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
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.
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.
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.