A few weeks ago, David Ranallo–a self-described kind-hearted libertarian atheist–asked that I blog about this video from Sam Harris. I agreed to do so, even though I don’t think Harris makes a good case. If you are pressed for time, I think you can just watch the last 5 minutes of this and get the gist of it:
(If you want to hear more, here is Part 2 of the above talk, which I haven’t watched.)
So here are my reactions:
* Yes, I totally agree with
RanalloHarris that religious views–just like views on physics and literature–should be held up to scrutiny. In fact, from my perspective the single most fundamental question a person needs to answer is, “Does God exist?” Your answer to that question will ramify throughout your being and your life.
RanalloHarris himself admits (in the 11th minute of the video, I believe), religious fundamentalists actually do this quite well. For example, American evangelicals have no problem saying publicly that Islam is wrong, etc., and that people who don’t think like them are going to burn in hell. (Note that I personally don’t endorse the inflammatory, self-congratulatory tone that these statements often take.)
RanalloHarris’s real objection, in this talk, is to religious “moderates,” the watered-down, we-can’t-judge-anyone-else’s-beliefs crowd. I actually agree with him. In the political realm, this is like the middle-of-the-roader who says, “Well we need some government, it just has gotten out of hand in the last few decades.” I’m not saying you need to be either a totalitarian or an anarchist, but I am saying that I would like some principles to justify one’s views.
* On this blog, I certainly don’t take the position that
RanalloHarris is criticizing. I hope I do not come off as judgmental or offensive, but I definitely think there is an OBJECTIVE ANSWER to religious questions. There is a fact of the matter about such issues as the existence and nature of hell, whether people have souls, etc. I certainly do not claim to have all the answers, but I do claim that I am sure these answers exist. Religious questions are not akin to asking, “What is your taste in music?” or “Do you like Thai food?” I have engaged in battles with commenters on my posts–K Sralla comes to mind–and we never say, “Well, that’s how I feel, I have faith in that view, so let’s stop this discussion.”
* Having said all that, I believe–contrary to
RanalloHarris–that one should be respectful of someone else’s religious views. But the reason (at least for me, in my personal life) is that I try not to be a jerk. I also would be very very cautious in criticizing someone’s children, or an artist’s painting that took him a year to complete. For people who are deeply religious, those views are literally the aspect of their lives they hold most dear. For example, the worst insults someone could give to me, would be to say that I am a bad example of a Christian, or that I don’t really believe all this nonsense and must be faking it for some ulterior motive.
* In terms of our culture, I think there is a very good reason we have religious moderation and tolerance: This is a completely understandable legacy of religious wars. Even though I believe there are objective answers to religious questions, nonetheless it is much harder to come to agreement on them, compared to (say) issues in physics. So that’s why, in the interests of peace, Americans (and presumably many other groups, but I don’t know how much) have adopted the idea of religious toleration. “You can believe what you want to believe, just don’t tell me what I can believe.” Also, if you subscribe to libertarian notions of property rights, then “religious freedom” is an obvious corollary.
RanalloHarris–at least in this first part of his talk–doesn’t actually give any arguments against the views he attacks. He just informs the crowd that 44% of Americans think Jesus will probably come back in the next 50 years, and that Catholics think condom usage is immoral. That’s it, that’s the punchline. He doesn’t even make an attempt to bring up their arguments for these views; he just condemns them as obviously absurd. In fact, I think he even goes so far as to say that they don’t have reasons for these views, which simply isn’t true.