The World Wide (Religious) Web for Friday, May 6, 2011

CNN Poll: Majority in U.S. say bin Laden in hell. The rest have read Love Wins.

Jackson Lears critiques atheism, specifically Sam Harris, from the port-side of the political spectrum.

On Harris’s view of science:

To define science as the source of absolute truth, Harris must first ignore the messy realities of power in the world of Big Science. In his books there is no discussion of the involvement of scientists in the military-industrial complex or in the pharmacological pursuit of profit. Nor is any attention paid to the ways that chance, careerism and intellectual fashion can shape research: how they can skew data, promote the publication of some results and consign others to obscurity, channel financial support or choke it off. Rather than provide a thorough evaluation of evidence, Harris is given to sweeping, unsupported generalizations. His idea of an argument about religious fanaticism is to string together random citations from the Koran or the Bible. His books display a stunning ignorance of history, including the history of science. For a man supposedly committed to the rational defense of science, Harris is remarkably casual about putting a thumb on the scale in his arguments.

On Harris’s view of religion:

But Harris is not interested in religious experience. He displays an astonishing lack of knowledge or even curiosity about the actual content of religious belief or practice, announcing that “most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths.” Unlike medicine, engineering or even politics, religion is “the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress.” Religion keeps us anchored in “a dark and barbarous past,” and what is generally called sacred “is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday.” Harris espouses the Enlightenment master narrative of progress, celebrating humans’ steady ascent from superstition to science; no other sort of knowledge, still less wisdom, will do.

On Harris’s confusions about ethics:

Harris’s version of scientific ethics does not allow for complexity. In The Moral Landscape, he describes his philosophical position as a blend of moral realism (“moral claims can really be true or false”) and consequentialism (“the rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”). He does not explain why he has abandoned the intentionalism he espoused in The End of Faith. Nor does he spell out how his newfound consequentialism can allow him to maintain his justification of collateral damage (which surely “impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”), or how his new view differs from the pragmatism he had previously condemned. Pragmatism, the argument that ideas become true or false as their impact on the world unfolds, is nothing if not consequentialist.

And on Harris’s fundamental reductionism:

There is a fundamental reductionist confusion here: the same biological origin does not constitute the same cultural or moral significance. In fact, one could argue, Harris shows that the brain cannot distinguish between facts and values, and that the elusive process of moral reasoning is not reducible to the results of neuroimaging. All we are seeing, here and elsewhere, is that “brain activity” increases or decreases in certain regions of the brain during certain kinds of experiences—a finding so vague as to be meaningless. Yet Harris presses forward to a grandiose and unwarranted conclusion: if the fact-value distinction “does not exist as a matter of human cognition”—that is, measurable brain activity—then science can one day answer the “most pressing questions of human existence”: Why do we suffer? How can we be happy? And is it possible to love our neighbor as ourselves?


Stoicism: The Army’s newly invented faith?

Why the National Day of Prayer endures. Because we need economic miracles to cover the distance between what government spends and what it makes? That’s my answer.

Random thoughts on theodicy and psychics. My favorite line about psychics: “Only in America, I guess, do fake practitioners of false phenomena worry about the authenticity of their professional work.”

Howard Kainz offers a Catholic explanation of how Jesus had brothers if his mother was a perpetual virgin. Color me unconvinced.

Christ wasn’t a communist. No duh! But he wasn’t a capitalist either.

Hebrew baby names still tops in 2010, but Jews constitute only 1–2% of the American population. Two explanations: (1) The biblical tradition continues to influence American culture. (2) Hebrews have cool baby names.

Using History to Mold Ideas on the Right: An article about David Barton, WallBuilders, and the quest of the historical Christian nation. UPDATE: Over at–an indispensable blog about religion stories in the news–Sarah Pulliam Bailey has some questions about this article.

A two-part series on the Christian redemption of the “dismal science”: Part 1 and Part 2.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: