article of lunch - 7.3

(and yes, i will get to the revision of last month's poems soon enough. we had a rather busy weekend, which left, sadly, little time to be spared on poetry)

The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos by Sam Harris.

I came to this article a roundabout way, but it infuriated me enough to warrant mentioning. That said, I will preface my remarks - which I hope to be brief - by saying that the transparent animosity Harris harbors toward religion (and, it would seem, especially Christianity) is unnecessary and has no place in the sort of intellectual discussion of which he (along with me and many others) is so fond. Appealing to emotion is not only a logical fallacy, it smells of rank amateurism and just plain bad taste.

Harris makes 3 points, the sum of which he supposes sufficient to debunk the idea that, in his words, "Raping and killing children can only really be wrong... if there is a God who says it is." Herein lies my first problem with this article, and I have only read two sentences. If you are going to phrase the opposition's argument, please be respectful enough to do so in a mannar free of emotional baggage, no matter your personal feelings. Nice guy that I am, though, I'll let that one slide. On to point #1.

"1. If a book like the Bible were the only reliable blueprint for human decency that we had, it would be impossible (both practically and logically) to criticize it in moral terms. But it is extraordinarily easy to criticize the morality one finds in the Bible, as most of it is simply odious and incompatible with a civil society."

I can almost hear him typing out Old Testament references as I read the above sentences. I will not break this down here, as I do not have the time, inclination, or proper understanding myself. However, I believe that Harris is clearly in possession of even less understanding on this one. I point you to
this article for a decent overview of this particular issue. Simply put, not all OT laws are given equal weight. Moral laws are anchored to an unwavering ideal throughout the Bible, but the ceremonial and civil laws are not similarly tied.

As an aside, I offer this sentence: "As a source of objective morality, the Bible is one of the worst books we have." No kidding. The Bible is not a source of objective morality; it is a source of subjective morality. Morality in the Bible is subject to the nature of its God. Had Harris an understanding of that, the rest of the text under this point would not have been written, and as such will not be mentioned here.

Point #2

"2. If religion were necessary for morality, there should be some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers."

Harris states, in development of this point, "For centuries, Christian Europeans had viewed the Jews as the worst species of heretics and attributed every societal ill to their continued presence among the faithful." O.k., but were those Christians correct in said attribution? No. Moving on...

Further, "Leaving aside the issue of cause and effect, these facts prove that atheism is perfectly compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society; they also prove, conclusively, that religious faith does nothing to ensure a society’s health." Let's think about this one. Perfect systems practiced imperfectly are not likely to live up to their potential. It is true that faith, of any variety, has no direct impact on the health of a society. It is, instead, the correct enaction of the ideals of a faith (specifically of the Christian faith, in response to Harris and in light of my beliefs) that is able to change a society for the better. Perhaps I'm splitting hairs, but a civil society is not necessarily (and, I would argue, a long way from being) a moral society. Too, even a moral society is all-too-often fraught with the perils of the dubious nature of humanity. Seems to me Harris is getting a tad loosey-goosey with his concepts.

Point #3.

"3. If religion really provided the only conceivable objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a nontheistic objective basis for morality. But it is not impossible; it is rather easy."

"Clearly, we can think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a law-giving God. In The End of Faith, I argued that questions of morality are really questions about happiness and suffering." Again, Harris needs to tighten the screws a bit. Morality is generally agreed to deal in terms of right/wrong, good/evil, etc. Happiness and suffering are, in my estimation, one important step removed from such considerations, existing only in the realm of the purely physical. In a way, then, Harris is right: if you don't consider good/evil as factors in moral judgment, then you certainly don't need a God as a moral anchor. But then, if you change the accepted definitions of concepts, you can say argue for pretty much whatever conclusions you'd like. Again, I may be splitting hairs, but I think we all know that's pretty much what philosophy is. My point is, why use up two points arguing against a divine basis for a good/evil morality (especially one particular brand) if you're going to claim that morality isn't even comprised of good/evil to begin with?

To close his article, Harris composed a paragraph containing the following sentences: "One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith." I would point out here that nothing stands in the way of rational discussion than irrational animosity that fleshes itself out in poorly constructed attacks against one particular side. Bad form, Mr. Harris. Bad form.

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Blogger Josh said...

just a bit indignant? i can't tell if it's over the content, the poor use of logic, or a bit of both.


8:52 PM  
Blogger matt said...

both. definitely both.


11:30 PM  

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