Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Against Sam Harris

After writing about our nation’s current battle with the Islamists and their false belief, I chanced across the writings of one Sam Harris, whose first book, entitled “The End of Faith,” is an argument against religion in general, against ‘blind, deaf, dumb and unreasoned’ faith that he claims threatens our very existence. He describes what he calls ‘faith-based unreason’ as an impediment to human progress, and a potentially world-ending force given the development of weapons of mass-destruction. Just reading the excerpts provided on his website,, I was aghast by Mr. Harris’ utter arrogance, and frightened by the sophistic mastery he displays. However, I was also quite amused by the immense amount of blind faith Mr. Harris puts in human reason in order to critique and undermine the idea of, well, blind faith.

Mr. Harris’ work, however, is dangerous -- the ideas it contains are as noxious and tempting as Marx. It is sophistry of the worst type -- Harris declares war on all types of faith, all the while covering up that what he wars against he also employs in his cause. By selective thought and careful excerpting, Harris’ directs our justified fears of weapons of mass destruction and immoderate ideas in the world against faith in general. But while Mr. Harris’ ideas sound coherent, they are anything but.

One of Mr. Harris’ central critiques of religion is its “insusceptibility to progress.” Mr. Harris explains that, “[i]f religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less [over time.]” (noting how the rest of human knowledge has ‘progressed’ while ideas about faith have remained stagnant). OK, Mr. Harris, that sounds reasonable. We should move forward, progress, and religion seems not to. But his statement is so conclusory it is ridiculous. He does not share with us why religion must concern “present inquiry, not mere iteration of past doctrine.” What if, Mr. Harris, revelational knowledge concerns a different type of knowledge than the stuff of human technical know-how? If that is the case, why does that different kind of knowledge or rather our means for discovering it have to involve present inquiry? Why is it analogous at all to human scientific progress? It is not. No, in fact, revelational knowledge has always concerned things that do not change. By its nature, religion is concerned with the transcendent, and it is concerned with the Good, the measure of all other things and acts. If the Good were to progress and change, it would not be a very good yardstick for conduct and thought. Further, insofar as faith is revealed to us and not developed or discovered by our own skills, our efficiency in attaining such revelational knowledge should not change over time -- if it did, we would have to question the revelational character of the knowledge.

Not only is Mr. Harris’ argument ridiculously conclusory, it is also entirely circular. Why do we call advances in scientific knowledge ‘progress’? Is it because it is good to know more? If so, why is that a good thing? Why isn’t ignorance good as opposed to knowledge? Why do we count it fortunate that have developed life saving medicines and modern conveniences which free us somewhat from the mundane to concentrate on other things (higher things)? As self-evident as the answers to these questions may seem, they point up a fundamental flaw (well masked) in Mr. Harris’ ‘reasoning’ -- progress, even in science, is only praiseworthy because it yields results that support predetermined human goods, things that are good because either (1) because the particular good is revealed to us as good and we take it on faith, or (2) because the particular good is recognized as good because of the natural inclinations of all reasonable human beings. The first category of goods are revelational and based on faith. The second (and larger) category are also linked to the divine -- they are the inclinations written on our hearts when we were created. This must be the case, or else we could have no basis for calling them good. How can we even say human life is valuable in an absolute sense if human life is a mere accident? How can we say that laws should be fair if the inclination toward fairness is a random result of evolution and not something put there by some transcendent power? How can any good we feel to be good be in fact praiseworthy unless that feeling has a created existence? We can’t, and thus Mr. Harris can’t claim that progress is good while denying faith and the transcendent entirely. He cannot use for an argument against the goodness of faith a faith-derived judgment that progress is good. It is circular.

In a political context, Mr. Harris’ sophistry is convincing and dangerous. He emanantizes man to a position above God, and that appeals to the corrupt nature of our souls and our innate thirst for power. Harris ignores the fact that, without faith, we cannot measure our desired ends, our society’s telos -- robbing man of his metaphysical grounding robs the state of its reason for existence. Harris’ ideas (ideas do matter), his blind faith in human reason, would unhinge us from our transcendental grounding. No longer could any God or any tenet stop the demands of the demos, for without God there is no other limit on what a democracy may demand; the people’s ultimate sovereignty is transformed from a reasonable means of seeking the best laws and ascertaining the content of the Good into an unbridled, power-seeking force oriented only to whatever particular passion it elevates to a reason for existence. When so untethered, democracy, given that it legitimizes for a societal end whatever the majority demands, could become the most potent evil we have ever seen -- and given the existence of weapons of mass destruction, that is truly something to be feared.


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