scratch-mark

“God’s Dupes”

So Sam Harris is at it, again, this time in an Opinion piece in today’s Los Angeles Times. Ostensibly, the piece is about CA Congressman Pete Stark coming out of the closet to declare himself rational on the issue of religious belief; in essence, letting everyone know that, unlike most of them, he doesn’t profess to literally believe in an Imaginary Friend.

It kind of puts this entry of mine from way back in a different light for me. Setting his politics aside, I do have sympathy for nonbelievers who must endure living in a world where 9 of 10 people they encounter are, for lack of a better description, partially insane. You never quite know for sure whether you’re dealing wholly with a person’s insane compartment, or some hybrid that’s at least partially contaminated by the insanity. Realizing that this is a bit "convenient" to say, it is nonetheless obvious to point out that the insane rarely understand the nature of their insanity (kinda by definition). As such, though you can probably never fully trust anybody with free will, I think that goes doubly so for grown adults willing to believe in the literal equivalent of Santa Claus.

And so it goes. You want a good look and a good laugh at "God’s Dupes?" Check out the comments to this post at Newsbusters – "Exposing and Combating Liberal Media Bias." Alright. Well how about "exposing and combating" some conservative Christian lunacy? But no matter. If anything, the comments lend perfect support to Harris’ assertion.

The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one
inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from
criticism. Ordinary fundamentalist Christians, by maintaining that the
Bible is the perfect word of God, inadvertently support the
Dominionists — men and women who, by the millions, are quietly working
to turn our country into a totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of John
Calvin’s Geneva. Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to
the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from
public scorn. Christian liberals — who aren’t sure what they believe
but just love the experience of going to church occasionally — deny the
moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality. And in this
way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken
about God in our society.

I grew up amongst fundamentalist, "born-again" Christians. They really do want to rule the world, and they want everyone to burn in hell — experiencing literal eternal torment — who ultimately refuses to submit. Moreover, they believe this to be their literal destiny — whether in "this" life, or their imagined after "life." To the extent they deny that, any single one of them, they’re bold-face liars, too embarrassed to honestly confront the lunatic insanity and sadistic fantasies they harbor.

Going easy on them is in no one’s best interest.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

24 Comments

  1. Jackson on March 15, 2007 at 23:44

    Richard, your thought is exquisitely fashionable. Excellent work.

  2. Richard Nikoley on March 16, 2007 at 10:51

    Linda:

    Less inclined? Yes, a bit. It adds a new perspective for me that I didn't have before. But it's not a big deal, either. You're welcome to see his response the same as you ever did.

    I don't think Harris is claiming that it's "his business," which can really only mean that he claims some authority in the matter. Incidentally, you wouldn't yourself be whining about his "whining," would you, and is it any of your business what he thinks about it, anyway?

    He's expressing his view of a cultural and societal cancer, i.e., religious belief. You're welcome to hold the opposite view. I doubt he'd advocate shutting you up by force, and I don't think you'd advocate doing that to him. So everyone just have at it, peacefully.

    Religious belief, at all levels, is irrational at best, moronic and stupid most commonly, and evil when at its worst.

    You're welcome to claim otherwise, but really, unless you are prepared to argue the absurdity that it's irrational and/or stupid not to believe, then you are on the losing side of the debate — though who knows how long it will go on? Maybe another two millennia of lunacy?

  3. Linda Morgan on March 16, 2007 at 08:44

    It kind of puts this entry of mine from way back in a different light for me.

    How do you mean? Does the sympathy you have for him as an atheist living among believers of various stripes make you now less inclined to fault him for the arrogant contempt in his reply to his constituent's letter?

    Also, respecting Harris's article and his complaints about religious people, this particularly leapt out at me:

    There is no question that many people do good things in the name of their faith — but there are better reasons to help the poor, feed the hungry and defend the weak than the belief that an Imaginary Friend wants you to do it.

    So acknowledging that they're doing good, he whines that it's for less than the best reasons. What in the world makes Sam think that the ideas, beliefs and motives of peaceable people helping others and doing him no harm are any of his goddamned business?

  4. Linda Morgan on March 16, 2007 at 23:39

    I asked: “What in the world makes Sam [Harris] think that the ideas, beliefs and motives of peaceable people helping others and doing him no harm are any of his goddamned business?”

    Richard answered: “I don't think Harris is claiming that it's "his business," which can really only mean that he claims some authority in the matter. Incidentally, you wouldn't yourself be whining about his "whining," would you, and is it any of your business what he thinks about it, anyway?”

    I reply: In two bestselling books and myriad articles Harris has conspicuously mustered his considerable erudition to enumerate and explain the offenses of religious faith and to call for the destruction of religion. Over and over again, he has included stubborn beliefs in unverified miracles among the shortcomings of the faithful. He does it in the article you’ve cited in this post, stating flatly, for instance, that “there is not a person on Earth who has a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.”

    Not only does he claim authority in the matter of the assessment of religious belief, he’s building a reputation as one of the foremost authorities on what he argues is the danger of religious faith.

    As to whether Harris’s published works and public promotions of “what he thinks about it” are any of my business, why is the man writing and speaking as he is if not to attract attention to and consideration of his ideas? I don’t see why any or all of it isn’t as much my business as I care to make it.

    And note this: Unlike Harris in the quote I included in my previous comment, I’m not impugning his reasons for writing what he does and I’m not suggesting that he could or should have better reasons to do what he does. What I will say is that the minds of other people do not belong to him. It is not his place or prerogative to decide what constitutes for other people adequate motivation for thought or action. And to get right down to brass tacks, observing that people might have “better reasons” for doing things that he characterizes as “good” and trying to fob that off as some sort of meaningful criticism of their beliefs is just plain fucking laughable. And he does it all the time.

    In fact, a person who didn’t know the first thing about any religion on earth would soon learn to tell when Harris had tired to flogging Islam and turned his attention to Christianity by the way his complaints turn from offensive actions to offensive beliefs. The obvious reason for that is his inability to find much in the way of offensive Christian activity to worry over. So he complains about them doing nice things for the wrong reasons.

    However shall we survive such barbarically motivated good deed doing?

    One more thing. As to his contention in the piece that “centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society,” he knows as well as I do that he’s full of beans. Any and everything in the world has been spoken about God, in English, up to and including a huge amount of commentary that Harris should approve and certainly has mined. If you don’t believe me, just click here.

  5. Kyle Bennett on March 17, 2007 at 11:15

    Linda,

    You misunderstand Rich's use of "authority". I took it to mean the authority to force people to do or not do something, not as "expertise".

    People's religious beliefs are just as much Harris' (and my) business as Harris' writings are yours. Which is to say: a lot, if you choose to make it so. Correct me if I'm mistaken, but aren't religious thinkers also "writing and speaking as [they are …] to attract attention to and consideration of [their] ideas?"

    observing that people might have “better reasons” for doing things that he characterizes as “good” and trying to fob that off as some sort of meaningful criticism of their beliefs is just plain fucking laughable.

    You're dead right on this aspect of your criticism of Harris. It weakens his arguments and makes him look petty – an assessment I'm not yet convinced is too far off the mark.

    On the other hand, the typical religionist response to finding out that someone is an athiest is to probe for the psychological trauma that just has to be at the root of such an "irrational" decision, so I don't have the slightest sympathy for those that resent the psychoanalytical tables being turned.

    I'm all for an "in your face" principled criticism of religion that laughs in the face of claims of offense. I just don't think that Harris (or Dawkins, for that matter), understands the problem well enough to do it properly.

  6. Linda Morgan on March 17, 2007 at 23:39

    Kyle,

    You say, “People's religious beliefs are just as much Harris' (and my) business as Harris' writings are yours.”

    I emphatically disagree. And if you modified the statement by deleting the word “religious” I would still disagree.

    I would agree without hesitation, however, if you said this: People’s public writings about their religious beliefs are just as much Harris’ (and my) business as Harris’ writings are yours.”

    The personal beliefs – like the motivations and mentation generally – of people who are doing you and Harris no harm are not the proper concern of either you or Harris. And although either of you is certainly free to do it, it’s just especially uncalled-for to snipe at the motives you suppose they have for doing things that that you characterize as good, for crying out loud. Which is what Harris does here, to cite this once again:

    There is no question that many people do good things in the name of their faith — but there are better reasons to help the poor, feed the hungry and defend the weak than the belief that an Imaginary Friend wants you to do it.

    And for the record, even though it scores those coveted “in your face” points, that Imaginary Friend characterization Harris flashes so proudly and so often starts to make him look buffoonish and somewhat … limited after its tenth or twelfth deployment. Just sayin’.

    Also for the record, I see nothing remotely irrational or psychologically suspect about atheism. And I’m not ready to dismiss Harris as irremediably petty. He’s fairly clever and not a bad writer, though he seems to be in something of a rut. I’ve never read Dawkins and am in no hurry to do so based on what I’ve heard about all the meme tripe, but Harris beats Daniel Dennett hands down. At least, I haven’t found evidence that he’s fallen as yet into the sinister moral snare of enjoining Uncle Sam and, whoever the heck, UNICEF or somebody to hold everybody down while he re-educates them, as I noted here that Dennett does. Plus he seems to have more sense than to go around calling himself a Bright. That’s got to count for a little something.

  7. Richard Nikoley on March 18, 2007 at 16:05

    Linda:

    I was away on a comping trip, and seeing that Kyle pretty well clarified what I wrote, I'll leave it there.

    I tend to disagree that the internal beliefs people hold are none of anyone's business insofar as we may criticize them, which is what Harris is doing. I have read his books, and I see no call for the "destruction of religion." He is advocating an "End to Faith," i.e., to religious belief, but so far as I can detect, he means to attain this through a process of social evolution, like when everyone believed things like the Earth being flat, or at the center of the Universe, and over time, those beliefs fell by the wayside.

    I don't see how we can get around criticism of the ideas people hold — whether they mean to harm anyone or not. It seems to me that what you are saying is tantamount to asserting that people have a right not to be called stupid.

    There may be better approaches, and certainly anyone is within their right to call Sam Harris stupid for what he advocates; yet, I seem to imagine that such a thing wouldn't bother him in the slightest. The real reason for all the outrage is that people are pretending that religious belief isn't stupid, but it is. It has no basis in reality, at least the anthropomorphic varieties, which is most in the West.

    Somehow, I don't think anyone would be criticizing Harris, Dawkins, or Dennett if what they were ridiculing was mass social delusion that resulted in everyone believing literally in Santa Claus.

    Listen, millions of people are asserting — outright, flat-out, as-if-there's-no-doubt asserting — that there is a being in the sky who created us, watches over us, hears our prayers, delivers a few of us from bad things, and condemns those who don't submit.

    …Well, they need to pony up and prove that. Until they do, then they believe in stupid things and they have not a goddammed thing to complain about by people pointing it out.

    What I really like about all of this is the substantial attention it's getting. I have no idea how it will go, and I certainly hope it doesn't get too political, i.e., in calls for certain legislation and regulation or whatnot. That'll kill it for sure.

  8. Richard Nikoley on March 18, 2007 at 17:59

    One or two other notes:

    Regarding: “centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society,” since you reference works, including his, that speak to the irrationality of belief, this footnote seems not worth a mention. Clearly he was referring to works and utterances in support of belief.

    Regarding "all the meme tripe," I often find that those who've not actually read Dawkins misrepresent his various theses on that subject. What are your specific objections?

    I've got to reiterate on this:

    "The personal beliefs – like the motivations and mentation generally – of people who are doing you and Harris no harm are not the proper concern of either you or Harris."

    I'd say that would be perfectly true if we were not social animals and instead were islands where the ideas people hold don't shape society. Or, non-initiation of force was a natural human attribute.

    Ideas do shape society, and society initiates force, so there's import in rational people ridiculing irrationality — mercilessly. It's what moves society from insanity to sanity, one small step at a time.

  9. Kyle Bennett on March 18, 2007 at 21:35

    The personal beliefs – like the motivations and mentation generally – of people who are doing you and Harris no harm are not the proper concern of either you or Harris.

    First, they are predictors of behavior, even more so in those who have the most integrity.

    Second, though most individuals with religious beliefs do me no harm, many do. That makes the support and dissemination of those ideas of direct interest to me.

    I would never attempt to forcibly stop the belief itself. But when threats to me are based on such beliefs, I have a respnsibility to attempt to see them coming, and to try to head them off before they get to the point where force comes into it. Arguing agsinst the belief that underlies the behavior is one possibly effective way to do that.

    t’s just especially uncalled-for to snipe at the motives you suppose they have for doing things that that you characterize as good,

    I have not done so, and I won't. I agreed with you on that criticism of Harris. And, by the way, I don't even necessarily agree that the things he characterizes as good are in fact good, whatever their motivation.

  10. Kyle Bennett on March 19, 2007 at 07:17

    But, if for no other reason than the impossibility of proving a negative, science will not prove that there is no God, how ever many scientific explanations are discovered for how ever many observable phenomena. The rational choice of belief remains,

    "Can't prove a negative" is a convenient colloquialism, but is not really a rigorously valid principle. Closer to the truth is that you cannot empirically observe the universal absence (nor universal presence) of some concrete thing.

    But not all proof is emipirical only. There are many properties you can posit for God, such as omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc., that are provably impossible.

    Until God is specifically defined, proving his existence or non-existence isn't even a valid question. Take away all the provably impossible properties, (all the supernatural properties), and we're left with maybe a highly technically advanced alien. You're right, the non-existence of such an alien cannot be disproven empirically. The non-existence of any entity with contradictory properties can be proven.

    The rational choice of belief remains,

    It does not, at least not as God is usually "defined". You have a right to believe it, you do not have a right for that belief to actually be rational. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't make it so for you.

    to the extent they are simply beliefs and not unjust actions born thereof, it’s really none of our business

    That's correct. If it carried no outward manifestation whatsoever, it not only would be none of my business, I wouldn't even be able to know that it's there.

  11. Kyle Bennett on March 19, 2007 at 10:14

    I object to the notion of memes because it attributes agency to thoughts rather than thinkers.

    I'm very pleased to hear that such would be the basis for your objection. However, meme theory does not attribute agency to anything, any more than evolution theory attributes agency to genes. Agency is often invoked in discussions of both, but it is merely a conversational shortcut, a metaphor.

  12. Kyle Bennett on March 19, 2007 at 10:42

    That still doesn't attribute agency to memes.

  13. Richard Nikoley on March 19, 2007 at 11:36

    "As for the achievement of such an end through social evolution, I would point out that people have stopped believing the earth is flat because irrefutable proofs of its spherical shape have been obtained and disseminated. Ditto their notions of an earth-centered cosmos."

    Of course. My sense of the phenomena is a bit different. As scientific knowledge progresses, faith is weakened. Discoveries concerning the cosmos, biology, etc., make the world less mysterious and people have less and less "reason" to invoke supernatural phenomena.

    As for the rest, Kyle answered better than I would have (as usual).

  14. Richard Nikoley on March 19, 2007 at 11:45

    "I don’t know why 'honest words' about God would have to be 'utterances in support of belief.'"

    I'm just saying that I think that was what Harris meant, the context of his remark, since he himself has written honestly about 'the God concept.' Clearly he could not have meant to be implying that he himself has been dishonest.

  15. Richard Nikoley on March 19, 2007 at 11:56

    Regarding memes, I stop short of regarding them as "living," yet, at the same time, ideas are very compelling — especially ostensibly true ones (or false but cuddly-cozy ones). And though I think that we all manifest the ability to ignore and evade reality, we also seem helpless, at times, to escape acceptance of very compelling ideas (for various motivations).

    I don't think that ideas have minds in themselves, yet I don't think that we necessarily rigorously examine the truth or falsehood of every single idea we hold and act upon.

    I do think we are very complex — so complex that even if we don't really have free will in the sense of absolute liberty of thought and action, I think that we think we do, and our behavior, at least, demonstrates quite a good simulation of it.

    So, until shown definitively otherwise, I deal with others as though they have free will, but I also recognize that we're constructed in ways that seems to have us behaving as though we're programmed, at times.

  16. Linda Morgan on March 19, 2007 at 06:13

    Richard,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    I just want to clarify that in saying Harris calls for the destruction of religion, I don’t mean to imply that he advocates putting the faithful to the sword or any violent thing like that. Rather, he is determined to hasten the end of religion by such means as undermining the general tolerance of religious belief in our society, as he explains in this article.

    As for the achievement of such an end through social evolution, I would point out that people have stopped believing the earth is flat because irrefutable proofs of its spherical shape have been obtained and disseminated. Ditto their notions of an earth-centered cosmos. But, if for no other reason than the impossibility of proving a negative, science will not prove that there is no God, how ever many scientific explanations are discovered for how ever many observable phenomena. The rational choice of belief remains, even as the rationale is apt to evolve. Belief may be subject to social opprobrium and the like, but not to logical disavowal. Still, it may well become unfashionable and forgotten, and Harris is welcome to try and do what he can, education-wise, to hasten the day.

    As to a right of people not to be called stupid, there of course is none. There is, however, the inalienable right to believe “that there is a being in the sky who created us, watches over us, hears our prayers, delivers a few of us from bad things, and condemns those who don't submit.” No one may be compelled to approve or share those beliefs and, as I conceded in my last comment, a person is free to fault those beliefs. But – I’ll take another swing – to the extent they are simply beliefs and not unjust actions born thereof, it’s really none of our business in that, for all we may challenge and condemn and persuade and what-have-you, we have no moral authority or practical ability to effect our desired changes in those beliefs. Perhaps Harris nor you nor any other reasonable person means to suggest otherwise, but only to urge the faithful on to emotional satisfaction with the merely veridical.

    It will indeed be interesting to see if, in his zeal to conquer religious faith, Harris can resist the temptation to enlist the assistance of coercive governmental regulation. He will certainly distinguish himself from the general run of reformers if he does.

  17. Linda Morgan on March 19, 2007 at 06:57

    Kyle,

    It would of course be the case that any “individuals with religious beliefs” doing you harm would be harming you with their actions, not with their beliefs. Still, you’re right about the prediction of behavior, and their communication of their beliefs to you might well be considered a heads up. Always, your interest in "the support and dissemination" of their – or anyone’s – ideas is of course justified, as is your prerogative to argue against anything you deem appropriate.

    In the comment about sniping at motives, I was referring to Harris and to those using that tack generally and didn’t mean to imply that you, personally, would do such a thing or would necessarily agree with Harris about what is good. My apologies for the confusion.

  18. Linda Morgan on March 19, 2007 at 09:58

    Richard,

    Pardon my neglect of your “One or two other notes” comment in my previous reply to you; I somehow overlooked it until reviewing the thread just now.

    I don’t understand your point about my disagreement with Harris regarding the status of honest and open debate about the existence of God. I don’t know why “honest words” about God would have to be “utterances in support of belief.” It would seem that a nonbeliever such as Harris would accept the well-worn and widely disseminated arguments that “God does not exist” as not only honest but accurate and helpful.

    Off the top, I object to the notion of memes because it attributes agency to thoughts rather than thinkers. But perhaps I am mistaken about Dawkins’s theory doing that.

  19. Linda Morgan on March 19, 2007 at 10:23

    Okay, I checked on the meme thing. Here's the abstract to Chapter 11 of The Selfish Gene (emphasis mine):

    Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: `… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.(3) When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking — the meme for, say, "belief in life after death" is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.'

    Yep. That's a bit far out for my tastes. YMMV.

  20. Richard Nikoley on March 19, 2007 at 20:02

    "internal consistency of belief, which is what he seems to mean by honesty"

    Isn't that essentially what you mean by it?

  21. Linda Morgan on March 19, 2007 at 18:24

    Richard, in all honesty, Harris’s statement – centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society – is nonsensical no matter how you slice it, and no matter how you try to make it follow on the context in the article. What words about God other than “there is no evidence for His existence and I do not believe in Him” would Harris possibly accept as honest? Are not those words spoken often? Other statements about God such as believers might make he everywhere denounces as lies.

    From what I’ve read, the man is not looking for “one honest word” so much as he is seeking the cessation of all words that fail his unwarranted tests of internal consistency of belief, which is what he seems to mean by honesty.

  22. Linda Morgan on March 19, 2007 at 18:29

    Kyle said, "That still doesn't attribute agency to memes."

    Well, after reading just that abstract (really, apparently, a "key paragraph" or something), I'm not concerned about ideas having agency so much as I am about them having hairy legs and sucking mouth parts.

    I am considering reading the rest of the chapter though, once the arachnophobia settles down a bit. Jeepers!

  23. Richard Nikoley on March 20, 2007 at 09:08

    Linda:

    I think that there was never a dishonest person in the world that didn't begin by lying to himself.

  24. Linda Morgan on March 20, 2007 at 08:58

    I think honest people probably tend to regard consistency in their beliefs as desirable and pursue such consistency to the best of their intellectual capabilities. An honest person certainly would acknowledge inconsistencies in his beliefs that were brought to light.

    That being said, I don’t consider a lack of consistency in a person’s beliefs, to whatever extent such might be ascertainable by me, to necessarily imply dishonesty. And I don’t see a person’s expressed belief or lack of belief in God as itself representing lack of consistency.

    Harris likes to make much of the fact that many believers – primarily members of organized churches, I suppose – claim knowledge that he says they cannot have – that Jesus was born of a virgin, or died for their sins, or even actually lived, for that matter. Personally, I have no interest in disproving any such tenets of people’s faith. And, again, a person’s degree of commitment to such ideas does not, of itself, tell me things I want to know about their honesty. Or intelligence, for that matter. The degree to which they want to talk about their commitment, on the other hand, does help me determine how close I want to stand to them and for how long.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

YouTube1k
YouTube
Pinterest118k
Pinterest
fb-share-icon
40
45
Follow by Email8k
RSS780