back to Mainly for Non-Believers
Atheist Sam Harris, like his cohorts Dawkins, Weinberg, Dennett and Wilson, keeps trying to persuade people to come to believe what he believes. He somehow feels that it really matters that they do. In his ignorance of the content and interpretation of the biblical witness he (and ignorant Dawkins) urges people to be done with the Bible and we'll have a better world.
He thinks an atheistic world would be "better". Weinberg is delighted that people like himself have enabled people to get free from their "crazy old aunt" religion. It wouldn't be so bad if by "better" they meant something like more convenient for us biped primates but imbedded in all their talk is the moral superiority of the atheistic mindset.
Sam Harris said he was going to debunk 10 myths about atheism that helps to keep atheists out of the White House. He seems to think that Christians spend as much time thinking about atheism as he does. Trust me—they don't! When people come around shoving survey papers under your nose and give you three to five seconds to answer each question you tend to shoot from the hip and a day later, if you even remember what you said, you might well disagree with it.
I accept the fact that I am dead set against his atheism and that this colours my hearing and response—of course, but I can't deny that I try to give him a fair hearing. Nevertheless, I still feel compelled to say that this Harris offering is pathetic at best.
With his Myth 10 he says that Christians say atheism offers no basis for morality.
This isn't only the view of Christians who bother to think about atheism at all; it's the view of many atheists! Sartre, Russell, Kaufmann, Teller and Blackham only illustrate this. Of course many atheists live morally upright—that should never be disputed it's manifest fact! But as Blackham confessed to Trevor Huddleston, Western atheists live on Hebrew—Christian moral capital. Elijah ate bread and on the strength of it went for forty days and atheists eat Hebrew—Christian bread and go for years on the strength of it.
And how does Harris deal with the "myth" that atheism offers no basis for morality? He says: "If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Quran, as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine." There's the Harris way to duck and dive—pretend the answer's too obvious for debate and attack the Bible.
He goes on to simply assert, "We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of [hard-wired] thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness."
Here I thought he was going to debunk a myth about the basis of atheistic morals and he's talking about human happiness. Wouldn't you think he should already know that what makes for human "happiness" includes rape and plunder, paedophilia, drug trafficking, war-mongering, genocide and more?
Note that he says "we" decide what's "good" by recourse to "hard-wired" moral intuitions. Who is this "we"? Who gives this "we" the moral right to decide what is morally the case? What's the rational basis for such categories as "good"? The atheist Russell wasn't as shifty as atheists like Harris, Dennett and Dawkins. He said when we speak of what we "should" do we really mean what others want us to do—morals are personal preferences. He went on to lament that he saw things going on in the world that distressed him deeply but, he confessed, he had no rational grounds for condemning them. Jean Paul Sartre said that the only world consistent with atheism is an amoral world (a world without morality). Sartre tore up his Communist Party membership card in protest at Russia's marching into Budapest. Why shouldn't the USSR troops crush Budapest or Hitler pillage and butcher Europe or Stalin create famine to make the world better or Pol Pot crucify his own millions to rid the world of Western decadence?
Harris claims that atheists (and the rest of us) know that some things are immoral by hard-wired "intuition". Intuition means you don't have to think about it; don't have to go through a rational process to get there. So he confesses that his view on morals doesn't rest on a rational basis—he just feels it! It's the way he's programmed! Yes, but where are the grounds for saying that our programming is "moral"? The truth is, Harris and his kin have no grounds for using the word "moral" the way people in general mean it. He cons himself. Pathetically ignorant of the Bible he's ignorant of logic also.
Harris says we are morally upright because we are hard-wired to be morally upright [he doesn't say that in this piece—he says we're hard-wired to recognise what is moral or immoral but he believes we're hard-wired to do things we call "good" and "evil"].
The hard-wiring includes behaviour so on Harris' terms the tyrants and their lackeys did what they were programmed to do. The death camps and the Gulag were hard-wiring. No moral choices were made—the cruelty was chemical responses. Might as well blame a man with no eyes for being blind as blame Hitler and his villains for what they did. And don't you see, it wouldn't make any difference if one of the camp commandants wept all night and died of guilt feelings—his tears and feelings of guilt would be chemical reactions that were part of the hard-wiring. He would be weeping and feeling guilt feelings for the same reasons a polar bear has thick fur and plenty of fat. He would be weeping and feeling for the same reasons his companions were jeering and raping.
But even if we were to accept in totality Harris' claims, what would we have? Our genetic programming is the result of chance + the laws of physics (which themselves are the result of an explosion without purpose—the Big Bang) so where's the "morality" in morality? It just happens that that's the way things are but how does that lead Harris to say it's the way things "should" be? That's like saying rhinos "shouldn't" have horns or whales "shouldn't" be mammals. Hyper-Calvinists must love his writing because it goes right down their line. They offer theological determinism so that people have no choice but to sin—God programmed it that way. He offers physical determinism—matter in motion programmed it that way so people have no choice but to think this or do that. He utterly obliterates rational choice and still insists on talking about "good" and "evil". He thinks the Bible is moral muck and castigates it when those that wrote and edited it were only doing what they couldn't avoid doing. Christians don't need to make a case against Harris—he makes it for them. [And this guy wants to be a senator?]
He thinks we've come a long way morally speaking. "We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Quran more closely." Is he looking at the same world the rest of us are looking at?
He speaks of "progress"? What is that? The very notion of "progress" is problematic unless there's a goal or an ideal toward which we're moving. We can use the word progress in limited and contrived ways, of course, but when we believe that the entire universe—every single electron in it—came without purpose or goal and is moving toward utter chaos then to speak of progress is a joke. Harris is hard-wired and his hard-wiring with its hard-wired thinking just "happens" to be what it is. And behold he Dawkins, Dennett and their kin swell with pride that they take the moral high road to deliver humanity from the mother of all tyrannies—Christianity.
Ivan Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate. He made a sound (used a metronome) at the moment of feeding them and then by and by he made the sound but offered no food. The dogs salivated though there was no food—they'd been conditioned. This is how Harris says we got our moral sense. Following the likes of B.F Skinner and E.O Wilson (until he gets his own degree) Harris thinks we morally salivate because we've been conditioned by evolution. It's all a bit more complex than that, of course, but it's not a whit different. Our hard-wiring is no different in essentials than the hard-wiring in Pavlov's dogs and the "thinking" experience (including alleged "choices" and moral sense and feelings) is more hard-wiring resulting from chance mutations worked on by the chance-produced and sometimes successful Natural Selection.
Harris kids himself into thinking that he really thinks and reasons and chooses independent of his chemical conditioning in an environment that is made of absolutely nothing but purposeless matter in motion. He can't see the stark nonsense in that. His "arguments," however complex and sophisticated and refined are the end result of chemical reactions over which he has no control. To speak more accurately, they aren't "the result" of chemical reactions they are chemical reactions.On his own terms Harris is—ask him and he'll tell you this—a bag of bio-chemicals. You understand, it isn't just that on atheistic terms Harris "has" chemical reactions; body and soul he is a collection of chemical reactions and that's what thought and feelins are (Harris and Weinberg et al).
Finally, does Harris really think he thinks about "goodness" because he's hard-wired, because it's programmed into his neuro-transmitters and genes and such? Try telling this grown man that his thinking has been shaped in a Hebrew—Christian tradition from childhood and that's why he has a sense of "ought"; try telling him that he thinks cruelty is immoral because he has been morally shaped by teachers of the Hebrew—Christian tradition and he is so incensed against Christianity that we won't allow even that. "If I had been shaped by the Bible I would be a cruel and brutal man"—that's his story.
See, what he ought to do is just admit what many others atheists admit--he gets his moral standard from the Hebrew--Christian tradition; that way at least he'd get his foot in the door. But in the end that wouldn't really help him because he's an atheist and everything is matter in motion--he's a materialist and this means he has to say that the Christian tradition is the outworking of purposeless forces working on matter. He talks about hard-wiring because he is compelled to do it. He has no alternative. Poor thing.
I think I'm done here.