comparison here is utterly bogus.

A better analogy might be with someone who believes the universe will last forever ‘because it makes me feel better’. (I’m not totally sure that this isn’t scientifically falsifiable, but it’s hard to see how it might be given the present state of play.) That doesn’t sound so objectionable, does it? It sounds rather meaningless to me, but I’m not sure it need incite our outrage.

You might reasonably say that what is objectionable is if this person expects others to take his belief seriously and treat it with respect, and even to create academic departments and organizations devoted to exploring it. To put it another way (which you might recognize), we would not rush to create faculties of leprechology just because someone chose to believe in leprechauns. This is fair enough. But I believe it is disingenuous to compare the major religions with a belief in leprechauns, or even with a belief in the eternity of the universe. The major religions have an ethical code, a rich tradition of art, they are woven into social and cultural fabrics. (All of it based on a false premise, you might say, or rather, on a premise that is unfalsifiable and for which there is not a shred of evidence.) But my view is that, at its best, religions can provide ways to think about the human condition. I don’t believe it is fair to simply dismiss them as childish. I would like to think, as I suspect you do, that everything that is positive about religion could also be attained without a belief in God, let alone miracles and saints and all the rest. (I do suspect that ritual is less dispensable.) But it seems unfair to deny that religion has any of these good aspects, as well as undoubtedly becoming encumbered with a great deal of dogmatism, delusion and claptrap (much of which does not necessarily accord with good theology).

Onward. I’m not clear why you object to the notion that human societies tend to be organized ‘in hierarchical systems based on more or less arbitrary tenets’, because here again you use rhetoric in place of debate. I live in one; you live in one. Over a billion people in China live in one. Martin Luther lived in one. Your point is?

You say ‘You do not seem to see what an astonishing number of the world’s conflicts and missed opportunities arise from people’s false knowledge about God’. Which are you going to cite – Northern Ireland? Iraq? The Crusades? If only it wasn’t for that pesky God and his offspring, all these places would have lived in blissful peace! The Taliban? – why, they’d be lovely folks if they weren’t Muslim extremists! How wonderful, how simple and easy, to be able to blame all these things on a false belief in gods! Gosh, this counterfactual history is easier than I ever imagined!

Sorry, facetiousness is no help. I am afraid that I fall into it here as a substitute for real anger, because I find it maddening to see the suggestion that sectarian violence in Belfast, tribal conflict in Iraq, Hindu-Muslim violence in India, and goodness knows how much else suffering in the world could be solved if we could just persuade people to give up their ridiculous faiths. I fully accept that it is no good either to simply say, as I know some do, ‘Oh, it’s only human nature, and religion is just the excuse.’ No, the truth is, sadly, much more complicated. And that is why I think the answers are too. But I have been left from our exchange with the feeling that ‘complicated’ is for you just a cop-out. I guess maybe that is where we fundamentally disagree. You seem to feel that any attempt to introduce into the debate considerations about culture, history, society and politics are unwelcome and even willfully deceitful diversions from the main business of demolishing religions for believing in things for which there is no evidence. That seems to be your ‘point’ – I’m afraid I simply can’t accept it.

Thank you for engaging in this debate. It has helped to focus my own thinking, and I hope you have seen some value in it too.

Best wishes,
Phil

Postscript: Disputing the Indisputable

I have now had an opportunity to cool down (a little) and read some of the postmortem commentary on my debate with Philip Ball. I have also had a chance to read Ball’s response to my last volley, which appeared on his blog (and is now posted above). I’d like to add a postscript here, just to correct some misconceptions. Here are a few responses to questions and concerns that have been raised in various comment-threads and in emails to this website:

1. Why were you so attacking of Ball?

For those you who found me uncharacteristically shrill (and didn’t like it), I agree that I got a little angry in this debate and let it show. I don’t feel the need to apologize, exactly, because I feel that some anger was appropriate in this circumstance. But insofar as it distracted from the points being made, it was probably counterproductive. The point of such an exchange, after all, is communication. Adding to my frustration with Ball, however, was the sense that our debate had grown long and boring (The remedy: now make it even longer and more boring…). Speaking personally, I can attest that there is an emotional cost to having to say the same things over and over again, especially when in dialog with very smart people, and especially when those things shouldn’t have to be said in the first place. This has now become an occupational hazard. Happily, in my current work—finishing my dissertation (and next book)—I have moved on to new subjects. So there is no need to worry about my sanity (for the moment).

Though I repeated it several times in the debate, many readers still do not seem to appreciate that Nature is the most influential scientific journal on earth. If the culture of science is not going to tell the truth about religion in the pages of Nature, it simply won’t tell the truth. I was not, contrary to many readers’ impressions, arguing that everyone must attack religion at all times—at Christmas dinner, at the office, in a closed elevator, when getting their hair cut, etc. That has never been my position. In fact, I have always said that it seems appropriate (in fact, necessary) to say things in a public lecture or in print that one would not say in an ordinary social setting.  This is not hypocrisy. It is simply an acknowledgment of two facts: 1) certain situations matter much more than others when it comes to spreading ideas; 2) you will needlessly alienate people, and drive yourself crazy, if you attack bad ideas (religious or otherwise) wherever and whenever you encounter them. So I was not arguing that Ball or anyone else should browbeat their friends, family, and colleagues on all subjects with scientific rigor. I was arguing that scientists, especially when discussing ideas in the most important forums, should not split the difference between intellectual honesty and fairy tales.

2. Why can’t you recognize how complicated human life is? Do you really think all human conflict is the product of religion?

Human life is indeed complicated, and I would never dream of arguing that all human conflict is the product of religion. There is no question, however, that religious beliefs give rise to specific problems that would not otherwise exist. Secular academics often take refuge in hand-waving references to life’s complexity as a surrogate for speaking honestly about how idiotic and consequential certain ideas are—or, worse, many academics are so confounded by notions of complexity, and so out of touch with what people of genuine religious conviction actually believe, that they imagine that religious beliefs have no effect on the world whatsoever.  In any case, both types of accommodationists fail to understand how grotesque and unnecessary certain complications of human life are.

Despite the complexity of our world, the difference between good and evil often comes down to the specific consequences of specific beliefs. As I’ve said before, if the Qur’an contained a surah which read “Please caricature the Prophet to the best of your ability, for this pleases Allah. When you laugh, Allah and his prophet’s laugh with you,” there would not have been a cartoon controversy (on the contrary, there likely would be a strong tradition of Muslim cartooning). My contention is this: add one line to the Qur’an and hundreds of thousands of people would not have rioted, burned embassies, called for the deaths of newspaper editors, and generally expressed their hostility to civil society in response to some drawings in a Danish newspaper. Is this silly “counterfactual history” (as Ball alleges)? No, it’s a quite reasonable inference about the behavioral consequences of a specific belief. Specific beliefs matter; it is a bad idea to keep an entire category of beliefs (no matter how crazy or divisive) immune from criticism.

Let’s look more closely at Ball’s notion of life’s daunting complexity (from his last post):

You say ‘You do not seem to see what an astonishing number of the world’s conflicts and missed opportunities arise from people’s false knowledge about God’. Which are you going to cite – Northern Ireland? Iraq? The Crusades? If only it wasn’t for that pesky God and his offspring, all these places would have lived in blissful peace! The Taliban? – why, they’d be lovely folks if they weren’t Muslim extremists! How wonderful, how simple and easy, to be able to blame all these things on a false belief in gods! Gosh, this counterfactual history is easier than I ever imagined!

Sorry, facetiousness is no help. I am afraid that I fall into it here as a substitute for real anger, because I find it maddening to see the suggestion that sectarian violence in Belfast, tribal conflict in Iraq, Hindu-Muslim violence in India, and goodness knows how much else suffering in the world could be solved if we could just persuade people to give up their ridiculous faiths. I fully accept that it is no good either to simply say, as I know some do, ‘Oh, it’s only human nature, and religion is just the excuse.’ No, the truth is, sadly, much more complicated. And that is why I think the answers are too. But I have been left from our exchange with the feeling that ‘complicated’ is for you just a cop-out. I guess maybe that is where we fundamentally disagree. You seem to feel that any attempt to introduce into the debate considerations about culture, history, society and politics are unwelcome and even willfully deceitful diversions from the main business of demolishing religions for believing in things for which there is no evidence. That seems to be your ‘point’ – I’m afraid I simply can’t accept it.

This is the sort of stuff that could make a person angry all over again… Ball is trying have things both ways (as he was throughout our debate): on the one hand, the fundamental problem is NOT religion (and I’m a simpleton for thinking that it is); on the other, OF COURSE religion is sometimes involved, so he’s well aware of the problem of religion (and it’s very bad form for me not to acknowledge how clear he has been in his opposition to the bad effects of religious “extremism”). Okay… Let’s try to map this onto the world. Take the Taliban for starters: Who does Ball imagine the Taliban would be if they weren’t “Muslim extremists”? They are, after all, Homo sapiens like the rest of us. Let’s change them by one increment: wave a magic wand and make them all Muslim moderates… Now how does the world look? Do members of the Taliban still kill people for adultery? Do they still throw acid in the faces of little girls for attempting to go to school? No. The specific character of their religious ideology—and its direct and unambiguous link to their behavior—is the most salient thing about the Taliban. In fact, it is the most salient thing about them from their own point of view. All they talk about is their religion and what it obliges them to do.

We can also look at this from the other side: consider the fact that a middle class, western educated, white guy (John Walker Lindh) decided to join the Taliban. Why did he do this? Was Johnny (A) the victim of a monstrously complicated nexus of forces emanating from “culture, history, society and politics” embedded within “hierarchical systems based on more or less arbitrary tenets”, or (B) a teenage seeker of religious truth who happened to gravitate toward Islam (as opposed to Hindu yoga, Scientology, Buddhism, or something else that might have attracted him, with different results), brainwashed himself with the Qur’an, went to Pakistan for further “study,” and one thing led to another? Ummm… B.

Would there be conflict over land and other resources without religion? Yes. Are there other forms of tribalism and in-group/out-group thinking that have nothing to do with religion? Of course. But what seems to me to be undeniable, is that there are countless instances of terrible things done (and noble things left undone) because of specific religious beliefs. Some of the conflicts Ball cites would not have occurred (or would have been vastly ameliorated) without the influence of religion. A million people died during the partitioning of India and Pakistan. Would a million people have died if there had been Hindus on both sides? Very likely not. In fact, it is doubtful that the subcontinent would have been partitioned in the first place. Would the violence in Iraq be the same if it were all Sunni or all Shiite? Of course not. (The country may even be more coherently united against its western occupiers, but that is another matter, and one that is also energized by religious difference).

More relevant to my debate with Ball is the fact that bad things are often done (and good things thwarted) by people who should know better—and who have had every opportunity to know better but for the fact that we live in a world in which criticizing specific religious ideas remains taboo. Barack Obama should not have come this far in life only to still believe that gay marriage is a sin because “his Christian faith” tells him so. Francis Collins shouldn’t be standing on the pinnacle of American science defending (and recommending) belief in a specific set of denominational miracles. Both men, while in favor of embryonic stem-cell research, find it a difficult moral dilemma that must be struggled with (it’s not, and only someone deluded by notions of souls in Petri dishes could think that it is). The fact that these smart, successful, and influential men espouse such views should not be attributed to social constructs and cultural hierarchies when it can be readily attributed to the fact that such beliefs are assiduously shielded from criticism everywhere in our society—even in the pages of Nature.

3. Why didn’t you admit that you misinterpreted—and, therefore, unfairly attacked—Ball’s original article?

I didn’t admit this because I don’t believe it to be true—as evidenced by virtually everything Ball has written subsequently. What I was hoping to avoid, and what Ball continually tried to provoke, was a tit-for-tat style of debate—you said I said X, but what I really said (or meant) was Y. Such exchanges are deadly boring. Consequently, there were many specific charges Ball raised, which I did not answer, not because they could not be answered, but because answering them would have taken a turn toward pettiness and irrelevancy. For instance, I made an analogy about Hitler:

To use an admittedly crude example: if the only thing a person can think to say about the morality of Adolph Hitler is that he was a “committed vegetarian,” this would say rather more by way of omission. In your Nature column, and in this exchange, what you haven’t said matters more than you seem to realize.

And Ball responded in a way that conveniently misconstrued my analogy and claimed, thereby, that I had made a serious misstep. He devoted a closing paragraph to this silliness:

Incidentally, your ‘Hitler’ analogy sounds rather compelling until you consider that what you’re saying seems more like the following: rather than say ‘Hitler was German chancellor from 1933 to 1945’, one is always obliged to say ‘Hitler (in my opinion a vile and deranged antisemite) was chancellor from 1933 to 1945’. What is not said doesn’t always imply a particular point of view.

I could have responded by pointing out his distortion (notice that in my original analogy I made it clear that one would be discussing Hitler’s morality, not his place in history, his mustache, or anything else. From my point of view, Ball’s entire point was a waste of words. Rather than waste more words responding to such distractions, I rely on readers to notice when my opponent is being silly. As it turns out, some readers don’t. I find this painful, but not as painful as going back and forth in a way that is guaranteed to bore everyone and address nothing of substance.

All of Ball’s specific complaints about my misinterpreting his original article struck me as spurious. Nearly everything he wrote, even in his last volley, suggests to me that he does not understand the problem of religion. His flippancy about the Taliban, Iraq, etc. in his last post reveals how deep our disagreement actually runs.


In closing, I would like examine a paragraph from Ball’s last post, because it seems to commit several important errors in a relatively brief space. Here he responds to my claim that people should not be able to believe a proposition because it “makes them feel better.” I will give my reactions in the text in brackets:

There are two answers to this. One is at the human level. [Not sure what other level we might be talking about, but okay.] Let’s imagine a person, say a well educated doctor, who has thought deeply about the religious faith he feels, and concludes that it is something he cherishes and finds meaningful and doesn’t interfere with his trust in science. [Does Francis Collins qualify as one of these doctors? Because he says his faith poses no conflict with his science; and yet, rather than seek a scientific explanation for the origins of life, this medical geneticist tells us that God created everything, that Jesus is his Son, sacrificed for our sins, etc. His evidence? He feels better—and he felt really good looking at a frozen waterfall. Oh, and morality, that is proof of God too, because there is no way it could have come into being without Him. Does this way of thinking conflict with our growing understanding of morality in evolutionary and neurobiological terms? You be the judge.] His faith in God is valuable to him. Now, you will say he is deluded and hasn’t thought deeply enough about all the contradictions this creates. [Agreed.] I believe that he holds an incorrect belief about the world. [That is a relief to hear.] But do I think that it is intolerable that he should continue to find solace in his belief? [I wouldn’t say that it is “intolerable” either. I just think we shouldn’t exonerate this belief in the pages of Nature.] No, I think that the fact that he finds solace in it makes it perfectly rational on one level for him to maintain that belief, even if it is irrational in other respects. It is rational to do what makes us feel good. [You are equivocating on the term “rational.” It is rational to do things that make us feel good, in the sense that feeling good often provides a sufficient reason for doing these things. “Why did you get a massage?” “Because I thought it would feel good.” No problem there. That does not mean that you can justify a claim about the nature of reality because this claim makes you feel good. Claims about the nature of reality (i.e. beliefs) purport to be about reality not merely about how you feel. Francis Collins believes that that Jesus was resurrected from death. Such a belief—to be really believed—entails the corollary belief that one is not flagrantly in error, deluded, insane, self-deceived, etc. It entails the belief that one is in touch with reality in such a way that the truth of the proposition is itself the cause of one’s believing it. To knowingly believe a proposition just because it “makes you feel good” is either not possible or a very tenuous form of belief. Imagine what it would be like to know that your belief that your wife is faithful is based purely on the way it makes you feel. How confident could you be of her fidelity if confronted with contrary evidence? How much money would you be willing to bet that she is faithful? etc. This is not how our minds work. Belief generally entails a claim to knowledge—however provisional, however lightly held, however probabilistic.] That doesn’t always make it right for us to do so, but that’s another matter. Your charge is that the problem comes because this chap considers he has a form of knowledge – he thinks he knows there is a God. Yes, often this is what happens for people who are superficially religious, and many, many are. [Wow. We have really traveled through the looking glass here. It’s the superficially religious who claim to know something about God? The really deeply religious people are aware that they believe things just to make them feel good? The people who spend all their time reading the Qur’an and the hadith, seeking fatwas for the their every action, and long to die as martyrs in the jihad because they are certain that every word of scripture is true—these are the “superficially religious” Muslims? And the ones who don’t really know what is in the Qur’an and hadith, or ignore it, these are the deeply devout?] And here they are plain wrong, I don’t dispute that. If my chap thinks this way, he is mistaken. Hold the front page: ‘Man is mistaken’. But if he knows his theology, he knows why religion – and in honesty I only really know about Christianity here – emphasizes faith, not knowledge. [Even with respect to Christianity, Ball’s musings are so unrepresentative of what is going on in the world as to not even be worth discussing. Is the Pope a sufficient representative of Catholicism—or is he too “superficial”? Does he not “know his theology”? Did Aquinas or Augustine know theirs? How on earth can Ball write as though the most deeply committed members of every faith, and the acknowledged experts on all matters of doctrine, disavow the very truth claims that define the faith—the Bible is the word of God, Jesus was born of virgin, etc.?]

Sorry to inflict this on everyone, but I couldn’t let it be said that there was no disagreement here, that it was all a perverse misunderstanding, etc.

Enough (for now).

Best,
Sam

 

 

 


 

Comments (309)

I understand where Phil is coming from and I applaud his consistent attempts to maintain politeness. However, I think his position is untenable and I think Sam is right - this is too important an issue to let politness get in the way of truth. There is absolutely no way that one can be intellectually honest as a scientist and believe that science and religion can coexist without harm to the former. And harm to science is to be deplored because it is the only path we have to real knowlege = truth.

Thanks for the debate guys. I was a good read and help me clarify a few things in my own mind.

Rob
Sydney, Australia

posted on June 24, 2009
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2. s. pimprnel

Sam, as usual, speaks the truth.

posted on June 24, 2009
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Thanks for taking the time to engage in this interesting correspondence and making it public. Thoughtprovoking and funny!

posted on June 24, 2009
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Where Religion begins reason suffers. Religion is inane and stops the progress of humanity. I don’t think praying an/or praising Santa will get you any more gifts at Xmas. There is more truth in “Alice in Wonderland” than in the Koran or the Bible.

posted on June 24, 2009
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I too was becoming truly frustrated by Mr. Ball’s failure to grasp what is at stake in this argument. Thanks and applause to you Sam for sticking it out as long as you did.

posted on June 24, 2009
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6. Evan Garrison

Brilliant discussion.  I lean very much toward Sam’s position, and I feel dispirited by the failure to get the agreement or understanding from Phil.  Keep up the fight Sam!

posted on June 24, 2009
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Ok, you both have made it clear that you are masters of the English language. Thanks so much for that.

But frankly this debate is a perfect example of how often intellectuals spend endless time arguing with each other over nuances—yes, Sam thinks this is far more than a nuance—while the real battle rages outside.

And, while I am a HUGE fan(atic?) of Sam Harris and the Reason Project, this debate smells something of either a PR stunt or retaliation.

btw: Mr. Ball’s original article was equally petty and over-nuanced imo.

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8. Barry Milliken

When Sam Harris is incorrect when says that Christian doctrine implies that Christ was “ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species”.  The truth about Christianity is morally even more revolting.  A “scapegoat” is someone who is both BLAMED and punished for the sins of others.  But while Christ was punished, he was not blamed.  According to Christian doctrine, “god the father” was actually just in requiring an innocent man to be cruxified so that that same “god the father” would be appeased and absolve the sins of the guilty.

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9. John Wilkinson

You were rightly put in the hall of shame Mr. Ball, and your banal platitudes and evasive reasoning here demonstrate why. The glory of the Reason project is to find that there is at least one other person who finds the obscurantist project of apologists like Armstrong to be perfectly appalling and intellectually lacking in integrity and basic seriousness.

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10. Barry Milliken

OOPS! Please ignore the first word in my last post.

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One raised here is just how wide-spread fundamentalist thinking is. Sam Harris thinks it more prevalent in Christianity than Phil Ball.
Another question seems to be whether Nature magazine just being civil to religion or actually being overly charitable?
Phil’s position seems to be that there are too many personal attacks on religion in some atheist circles. Calling a spade a spade can sometimes just cut off communication, so that you aren’t listened to any further. Deal with the merits of specific religious viewpoints, not with the people holding them, and use some sociological imagination in evaluating religion.
Sam Harris thinks Phil Ball’s position lacks ‘moral seriousness’, while Phil Ball thinks Harris position is strategically unwise.
I am inclined mostly to Phil Ball’s position

posted on June 24, 2009
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I think this whole cultural war of using science against religion is a waste of time. In other words, Dawkins, Hitchens and Harries are wasting their time. What needs to be spread is science and reason and not atheism. What needs to be opposed is religious fundamentalism, injustice and intolerance, not religion per se.  Belief in God or no God is a ultimately a personal philosophical/spiritual call. Let us live and let live.

posted on June 24, 2009
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@H

Ultimately atheism is a logical and inevitable consequence of properly applied science and reason. The key part of that phrase is “properly applied”. I would be thrilled if we lived in a world in which we could simply promote science and reason and rely on people to come to their own conclusions in an unbiased way.

Unfortunately, religion has such a strong influence throughout the world that it becomes a barrier to the proper application of science and reason. It is not enough to simply teach people about science and show them how to think rationally and critically. In order to achieve the proper application of science and reason we need to break down the barriers. Religion isn’t the only barrier but it is one of the most widespread, pervasive and tenacious. Atheism is the antithesis of religion and is therefore used to break down that barrier.

Once the barriers are broken down it will become much easier to effectively accomplish your goal of spreading science and reason.

posted on June 24, 2009
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Every religion gets up and calls all other religions “nonsense,” and yet the scientific community is expected to refrain from stating the obvious conclusion that they all are nonsense?  I am glad Sam has taken the position of standing up and calling the community to admit the obvious.  This is a big step from his former position of dropping the word Atheist and fading into the background.

posted on June 24, 2009
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15. Son of Rea

I really enjoyed that.

It really boils down to: Phil simply isn’t as passionate about refuting religion as Sam is, or wants others to be.

Not everyone can be a crusader. I feel no obligation to change my family’s belief system unless I see it somehow harming their well-being.

Most Christians I know are moderates, meaning they take from Christianity what is good: do unto others, be humble, meek, kind, etc.

They’ve learned to ignore most of the Bible, and just follow a system of beliefs that is convenient to them, as well as helpful.

One of religions biggest draws is community. I lack that kinship as an atheist. We don’t exactly have get-togethers and barbecues every Sunday morning.

posted on June 24, 2009
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Debates are great. Keep them coming Sam. Each one you publish offers us new tactics and ammunition.

In response to Son of Rea: Get to work. Start some get atheist BBQ’s. It’ll be awesome. Then those pesky religious moderates will have nothing over the secularists… practically. Also, read about Sam’s thoughts on moderates.

In an exchange such as this, I think the main thing that holds either party back from changing their position, is our general tendency to shame people (or even ourselves) for being wrong.

In businesses, schools, universities, and general conversation we’re absolutely paranoid about our credibility and our pride. I think we could encourage more fluidity in our worldviews if we were to demonstrate rigorous self-reflection in discussion, so as to set the example. Or at least recount times where we’ve done it. I just get the feeling that people don’t even know what the process of laying down your opinion for the greater truth even looks like.

I think there’s also a sort of stalemate factor where Ball may be waiting for Sam to concede something before he does himself.

posted on June 24, 2009
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Thank you both for an intriguing debate. After reading and listening to several debates of this kind I have realized that you don’t necessarily learn anything new about the subject but rather get lots of tips on debating technique -especially when the participants are at this level of discourse and not the least the english language.

I appreciated Sam calling Phil out on the argument of laziness since I too have suffered from hearing it.

Is the Templeton Foundation sponsoring Nature or otherwise have an influence on it? Does Nature want to smile some knowledge into the heads of the faithful? Do they fear the ‘atheist’ branding?

posted on June 24, 2009
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I’m really surprised that people seem to support Sam after reading these exchanges. I tend to oscillate between the sort of views represented by Sam and those of Phil, but reading this I could only really be sympathetic to Phil. I found Phil’s views to be well-expressed and well thought-out, but it seems any subtly at all in his position has been jumped on as ‘lazy’ etc, while Sam’s views seemed pre-decided. I have always been skeptical of the branding of any atheist sentiment as fundamentalist or simplistic, but I worry that if the Phils of the world are replaced by the Sams of the world things may be headed that way. I am also not convinced that people who claim atheism is a “logical and inevitable consequence of properly applied science and reason” really would be able to say exactly what science and reason actually are without resort to some vague notions of ‘scientific method’ etc that although good enough as a practical description/mission statement (though most often not even adhered to), are not logically indisputable nor necessary and so on. Finally,  I feel it is important for people to recognise the limits of their own viewpoints (no matter how right they really want them to be!) in order to engage with others. I saw no real evidence of this in Sam’s replies.

posted on June 24, 2009
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The reason to work at shutting down religion can be expressed in three words: Religion Kills People.

In this week alone religious belief has killed dozens of people in Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and the Sudan. It slaughters at least as many people—young, healthy people, many of them children—worldwide each year as heart disease does here in Australia. We have a multi-million-dollar budget for tackling heart disease—what’s our budget for shutting down religion? How much are Sam and all the rest getting paid for their tireless, tedious, endless work of slowly pushing back the tide? It’s no wonder that he gets a little tetchy with head-in-the-sand ostriches like Ball sometimes.

posted on June 24, 2009
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The point that critics of Harris are making is that no- religion doesn’t kill people, people kill people. If they didn’t have religion as a rationalization, they might come up with another one. Religion exacerbates conflict, but they have many other sources. Too many atheists like Harris don’t exercise enough sociological imagination to really understand the cultural roots of religion. While one may take issue with Karen Armstrong on many points, it was in this context that Phil Ball was citing her. Allowing non-toxic religion to wean people from toxic religion seems to me a good idea.

posted on June 24, 2009
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@JonJ
Again, this seems to miss many of the points raised by Phil Ball. I am not sure exactly how the Reason Project is going to do much about complicated political, social, economic, historical and yes religious issues without recognising the complexity of the real world and real people. It seems that arguments could be made for Sam (or maybe more so those who say they support him) also having their ‘heads in the sands’ to some extent if they believe that the world really is that simple. Again, don’t mistake these kind of sentiments as synonymous with ‘do nothing its too hard’ - they more express that the first step in implementing any push for changes is recognising the realities of the current situation. It does not seem wise to mistake the goal for the method for achieving the goal.

posted on June 24, 2009
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@ Pobjoy

>>Ultimately atheism is a logical and inevitable consequence of properly applied science and reason.<<

I disagree. There are other philosophical standpoints one could take, a few being agnosticism, deism, pantheism and panentheism.

>>Once the barriers are broken down it will become much easier to effectively accomplish your goal of spreading science and reason.<<

Again I disagree. There was a time I was a theist and if someone would attack my faith, I would get defensive. What worked for me was picking up Carl Sagan’s book “Cosmos”, which introduced me to science and reason. I am not an atheist but I hold a combined of view point of pantheism/panentheism. Regardless, I personally found Sagan’s and Gould’s approach to self-education far more enlightening than the approach used by atheists.

Best,
H

posted on June 24, 2009
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@John

Rather than resort to a “vague notion of the scientific method”, I will direct you do a video of Michael Shermer giving what I think is a pretty good and useful description of the application of science. It’s called The Baloney Detection Kit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUB4j0n2UDU

I’m curious about your statement that the scientific method (and/or whatever else you are referring to in that statement) is “most often not adhered to”. What has lead you to this conclusion?

You also say that whatever description of science is provided is not “logically indisputable” or “necessary”. You have previously challenged the ability to define exactly what science and reason are and you then say that whatever the answer is, it isn’t logically indisputable. How can you know that if you don’t know that a definition isn’t logically disputable if you don’t know what that definition is?

@H

I too was once a theist. I have found atheism a more enlightening approach myself. I’m fairly certain that if we keep arguing our respective points we will just end up going in circles, so I’ll leave it at that.

@Everyone

Just a note that I think everyone is, for the most part, doing a good job of having a spirited but polite discussion. These topics tend to make it easy for people to get…unpleasant.  grin

posted on June 24, 2009
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Oops, poor job of proof reading on my part. Third paragraph should read:

You also say that whatever description of science is provided is not “logically indisputable” or “necessary”. You have previously challenged the ability to define exactly what science and reason are and you then say that whatever the answer is, it isn’t logically indisputable. How can you know that a definition isn’t logically indisputable if you don’t know what that definition is?

posted on June 24, 2009
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@Pobjoy
I would first like to concentrate on the following if that is ok:
>>I’m curious about your statement that the scientific method (and/or whatever else you are referring to in that statement) is “most often not adhered to”. What has lead you to this conclusion?<<

I will do my best to explain, though I’m sure I won’t express it terribly well. Firstly, what I mean is that if you take ‘scientific method’ as a prescription for how to go about actually making scientific discoveries, then any rules you lay out are not going to cover all cases, and that people frequently start from (and I believe it is often best to at least make some use of these) hunches, personal preferences, biases, even superstition, not a checklist of ‘things to do to discover facts’. I view this points as personally quite obvious, influenced by my experiences as a science and mathematics undergraduate and postgraduate, as well as on-going personal reflection. I imagine this is fairly non-controversial for most scientists and engineers and so on, and although seems a trivial point, I think has certain uncomfortable aspects if given proper credit. Of course there are beneficial aspects of ‘taking a proper scientific approach’ e.g. reviewing what others have done, using methods that have worked well in the past and so on, but none of this lead to a nice neat definition of ‘the scientific method’, more a collection of heuristic principles, some more justified than others, but ultimately, we roll with whatever works (which I suppose we decide based on some personal or social criteria). Aha you say - conjecture, followed by experimental tests etc, THAT IS the scientific method. But I just don’t think it is that simple. At no point can we say precisely what criteria to judge a result by, sometimes its better to hold on to a contradictory theory for a while as it may lead to a better one than that obtained by strictly following ‘the rules’ whatever we (who?!) decide they are exactly.

These are not exactly earth-shattering points, they just state that we are constantly doing everything under uncertainty, and we cannot say anything for sure. As much as I have tried in the past to shape my intellectual heroes into a mould of my choice, I recognise that many of them have made fundamental discoveries whilst holding all kinds of weird beliefs. A diversity of viewpoints and a disregard for ‘rules’  is often what scientific progress requires (though a healthy respect for well-established [within criteria you accept] results is of course useful, but who really knows - 1 in a billion of the cranks that pop up just might be right..). Ultimately we make a group decision as to what is worthwhile, based on imperfect criteria. This is not to embrace extreme forms of relativism - it is definitely a useful heuristic to judge some ideas as ‘better’ than others, I just don’t think these judgements are ever absolute or completely objective. The world is a complicated place.

I have similar issues with ‘logic’ and ‘rationality’. I am not saying they are not useful and better than other alternatives. I just can’t see any claims to absolute definitions or superiority being made with complete intellectual honesty, or circular argument. A tool doesn’t have to be perfect to still make use of it when it works. But I am happy to make do with a complex world full of imperfect tools and some contradiction thrown in for good measure. Hope that makes some sense.
J

Speaking of imperfection, that is my poorly-expressed rant for the day. I guess it’ll do.

posted on June 24, 2009
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26. Jim Royal

My reading of this debate is that the issue is plainly emotional. Sam Harris is saying to the editors of Nature: “Hey, I’m fighting the good fight here on your behalf. I thought you had my back. But it seems that you’re undermining my efforts.” That’s it.

posted on June 24, 2009
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The moment I saw Ball use the “many people believe religion because it makes them feel good, and that’s reason enough for me!” point (I’ve paraphrased, of course), I knew that he’d made a serious and very revealing error. Certainly, it seems proof of his general nonchalance and, as Harris implies, lack of having thought things through, for such a claim, if made honestly, is an enormous intellectual boner. Aptly, Harris utterly destroyed it (as he has unfortunately been required to do countless times), and it’s a pity that he asked to end the debate in the same letter - I would very much have enjoyed seeing what Ball had to say about it. I agree with Harris’ assertion that the problem is more serious than people such as Ball know…or care to admit. I don’t feel fit to judge whether Ball’s casual view of the problem is accidental or intentional, but with religion killing people all over the world ever since human society has existed, I don’t believe that a hard look would allow him to shrug it all off as societal hierarchies or whatever else he claims.

posted on June 24, 2009
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28. Son of Rea

People are starving and homeless not far from where you are right now.

Do you take it upon yourself to help them? Some do. Most don’t.

People are dying because of religious beliefs. Should everyone who acknowledges this pick up the sword and fight for truth?

The fact is, we choose to remain distant in order to protect our own way of life and happiness. You can scream all you want that our happiness is in jeopardy, but until it is directly affected, we will lazily stand on the sidelines content to continue living our lives.

You can’t expect everyone to be a crusader. Everyone weighs the choice between 1) acting and suffering immediate consequences, and 2) Not acting and taking the calculated risk that nothing in the immediate future will change, and our lives will continue normally.

posted on June 24, 2009
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An issue here is whether or not it is in the public interest to maintain some forms of religion that are relatively sane, or relegate religion to the crazies. The result of Harris thinking is to do the latter, which I do not think is a good idea.

posted on June 24, 2009
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Another great read Sam. Any new books in the near future?

posted on June 24, 2009
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@John

Thank you, that actually does clear things up a lot. I’m far from the best at clearly explaining my views so I appreciate your efforts in clarifying yours.

The two main conclusions (in regard to defining scientific method) that I got from your post are:
1.  There is no exact definition of scientific method that can be universally applied, and
2.  To quote you: “we are constantly doing everything under uncertainty, and we cannot say anything for sure.”

Hopefully that is a reasonable summary – you obviously explained it in more detail but these are the two things that seemed most significant to me and I think they are well said.

My point though is that however mutable the definition of science is, we are able to evaluate the validity of scientific studies. Given what you have said I recognize your concern about the validity of how we determine validity but I simply look at it from a pragmatic point of view; there are vast numbers of scientific principles that are universally (or very close to universally) accepted as valid. Regardless of the definitions that are applied or the specific criteria that are established, I believe it is sufficient that these principles are considered by the scientific community as well established. Given all of the things we have accepted as valid conclusions of science I do not see any room for the acceptance of anything supernatural. I agree that this conclusion (or any conclusion of non-existence) isn’t 100% certain, but we accept a lot of things in life as true when there is sufficient evidence, even if the result isn’t 100% certain. I don’t see atheism as any different. If you accept the well established teachings of science then in my view there is no reason to hold any theistic or supernatural belief. The obvious caveat is that we always have to be open to the possibility of evidence that supports an alternative view (but there must be evidence!)

You also make a good point about people making all kinds of discoveries while holding some weird beliefs. Would those same discoveries have been made (whether by the same person or someone else) without those weird beliefs? Who knows. Does the possibility that weird beliefs may in some cases help scientific discovery mean that it is a good thing for people to hold those beliefs? Not if there are more cases in which those beliefs have hindered such discovery. Of course that is hard to determine – I know there are people on both sides of the issue who can produce numerous examples of religious ideas that have resulted in positive steps for science and ones that have held science back. Ultimately, although I think Mr. Ball was more clear and concise in expressing his views, I think that Mr. Harris and others in his camp have the better arguments in this regard.

Obviously we won’t agree but I’m going to stop there. I’m new to this whole debating serious issues on the internet thing. Even if people on either side of an issue rarely change each others’ minds I think it’s important that we hear the different perspectives. I enjoy reading debates between people like Mr. Harris and Mr. Ball and reading the subsequent comments because it allows me to get a sense of the different perspectives.

posted on June 24, 2009
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The reconciliation of science and religion with a creation story:
The Force of Identity created the Universe according to the Law of Identity, A = A. The Force of Identity answers the questions: Where do the laws of nature, society and physics come from? How did the Universe come to exist? How did life begin? Is evolution real? Is there an underlying unity in physics that is based on a profound mathematical principle that can be written on a T-shirt? What is the Identity of God? Who am I? 

    First, know that Yahweh is the true name of the One God and know that if you “Ask in the name of God, you will be answered.” The name of God, Yahweh, is translated: “I am that I am.”

  “I am that I am” can be written mathematically: A is that A, or A is A, or A = A. A = A is the First Law of Identity and the Law of Non-contradiction. A = A is the GUT (Grand Unifying Theory), the TOE (Theory of Everything) and the GUF (Grand Unifying FORCE) of the Universe. It is the “God Particle” that won’t be found at CERN because the missing basic building block of the Universe is a Force not a particle.

  The name of God; Yahweh; I am that I am; A = A, is the first equation, the source of logic and science. The equation is used with words and numbers to explain and create all that exists. Creation by the name of God, A = A, reconciles God and reason. God is Reason.

posted on June 24, 2009
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Sam Harris wrote: “Indeed, I once had the pleasure of having dinner with a woman who could pinpoint the very moment she lost her faith,...”

Ha! Oh, please, and somehow one is to believe there is a “very moment.”?  I can understand to a certain degree the lack of skepticism shown towards Harris’ words presented here (this being his “project” after all) but not to the extent of blind acceptance with nary a question.

posted on June 24, 2009
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@Pobjoy
Thanks for your polite discussion, I have enjoyed it (although I often read blogs this is the first time I have actually commented on one). I cannot resist one final comment: your response appears to indicate to me that you accept that we often (and necessarily must) make pragmatic rather than completely philosophically-justified decisions. I believe that this is an important point for those strict ‘rationalists’ (btw I am definitely ‘pro’ rationalism in a practical sense) who (and I am not saying you personally are one of these people!) demand absolute philosophical and logical consistency from their ‘irrational’ opponents - they themselves are not immune to these attacks. Again, this is not to say that this therefore means they are not more (or less) right and so on, but merely to point out that it is not at all objectively clear who is ‘right’, what is the best way to live your life and so on based on some appeal to ‘truth’ (or god!). The anti-religion arguments are much stronger against ‘fundamentalist’ types, but when applied to a lot of quite rational people who are happy to tolerate a few contradictions in their worldview (as we all do out of practical constraints) it becomes a much more complicated issue. Sure, some argue that this might ‘enable’ fundamentalism etc, but this then has become a much more complicated, social, political and so on debate to do with how humans and society really work, and not about who is logically right. It appears to me that some (say Phil) want to have a discussion involving these sort of complexities, while others (say Sam??) shift the goal posts a bit - sometimes its about ‘reason’ and ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’, but when questioned these become more ‘practical’ positions that are not completely justified. But still somehow they switch back to being guaranteed to be more justified than those of say a scientist who has a little bit of vague fluffy religious belief because it makes him/her feel better, i.e. because it ‘works’ for them in a practical way.

Anyway, thanks for the chat.
J

posted on June 24, 2009
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Thanks Sam and Phil for sharing your discussion with us.

Sam’s closing remarks stated his hope that others might benefit from the debate. I feel that I have.

In the past I would have jumped on Sam’s side immediately. Now I guess I have calmed down a bit and feel more sympathetic to Phil’s views.

Son of Rea accurately summarized it: “It really boils down to: Phil simply isn’t as passionate about refuting religion as Sam is, or wants others to be.”

Unfortunately, my relationship with my family has suffered GREATLY due to my “crusading” against their religion (Mormonism in this case). I am wondering if my “cause” (to persuade them to look more critically into their own beliefs) would have been better served if I had taken a more subtle approach, as Phil seems to recommend.

I was long a member of their flock and even served an LDS mission, married in an LDS temple, served in leadership positions, etc. After reading up on their history (both the LDS Church and its founder, Joseph Smith), then on Bible History, and finally on religion in general, I concluded that it all was man-made. Then I turned to Dawkins, Hitchens & Harris (who I particularly like, perhaps because we share the same surname) and must admit I am persuaded to call myself an atheist, and even (as Hitchens puts it) an “anti-theist”.

Unfortunately, my very Christian parents and less-active-but-still-believing siblings now deem me as practically the devil himself. My brother (who claims to have no belief in religion) says I am no better than a Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon Missionary or Baptist Preacher who “knows” their version of the truth is correct and all others are flat-out wrong. That I am self-righteous and intolerant of others who have religious beliefs. And that I should just “live and let live”,  mind my own business and let others do and believe what they want - as long as it “isn’t harming others” and makes them happy.

Should I do as my brother suggests?

Phil seems to think so. Sam seems to think I should continue to “fight the fight” - although I’m not sure exactly what that entails at this point.

@Son of Rea
>I feel no obligation to change my family’s belief system unless I see it somehow harming their well-being.<

Sam Harris seems to be saying (please correct me if I’m wrong Sam): The mere fact that they believe in the nonsense, and probably teach it to their children, is in fact harmful to their well-being and to society as a whole.

I must say I agree with this and have seen too many examples of someone’s religious dogma getting in the way of their happiness (or worse, their children’s) in some way or another. And I don’t mean because they don’t get to go out and have a beer with the boys or participate in sexual acts of indiscretion. I mean in the simple joys of life such as inviting your family and friends to your wedding (if they are not members of your faith), participating in sports or activities on Sunday, dating someone from a different belief system or background (or even simply less-enthused or active in your own faith), reading enlightening books, etc. etc. etc.

posted on June 25, 2009
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Sam never did admit that he misinterpreted Phil’s original article, even though the author himself pointed out his mistakes. That struck me as a terrific example of continuing to believe something that is not logically tennable because it makes you feel good.

posted on June 25, 2009
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Great to read Harris in action again. This debate was quite distinct from previous discussions Harris has had in the past in that the “opponent” here wasn’t really an opponent. I don’t know if Harris had debated an atheist before. Their points of convergance were the most important ones and the most relevant for a clarification of such perennial controversial fray, namely religion vs science. Philip, as an ‘infidel’ agrees with most of what Harris has to say about the logical contradictions and irrationality of dogma, but also refuses to aknowledge the magnitude of its consequences.
I can’t say that much light has been projected from this “atheist vs atheist”  debate on the subject of religion, but it is always a pleasure to read Harris pillorying jabs against irrationality and its implications. I can’t wait to actually watch a debate between Harris vs (this time) someone like Francis Collins himself who really believes in the whole Shebang.

posted on June 25, 2009
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38. Mike Robinson

Such erudition! It proves, I suppose, how far we have evolved from our chimp relatives. Scientists need to explore why humans are so prone to believe in fairy tales. There is obvious a need that requires fulfillment…that is a reality that Sam needs to accept. Let’s all remember that the species is temporary, that there is another great extinction happening on earth and that it is of no consequence to the universe or god if there is one. If we were to have no religion, we may have something worse. As population increases we would be tempted to apply the “survival of the fittest” rule and eliminate the old, people with glasses, those with allergies, any deformities, etc. Reason and logic provide comfort for some, religion comfort for others.

posted on June 25, 2009
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Thanks Sam and Phil for sharing your discussion with us.
I agree with Phil, approaching religion as a string of lies you can get people to stop believing through a cold shower of facts, is a fantasy.
A much more positive and complex approach has to be offered for societal change to happen.

posted on June 25, 2009
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I for one, do find it bizarre that a consulting editor of Nature would write such an editorial about the conflict between science and religion, bring up the Templeton Foundation, but then fail to include the slightest bit of criticism for the anti-science work done by The Templeton Foundation. This is especially noteworthy given that Ball felt that The Reason Project deserved more than worthy criticism but the flat pejorative label: “militant”. Silly me to assume that when Ball describes just two camps, one of which he applies the label “militant”, that he is siding with the second camp.  Wrong or not, such a mistake on the part of his readers is at least a defensible mistake.

Philip Ball writes: “I’m glad people make it their business to expose bigotry and oppression. [...] But it seems important to acknowledge that the supposed conflict between science and faith is actually not that big a deal.”?

This is most bizarre. Not such a big deal? Can you think of any vehicle more responsible for the persistence and promotion of dogma in the world? Is there another phenomena that comes even remotely close?

Philip Ball goes on to write: “In other words, this is not a matter of science versus faith, but of the rejection of scientific ideas that challenge power structures. [...] That’s not to minimize the problem, but recognizing it for what it is will avoid false dichotomies”

Again bizare. Is Ball suggesting that faith and science are not dichotomous? That the conflict between the two is only “supposed”?

Is it so unreasonable to expect that a scientific journal work pro-actively to clarify the philosophy of science? At the very least, not allow its editorial page commentaries, if only by omission,  to assist others (such as the Templeton Foundation) in their efforts to blur the lines between science and faith?

posted on June 25, 2009
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I may be off the beam here, but I thought Sam’s main point of contention revolved around Ball’s article in “Nature” that discussed Collins’ book, “The Language of God” as if it contained valid scientific conclusions, when if fact, Collins uses science and his knowledge of DNA, to forward a philosophical perspective. In other words, Collins’ book masquerades as scientific when it is not and Ball failed to address this fact in his article about Collins’ book. Ball’s retorts basically add up to “I agree with you but… (the magical but that tells the reader what the writer actually thinks)... but you’re just a big meanie Sam! And I don’t want to be a meanie like you so I will be nice to Collins even if his book essentially uses science to confirm his own particular religious and philosophical bias.” 
I don’t blame Sam for being passionately annoyed by both Ball and “Nature.” Individuals in the U.S. of A. are already confused as to what counts as valid scientific theory and why, without the likes of Ball giving “scientists” like Collins a pass—the same is true of “Nature.” If a magazine is going to purport itself as sticking to objective and relevant scientific discovery and analysis, then it shouldn’t act like Collins’ work has any basis in anything except philosophical conjecture based on his opinion of his interpretation of the human genome.

To NightAvatar: I knows hows ya feels… been there done that—although I didn’t go on a mission (thank booze) and was never “worthy” to do any of the “sacred/secret temple rituals.” Have you burned your jesus jammies yet?

posted on June 25, 2009
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Spot on Riley!

posted on June 25, 2009
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Richard writes:
“A much more positive and complex approach has to be offered for societal change to happen.”

Good luck with that, Richard.

When you have found a positive and complex way of
telling a deluded twit that he is a deluded twit who is wasting his life adhering to stone-age bullcrap, please, do let us know.

posted on June 25, 2009
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44. Anonymous

sp. pha/N/tasmagorically

*ahem*

posted on June 25, 2009
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I think what has lately astounded me beyond recognition, particularly when Collins’ name comes up in such an occasion, is this ludicrous argument that somehow religious thinking MUST be true if such a smart scientist comes to the conclusion.  I’ve talked to many a doctor, scientist, etc. and their occupation is no testament that they will be good philosophers.  I bring this up because Dennis Prager wields this particular scimitar of an argument for religion as he hacks away like an unskilled fighter.  What is it about looking so closely into a nucleus that impels one decide that their must be a God nevermind, as has been pointed out ad infinitum, the one that sacrificed a son, etc?  Or is it in fact because some scientists cannot reduce it further (philosophically) that they decide to get a bit cerebrally lazy and chalk it up to a designer in the sky?  Again, to my point: Beware the person that says religion must be valid if a smart scientist says so.  It’s got to be manipulation at work (I say this as an admitted intellectual novice with no scientific background and I’m offended!)

posted on June 25, 2009
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46. John XVII

And on and on… I agree in principle with Sam, but I’ll back Phil. Surely Sam could have concluded this pointless exchange a little sooner. It seems blindingly obvious to me that Phil is describing Christians who find the idea of God comforting without the dogma, or the logical reasoning, while Sam is determined to fight for scientific objectivity to the last drop of his intellect.
The argument finally becomes trivial. I compare it with a contest between the person who will not rest till he has a scientific explanation for the perfect cup of coffee, and the fellow who is happy just to follow the recipe, and enjoy the experience.

posted on June 25, 2009
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I am curious as to whether anyone has checked out any of Phil’s follow up comments on his blog http://philipball.blogspot.com/ ?
There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding of his views in these comments. I also noted some similar misunderstanding over at Pharyngula (including the comments by PZ). I apologize if I seem to be coming off very pro-Phil, but like I said before, based on these exchanges I can’t help but side with him in this ‘argument’. Perhaps after some uncertainty over how
strident a brand of non-belief I should adopt, I am just plain put-off by the comments by the typical ‘militant’ (for lack of a better descriptor) atheist ‘round here.

posted on June 25, 2009
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Phil writes:

If I have understood it correctly, your view is that, while science need not embark on a crusade to wipe out religion, scientists should at every opportunity criticize religious belief for being a groundless fantasy that encumbers people with false hopes and obstructive (even destructive) dogma.

I don’t speak for Sam, but in my opinion this misrepresents everything him and Coyne have stated, and I wish Sam would have detailed it more so.  ‘Militant atheists’ don’t expect Nature or Science or any other reputable journal to endorse or advocate atheism.  They just don’t want publishers, science writers and editors of those sources to explicitly endorse or tacitly approve of any religion.  That’s not the domain.

posted on June 25, 2009
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I was raised a fundamentalist (my parents still are). I lived the life and was a True Believer. Everything I did and said was based on biblical truth until I understood from the Old Testament class I was taking that it was “metaphor” or more accurately mythology. All the “meaning” scripture had held was seen for what it was—a way to to control me- keep me in my place as a lesser species (you know—women are created from the rib of Adam—that stuff?) . There was an unimaginable amount of damage done to me and many of the women I grew up around and continue to be friends with. In my opinion, clinging to a “fuzzy” teddy bear faith is a little like trying to rationalize waterboarding as enhanced interrogation procedures. All fine and good for those who never have to undergo it or watch anyone who had to live with the consequences of it…

posted on June 25, 2009
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I too enjoyed the debate.  What an excellent example of how beautiful the English language can be (when used properly).  I can’t remember the last time I had to pull out my dictionary so many times.

Anyway, without involving my personal position I do want to make one comment about instances where religion has actually helped the progress of science (as odd as that may seem).  I was reminded on one example in the debate, namely that of stem cell research, specifically embryonic stem cell research.  Had politics (a.k.a. religion) not created such monumental obstacles to this research we may not have developed other means of cultivating stem cells (i.e. from hair, skin, etc) so quickly.  That said, I’m confident we would have eventually gotten to where we are now and perhaps it wouldn’t have really taken that much longer than it has but sometimes (OK, quite often) religion provides the necessary ‘motivation’ to scientific progress.

Please note, I am in no way advocating that religion (as a whole) has helped to advance science simply that, on occasion, certain scientific obstacles introduced by religion can also be viewed as being beneficial to science.

posted on June 25, 2009
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51. Janet Greene

Thank g*d for Sam Harris!!!!  There needs to be voices in the dark telling the truth!  Religion is premised on absurdity, and usually requires the suspension of intelligence to believe it. Religion causes intolerance, division, holy wars, oppression.  I am a victim myself - I was raised by an evangelical christian (pastor) father, and the tenets of christianity left me without knowing who I was, numb, unable to trust my (evil) instincts, and confused about the world (suffering?  god’s plan?  whaaaat?)  Sam, PLEASE NEVER STOP fighting. There are more of us, but few of us have the public credibility and intelligence to lead this fight.

I am so grateful to Sam - sometimes the horrors of the world caused by religion are very overwhelming and Sam gives me hope.

posted on June 25, 2009
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52. Pamela Groening

It seems clear that Phil is out of touch with what religious people actually believe. There are very few christians, muslims etc who do NOT believe in magic, and who do not believe that their dogma is the only truth faith.  This is part of what causes the problem - each religion is believed to be absolutely true, and mutually exclusive.  As a survivor of a christian upbringing, I can also attest to the many other mental health and self-esteem horrors that christianity provides.  Sam Harris was one of the writers that helped me see the light, and was part of a long journey seeking truth.  But I am disturbed when a scientific journal seems so incredibly out of touch with the damage religion causes. Religion is never neutral.  I expect more out of science than this. I congratulate Sam on pointing this out, even though the exchange was probably for naught.

posted on June 25, 2009
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53. Eric Blair

Any high school debater knows you must firs define your terms so the two sides are actually talking about the same things. That’s where this “debate” breaks down before it gets started.

At risk of being pedantic: If the issue is, “Science and religion are (in)compatible,” then we must know how the terms “science,” “religion” and “(in)compatible” are being used – and the implications of such uses.

Is “science” here used as simply a methodology, or is it a culture, worldview or philosophy? More to the point, is it a comprehensive philosophy or world view that will brook no other worldviews? To accept the latter is already leaning toward tautology. On the other hand, arguably, science is simply a practical methodology that has nothing to say about things it can’t measure (like religion).

What about religion – do we mean all religions, some religions, most religions, fundamentalist Islam or mainstream Christianity? A minor Christian denomination that accepts evolution and gay marriage? Again, the proposition could flop between being a platitude and pointless trivia.

What does saying science and religion are incompatible imply? That we should demand scientists forsake their beliefs, if they have any? That scientists who are also believers should have an asterisk by their names – caveat emptor - when their work appears in scientific journals? Or that “true” scientists – the ones who don’t believe in gods – should regularly stand up for” their weltanschauung, reminding the public of the “scientific” view? Is this debate an academic exercise or a portentous dialogue?

I don’t think Sam and Phil have even settled on their terms, let alone anything else.

EB

posted on June 25, 2009
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@Pamela etc
It seems to me more that perhaps Phil is actually in touch with some religious people (despite apparently not being religious himself) whose beliefs, while disagreeing with personally, he doesn’t feel are particularly dangerous or damaging, and that they have every right to take some comfort in. He also seems prepared to engage in criticism of these types of views when they become more pernicious, especially with respect to wider society or other individuals (of course, you all respond, religion is ALWAYS pernicious etc etc while REASON is always ABSOLUTE and TRUE and JUST etc etc). He also seems to recognise that religion is part of a more complex set of human practices and history and that creating some big abstract enemy to be defeated with simple ‘logical’ attacks is not very realistic.

I’m not sure how representative this is of Phil, but I think this is close to how I have started to feel. In particular, I have lately encountered some ‘scientists’  who have impressed me not just with their work but their general attitude to life, whom I was very surprised to find were (open-minded) Christians. That doesn’t mean I still don’t personally think they are a little misguided with respect to this metaphysical question, but it’s just part of who these people personally are.

I remain very impressed by them in spite of this transgression of the almighty and unassailable Abstract Truth. In fact I would prefer (though of course never require) that they voted for the same political party as me or joined the same humanitarian group as me than ticked the same metaphysical box as me, as that seems more important in the everyday world. They also do damn good research. Its a shame I can’t force them to think like me. Although perhaps the quality of the work might suffer, as being godless unfortunately doesn’t seem to give me a monopoly on scientific fact finding.

posted on June 25, 2009
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55. Peter Hobden

Sam, you are doing a fabulous job; keep going. I am sure there are many millions (of very quiet & polite) people who agree with your views and support all your efforts in these matters.

posted on June 25, 2009
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Thank you Sam for exposing the insidious way religion is made acceptable even by those who should know better.  Yes, Philip Ball clearly weakens science by pandering to false moderation. Any smart person would recognize the risk here.  Factual science has no business capitulating to religion, especially considering how manipulative and dishonest some religious leaders and their political hacks are. A quick review of the last eight years should suffice for evidence of the risk religion presents, not just for science but for all secular interests. The Abrahamic religions are never our friend, and not just because of the fantasy factor. Far more disconcerting is the tendency towards extremism and corruption. Science cannot function in such an environment. Neither can Democracy. We are all in your debt.

posted on June 25, 2009
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This excellent Harris/Ball interchange has been well worth the reading time as it clearly shows how religious apologists ignore any points that highlight religious weakness. The disagreements may well point the way to a new strategy in debating religious futility. I must confess that I have at times been a bit of a whirling dervish when engaging the few religious folk who are even willing to discuss their religion. The old adage that politics and religion are taboo subjects for social discussion because they provoke heated debate means that most social gatherings will avoid those subjects being mentioned. I have heard many people at various gatherings talk openly about their church and the wonderful worthy church activities in the comunity. 
‘Comfort in belief’ is a very powerful and smug force that emanates from the religious and it is used over and over again to intimidate and quell opposition by branding dissent as “just not nice”. Then comes the “you atheists” attack which darkly implies that atheist are a tightly knit force of conspirators scheming and plotting against all that is good in the world. This doesn’t sway the committed non-believer but I am sure it leaves the more fragile doubters quaking in their boots. The church joins people together not necessarily in religiosity but in a deeper human need for clan tribe or club. This promotes a common community purpose that encourages defence for no other reason than “people like us stick together”.  I strongly believe as I am sure many others do, of a grand common purpose for those outside of religion to unite under: Ethical humanity.  These are not new but I am certain that these platforms need a louder voice on the world stage. The great intellectual contribution and media efforts of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are definitely the way forward and the ‘Reason Project’ is most likely to be the uniting platform for the non-religious.
Reason must be a high aspiration and I found this excellent definition at the Brainy Quote Site: “Reason: A thought or a consideration offered in support of a determination or an opinion; a just ground for a conclusion or an action; that which is offered or accepted as an explanation; the efficient cause of an occurrence or a phenomenon; a motive for an action or a determination; proof, more or less decisive, for an opinion or a conclusion; principle; efficient cause; final cause; ground of argument.).  http://www.brainyquote.com/words/re/reason210507.html  The cat-calling derisory phrases that some of use will not help the cause of reason as it may give the impression of extremism and bigotry in non-believers’ that we most wish to overcome in our reasoned persuasions against religion.

posted on June 26, 2009
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Sam, don’t ever doubt the value of these exchanges however repetitive and personally frustrating. Its the spaces between that carry the real value, as it requires all of us to construct our own responses to the innumerable Philip Ball’s of the world. Thank you for having the courage to be the tip of the spear.

posted on June 26, 2009
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59. Atheistno1

I find the article a psychological play on words & the use of “per se” has been one word used by the religious nomination for many a term. Coming down through the day’s of reading, takes me to the point that it can take two people who are not intelligent to also have a conversation, or debate & doesn’t specifically mean they have to be intelligent, as long as the conversation is about something they both have a knowlege of.
Now, who is the author of the Bible & what date was it written? I know you can’t answer the question & science has proved evolution without leaving room for skepticism & the facts are obvious that the religious are indeed frantic to be a part of the Atheist way. The saying that one should keep your friends close & your enemies closer, has created some nasty stalkers from within the religious confinements as well as the general communities, wanting to know others business & playing the role as ‘Brights’ or other various names they wish to call themselves. This document highlights that to great degree.

posted on June 26, 2009
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@John. I think this is one of the fundamental difficulties inherent to this particular discourse. Of course there are individuals that have found a middle way that, at least in casual interactions, seems reasonable and functional—and is beside the point as it’s simply another form of exceptionalism. And it is never a question of ‘force’ (I sometimes wish there was an irony icon) but simply a non-dogmatic re-capitulation (with evolution) of whatever argument is at hand. If you agree with Sam in principle then accept what that implies, put off or otherwise. (Militant is simply a poor desciptor for strident or pendantic but the underlying principal is what tells and not the delivery). Socrates by all accounts was a smelly, rude, unrepentant asshole and… he was Socrates, with all the weight that implies. What I think you have to ask yourself is; of those two sets of described attributes, which do you see as most important?

posted on June 26, 2009
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Sam,  I do so enjoy this kind of exchange; thank you both.  However, if I may; framing the discussion in terms of “Religion v. Science” will forever miss the point, and concedes too much at the outset.  It is very much like arguing Democrats v. Republicans, when the arguement should be liberal ideals v. conservative ideals.
  So to follow the parallel ....... our argument is not with Religion, and theirs is not with Science.  This is a discourse begging to be framed as “Reason v. Belief”, or “Reason v. Superstitious Drivel”. 
  Before someone signs on the dotted line to proclaim their adherence to the Scientific Method, they must “disclaim” the rabbit’s foot in their pocket, the zodiacal chart on the wall of their office, divine origins of the universe, and step-on-the-crack-because-it-won’t-break-their-mother’s-back.  They just can’t have it both ways.
  “Belief” voids a contract with “Reason”.  Mr. Ball is free to live his life of deluded irreconcilible punditry.
  My beef is not with Religion.  Religion provides us with grand silliness and humor.  My beef is with inculcated superstitions our ancestor’s developed when fire was the headline, and which today cripples our children’s potential.
  Framing the question as “Religious” grants them too much credibility from the beginning.  The opposite of reason isn’t “religion”, its “faith” and “belief”.
  Keep fighting the good fight Sam.  Our grandchildren appreciate it.

posted on June 26, 2009
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Fascinating exchange. One point that nobody seems to have noted is that this is, as well as a cross-cultural exchange, a debate between an American and a Brit. To me as a British US resident, this comes across very vividly. Ive been an atheist since childhood, and it was never an issue or even anything terribly important in my life, until I left the gentle green hills of England and came to the fire-and-brimstone culture of the southern USA. Mr. Ball keeps telling us about the bland, civil, accommodating, ecumenical C of E (the UK national Church) , which he clearly thinks of as your typical representative Christian type; but he has no idea of how very close to the savage Iron age mainstream religion is, here in the US, and how culturally and socially all-pervading it is, how wealthy and powerful. Sam is fighting because he is surrounded by hostility and powerful, active and apparently successful organizations which would like nothing better than to suppress and in some cases, kill him and all other atheists. Our previous president was on record with the view, never recanted, that atheists should not be considered to be citizens or to have rights. Organized religion here in the USA is a serious, dangerous force that is closer to the Iranian Mullahs in its ambitions than it is to anything that has been allowed to exist in England since Henry VIII (may his name be blessed) destroyed the hegemony of the Catholic church all those years ago. English religion has been tamed, and it makes sense to treat it gently, like a pet cat. US religion is more like a pride of hungry lions.

posted on June 26, 2009
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63. Andrew Perry

Sam, I think you are essentially on the winning side of the debate (as far as what rings true for me), but you ought to check yourself, lest you start to become a douchebag.  I’d hate to see you debating someone like Dinesh D’Souza and not be your usual calm and funny self.

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64. Uncle Ernie

Of all the gods that mankind has created perhaps the strangest of all is Yahweh the bronze age god of wandering, barbarian, syphilitic, sheepherders. Why is Yahweh so popular with it various groups? It’s simple really, Yahweh is the perfect god for today. Yahweh is a crazy god, created by crazy people and people with end stage syphilis are indeed crazy, which makes it the perfect metaphor for crazy people. The perfect fit and arguing with crazy people, no matter how profound the argument is just going over their heads and wasting your time! You can explain the wisdom of the universe to a fence post but it’s just not going to sink in. Also remember that PhD often refers to a pin headed dope!

Fight the good fight!

posted on June 26, 2009
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I see Sam’s point as a very simple one.

Francis Collins’ reasons for taking the position he does regarding science & religion are just as bad as any creationists regarding evolution.  Nature, of all publications, is where creationists should be harshly chided(when not completely ignored) based upon their bad reasons for their beliefs about evolution.  Ball owes Francis Collins & his “waterfall” reasons for reconciling his superstition with his science the same treatment.  This capitulation is unacceptable precisely because Nature is what it is.

posted on June 26, 2009
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During my 59 years I can’t think of a time when this kind of debate could take place on such a grand scale. The End of Faith kicked open the door and allowed a whole lot of light to shine in. It is the light of science and reason that we are walking in. It makes the journey so much more fun. Thank you Sam!

posted on June 26, 2009
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67. Earon Davis

Interesting debate, but we’re fighting in a house that is burning.  The argument might turn over the question of whether religion or science has the better solution for our species’ stupidity in emperiling our biosphere.  I think that the irrationality of religion, political and economic ideology, nationalism and scientific power struggles are all playing a role in our inability to create a rational culture that will be sustainable.  While we argue about whether science and religion can coexist, perhaps we should be debating whether humans and the earth can co-exist.

posted on June 26, 2009
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The more I read of Sam’s exchanges, the more I scratch my head ‘cause I can’t understand for the life of me why he doesn’t mention the following article:

http://www.reasonproject.org/newsfeed/item/bushs_biblical_prophecy_emerges_god_to_erase_mid-east_enemies_before_new_ag/

To use a Colbertism, it’s a “check and checkmate” that cements his fundamental argument that beliefs matter as they can have staggering real-world consequences.

I’m surrounded by redneck neighbors and have an uncle who’s apparently the GOP’s #1 fan, all of whom engage me in email correspondence, trying to win me over to their team.  A recurring theme of our correspondence over the years is me arguing that Bush is fighting a crusade in Iraq, to which everyone scoffs, until this article slams the door on their counter-arguments.

I feel like a lone voice trying to get the word of this quintessential case-in-point of Sam’s message out there.  Why?  This article is *important*!!!  Far moreso than the demises of a record number of B-list celebrities this week, certainly.

PS: John XVII - you missed the point - it’s not about someone explaining a perfect cup of coffee vs one who’s content to enjoy it.  It’s about someone believing that their Peruvian bean is the only one worth drinking, and that going to war with those who perfer Columbian bean is necessary and justified, and why they’re both FOS.

posted on June 26, 2009
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Dear Sam
I agree with you that reasoned argument and debate on powerful subjects such as science Vs religion are not best served by lenghty written paragraphs. Although Mr Ball professess religious disbelief in the strongest terms I like many others I’m sure cannot understand his real message. Having seen you debate in front of the camera so effectively I relish the possibility that you may extend this debate to TV?

posted on June 26, 2009
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(Rereading my “PS” in #69, I should clarify - it’s the reader’s pick of any two religions, and *not* the two debaters in this forum, that represent the Peruvian and Columbian bean fans.)

posted on June 26, 2009
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Invoking Sam’s claim that a critic can know better what a writer means than the writer himself, the final exchange clearly points to Sam’s denunciation of religious moderates as the subtext. Paraphrasing, Phil Ball said, in essence, that not every believer is an extremist bent on theological consistency; most believers hold fuzzy, contradictory beliefs that do not cause them to behave in socially or intellectually irresponsible ways, so please leave them alone. Sam has often argued that tolerating this fuzziness among moderates perpetuates an environment in which extremists thrive. It is an extremist argument. Surely some of the proponents of Prohibition would have been quite comfortable with the argument that social drinkers perpetuate an environment in which drunkards can exist. We well know what greater evils were unleashed on the country as a result of that proto-Harris legislation. As with Sam’s argument against religious moderates, the logic behind Prohibition may have been true, but also besides the point. We live in a complex world, not a thought experiment, so it is terribly easy to be right on the technicalities and profoundly wrong on the big picture.

posted on June 26, 2009
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Sam: Phil says Despite what Richard Dawkins has asserted, the existence of God is not amenable to scientific testing.”.  I don’t have an email address for him, so maybe you can pass along the word that Victor J. Stenger holds a diametrically opposed opinion, and has backed up his words with - you guessed it - more words: namely “God, the Failed Hypothesis” and other works.  His arguments are based firmly in physics, which Dr. Ball should be able to understand.

posted on June 26, 2009
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I am surprised that some people are still missing the point (or am I oversimplifying?). 

For me the essence of this debate is quite simple and Sam addressed it clearly in one of the earlier posts. The forum in which we communicate dictates the rules that should apply. If you are writing in the leading scientific journal, your reasoning should be held to scientific rigour. If one wants to empathize with people who feel good about believing, by all means do so in a community rag but not in Nature.

Imagine if you will, you are on trial for murder and you have a choice between two lawyers who are equally capable.  On the one hand you have one that understands the rules of court and speaks to the issues appropriately and the other doesn’t. Which one would you pick for your defence?

posted on June 26, 2009
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Well done Sam. It is painful to think that men of obvious “intelligence”  (Ball) so miss the point.  If any of the world’s tradgedy’s are a result of religion, then that in itself would justify the crusade against it the same as if believers in astrology were the cause .

posted on June 26, 2009
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75. John Donaldson

In my opinion, while many people consider that they are rational, in fact what they are doing is forcing the facts to fit what they believe to be true. By rationalizing the facts to fit their beliefs or desires they create a world wherein are found the supernatural beings that fit with their (often unconscious) search for belief fulfilling explanations.

My son, a fundamentalist Christian pastor, is so convinced in the accuracy of his beliefs that he knows with utter certainty that he and his wife will be going to heaven at the end of their lives and that his mother and father will rot in hell when they die. He considers his position rational because he has a book that can be read in such a way that it will agree with each person’s beliefs. I find only errors where he finds all truth.

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76. carl salter

Its like people out in a boat, looking up, arguing about which is the right god and the boat is sinking.

posted on June 26, 2009
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77. Gingerbaker

I found a statement by Mr Ball of interest:

Hold the front page: ‘Man is mistaken’. But if he knows his theology, he knows why religion – and in honesty I only really know about Christianity here – emphasizes faith, not knowledge.

What struck me is that the demand for religious faith came only in the New Testament.  Before that, knowledge of the laws of God were what was important.  So, the requirements of being a true believer change - Christianity is a moving target.


Why is this interesting?  Because as society changed, the religious claims about Jesus became not only false, but quite unbelievable. Two thousand years ago, the idea of a God -Man doing miracles on Earth and ascending through clouds to Heaven above was not considered amazing - it was exactly how the world actually worked.  Faith back then was a much easier sell than today.

Faith was nevertheless required because no one had actually seen Jesus Christ do his miracles.  No one knew anybody who had even met him.  The reason?  He was almost certainly a myth, a projection of the Jewish desire for a Messiah, and was a philosophical entity before he was fleshed out in Gospels written tens if not hundreds of years after his supposed existence.


And here is my point:  You can’t sell this stuff to a fully-formed adult, it is too incredible.  But you can get a child to listen to it.

I remember my first day in Hebrew school, when I was told what I knew immediately was a monstrous lie and which made no sense to me.  It hurt my brain to realize that really for the first time in my life I was being forced, by people that I loved, to believe something which I knew to be nonsensical as true.  When Richard Dawkins refers to this inculcation as ‘mental abuse’ he perhaps does not go far enough.  The pathology goes deeper than that.  It is an action which wounds, I think, the architecture of a child’s developing brain.  Circular reasoning is imprinted as being logical, and wishful thinking is given the imprimatur of reality, not fantasy.

I think that this is why it so difficult to reason with the religious - their early indoctrination has actually affected their faculties for self-examination. The inculcation of medieval ideas in a small child may actually cause them to think with some of the same patterns common to Bronze age people.

And this, perhaps beyond other reasons, is why religion needs to be criticized.

posted on June 26, 2009
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78. Karl Peterson

It seems that the problem here is that Philip has very little understanding of religious people, their beliefs, and just how real those beliefs are. As you have said many times Sam, beliefs are the basis of action. When we hold false beliefs, we will surely be misguided in our actions. Having reasons for what you believe provides you, and the broader community, with a foundation for communication and action. Even when we disagree we are able to see the reasons why.

posted on June 26, 2009
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I think Sam Harris is DEAD-WRONG!!!!

P.Ball:  “It is rational to do what makes us feel good. That doesn’t always make it right for us to do so, but that’s another matter.”

Philip Ball comes to within a hair’s breadth of epiphany, yet eludes him altogether.

It IS rational to do what makes us feel good, but when those things that make us feel good boil us alive like frogs in a pot (religion, witchcraft, pseudo-science, political agendas, etc.) REASON must interject for a (sometimes drastic) course correction.  This statement will lead to endless arguments about “is religion really to blame for boiling us alive.”  The religious say, “no.”  Reasonable humans say, “it’s obvious as a major contributor.”

Maybe the problem is that pandemically societies allow belief to usurp precedence over reason.  They put their beliefs on a pedestal as sacred and demand that everyone else bow down to them.  This usurpation did not occur over night.  It has taken thousands of years to slowly delude ourselves to extinction levels and bring the water up to an abortion-doctor-assassinating, islamic-extremist-nuclear boil.  Frogs are still dying—and for no better reason than for someone’s codified, historically-“verified”, popularly-accepted, traditionally-concretized Bull-sh#t opinions.

P.Ball: “I agree with you that it would be condescending to think that no believer could ever be dissuaded from their belief by logical argument. Indeed, if they’ve been insulated from any logical thinking, they might very well be susceptible to that approach. But it is equally condescending to think that believers only believe because they’ve never thought seriously about the issues. I suspect that the ‘convert’ you mention had never had the opportunity or means to do so. Not all believers are like her.”

...Maybe condescending, but an absolutely accurate assessment.  There are as many shades of self-delusion as there are religious people.  Of course some who are less enclaved than others have been exposed to the tools of reason.  The problem is they don’t apply it to “one god further.”

P.Ball:  “I fully accept that it is no good either to simply say, as I know some do, ‘Oh, it’s only human nature, and religion is just the excuse.’ No, the truth is, sadly, much more complicated. And that is why I think the answers are too. But I have been left from our exchange with the feeling that ‘complicated’ is for you just a cop-out.”

Yes, and Ball’s moronic assumption (evidenced in his actions and words in “Nature”) seems to be that it’s OK to obfuscate the impact of religious delusions further by writing “it’s okay,” and “the aetheists have it wrong.”

F*&%king nutjob!

I think Sam Harris is DEAD-WRONG!!!  Dead-wrong if he assumes that Philip Ball can comprehend with any depth the problem to which he contributes.

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80. atheistbut

Disappointing…
You missed each other’s point entirely. I am mostly disappointed in Sam for not correcting the course after it became clear Ball was (maybe intentionally) steering away from the question of scientific rigor. Nature is not a political or philosophical journal. It is a scientific journal. As such, it should not ever take part in any discussion about religion. And if it did, one would expect it to apply scientific rigor to its evaluation. Political appeasement is not scientific.
I’m also annoyed at how oblivious to the politics of a fight against religion Sam is. Getting mad at people who adopt a different strategy is not productive. As frustrating as it is, you cannot make faster progress crusading against religion.

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81. Jeferson Goncalves

Dear Sam,
I´m certainly on science´s side and I´m wondering about our future with such tremendous penetration of religion on practically every country. 
This, I understand, is the consequence of the modern communication influence, inside every home, the tele evangelists and similar. The reason of this terrible fact? I strongly recommend reading Did man created god? By David E. Comings, the only way to understand man’s head.

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From Ball’s last letter, second paragraph, last sentence: “... to think [Nature is actively promoting a strategic agenda concerning the role of science and religious belief in society] is to become a conspiracy theorist.”

Are not the monotheisms of the world the greatest conspiracies ever engineered?

Yes.  Then call me a ‘nut’.

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I for one was glad to see Sam raise the bar, and avoid hand-holding appeasement in his discourse with Mr. Ball.

It was easy to see his frustration (I could relate) but it was also expected - Mr. Ball appears to understand both sides of the argument, but wants to ride the line, so as not to step on anyone’s toes in the process.

Overall, an interesting read - thanks for posting.

{r}

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84. Josh Rohrmayer

Thank you so much, Sam, for doing the maddening job of having to repeat the same (extremely important) points ad nauseum to those who’ve not yet heard them and to those who constantly misrepresent your views.  I find myself having to do the same in conversations on these topics and when the subject turns more specifically to you I become “Harris’s Rottweiler” in both defending and promoting you and your work from and to all matter of interlocutors. 

I greatly look forward to your next book and am happy for your chance to shift gears and talk about things that actually interest you rather than just terrify and frustrate you.  I’d really like to see you weigh in on the larger conversation about the nature of consciousness that’s been taking place in the philosophy of mind in the last 30 or so years.  I’d love to see you and some of the bigger names in the field (Dennett, Chalmers, the Churchlands, Ned Block, Owen Flanagan, etc, etc.) having discussions about these subjects on YouTube and such. 

And your work on the nature of belief is very exciting even in its early stage.  Kudos on the approving nod from Oliver Sacks.

All the best to you, Sam.  Keep up the great work.

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I was wondering when Mr. Harris was going to start to show his frustration.  How maddening to see the cause of so much obscenely needless human suffering and get little but prevarication and excuse making from the top echelons of science writing.  While I’m sure the C of E Christians Mr. Ball shares chardonnay with are as delightful as they are reasonable, there is a big world out there.  One doesn’t sense he really gives enough of a shit about these matters to really form any sort of opinion.

Then there is this gem:

“But it seems unfair to deny that religion has any of these good aspects, as well as undoubtedly becoming encumbered with a great deal of dogmatism, delusion and claptrap (much of which does not necessarily accord with good theology).”

I would be hard pressed to come up with a more abjectly quisling formulation, coming from someone who is ostensibly an advocate of science and reason.  Just what is “good theology” anyway, and how the hell would Mr. Ball know the difference? (And while we’re on the subject, what is an atheist using phrases like “good theology” in this context for anyway?) 

I don’t think Mr. Ball can really be called an atheist, if this exchange is any indication, he can best be described as a Shrug.  He just can’t be bothered.

So by all means take a break if and when you need Mr. Harris, but please continue to write on these subjects and add your voice to the debate.

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Hi Everyone,

No one has disproved the Holy Scriptures to date, while much has been proven through writings of at least 6000 years ago. Such as tribes and towns that were built   at that time. If the Bible history had been written only by people, it would not have left in so many gory details! that make the ‘heroes’  so often less than perfect in the Bible’s eyes and our eyes.
I cannot understand why you all have so much hate for people who believe in the Supreme Being. True followers of Jesus -  “They will know that you are my followers by the love you have for one another.”
As for the prevalent idea that religion was developed to fill in the answers as to why it thunders or fires are started or the beginning of everything, I disagree completely. Why would anyone want to make a religion to fill in nature in which they grew up? Of course, someone who decided to be powerful could have done exactly that, that is, develop ideas that they could explain nature. Yes, after it all had been developed, people would believe the people in power. No, I did not knock down the fact that there is Living God. There is a group of so called Christian pastors in some black nation who has the people believing that their children have demons, and they must pay to have the demons removed, after which the parents turn the children out to the streets. The Holy Scriptures do not support that type of behaviour. That is man’s greed and power!
Since it is man’s greed for all types of crimes, why are you so adament against believers in Jesus and God? Well, Satan becomes more and more happy for such activity as those who want to remove Jesus from everything, thus leaving a void for the youth to fill with drugs, and indiscrimanent sex, etc.
I am Not superstitous. However, it is interesting to note that when I tried to enter this letter a while ago, the Cable service had stopped! while TV is still on. And so far, I cannot enter this letter! Hopefully, it will go through soon.

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87. denniscav

“What Science Should Do” is to recognize the contribution that beliefs in imaginary and super-humans (Gods) and, indeed, all that human history has demonstrated to have played an important part in today’s science that has resulted in the betterment of human conditions on our planet. It should be obvious to most ‘thinking’ individuals that this belief in the unknown and the, as yet, unproven ,and having religious origins, have a basis in our scientific method for solving problems and in our understanding of ‘cause and effect’.

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I think that more essential than the use of science to dismantle religion would be to examine how people who thinking and criteria to create perspectives that then provide forms of justification. What creates problems for us as humans is when we believe in our thinking in absolute ways and link these absolute beliefs to our identity.  We forget that we’ve created a perspective that can become a form of life. It can be easy to get caught up in establishing a position in the above type of debate. A key question is, “When are we believing something in an absolute way, so that it is no longer seen as a perspective, and what are the consequences of believing absolutely?”

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89. dennis cav

The basis for religious beliefs in the imaginary, and easily disproven, super-human Gods, has the same basis in the evolving human mind as the scientific method for solving problems and in understanding ‘cause and effect’.  This should be obvious in spite of those who are obsessed with simply disproving words in the Bible, Torah and the Koran that are easily shown to be wrong thanks to today’s accepted scientific standards. Scientific zealots who deny this and insist in wasting their own time and talents in the disproving of religious facts, are wasting their time and providing road-blocks to us all in further understanding of an important part of us all.

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Ball doesn’t seem to understand what Harris is about. That is, Harris is not so naive as to assume that his carefully crafted words will soon vanquish superstition. Rather, it seems obvious that Harris is striking out with “conversational intolerance” in an attempt to affect the swing-momentum of a very heavy pendulum that seems at times not to be able to be affected, due to taboos of certain conversational topics, such as those involving honest assessment of religion and spirituality. I suspect he was hoping for an assist from Nature and amazingly was left only with an online debate. Sam, in the future, Don’t mess with Mother Nature.

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What people “believe” is not, as Sam states, ultimatly based on what is “true”.  Truth may or may not be revealed at a later time.  This does not keep people from having beliefs.

The medical community had long maintained that bacteria could not survive in the acidic environment of the stomach.  Then a Dr. Marshall not only proved that they could survive, but that they caused stomach ulcers.  He received the Nobel Prize for this revelation.

The madical community now has a new belief, very different than their former one, but no more strongly held than the original, false one.

I think that when you ask a member of the faith community what they believe, the answer you get is what they hope.

I believe it was Pascal who said he decided to believe in religion because if he were wrong, no harm done, but if it were true, he would make it to heaven.  This is what is behind what many religious people profess when asked.  They are covering their bets, just in case its true.  I don’t believe all those statistics that Sam quotes about what people believe in those surveys.  They are pulling a “Pascal” on the survey.

Bye the bye, current medical community belief is that the many and varied “autoimmune diseases” are the result of the body’s immune system attacking itself.  Another Dr. Marshall, Trevor Marshall, has put tigether a very strong argument that bacteria are responsible for these diseases.  Go to marshallprotocol.com for the overwhelming evidence.  Until this explanation is recognized as true by the medical community, they will continue to “believe” that the immune system is somehow attacking itself, and they will continue to prescribe drugs that suppress the immune system, at great harm to their patients.

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SUGGESTION FOR FUTURE EXCHANGES OF THIS KIND: BREAK THE PARAGRAPHS DOWN INTO SPECIFIC POINTS / CLAIMS / PREMISES, AND NUMBER THEM…
I quickly found myself trying to find where the specific, fundamental points of the debate were addressed in each of the responses. I think this worked entirely to Mr. Ball’s advantage—he was able to draw you away from the primary and original points, then work into the game of, as you put it, “you said I said ‘x’,”...etc.  I don’t think Mr. Ball does that intentionally, but he definitely does it.  The fact that someone like him ALLOWS himself to do it strikes me as dishonest and it renders the whole debate useless—he is allowing himself to be “unscientific”, and we know he knows better.  Perhaps you could have cut it off by saying, OK, let’s agree on the points we should discuss here in simple, numbered statements, and we can break them down in outline format to see exactly where we disagree, and spend our time discussing those specific grounds.
For progress to be made in a public forum with people like Mr. Ball, the discussion is going to HAVE to be kept focused and impersonal.

Sam, many thanks for doing what you do.
Theo

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Dennis Cav—“The basis for religious beliefs in the imaginary, and easily disproven, super-human Gods, has the same basis in the evolving human mind as the scientific method for solving problems and in understanding ‘cause and effect’.  This should be obvious in spite of those who are obsessed with simply disproving words in the Bible, Torah and the Koran that are easily shown to be wrong thanks to today’s accepted scientific standards. Scientific zealots who deny this and insist in wasting their own time and talents in the disproving of religious facts, are wasting their time and providing road-blocks to us all in further understanding of an important part of us all.”

Let’s talk about “time wasting.”  I agree semantic arguments aren’t productive, especially when rational humans refuse to accept the definitive authority of holy books and holy men.  BUT—maybe people who define the cosmos exclusively through their belief systems do not have the background to comprehend the point you’ve made above (which I agree may be the best origin explanation for religion in general).  I’m just saying maybe it isn’t always a waste of time to communicate at the same level with dysfunctional intellects.  You are probably more capable of relating down to them than they are up to you.

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94. anonymous

Sam so won this debate.  Mr. Ball was bobbing and weaving from the get-go. Thanks for getting the word out Sam!

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Hi Everyone,

Thank you to Imerryangel/Ms Marriott for your very true article. It responds to those whose only interest is in their own hungers, and wanting to show youth that they have no need to control their hungers, no matter the terrible costs.
To Ulty: I say that those who use swear words regarding religion, such as hell, damn, etc, can’t think of appropriate adjectives, yet they use words that refer to the religions in which they don’t believe and want to force out of others! Also those who use body parts as adjectives show their ignorance in determining appropriate adjectives to describe their story!
To Gingerbake: There were more witnesses of the Resurrected Jesus Christ than there were to some of our most famous playwrites (Shakespeare, if my poor memory remembers correctly).
Research shows that most of the New Testament was written between 10 and 60 years after Jesus’ resurrection (lifetime of those who saw and walked with Jesus),, not 100s of years later. Where did you ever get such ideas as yours, regarding when the New Testament was written.
You indicated that educated Adults cannot believe in the Holy Scriptures, and that children can be indoctrinated because they are children. I thought it was your article that said that you were being forced as a child to believe something that you, somehow, knew couldn’t be true. Well, it is easy that you took one verse, idea, out of context and knew it couldn’t be true. Yet , there have been many educated adults who have become believers, and one I have recently emailed with who considered himself an atheist until adulthood and now is a very active Christian, with writings to show he grasps the information in the Holy Bible.
Yes, the man who killed the abortionist was wrong - we are not to be vigilantees. However, the abortionist is not innocent, either, because he “spills the blood of the innocent” . And what is more innocent than an in utero baby? The Holy Bible presents much information that will keep us healthy mentally and physical. One marriage , before sex, between one man and one woman who care for each other as much as Jesus cared for us to die for us on the cross; to remove mold and mildew and to do other sanitary procedures (O.T.); not to lie (causes stress , etc)., not to kill, not to commit adultry (look at our politicians),  not to get angry, but to think on many good things.
Too many of the writers on this day consider that only this generation has any intelligence. How many people have recreated the Pharoah’s embalming procedures? Either just recently, or none at all! Archaeology continually shows finds of civilizations about which we know nothing, yet they had very advanced technology in many things.

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A mammoth thread.

On the matter of belief - and especially good and bad reasons to believe something: Can we really believe something because it makes us feel better? Surely none of us can *choose* what to believe any more than we can choose what we desire.

Many, perhaps most, of the things we believe (and desire) were inculcated in us as children, and as we learn and live we change our minds on some of these matters and form new beliefs. 

Our only choice (if there is such a thing) when it comes to belief is in whether or not we will privilege the notion of intellectual honesty over *any* other claim - in other words, are there any ideas or claims or supposed truths that are above or beyond question.

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97. Mike Robinson

Sam, Most find religion taught to them as children at an impressionable age, others find religion after problems with living and still others join and use religion to further their political beliefs. The later is the danger we are all concerned with and the former allow themselves to be used even if by their silence. I understand the concern but I go back to my earlier response #39 in that secular societies do evil as well while good men and women stay silent. As Pogo said “We have met the enemy and it is us”...unfortunately. Thanks Sam for your leadership in promoting discourse on a complex subject. Mike

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98. psikeyhackr

There is no Science vs Religion.  They are both abstractions.

There may be a “people that believe in ‘Science’ “vs “people that believe in some Religion.

Of course I have to wonder after almost eight years why the people who believe in science don’t want to know the distribution of mass of the World Trade Center.  Don’t they understand Newtonian physics and the conservation of momentum?  LOL

I guess they turn science on and off when they want.

psik

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99. Charles Stockwell

Very interesting but I’ll sign off. Reason? Copy becomes so convoluted that I lose the ideas expressed. If text was cut about 90%… at least… we’d have some communication of ideas instead of a recitation of empty opinions.

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If this was titled Science v Non-Science would there be any objection.
This could then include Witchcraft, Astrology, Faries, Ghosts etc. Religion is just one factor.

Philip Ball states: ‘There seems little point in making religion per se the ‘enemy of reason’.
Unfortunately it is religion that is making itself an ‘enemy of reason’ not the other way around.

Science is about looking at the evidence and coming to conclusions - Religion is not. Religion starts with the assumption that god made the universe (No reasons given as to why or how) and then proceeds from there. This is the opposite of science and is certainly not science!

There are also many different religions and variations within them that the religious would be better off discussing or arguing between themselves first to find out if they can agree on which one is ‘correct’ before trying to argue against evidence. They might just realize they are all wrong. 

If Chritianity won though, then it would be up to them to present the evidence for the Earth being made in 6 days and is only 6000 years old verses the immense evidence that it is in fact 4.5 Billion years old.
They could of course just agree with the FACTs and accept that the Bible is wrong. This would be a move towards not being the ‘enemy of reason’.

In any case Nature should not be discussing Science v Non-science and I think Sam is correct in taking them to task. Well done.

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