It is commonly stated that science and religion are irreconcilably opposed. A recent article by atheist author Sam Harris cranks the argument up a notch by declaring Science Must Destroy Religion.
To be fair, I think he means “science will inevitably destroy religion”, not the rather more alarming “science has a moral duty to destroy religion”, as might first appear, but either way, his argument is worth examining.
The world according to Sam
Sam’s argument has (as best I can read it) the following main points:
- Religions “inspire an appalling amount of human conflict” and religion is “fast growing incompatible with the emergence of a global, civil society.”
- Religion is based on faith and not any evidence. “Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe such propositions when reasons fail. The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so.”
- Science and religion cannot coexist – one can only gain influence at the expense of the other.
- “To win this war of ideas, scientists and other rational people will need to find new ways of talking about ethics and spiritual experience. …. We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity — birth, marriage, death, etc. — without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality.”
A forceful rebuttal
Michael writing on his Shadow to Light blog has analysed some of Sam’s argument, and to my mind shown it to be without reasonable basis. These are some of Michael’s main points:
Science often comes at the expense of religion?
Michael, presumably something like a biochemist, offers almost a dozen examples of scientific discoveries that make no difference to religious dogma.
Religious dogma always comes at the expense of science?
Only one counter example is needed to rebut such a strong claim, and Michael offers the Ninth Commandment (not to bear false witness), and points out that honesty (NOT bearing false witness) is a fundamental of science, not detrimental to it.
Either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not
Here Michael doesn’t disagree with Sam, but simply points out that his statement contains a value judgment – what constitutes “good reasons”?
Religious people use faith to decide historical questions?
Michael argues that historical questions such as whether the resurrection occurred are argued by christians as being the most reasonable explanation of the facts. To argue against the resurrection requires examining what historical facts we would expect to see (i) if it was true, and (ii) if it wasn’t. Without that, Sam hasn’t actually got an argument.
To be fair, Sam wasn’t discussing the resurrection in this article, so we can’t expect that argument here. But we surely should expect Sam to at least justify and illustrate his strong black and white statements about faith.
Scientific assessment of the supernatural
Harris suggests that if there was any basis for supernatural claims like the virgin birth, science could assess the evidence and “these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe”
But Michael asks whether any atheist scientist has ever devised an experiment to verify or falsify the virgin birth? What could the experimental design be? They haven’t done so because it can’t be done – the truth or falsity of the virgin birth is “beyond the reach of science”.
Again to be fair, Sam is using the word “science” in a very broad way to include all rational inquiry, including history, a usage Michael argues against. But it is worth asking whether even historical study could prove or disprove the virgin birth or the resurrection? My reading of historians suggests that most would say history can’t reach either conclusion – in which case Sam is still making a claim that he appears unable to support.
Faith is believing when reasons fail?
This sort of statement is so often made with little or no justification by atheists that it must be regarded as something like dogma. Perhaps even a statement of belief made when reasons fail?
It is clearly true sometimes. But to say that CS Lewis, WL Craig, Richard Swinburne or JP Moreland have failed to offer reasons for their belief is clearly silly. Sam may disagree with those reasons, but they are still reasons – as he knows for he has debated Craig, knows some of Craig’s reasons and apparently did not succeed in overturning or dismissing them.
This statement is an ambit claim without merit, only justifiable by ignoring good christian thinkers and focusing on less-informed christians.
Facts on the evils of religion
Much evil has been done in the name of religion, I will admit in shame. But much good has been done also. And much evil has been done in the name of irreligion too.
Harris, in common with many other atheists, seems unable or unwilling to base his views on the evidence which is quite clear:
- Religion has not caused many wars overall, and irreligion has a far worse record.
- Religious believers, overall and with many exceptions, have better health and wellbeing, are more prosocial and less antisocial than non-believers.
Thus Harris doubly ruins his argument – it is contrary to the evidence, and he shows himself to be building on dogma, something he criticises believers for. So while it may be true that religion will decline and disappear (though I think most sociologists think this isn’t so), it seems likely this would be detrimental to human flourishing, the opposite of what he claims.
Certainty is …. what?
Sam’s article is only brief, so he had to concentrate his words. Some nuances must inevitably have been lost, so this comment can only be tentative.
But Sam’s absolute certainty is nevertheless a notable feature of this article. An analysis of 30 non fiction books by different authors showed that Harris used many more “certainty” words than any other modern writer tested, and exceeded only by christian writer GK Chesterton. The author of the study (psychologist Jonathon Haidt) suggested this clearly placed Harris among religious writers and away from scientific writers.
This latest article therefore conforms to Harris’ pattern, and suggests he expresses more certainty than a more scientific account would show. I found it diminished his argument, but others may prefer that more dogmatic approach.
Science vs religion?
This argument is (as the cliche goes) a damp squib. There is something an atheist could reasonably say about the decline of religion in the future, and perhaps some things I would agree with. But this little diatribe isn’t it.
So is Sam the man?
Sam Harris is one of the most quoted of the so-called ‘new atheists’. He is reputedly a good and affable speaker. But based on this article and other writings (see, for example, Sam Harris – man of reason?), his arguments seemed to be based more on emotion and style than substance, and sometimes lead him to strange and not very attractive conclusions.
Yet at times his inquisitive nature and open mind (on some questions at least) lead him to some interesting thoughts, like his discussion on consciousness.
If only he could accept that a christian thinks reason leads him to different conclusions to his own, I imagine he might prove a pleasant companion in a discussion. But while he wants so passionately to shut down religion, even if he has to misrepresent it to do so, such a discussion would be pretty difficult.