TIA Tuesday: Glass housesApril 15, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
There’s an old saying that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. To which I would add “especially from indoors.”
As we’ve mentioned before, Vox Day has been most generous in the frankness with which he acknowledges the ad hominem nature of his attacks on the New Atheists, notably Sam Harris in Chapter 7. Last time, Vox accused Harris of intellectual incompetence, based on his use of an argument that was indeed spurious, as others have agreed. Unsatisfied, however, Vox closes out Chapter 7 of TIA with a clumsy and rather heavy-handed attempt to accuse Harris of intellectual dishonesty. Let’s watch.
Sometimes such deception is easy to detect. While talking about the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases in The End of Faith, Harris cites a study showing that abstinence-pledged virgin teens were more likely to engage in oral and anal sex in an attempt to create the impression that those teens were more likely to contract an STD. What he neglected to mention was that while the study showed that 4.6 percent of the abstinence-pledged teens contracted an STD, this was 35 percent less than the 7 percent of non-pledged teens who also acquired one.
What Vox fails to mention is that abstinence programs typically downplay condom use (when they mention condoms at all) and that unprotected oral and anal sex is indeed riskier than protected intercourse. Assume that abstinence-pledged teens were indeed more infection-free during the study period: how long will they stay that way if their sex life is mainly oral and anal sex without condoms? (And if they are using condoms, why the predilection for oral and anal sex?)
Vox takes the fact that this particular study found a 2.4% difference between the pledged and non-pledged infection rates, and tries to make it sound like Harris is “deceiving” people into believing that the pledged teens were more likely to contract STD’s. Only it’s not a deception. Riskier sexual practices do make you more likely to become infected if you have sex with an infected partner. People who really care about teen health should be concerned by this trend, and should, for example, investigate whether this isolated finding is a fluke, a real trend, or a case of under-reporting among the pledged teens. (Personally, I’d tend to suspect the pledged teens in the study come from a more protective environment, and thus have had partners with less exposure to STD’s.)
In any case, it’s clear that Vox is deliberately manufacturing this alleged “deception” on Harris’ part. Nothing Harris said was actually wrong, and even the implication which Vox attributes to him is an entirely valid and reasonable concern. Those pledged teens are eventually going to leave home and meet people from outside their usual social circle. Will their sex education prepare them to protect themselves adequately against STD’s? For their sake, I hope more people listen to Harris than to Vox.
Because the historical record of atheism is so bloody, so recent, and so well known, Harris is forced to construct a No True Atheist argument in a preemptive attempt to ward off the inevitable response to his assertion that religious faith causes murder and genocide.
. . . the most monstrous crimes against humanity have been inspired by unjustified belief. This is nearly a truism. Genocidal projects tend not to reflect the rationality of their perpetrators simply because there are no good reasons to kill peaceful people indiscriminately. . . . Consider the millions of people who were killed by Stalin and Mao: although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion.
In order to deflect attention from the obvious fact that Stalin and Mao, both undeniably atheists, killed tens of millions of people despite a complete lack of the religious faith that Harris claims is necessary to commit such monstrous acts, Harris constructs a No True Atheist argument.
Harris: Atheists don’t kill people because they have no good reason to do so.
Response: Stalin and Mao were atheists and they killed millions of people.
Harris: Then Stalin and Mao were No True Atheists.
Notice the accuracy level of Vox’s version of Harris’ argument. Vox claims that Harris says religious faith is necessary in order to commit atrocities. But that’s not what Harris says. Vox claims that Harris says “Atheists don’t kill people.” But again, that’s not what Harris says. Vox claims that Harris says Stalin and Mao were not true atheists. Strike Three: Harris didn’t say that either.
Remember, this is the section where Vox is supposed to be proving that Harris is dishonest. But if Harris were really as dishonest as Vox claims, would Vox have to lie about what Harris says in order to build a case against him?
The reason Vox has to put words in Harris’ mouth is because he wants to build a straw-man version of Harris’ argument, which is actually quite a good one. Too good, in fact, which is why Vox has to substitute a different version based on denying that atheists ever kill anybody. He even has to make his straw man into a “no true atheists” argument, to distract attention from the fact that his own defense of the Inquisition and such things is that No True Christian was ever involved in any such atrocities. Yet he accuses Harris of making a dishonest argument!
Vox goes into detail in his attempts to distort what Harris is saying in the short paragraph quoted above.
Harris surreptitiously substitutes “unjustified belief” for “religious faith.” Now, “unjustified belief” is one of his many descriptions of religious faith, but obviously there are many unjustified beliefs that are not related to religious faith in any way.
He doesn’t “surreptitiously” substitute anything, he’s making a point about the underlying common factor that ought to concern reasonable people who are looking into the causes of large-scale atrocities like the Inquisition and the Communist purges. Vox, however, is not interested in understanding, he’s merely looking for pretexts to accuse Harris of dishonesty, so naturally he misses the point completely.
Harris states there are no good reasons to kill people indiscriminately, just twenty-six pages after writing that “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”
Again, a blatant distortion of what Harris actually said. Harris said there is no good reason to kill peaceful people indiscriminately, which is a very different thing from taking pre-emptive action against those who are deliberately and maliciously advocating the proposition that God wants us all murdered. Now, I think this is a debatable proposition, and I wouldn’t advocate it myself, but it is only honest to acknowledge the difference between killing those who are actively threatening you and indiscriminate killing of peaceful and innocent people.
Harris states that Stalin and Mao only paid lip service to rationality, but their murderous actions were perfectly rational given their goals.
Vox once more takes a picky disagreement over interpretations and claims to have proven overt dishonesty on Harris’ part. It’s one thing to say that Stalin and Mao took logical and efficient steps to carry out their goals, but it’s quite a different thing to assert that it is rational to value one’s personal benefit above the fundamental human rights of millions of innocent people. If Vox wants to claim that such selfish (and short-sighted) arrogance is “rational,” then that’s his opinion, but Harris and I disagree. That’s not dishonesty on Harris’ part, it’s simple respect for human rights.
Harris claims that Communism was a religion. But however convenient and necessary to his argument this claim might be, it still isn’t true.
Another misrepresentation. Harris compared Communism to a religion, in the sense of being an ideology leading to fanatical devotion and obedience on the part of its followers. Vox himself compared atheism to a religion when he divided atheism into three separate “churches,” even though atheists have no churches. Does Vox’s reference to non-existent atheist churches prove that Vox is too dishonest to be trusted in expressing any opinions about God? That’s the standard he judges Harris by.
Stay tuned, it gets even better…