Assuming Facts Not in Evidence
I enjoy reading work by Sam Harris, and his recent book The End of Faith is another good piece of writing. In it, he really opposes liberal religious thought as much as fundamentalism. His point of view, that religion is either fundamentalist or intellectually dishonest, is not one that I share, but I see his point.
I won't argue in depth here- I have written recently about my hyper-liberal agnosticatholic stand. And I'll point to a good blog interview with Harris here . There are many other resources that outline his point of view, including his own website. And his book is good.
However, one of his positions, that the world would be better off without religion (one he shares with many others, like Richard Dawkins, to point out a vocal proponent), is particularly curious. There has not been such a time in human history, so the argument is strictly hypothetical. And it isn't clear that rationality is adaptive in the long run, since human beings have only recently embraced it in the distilled form Harris advocates. Because harm comes from part of human nature, it is tempting to assume that it needs to be fixed, and that it can be fixed. It is an assertion made in the absence of evidence, and as a hypothesis, it works poorly, because we are not likely to see such a world.
I am reminded a bit of the arguments of socialists and communists about utopias that would result from dictatorship of the proletariat as being the eptiome of a scientific approach to history. Well, I won't argue the merits of their case for socialism, but I would point out that predictions were not borne out, and eventually, intellectuals on the left largely quit referring to the Marxian ideas of historical inevitability or scientific socialism. They assumed certain results would follow, but the experiments came out differently. So they abandoned the science for the weaker broth of 'political commitments'.
I think that human beings are stuck with a neolithic mind that will automatically generate schemas for understanding the world that are at least quasi-religious. Fighting this is futile, I think, and the best thing one can do is fill these slots with something- liberal religion, secular humanism, but certainly not nothing- as innoculation against something virulent (say, communism, scientology, or fascism) from getting in. Argue with many militant atheists for long, and you will be papered as irrational, stupid and unrepeatable things because you do not hew to their version. One might throw off some religion, and eschew the term, but I think the deeper tendencies die much harder.
My larger point is that it isn't a proven fact that humanity would be better off without it. No one would die for religious reasons, but this is not a guarantee that extremism would no longer take lives. It is too much to believe, absent evidence, that war and murder are going to go away. Where religion was used to justify them, something else will be used. A reasonable scientific question is what adaptive adavantage religion confers. It is so very deep within us, that it must be a manifestation of something useful.
The awful truth may be that being always on the verge of killing one another and believing in fantastical beings was important to human survival. If it had been counteradaptive, would it have survived? And if it is so deeply embedded in us, is it possible or desirable to get rid of it? I wonder.
There seems to be the tacit assumption that atheism would lead to the sort of liberal cerebral temperament that intellectuals in the West embrace. I am not so sure- I can see a certain measure of the western intellectual tendencies toward liberality is quite circumscirbed. In a recent editorial, Harris himself points out that many liberals in America think that militant Islam is less of a threat than the president, and he takes them to task for it.
I think that the idea that the world would be better off without religion sounds good. Reasonable, even. But it isn't necessarily so. Irrationality abounds, is central to the human condition, and the quixotic fight against religion, especially attacking those who are in the best position to moderate it, is clear indication that Mr Harris himself is not immune.