Tag: Atheist

Sam Harris and Scientific Morality Show the Height of Hubris

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:

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.


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As Mind Hacks Go, Religion Isn’t The Best One

By Craig Axford | United States

In a June 3rd New York Times Op-ed, the philosopher Stephen Asma lays out a common argument for why humans need religion. “Religious practice is a form of social interaction that can improve psychological health,” Asma states. To make his point he tells the story of a student whose brother was brutally murdered and whose mother was only able to cope by finding solace in the belief she would see her son again in the afterlife.

That religious belief can provide great comfort in times of immense suffering has both powerful anecdotal and scientific support. But as with just about every other cultural adaptation that humans have come up with, there’s a downside as well as an upside. Some adaptations are more downside than up, while others are more upside than down. Asma’s forthcoming book, Why We Need Religion, may offer us a solid argument for the view that religion is largely upside but his NY Times opinion piece doesn’t.

Stephen Asma has a rather odd way of praising religion. His article in the Times often reads like a rather backhanded compliment. He seems to think that what we believe and how we go about believing it is either of little or no consequence or that it is worth the personal and social price we have to pay to purchase relief from the pain life’s slings and arrows inflict. Religions, of course, historically have taken themselves rather more seriously, and most still do.

In the tragic case that Asma cites — a mother who lost a son to a brutal stabbing and could only find comfort in a belief in an afterlife — we have only his word for it (based upon an account Asma received from a student) that this woman could find relief from her suffering by no other means. However, for the sake of argument let’s assume this is an accurate retelling of how one mother found a way to move beyond her loss. According to Asma’s own account, this story puts religion in the category of something that works as a last resort, not as a preferred or ideal method for coping with suffering.

Furthermore, Asma never attempts to interview even one out of the millions who have experienced personal loss without needing to resort to a belief in an afterlife or other untestable things in order to cope. In order to build a solid argument that a sincere belief in realms that can’t be proven translates into a speedier recovery or greater psychological health, shouldn’t a thorough survey of alternative worldviews be a necessary part of the research?

His failure to provide any research into how nonbelievers cope with personal loss doesn’t stop him from assuming they turn to science. After making this erroneous assumption he tells readers the approach we don’t take doesn’t work. “No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy,” Asma writes. “Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson will not be much help, should they decide to drop over and explain the physiology of suffering and the sociology of crime.”

I don’t know Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson personally, but I don’t have any difficulty imagining that their method of providing comfort in a situation like this would be rather typical of most caring human beings: a hug and perhaps a few shared tears. A science lecture wouldn’t be in the cards unless Nye and Tyson are completely lacking in situational awareness. Asma, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, apparently thinks that atheists and agnostics do lack such awareness and would prescribe a few episodes of Cosmos for parents in mourning over a recently deceased child.

Science does not claim to be a source of solace. Science is a method for uncovering facts about our universe and how it functions, not an analgesic for the families of murder victims. To the extent science is useful in these situations, it is because it has provided therapists with a greater understanding of how we emotionally and physically respond to severe stress and aided our development of better therapeutic responses. To the best of my knowledge, no research into the stages of grief and the best means of getting through them psychologically intact has found a science lecture to be useful.

It’s troubling that a philosopher like Asma has adopted such a cavalier attitude about belief systems. Given life inevitably will involve suffering, human well-being must ultimately depend upon our capacity to cope with it without experiencing debilitating physical or emotional harm. Whenever possible we should strive to avoid using false or unprovable beliefs as a means to this end when equally good perspectives with greater empirical support are available. There may have been a time when religion was the best game in town when it came to coping with personal suffering, but that simply is no longer the case.

Asma’s curious attitude toward truth in this context is determined by what the “emotional brain” wants. Here’s how he puts it in his article:

Those of us in the secular world who critique such emotional responses and strategies with the refrain, “But is it true?” are missing the point. Most religious beliefs are not true. But here’s the crux. The emotional brain doesn’t care. It doesn’t operate on the grounds of true and false. Emotions are not true or false. Even a terrible fear inside a dream is still a terrible fear. This means that the criteria for measuring a healthy theory are not the criteria for measuring a healthy emotion. Unlike a healthy theory, which must correspond with empirical facts, a healthy emotion is one that contributes to neurochemical homeostasis or other affective states that promote biological flourishing.

No, emotions aren’t “true or false.” But they are warranted or unwarranted. A parent that has just lost a child is justified in feeling deep sadness regarding the loss. He/She has a reason for feeling this way. But there is nothing in our evolution as a species that states a mother or father must adopt a false or unverifiable belief in order to eventually move on with their life. Atheists and agnostics lose family and friends all the time, and the vast majority of them still manage to get out of bed in the morning.

If a person truly cannot find a way of coping with their grief that does not involve the permanent use of magical thinking, there’s nothing emotionally healthy or warranted about it. If a person loses even the capacity to entertain doubts about their religion (or any other worldview, scientific or otherwise), that’s not someone who has been rescued by their belief system, but someone who has become severely cognitively impaired by it. That’s not a good thing from either an individual or societal perspective.

Asma argues that “Religious practice is a form of social interaction that can improve psychological health. When you’ve lost a loved one, religion provides a therapeutic framework of rituals and beliefs that produce the oxytocin, internal opioids, dopamine and other positive affects that can help with coping and surviving.” This statement is worth breaking down and analyzing in greater depth.

The “social interaction” that Asma mentions I assume gets to one the greatest benefits of religion that researchers have cited, namely community. We are social creatures, and as such we don’t usually function as well physiologically or emotionally in isolation for long periods. But religious communities are just one of many forms our interactions with others can take. In fact, religious services themselves tend to occur only occasionally. The Abrahamic religions meet regularly only once a week on average, so by themselves, they would have to be very powerful experiences indeed to drag someone suffering a profound loss through the other six days of the week.

What religions provide is a reliable support network. These networks can be called upon during the remainder of the week to help individuals get through a crisis, which can make a huge difference to both the speed and quality of a person’s recovery. But it isn’t the belief in an afterlife that these communities share that either Asma or researchers in the field are pointing to here, but the “social interactions” they provide. In other words, a highly supportive book or chess club will do just as well in a pinch provided they are there for you when needed.

Next Asma refers to a “therapeutic framework of rituals and beliefs” that releases oxytocin, dopamine, and produces “other positive affects” that can assist a suffering individual. Again, that religion does have this impact isn’t in dispute. However, that it is the only or best mechanism for producing these “positive affects” is highly questionable.

First, let’s take a closer look at the importance of the religious beliefs. As was pointed out above, Asma himself admits that “The emotional brain doesn’t care” whether something is true or false. He also states that while “Beliefs play a role…they are not the primary mechanisms for delivering such therapeutic power.” It is the “religious practice (rituals, devotional activities, songs, prayer and story)” that offer “us opportunities to express care for each other in grief, providing us with the alleviation of stress and anxiety, or giving us direction and an outlet for rage.”

Since by Asma’s own admission the beliefs don’t really matter either to our emotions or as mechanisms for our recovery, all things being equal we might as well utilize beliefs that don’t require us to to adopt patriarchy as our default position when it comes to relations between the sexes or to jettison the theory of evolution in exchange for a 6000 year-old earth. Whatever impact these beliefs may or may not have on our emotional recovery after a traumatic event, they do have implications for the health of our relationships and society as a whole, so we should at least consider them in that context.

That leaves rituals, which can play an important role in providing people with a sense of continuity and some semblance of control during difficult periods. Ritual can be a strong antidote for the powerlessness we feel when our life is in turmoil. But here too religion need not be the only source for ritual. Meditation, for example, can easily be substituted for prayer and has the benefit of working as well in a secular as in a religious context.

If religions were more open to serving as halfway houses where people recovering from whatever it is that emotionally ails them could park themselves for a while and temporarily take on beliefs until their equilibrium was restored, Asma’s argument would be much more difficult to find fault with. Unfortunately, religion typically insists upon belief and loyalty in exchange for these services. In extreme cases, this can involve the rejection of science or even the rejection of non-believing friends.

Stephen Asma briefly touches upon religion’s “dark side” in a single paragraph in his Op-ed, but religion’s shadowy side deserves more attention than that. While there are a few liberal churches that have a high degree of tolerance for doubt and are willing to let people come and go as they feel the need, these institutions are sadly the exception. For obvious reasons, they have a hard time building up a large membership. Hopefully, his book will provide answers to the challenge more orthodox and fundamentalist religions pose that go beyond a few lines.

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Our Intellectuals Aren’t Ready For Jordan Peterson

By Mason Mohon | @mohonofficial

Jordan Peterson, author of 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote For Chaos, clinical psychologist, and king of archetypes has been across the internet and back again. Doctor Peterson seems to be on a new podcast, interview show, or news station every single week, if not every day. The man is reportedly very busy, which is expected as you become the rock star of modern academia.

The Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto was the most recent organization to host such an event. They allowed Jordan Peterson, atheist philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, and Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, to all sit-down and have a discussion on the existence of meaning, God, and the like of abstract concepts that pertain to the actions of everyone looking for truth. The but that pertains most to me is the one that follows:

Starting off, Craig discusses Peterson’s view about objective morality. This stems from the Piagetian ideas of moral development and an equilibrated state of cooperation. Craig urges Peterson to accept that there is inherently a transcendent being behind this and then repeats it a couple of more times. His argument does not have a warrant, but Dr. Peterson responds anyway.

He explains that yes, we discover morality and that it is very possible that the moral truth we discover through action has transcendent properties.

Goldstein then chimes in, explaining why she rejects Craig’s argument and posing various religious questions on him. In response to Peterson, she heavily implies that he should not bring it up, and that is the extent of her “argument” against Jordan. The viewer is now forced to sit through an atheist and a Christian rehash the exact same talking points of religious debate we have all heard time and time again. The strange new psychological view of Peterson is not much taken into account.

The moderator then decides to intrude, and thank goodness. She asks why we “struggle with the meaning of life?”

Dr. Peterson explains the same thing he is so listened-to for. We live a finite existence, and it is pretty hard. Bad things can happen to us and we are capable of doing some pretty bad things, so the option we have is to aim for a nobility.

After explaining, the Jungian moves on to respond to one of Goldstein’s comments, and with a dream. Within his dream, kings of the past fight one another, yet all end up bowing to the figure of Christ. Many times throughout the Bible Christ is referred to as “The King of Kings,” and Dr. Peterson explains what this actually means. If we took the best qualities of each of the kings and put them in one, we have Christ. Whether or not Christ is a real historical figure within the situation matters not, because this is what is above the rulers of the earth. Christ provides an ideal for them to strive to get close to and remain humble in comparison.

When tyrannical kings rule the earth, who will rule the kings?

Peterson explains that “you inevitably do [have to speak of such things at a religious level].” There is no other way for our minds to make sense of anything like this.

“It’s a psychological necessity. It’s a sociological necessity.”

Goldstein seems to realize that the atheist position will be lagging behind when it comes to this psychological argument, so she goes off for a little bit, showing her body of barely related knowledge. She makes sure to tell everyone that “as a woman, as a Jew,” she has reaped benefits from the enlightenment. After a bit of a rabbit hole, she finally comes back around to the argument and compares the idea that kings should have an ideal that keeps them in check to the Nazis wanting to genocide those who are not “perfect” in their eyes.

She thinks that just because Peterson’s idea of a Christ supersedes the individual, it will allow for another Holocaust. We should try to transcend to art in her eyes, and not get caught up in larger symbolism and going past mere humanity.

These modern intellectuals represent roughly the two most prominent views in western society: religion and no religion. We all fell into this sort of dichotomy, even if there is some grey area in the middle. A modern intellectual espousing Jungian psychology, Biblical archetypes, and its connection to cleaning your room is very far from this base societal view. The two in discussion within this video do not know how to react to Peterson’s view, which is clear because of their poor responses (or no responses, in the case of Craig who seems somewhat satisfied), and because of their focus on one another.

The Austrian economic Ludwig von Mises discussed the role of ideas in society and history. If we want to see change, we need idea creators. Something new, refreshing, and out of place, that will be so disruptive the present intellectual arena will burn to the ground. This, in Mises’ view, is what brings about revolutionary progress.

From these ashes, we may build from the ground up. It allows us to embody the Phoenix archetype, and that of dying and being born again, better and new. Modern intellectuals are not ready for Peterson’s broad worldview. In the left media Op-Eds, it is always a bad strawman. Face-to-face, the opposition will always beat around the bush. People are incapable of telling Doctor Jordan Peterson why he is wrong. That is why I believe Peterson’s views will cause a large shift in the way our society is organized. They already are.


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