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Moral Landscape – the problem of religion

January 20, 2014

We have finally come to the end of Harris’ introduction to The Moral Landscape. It has already taken 11 posts to cover the ideas contained in these 22 pages. My understanding of how the book is structured is that Harris has raised the central ideas in the introduction to expand on them in the rest of the book. So, hopefully it won’t take nearly as long to review and discuss the remainder of the book (I’m an optimist perhaps?)

On pages 22-25 Harris concludes his introduction with a section entitled, ‘the problem of religion’.

Harris proposes that ‘the chief enemy of open conversation [about happiness and suffering] is dogmatism.’ (p.22). I’m not entirely sure how he can reconcile this with what he claimed only 3 pages earlier when he said that ‘we are free to say that certain opinions do not count’ (p.19), this potential hypocrisy notwithstanding, I’ll continue. Harris suggests that dogmatism and religion go together (p.23). Reflecting on his participation in the Beyond Belief conference Harris admits an undoubted and undeniable conflict between science and religion (p.23). Anyone, anyone who denies this is simply ‘dishonest’ (p.23). Harris is critical (and even caustic) towards moderate scientists who suggest there isn’t a conflict between science and religion. In fact he insists that scientists pretend that religion and science are compatible (p. 24). Harris outlines the nature and stakes of the conflict between science on page 25. He states that ‘if the basic claims of religion are true, the scientific worldview is so blinkered and susceptible to supernatural modification as to be rendered nearly ridiculous’. Harris’ basic assumption is that if religion is true then the scientific method is irrelevant.

Harris’ little excursus into the relationship between science and religion is is irrelevant to his main thesis (as he admits on p.24). Yet he has painted a terrible caricature of the relationship between Christian religion and science. There are many problems with Harris’ claims:

  • Dogma. Ironically Harris is particularly dogmatic in this section insisting that there is an irreconcilable conflict between religion and science. Yet he has simply asserted this without articulating clearly where the actual conflict lies. Further he has also swept aside his fellow atheists’ opinions of the non-conflict without articulation nor discussion.
  • Origin of Science. Harris appears ignorant of the origins of science. Indeed the origins of science emerged in a specifically Christian theistic worldview – a worldview where the universe was rational, changeable and dependable because it was the personal creation of a rational dependable God and demanded inspection. This is in contrast to all other belief systems which failed to generate a rational basis for trusting the universe. The Christian worldview gives a theological and rational justification for methodological naturalism – i.e. because the universe is separate from God and is his rational personal creation, therefore we can investigate the universe  on its own terms. There is a lot of confusion on the relationship between religion and science and I think this warrants some blog posts (after the Moral Landscape challenge).
  • Confusion. Hence Harris has made a common mistake of confusing methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. He has assumed that you can’t believe in a god and trust the outcomes of science. Yet this is a confusion of methodological naturalism – i.e. assuming that the universe is dependable and predictable and a key assumption in the scientific method with philosophical naturalism – the assumption of atheism.
  • Insult. Futher, Harris’ position is also a deep insult to the many (and highly respected) religious people who are very good scientists.
  • Irony. Harris’ own definition of science leads him to accept that religious ‘truth’ must be accepted as scientific. As I outlined in this post. This is a slightly bizarre. The only way that Harris can justify this statement is if we know for certain that all religious claims are most definitely false. Unfortunately this sounds quite dogmatic and also neglects to deal with philosophical evidences for the existence of a deity and historical evidence supporting the truth of the Christian message.
  • Summary. In this short excursus Harris’  has not only presented a false dichotomy, he’s made assumptions and conclusions that are just not true.

Now we’ve completed the introduction to The Moral Landscape, we can begin the detail.

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