TIA Tuesday: Whatever it takes to make Harris look bad.

By Chapter 7 of The Irrational Atheist, Vox Day is really hitting his stride, and as a consequence is getting a little careless. Despite boasting that TIA is going to beat atheists at their own game by citing documented facts in refutation, he devotes a full four pages at the beginning of the chapter to a series of unsubstantiated slanders and insults directed at Sam Harris. Even more ironically, he accuses Harris of being ignorant just because Harris did not spend time delving into detailed rebuttals of everything that every Christian theologian has written for the past 2,000 years. Coming from an apologist who began TIA by begging off on the whole “Is God real?” question, that’s certainly rich.

Let’s look at an example. Here’s Vox trying to prove that Harris is both ignorant and unwilling to study.

Reading Harris, one would never know that the evidential problem of evil, or reconciling the idea of a benevolent God with the fact that evil exists, is considered to be one of the principle intellectual puzzles of Christianity and has been for centuries

It’s clear from both the nature of his arguments and the absence of any relevant references in his bibliography that Harris has never bothered to examine these specific and, in some cases, incredibly detailed responses to the old dichotomy; instead, he merely repeats it and prances away congratulating himself for having posed what he declares is an “insurmountable” conundrum. But how can he possibly know that, considering that he clearly hasn’t even looked at most of the proposed answers?

Here’s a spare clue for Vox: if someone had found a coherent, reasonable, and self-consistent answer to the theodicy problem, it would no longer be “one of the principle intellectual puzzles of Christianity.” Or of any other religion, for that matter. Yes, we could hare off on a wild goose chase, spending years, if not decades, studying all the attempts men have made at untangling the fundamental inconsistency at the heart of Christianity and other religions. But why bother? We know how it is going to turn out, because Christians, who are more motivated than anyone else to find a satisfactory answer, have yet to find one they can all embrace without embarrassment or dispute. If Christianity is self-admittedly unable to resolve the problem even with the aid of divine revelation, Harris is perfectly entitled to point out the existence of the conundrum.

On to what Vox proposes as his “hypothesis:”

Sam Harris is an ignorant, incompetent, and intellectually dishonest individual who attacks religious faith because it stands in the way of his dream of the ultimate destruction of America.

Again, it is most generous of Vox to be so open about the exclusively ad hominem nature of his attack on Sam Harris. We know right up front that Vox is going to be willing to do whatever it takes to make Harris sound like a nasty fellow, inventing or distorting or omitting whatever serves as a pretext for concluding that Harris is “ignorant, incompetent, and intellectually dishonest.”

Harris begins The End of Faith by strongly implying that almost all suicide bombers are Muslims. Jane’s Intelligence Review reports that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are not Muslims but a Marxist liberation front that committed 168 of the 273 suicide bombings that took place between 1980 and 2000, have historically been the leading practitioners of suicide bombing.

Speaking of intellectual dishonesty, did you notice the way Vox carefully cited only statistics from before the Iraq war? He has omitted 400 suicide attacks in Iraq alone between 2003 and mid-2005 (and the attacks didn’t end in 2005). Nor does he quote what Harris actually wrote at the beginning of The End of Faith, which is not too surprising, since the complete text cites a number of factors, including the reaction of friends and neighbors, as indicators that a given suicide bombing is likely the work of a Muslim. Vox picks and chooses his “facts,” leaving out significant and relevant details in order to try and make Harris look “ignorant,” while at the same time accusing Harris of intellectual dishonesty.

Vox also tries to argue that the Tamil Tigers are a “secular” organization, as though that was of any relevance. But so what if the organization is secular? It’s not the organization that believes, it’s the members of the organization, who are largely Hindu and whose willingness to abandon this life might very well be affected in some way by the belief that death is only a crossroads on a long journey of immortal existence. As Vox himself says, “there is no definition of “secular” that precludes a belief in improbable things about the nature of life and death or anything else, including the Labor Theory of Value, String Theory, or multiple universes.” Religious people can and do participate in all kinds of secular organizations, and hold all kinds of religious, superstitious, and otherwise idiosyncratic beliefs. The secular nature of the organization, therefore, is entirely irrelevant to the religious beliefs and behaviors of the members.

Vox does slightly better in accusing Harris of failing to understand why Christians reject Islam. Harris mentioned the “One Less God” argument, which states that Christians and atheists both reject the existence of the vast majority of gods that men have ever worshipped. “I simply believe in one less God than you do; when you understand why you reject the other gods, you’ll understand why I reject yours.”

It’s a nice sounding argument, but unfortunately it’s not true. As Vox points out, many Christians reject other gods for entirely superstitious reasons (though of course Vox does not call it that). In some variants of Christian theology, Allah and Vishnu and Thor and so on are actual spiritual beings—they’re demons, impersonating gods in order to lead men astray. Those who reject other religions on the basis of such superstitious gullibility are, unfortunately, no closer to understanding the real reason why atheists reject theirs.

Of course, Vox has to make this simple misunderstanding into proof that Harris is incompetent, so he calls it a “logical” error when in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Harris’ error is not that he failed to correctly apply the rules of logic, it’s that he was unreasonably generous in assessing some Christians’ willingness and ability to evaluate pagan religions on the basis of the evidence. The “One Less God” argument would work if Christians would approach the topic of religion objectively and with a view to verifiable fact. But sadly many of them don’t. They simply take the word of other Christians (and/or Jews) that demons were responsible for belief in other gods, and that’s good enough for them.

Vox claims that Harris is in error in claiming “millions” of deaths explicitly caused by religion in the past 10 years, and that one I can’t evaluate at the moment because I haven’t seen the original quote from Harris. It’s possible Harris was exaggerating and that, as Vox calculates, we’re only talking about 750,000 deaths (if it’s ever fair to refer to “only” 750,000 needless deaths). But given Vox’s past record regarding quotes and contexts, I’m going to remain skeptical until I can see the actual details.

Vox continues by asserting that Harris is guilty of several “factual errors” that are in fact mere differences of opinion. For example, Harris expressed the opinion that certainty regarding the “next life” is incompatible with tolerance in this one. Vox obviously disagrees, which is not surprising since he explicitly said he doesn’t care who goes to hell. I suppose that counts as “tolerance” somewhere, but meanwhile Harris’ opinion has quite a lot in its favor as well. Many people do care whether or not their fellow man is going to suffer horribly as a result of his beliefs, and are therefore highly motivated not to sit quietly by and let people go to Hell through the silence and inactions of believers.

Vox next disagrees with Harris’ opinion that Christians use human standards of morality to establish God’s goodness. Strangely, Vox’s rebuttal consists solely of denying that human moral standards apply to God, as illustrated by commandments regarding adultery and parental authority. But is that really an answer? If human moral standards do not apply to God, does that mean God could lie and murder and rape and steal, and still be “good”? Can God deceive Christians by promising them heaven and then sending them to Hell, and still be “good”? It seems to me that Vox is the one making the factual error here. Humans judge “good” and “bad” in terms of consequences, and how they feel about those consequences. If we did not use human standards to judge God’s goodness, it would be meaningless to call God “good,” since “good” as applied to God would mean only “whatever God is.” The expression “God is good” would therefore mean “God is whatever God is,” i.e. a mere tautology.

Vox further disagrees with Harris over whether questions about morality are questions about happiness vs. suffering. In Vox’s opinion, morality is about what behavior is or is not correct in a given moral system. Notice, however, that Vox’s opinion is not inconsistent with Harris’, since Harris is talking about how we decide what the standards themselves should be and/or whether we want to obey them, whereas Vox is only describing how to compare an individual’s behavior to those standards once they’ve been determined. Regardless of how you measure whether or not someone is behaving morally, it’s ultimately true that the reason people want to be good is because they expect to benefit from it, and/or to suffer if they’re bad. So Harris’ point is perfectly valid, and Vox’s “rebuttal” doesn’t even address the issue. But for Vox this is yet another factual “error” in his list of accusations.

Vox disagrees with Harris’ opinion that religious moderates deserve a share of the blame for the behavior of fundamentalists. Vox tries to counter this by saying nobody can be held responsible for the actions of someone else (hence his accusation of logical “error” on Harris’ part), but in fact Harris isn’t doing that. He’s holding moderates responsible for their own behavior, i.e. supporting the notion that religion is a perfectly valid source of life-changing “truth,” and failing to exercise any substantial restraining influence over their more extreme brethren. Granted, moderates are not guilty of terrorism just because they fail to restrain terrorists, but Harris is justified in pointing out the consequences of their actions and/or inactions with respect to the fundamentalists.

Next on the list of opinions Vox disagrees with: Harris’ opinion that religious doctrines have divided the world into separate moral communities, and for good measure, his opinion that morality is based on seeking better ways of achieving happiness and avoiding suffering. Oddly, Vox tries to refute this by pointing out that different religions tend to seek happiness in similar ways (not counting various injunctions and prohibitions based on superstitions and dogma). That, however, is precisely the situation which we would expect if Harris were correct about morality being based on seeking happiness and avoiding suffering, so it’s not clear what point Vox was trying to prove (except perhaps that this chapter does include at least one logical error).

Number 9 on Vox’s list is Harris’ opinion that religious prudery contributes daily to the surplus of misery in the world and particularly to the spread of AIDS in Africa. In rebuttal, Vox offers the opinion that it serves them right for having sex outside of marriage, but neglects to explain why the Bush administration’s ABC policy has resulted in an increase in AIDS cases in Uganda (for example).

For number 10 on Vox’s list, he disagrees with Harris’ claim that slavery is now recognized as an immoral institution worldwide. Sadly, Vox tries to rebut this claim by pointing out the amount of slave trafficking that is still occurring today, as though nobody involved had any idea they were doing anything wrong. One might as well deny that murder is recognized worldwide as being wrong; after all, people are murdered all the time. But ask yourself this: if murderers do not know that murder is wrong, why do they try to hide the fact that they’ve committed the crime? The fact that something happens does not mean those involved fail to realize that it’s wrong.

And so it goes. Vox plainly declared for us the ad hominem nature of his goals for this chapter, and is to be commended for the pure and undistracted zeal with which he pursues that goal, regardless of what a more unbiased and reasonable analysis might have suggested. Vox’s writing gives me a renewed interest in reading all of Sam Harris’ books, just to find out for myself what genuine facts lie behind the awful things Vox seems driven to spew out. And if this tendency proves as true for others as it has for me, perhaps some good will come out of TIA after all.

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