Sam Harris and fake history

August 28th, 2018 in clues. Tags: , , , ,

Sam Harris is a leading figure in the so-called “new atheists”, an author, speaker and polemicist who strongly opposes Christianity and (even more) Islam. So he is in great demand to speak on many issues of science, ethics and religion, not just the subjects of his university degrees – philosophy and neuroscience.

As a “public intellectual” who is seen by some people as an authority, you’d hope that he researches the matters he speaks on, but it seems that he sometimes fails this basic discipline.

History for Atheists

Tim O’Neill is a passionate amateur historian. That is, he has studied history to masters degree level and he is passionate about doing history as accurately as the evidence allows. He blogs at History for Atheists: New atheists getting history wrong and his posts are detailed, well-researched and well-referenced. And he is an atheist himself.

Sam Harris’ Horrible Histories

In his most recent post, Sam Harris’ Horrible Histories, Tim examines a recent interview where Sam discusses a range of topics, including history.

Tim finds that Sam’s comments on historical matters are “a remarkable example of profound nonsense spoken with vast self-assurance” and full of “historical howlers”. This suggests to me that Sam either hasn’t done his homework, or else thinks that he can contradict expert historians and come up with his own ideas on history. You can read Tim’s analysis to get the details, but here are some of his main conclusions.

Christianity and the fall of Rome

Harris says that christianity was in part responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire, an idea popularised two and a half centuries ago by Edward Gibbon, but long since discredited by historians as not based on the facts and far too simplistic. Gibbon suggested that christianity weakened the martial spirit and hence the Roman armies and diverted resources from Empire building into religious activities.

Harris alludes to these ideas briefly, but O’Neill points out that the Roman army was effective and successful right up until the end of the Empire. The fall of the western Empire was a political and economic matter rather than a military one. Further, he points out, the eastern Empire, every bit as religious as the Western Empire, lasted another millennium after the collapse of the west.

Christianity ushered in the Dark Ages?

This is a popular theme among many critics of the church, and Harris takes it up too. The common argument is that the church suppressed or destroyed the classical learning and philosophical insight of the Greeks and Romans, thus causing the Dark Ages.

However Tim points out that the church actually preserved many classical texts and translated them. Arabic scholars took some of these and preserved them in Arabic. Most of the classical texts we have today are the result of the Christian and Islamic scholars’ work.

The idea of the “dark ages” is actually quite misleading, and the loss of some classical texts was more due to the natural frailty of ancient texts and the breakdown in the Empire rather than any deliberate attempt to suppress them.

Islamic scholarship

Harris says Islam is opposed to “the spirit of science”, and except for “a brief period” Islam has been “hostile to real intellectual life”.

Harris shows his anachronistic prejudices here. Tim refers to some great Arabic achievements, including “algebra, fundamental aspects of chemistry, advances in accurate astronomy, trigonometry as a separate mathematical field, the collation and expansion of Galenic medicine, critical expansions in optics, key concepts in physics and everything from ‘algorithm’ to ‘zenith'”, and points to six centuries of significant Islamic scientific achievement, including the construction of observatories and some innovative work on astronomy.

This denigration of Arabic science is not confined to Sam Harris. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a scientist and not a historian, has also perpetrated this misunderstanding, so that it is well accepted in many atheist circles. As Tim says sardonically: “Yet again, a scientist mangles history and the internet laps it up.”

Christianity vs science?

One of the most common misconceptions in new atheist circles is that the church opposed the progress of science, and Harris takes this idea up enthusiastically. Galileo is, of course, exhibit A.

But Tim points out that “the foundations of modern science were laid in the second half of the Middle Ages”, assisted by the church which sponsored the establishment of universities. Tim lists almost two dozen churchmen who were significant figures in this scientific movement, not surprising as clerics were often the most educated and literate people in western Europe.

Tim analyses the trial of Galileo and shows that Harris has made several erroneous statements about it (as, famously, did Stephen Fry some years ago). It is true that the church stifled Galileo, but it didn’t imprison him or threaten him with torture and it didn’t squash his science because it disagreed with scripture. Galileo’s problem was that he didn’t at that stage have the scientific evidence to support his theories, but Cardinal Bellarmine, who presided over the first trial of Galileo in 1616, said quite clearly that if and when the scientific evidence was clear, scripture would be re-interpreted.

So the Galileo affair was much more complex than Harris portrays, and overall, the church didn’t suppress science, and in many ways supported it.

Is this just church apologetics?

You might be thinking about now that this isn’t what you have read. Isn’t it just the church defending its worst behaviour?

As an atheist, Tim is no apologist for christianity or the church. I am a christian, but I am more likely to be a critic of the church than a defender. But much more importantly, this is what the historians have found out. Tim gives a number of references in his post, and you can check things out with the writings of expert historians – for example Galileo Goes to Jail, and other myths about science and religion, edited by Ronald Numbers and God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam.

But if you were surprised at the facts Tim O’Neill has explained, it might indicate how ubiquitous internet myths have become. But don’t believe me, check it out for yourself.

Evidence-based?

There was more in Tim’s post than I have summarised here. So why did Sam Harris get so much wrong? Was he caught unprepared and spoke too casually about things he knew little about?

I think it may have been worse than that.

This is the era of “fake news”. Anybody can publish more or less whatever they like on topics like history, science and religion, and the rest of us can choose what we read. It seems that too many bloggers write what they want to be true, and too many people read what they want to read and believe what they want to believe.

In many circles, including atheism, but undoubtedly christianity and other interest groups also, too many people have read these memes that are actually not in accordance with the evidence, believe them because it feels good, and repeat them until they take on the status of facts.

Critics expect religious people to allow dogma to over-ride fact, and many christians don’t disappoint them. And while I don’t agree with these christians, I can understand how it happens, for christians can naturally think that faith should take priority.

But it is harder to understand how people whose strongest values are supposed to be rationalism and evidence can so easily fail to check facts, rely on outdated references or vague rumours and accusations, and repeat mistaken ideas until they become dogma. And even try to defend their wrong ideas when the contrary facts are pointed out.

I suppose evangelistic zeal for their worldview makes them less likely to check sympathetic sources and less able to see facts which don’t fit their polemic.

The moral of the story

The moral of the story is obvious. Christians should check facts. Atheists should check facts. Sam Harris should check facts.

Scientists should be respected for their scientific expertise, but it is foolish to rely on them for answers in the fields of history or philosophy.

We all need to learn to mistrust non-experts speaking authoritatively and confidently about matters outside their expertise, even if we like what they say.

Especially if we like what they say.

And unfortunately, Sam Harris has perhaps tarnished his credibility by ignoring these basics.

14 Comments

  1. There obviously is a creator and controller of the universe or we would not be here. Atheists are ignorant and insincere in their search for Truth. The Law of Conservation of Energy and Newton’s Laws of Motion are Evidence. I have recently come to the conclusion that while the physical perception of the Universe is a closed system, the sapience that observed the sentient part is not part of the closed system.

  2. I’m not a Sam Harris fan.

    However, to be fair to Harris — almost everyone gets history wrong. People want to pick episodes from history to illustrate some point about the present. So they just do it from memory and don’t go back and check their facts.

  3. Hi James, thanks for commenting. But I think your statement “Atheists are ignorant and insincere in their search for Truth” is too much of a generalisation. No doubt it’s true for some atheists, but I daresay it’s also true for many other people too.

  4. Hi Neil,

    Yes, I agree, it is easy to get things wrong, especially when there is interpretation involved as well as fact. But surely a public figure like Sam should not speak authoritatively on matters he hasn’t researched? He could at least have added a few words like “I haven’t checked these facts, but I have read ….”

  5. Thank you uncleE, yes my statement was a generalization but it is based on the vast majority of discussions I have had with atheists. I do not debate because in a debate you are trying to prove you are right. You are not seeking truth. Atheism is just another faith based religion like all theisms.

  6. Hello there, I just stumbled onto this blog after doing a search on “Sam Harris Tim o’Neill” (I was trying to figure out if Sam had responded to Tim’s critique of him)… I skimmed through your summary of that whole kerfuffle, saw that you identify as a Christian, and wanted to know more about what you specifically believe (especially if you are familiar with the works of Tim o’Neill).

    For context, I was raised in a baptist denomination for my first twelve years or so, drifted into atheism and then agnosticism (even having “Apatheism” printed on my dog tags as my religious preference at one point while serving in the United States Marine Corps), had a profound epiphany/mystical experience that completely altered my life, got back into Christianity for the better part of 5 years (even serving on the board of directors for a small, non-denominational congregation) and then became an active Mormon for over a year before deciding organized religion probably just wasn’t for me. I maintain a belief in a Creator, though my understanding of what that means is changing as I study and learn new things.

    So I was curious as to what your specific Christian beliefs were, as I think any honest Christian can recognize that there’s a huge spectrum of them. What I was specifically curious about – especially given that you’re at least vaguely familiar with the work of Tim o’Neill – was where you stand on Christ’s divinity. It’s one thing to say, for example, “God reveals truth to all people, but is known most completely through Jesus, so we are all more complete and closer to the truth if we believe in what he said and did” and another to say “Jesus was fully God and fully man.” It’s one thing to acknowledge “There is good historical evidence, accepted by most secular historians, that Jesus lived, and that he did and said many of things recorded about him,” but quite another to then conclude that everything written about Jesus in the Gospels is 100% pure, bonafide historical fact (like raising people from the dead, having the dead raise when he was crucified, turning water into wine, and other “miraculous” or supernatural things).

    Because my qualm is that there really isn’t any historical evidence for any of the supernatural or divine claims about Jesus. I’m not trying to attack your faith at all – I think a faith in Jesus can produce many beautiful fruit and acting in accordance with his example and teaching can definitely lead to a life full of love and purpose. However, for whatever peculiar reason, I’ve always been interested in and motivated by Truth and deciphering what is absolutely True. This value led me to earnestly pursue a Christian life (especially due to scripture like John 18:37-38) but after a long time reconciling facts with fiction, interpretation, myth and so on, the idea that Jesus was God’s one and only divine son (or God himself) was not one I could believe in any longer. The scriptures quite plainly state a lot of things about spiritual gifts that should be evident in a believer’s life that really just are not, unless you twist the interpretation so far as to justify the world view that you hold.

    Moreover, it’s not historically clear whether Jesus actually claimed divinity himself or whether that was a later addition by Church fathers in order to create a religion around him (for more on this I would suggest taking a look at the site Yeshua before 30ce). Again, I’m not trying to attack your faith or convert you to a different faith or anything of the sort – that’s not my intention and trying to convert people out of deeply held convictions simply through an internet post is folly to begin with. My issue is more that you seem to be over-using the evidence of a historical Jesus to back up narratives of divinity and supernatural occurrences that the same historical evidence would not suggest actually occurred. The historical Jesus and the “Bible Jesus” (let’s call him) are quite different entities.

    Yet, just as a veneration for Jesus – particularly his example and teachings – can bear many good fruit, likewise a dogmatic adherence to the Biblical narrative can bear much bad fruit (especially in cases where people place the Bible over the supposed Savior). This is generally where my problems with organized religion come in, because my experience (as well as some research on the topic) has shown that many people who identify as being of a particular religious faith don’t actually seriously grapple with many of the important elements of that faith – like, for example, actually reading scripture regularly. Most just take other people’s opinions on scripture as good enough (like a pastor’s or bible study leader’s) and that’s quite a dangerous thing to do, especially when those in power start defending or preaching about the “great good” of many hurtful practices. (The Catholic church sex scandal comes to mind; divisiveness over homosexuality comes to mind; sex scandals in the Mormon church come to mind.) Moreover it’s always been ironic to me that a large number of religions were started around a guy who was essentially anti-religious in his time and preached about the dangers of allowing other men to interpret what God meant to you and claimed the authority to speak on God’s behalf for you.

    In either case, I wish you all the best, and look forward to a friendly conversation if you so desire.

  7. Hi John,

    Thanks for reading my blog and for your thoughtful comments and questions. I especially appreciate that you have tried to avoid any possibility of offending me. I welcome questions and discussions like this, and I believe if I write my beliefs on a blog, they should be robust enough to stand up to scrutiny.

    Your main question concerns the historical evidence for Jesus’ divinity and the supernatural. I thought these questions were so important, and deserved a more comprehensive answer than I could give in a comment here that I put my thoughts in a new blog post, Going from the historical Jesus to the Jesus of faith. I hope that is OK.

    So please feel free to continue the discussion here or there.

  8. Here’s a mischievous thought, perhaps Harris could adopt a Trumpy opening catchphrase like “some (people) say” or “many people say” before telling untruths. It would allow him an escape hatch and indicate to the rest of us the amount of rigour involved in the formulation of that view.

  9. Hi Unkle E

    I read this blog as well. Tim O’Neill really does some great work. All too often people will spew off so much incorrect history or at least “half truths” it becomes very burdensome to correct it all.

    His blog should be required reading for everyone Christian and Atheist alike.

    Of course neither Ben Shapiro or Sam Harris are historians so its no surprise that Sam Harris repeats many of the old misrepresentations atheists always spin off and he is not called out.

    Sam Harris tries to come off as someone who wants to discuss issues with others. And I think he would chalk this talk up as one of these times. However Harris I believe has at an undergrad degree in philosophy and is fairly well steeped in arguing against religion, where as Ben Shapiro although religious is certainly more of a political personality. And of course they were much more in Sam’s Court. Now that may have been Ben Shapiro’s choice because I actually think he is interested in getting different opinions from those who disagree with him and really trying to have his guests discuss what they are good at.

    But as for Sam Harris and his waking up podcast – well it seems mostly an echo chamber. I am going to do another blog that addresses his view on morality/metaethics because I think that is mostly got his fame. If I am not mistaken he never has had a professional philosopher that actually does meta ethics on his show. I guess he thinks really analyzing his position is too boring – as that was the reason he never addressed any philosophical issues concerning his position and indeed has remained somewhat slippery as to how he views meta-ethics.

  10. Hi Joe, thanks for your comments.I think some of the more evangelistic atheists, just like some evangelistic christians, are so confident that they are right about God that they get impatient when their good arguments don’t convince the other side. That certainly used to be true of me. I think that response can take you in several directions. (1) You can try respectful dialogue, (2) you can give up, or (3) you can get mad or (4) dismissive or (5) grab hold of whatever argument you can. I think Sam was #5.

    I am a little sympathetic about not going too deep. I think I’d prefer to talk on the level most people are confident in, and to do a little more action and a little less talk. But then, I’m not a public intellectual with a large following.

  11. Science proved that we do not exist. But a creator exists or we woukd not be here to say “I think therefore I AM” we obviously exist only as the ON OFF binary system of the sub atomic energy forces that we really are. We are the sapient processor that encodes and decides those ON OFFs into a perception of existence we define as physical even though it is no more physical than what we call dreaming.

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