By Kaihua Zhou | United States
Merriam-Webster defines hubris as “exaggerated pride or self-confidence”. It is the most characteristic crime of intellectuals. In so many cases, they identify an existing issue and propose a baseless solution. Such is the case of Sam Harris, who is a philosopher and neuroscientist. Harris draws attention to a serious issue: religious extremism. However, his solution of atheism and scientific morality clearly shows his hubris, as his reasoning is deeply flawed.
Harris: Hubris and Worldview
Perilous pessimism flavors Harris’s worldview. According to him, the root cause of religious extremism is religion itself:
If you really believe that calling God by the right name can spell the difference between eternal happiness and eternal suffering, then it becomes quite reasonable to treat heretics and unbelievers rather badly. The stakes of our religious differences are immeasurably higher than those born of mere tribalism, racism, or politics. -Sam Harris
Note that Harris identifies religion solely as a cause of religious extremism. Economics, government structure, and education do not figure into the equation. Such is Harris’ hubris. If religion is inherently dangerous, we would expect religiously diverse communities to be unstable.
Stability and Religion
However, Singapore, the world’s most religiously diverse nation, is quite the opposite. 34% of its inhabitants are Buddhist, 18% are Muslim, and 14% are Christian. Of course, each religion argues that its truths are universal; their faithful followers believe in eternal consequences.
Despite these distinct religious communities, Singapore enjoys a considerable amount of what Harris calls “human flourishing.” Singapore is economically prosperous: its unemployment rate is about 2.2% and its GDP is 527 billion dollars. Surely, religious life is not the only cause of prosperity, or even necessarily one of them. Nevertheless, it presents a powerful counterexample to the claim that religion alone results in intolerance and instability.
Science and Morality
This flawed explanation of religious extremism is evidence of hubris. Though Harris claims to support scientific approaches to essential questions, he ignores clearly proven evidence that goes against his claim.
In fact, his scientific look at morality appears to be further evidence of his own hubris. Harris views moral questions primary in terms of consciousness:
Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. Why is it that we don’t have ethical obligations toward rocks? Why don’t we feel compassion for rocks? It’s because we don’t think rocks can suffer. And if we’re more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it’s because we think they’re exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. -Sam Harris
Without a doubt, it is important to know the facts when looking at moral questions. We understand human flourishing in terms of economics (standards of living, the poverty line) and psychology (mental health). These facts can help alleviate suffering. For example, a proper medical diagnosis of PTSD or depression helps someone cope with their illness.
For Morality, Fact is Not Everything
Still, facts do not provide a compelling reason to be concerned with human suffering. Consider two individuals. One is a lifelong religious leader who has taken an active political role. Another is a former mathematics professor. Which of these individuals is more likely to have a concentrated understanding of facts? If Harris is correct, the professor will be in a better position to answer moral questions, due to his understanding of fact. They will be more attached to reality and more tolerant, by his own logic.
However, the first man in the scenario is the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. The second, on the other hand, is the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Where did Harris’ hypothesis fall short? A former mathematics professor is more likely to be unbound by arbitrary dogma. Despite this, Kaczynski was unconcerned whether or not his victims were flourishing. He perfectly understood that his actions would result in human suffering.
This is not to suggest that Gyatso’s religious beliefs alone have given him greater moral expertise than Kaczynski. This would ignore the sophistication of human motivation. It does, however, refute Harris’ claim that facts can primarily answer moral questions, as Gyatso is not a murderer. It appears that knowledge does not necessarily allow someone to properly answer moral questions. There must, thus, be another way to determine this. Making such rigid criteria allows for vast errors. Not every man wise in fact can answer questions of opinion.
How To Address Religious Extremism
What can we do to address religious extremism? Rule of law, separation of church and state, and freedom of speech provide a beginning. The United States and much of the West benefit from these institutions. Thankfully, they are largely free of religious violence. This accomplishment did not require societies to wholly abandon their religious traditions and adopt an empirical moral philosophy.
Yet, this is precisely the solution Harris uncompromisingly prescribes. Such is the height of his hubris, seeing science alone as a savior of humanity. Science cannot hope to resolve issues of morality without cooperating or begrudgingly tolerating religion. To say otherwise is to be blinded by pride.
To support 71 Republic, please donate to our Patreon, which you can find here.