Pooh’s Think

… with comments

A Few Quick Criticisms of Harris’ Book

I’m now done with A Letter to a Christian Nation. I’ve already had some good things to say about this book, and I have even defended Harris of at least one smear from a Wilson-Follower. However, I want to briefly point a few places toward the end of the book where Harris seems to get a bit sloppy. I’m not going to explain and quote at length here since I don’t have the time, and I would rather those reading this get the book and read it themselves anyway. Although there are a number of interesting challenges from Harris, at the end of the day it is the Problem of Evil that drives home his main challenge.

1. Contents of Scripture
If Harris had a good argument about the contents of scripture (e.g. 60-61), he failed to communicate it. Harris, it seems, fails to grasp the nature of religion and worship by failing to appreciate the legitimacy of a holy book composed primarily of poetry, history, parable, and song. It would seem that Harris’ point about not finding the cure for cancer or Calculus in the bible would be merely a thought experiment; but the way it reads, it seems Harris thinks he is furthering a serious, direct argument. This calls into question his ability to apply his standards of rationality to the life practice and resulting religious language of word religions. And this argument really just turns into another version of his Problem of Evil argument: he points out the fact that God does not reveal simple facts that could alleviate so much suffering in the world.

2. Rationality of Religious Belief
Harris steps over all that has happened in philosophy the last couple decades when it comes to religious belief: “when considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t” (65). And, “While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society” (67). But philosophers such a Plantinga and Alston have been convincing a good deal of folks that it doesn’t seem like our believings are really quite like this. Plantinga’s work in the 60s pointed out that belief in God is very much like the belief in other minds of people. I actually have a criticism of this forthcoming, but Harris does not lend credibility to his general project by making mere assertions at this point.

3. ID?
It seems as though he equates the cosmological argument with Intelligent Design (72). It might be the case that ID amounts to a cosmological argument of sorts, but he doesn’t point this out and therefore fails to accurately reflect ID.

4. Explanation and Infinite Regress
The “infinite regress” argument (73) with respect to our explanation of the world is not one of those points where Harris gets sloppy; but I figured I admit my skepticism as to whether Harris’ consideration really makes theism explanatorily meaningless. It is true that many questions get “pushed back” in a regress manner, but many questions don’t. Many questions do get explained. Further, for all we know our kind of cognition or understanding might find God to be explanatorily self-contained if we knew enough; or perhaps a more omniscient mind, or man’s mind glorified, does currently understand God as offering “explanation” in a non-regressive way. We don’t know; what we do know is that theism helps explain a good deal, like the origins of everything we know. However, I do agree that there are many questions that do just get “pushed back,” and Christians are often ignorant of this important philosophical point.

5. Unintelligent Design
The ubiquity of apparent “unintelligent” design is an interesting claim. However, in his last example of this (78), the argument just turns into another version of his Problem of Evil argument: he asks what compassionate purpose the pharynx serves; respiration and digestion come together there, frequently causing death or brain injury. This seems like an argumentative bait and switch, albeit not one too threatening or necessarily intentional.

6. A Rationalistic Ethics?
Harris correctly employs empathy and emotion, particularly in his most important argument from the Problem of Evil. But when it comes to meta-level claims about our knowledge of ethics, he gets scientific again: “…any genuine exploration of ethics or the contemplative life demands the same standards of reasonableness and self-criticism that animate all intellectual discourse” (90). Same standards of reasonableness in our exploration of ethics? Same that animate all intellectual discourse?

7. Nothing More Natural Than Rape?:
The Meaning of “Religion”

The idea that “nothing” is more “natural than rape” seems a bit difficult to understand. By our current normal social existence, Harris admits that rape is not “good.” But by what sort of rule does “rape” refer to something “natural”? Doesn’t the word itself refer to a particularly human behavior, and one that is by word-definition wrong? This consideration makes me wonder if “religion” likewise cannot be classified as natural and wrong at the same time; in virtue of its naturalness, it would seem that “religion” is not the best object of attack for the atheist. What might be more appropriate is detailing out precisely those properties within religion (and we should imagine we will find some of them outside religion) that the atheist wishes not only to reject, but prove to be wrong and unhealthy. This is a subtle point, so chew on it a bit if you would.


November 27, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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