Essay / Uncategorized

Intelligent Design, Sam Harris, and Why the Left Is Losing

It is worth checking out the Huffington Post from time to time. This morning it actually made me laugh out loud. I am pretty sure that copies of this article widely distributed will not help Hillary (!) Rodham Clinton carry West Virginia. My guess is that those Mountaineers will react badly to it. It will not be any help at all. I cannot imagine why as this article is both reasonable, written by an expert (Sam Harris!), and couched in friendly language. Remember: the secular left is tolerant and smarter than you. This is not their fault.Really Sam Harris is a precious throwback to the nineteenth century village atheist. There are few enough of them left and friends of Sam might look to apply for federal protection for his habitat.His opinions come with the endorsement of Richard Dawkins who is intent on doing to American society what the secularists have nearly completed in Britain. That genial old academic star must not be looking outside of his window to see what his ideas have done to England. Sadly for our intellectual curiosity, secularists will never finish their task since their culture can no longer support such outlandish practices as having babies. My comments are in italics within the story.The Huffington Post | The Blog: “Sam HarrisThe Politics of IgnorancePresident Bush has now endorsed the pseudo-scientific notion of ‘intelligent design’ (ID) and declared it to be a legitimate alternative to the theory of evolution. What makes it pseudo-scientific? Is it because religious ideas motivate it? Ah, but the founders of science were often motivated by religious points of view. Should the neo-Platonism of Kepler remove his work from consideration? Should Newton’s faith and his confidence in divine order disbar his work? Or is it just that pseudo-science is any science not fitting the philosophical naturalism of the majority of scientists? Perhaps the problem with Mr. Harris and Intelligent Design is that it tends to support a world view he does not like?Fair enough. I am not fond of a world view that denies free will, the right to own property, or refuses to look at the facts regarding the spiritual realm. However, our fondness for our point of view should not close our minds to the other side. Atheism is not foolish. Naturalism has some great strength as a world view. I think it wrong, indeed seriously wrong, but my position cannot advance if I do not respect my foe.This is not surprising, as he has always maintained that ‘the jury is still out’ on the question of evolution. But the jury is not out — indeed it was well in before President Bush was even born — and anyone familiar with modern biology knows that ID is nothing more than a program of political and religious advocacy masquerading as science.I am unsure how Mr. Harris knows this. ID is a big movement. The majority of people in the United States, indeed the vast majority, believe in some form of it. In a republic some of them will take political steps. I am not fond of this strategy, but it is (after all) a free country. However, when I am sitting down (as I am today) to study Plato’s Laws X, a pro-ID argument, I am not aware of doing anything other than philosophy. The question is whether Darwinism is true. The second question is whether religious ideas can count as knowledge in some sense. The third question is who will determine what science is and what it will be allowed to do. These are interesting philosophical and scientific questions that require careful philosophical and scientific thought. Thinking people on both sides of the issue know that this is not an “over and done” question.It is for this reason that the scientific community has been divided on just how (or whether) to dignify the spurious claims of ID ‘theorists’ with a response. While understandable, I believe that such scruples are now misplaced. The Trojan Horse has passed the innermost gates of the city, and scary religious imbeciles are now spilling out.Google Al Plantinga, scary religious imbecile. Google J.P. Moreland, scary religious imbecile. Google Bill Dembski, scary religious imbecile. Read their qualifications. Read their arguments. You may not agree, but do they sound scary? Do they sound like imbeciles to you? What has a movement come to when it must resort to this sort of language instead of argument?According to several recent polls, 22 percent of Americans are certain that Jesus will return to earth sometime in the next fifty years. Another 22 percent believe that he will probably do so. Notice this idea is mocked without any argument. It is self-evident to Sam Harris that this is wrong. How does he know? Has he examined the reasons people might believe this idea? Or is he just demonizing his foes?This is likely the same 44 percent who go to church once a week or more, who believe that God literally promised the land of Israel to the Jews, and who want to stop teaching our children about the biological fact of evolution.News flash to Mr. Harris: Faithful Orthodox and Roman Catholics do not fit your stereotypes about religious beliefs. They go to church every week or nearly every week. What kind of use of statistics is this? How could Richard Dawkins endorse it? As the President is well aware, believers of this sort constitute the most cohesive and motivated segment of the American electorate. Consequently, their views and prejudices now influence almost every decision of national importance. Nearly half the voters have influence in American politics? Oh the horror! Political liberals seem to have drawn the wrong lesson from these developments and are now thumbing scripture, wondering how best to ingratiate themselves to the legions of men and women in our country who vote mainly on the basis of religious dogma. Mr. Harris is going to suggest that the left write off, forever, essentially half the electorate and anyone else who believes in God. In his view you are all morons. I don’t know anyone who votes “mainly” on the basis of religious dogma. I know quite a few people who think their religious views true and vote based on their well thought out (Aquinas, Calvin, Lewis) views.More than 50 percent of Americans have a ‘negative’ or ‘highly negative’ view of people who do not believe in God;Given the tone of this article, and the atheists who interact with me on campus, I cannot imagine why! “Why do those morons have a negative view of us!” Sam Harris cries. 70 percent think it important for presidential candidates to be “strongly religious.” Because it is taboo to criticize a person’s religious beliefs, political debate over questions of public policy (stem-cell research, the ethics of assisted suicide and euthanasia, obscenity and free speech, gay marriage, etc.) generally gets framed in terms appropriate to a theocracy. That seems a wee bit overblown. I don’t know anyone who wants the Church to rule America. When the American revolutionaries said, “No King but King Jesus” they were not talking about a theocracy, but the fact that no state could demand a free man’s worship. My family was here when America got started and I am pretty sure they, all of them, never wanted the Church to govern the state. In fact, they seemed highly motivated to get rid of state churches and shrink government in every part of their lives. It is true that my relatives who left Virginia and formed a new state to free the slaves were motivated by religion and they did impose their religiously motivated ideas about freedom on the slave owners of Virginia. Sam Harris should read Lincoln and his Second In
augural Address to get the Christian way of thinking about such things as God and government for most of American history. Is Lincoln a theocrat Mr. Harris?
Unreason is now ascendant in the United States — in our schools, in our courts, and in each branch of the federal government. Only 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution; 68 percent believe in Satan. Ignorance in this degree, concentrated in both the head and belly of a lumbering superpower, is now a problem for the entire world.According to Sam Harris to believe what C.S. Lewis believed is ignorance. and to agree with Mr. Harris is not.It is time that scientists and other public intellectuals observed that the contest between faith and reason is zero-sum. Now we see that even if you buy the entire agenda of the left Mr. Harris will not accept you if you are religious.There is no question but that nominally religious scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth R. Miller are doing lasting harm to our discourse by the accommodations they have made to religious irrationality.Even if you agree with Mr. Harris about evolution, it is really religious thinking he is after. Likewise, Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” served only the religious dogmatists who realize, quite rightly, that there is only one magisterium. Whether a person is religious or secular, there is nothing more sacred than the facts. Facts? Facts are cheap. The question is: “What framework will we use to interpret the facts?” So three cheers for never denying the fact, but three bigger cheers for developing a world view that accounts for all of them, including evidence for personal reality (God and the soul).Either Jesus was born of a virgin, or he wasn’t; either there is a God who despises homosexuals, or there isn’t. That seems true enough. I think best reason points to a Christ born of a virgin. I see no evidence for a God who despises homosexuals. However, it will be hard to have discourse with Mr. Harris when he acts this way.It is time that sane human beings agreed on the standards of evidence necessary to substantiate truth-claims of this sort. Excellent.The issue is not, as ID advocates allege, whether science can “rule out” the existence of the biblical God. I would put it this way: You can never prove a negative, but you can develop positive evidence for an idea. Can science look at positive evidence that points to design and by implication a designer? My argument is that folk like Mr. Harris rule theism, or personality (note that he does not like your having a soul either) without argument. He makes a rule and says we cannot talk about positive evidence for our position in institutions we pay for.There are an infinite number of ludicrous ideas that science could not “rule out,” but which no sensible person would entertain. I agree. However, religious notions seem a bad candidate. First, there are many religious people, well trained in the sciences, who disagree with Mr. Harris. There is a very large group of theists in philosophy. I can see no similar intellectual heft to Scientology or Big Foot theorists. Serious people do believe in god just as serious people deny His existence. I am not a theist because atheism is silly, but because I think (based on best experience, reason, and evidence) that there is a God.The issue is whether there is any good reason to believe the sorts of things that religious dogmatists believe — that God exists and takes an interest in the affairs of human beings; that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception (and, therefore, that blastocysts are the moral equivalents of persons); etc. There simply is no good reason to believe such things, and scientists should stop hiding their light under a bushel and make this emphatically obvious to everyone.Now we get to the deep contradiction in much of anti-ID rhetoric. According to Mr. Harris, science evidently shows there probably is not a designer. (You cannot prove a negative of course, but Harris would be within his rights to say that science makes a god highly implausible.). This is theological statement from science that Mr. Harris wants science to make. Now earlier Mr. Harris dismissed ID out of hand because he believed it had theological implications. However, Mr. Harris has now made a theological claim about his view of science.I think Mr. Harris should be allowed to show (though I think it unlikely) that science shows god implausible. However, that should allow ID persons to show that science does no such things. Other people may make what argument they wish as long as they play by the rules of rational discourse. Let’s have a free market of ideas, yes?Imagine President Bush addressing the National Prayer Breakfast in these terms: “Behind all of life and all history there is a dedication and a purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful Zeus.” Imagine his speech to Congress containing the sentence “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that Apollo is not neutral between them.” This would be fine if we had good reason to believe in the goodness of Zeus and Apollo as Hesiod described them. What serious philosophers are defending ancient paganism Mr. Harris? I can list hundreds who defend Christianity. Harris is comparing two different things. It would be as if I demanded that Mr. Harris defend the worldview of Lucretius, an ancient naturalist with odd ideas. Just because some theistic notions are wrong does not mean theism is wrong.Clearly, the commonplaces of language conceal the vacuity and strangeness of many of our beliefs. Mr. Harris should sit down and read some of the work of a former prof of mine Edward Wierenga. Religious language has received powerful mainstream defense in the last fifty years.Our president regularly speaks in phrases appropriate to the fourteenth century, and no one seems inclined to find out what words like “God” and “crusade” and “wonder-working power” mean to him. Mr. Harris an argument, or word, should not be evaluated by calendar.Not only do we still eat the offal of the ancient world; we are positively smug about it. Garry Wills has noted that the Bush White House “is currently honeycombed with prayer groups and Bible study cells, like a whited monastery.” This should trouble us as much as it troubles the fanatics of the Muslim world.What is the use of calling the ideas that inspired Bach and Michelangelo “offal?” I don’t know.Why should we fear prayer groups?Are fanatics of Islam troubled by Bush praying or by secularism? Who cares what they think?I am troubled by people who are fanatical. . . and I don’t see only the religious fitting that mold of thoughtless dismissal of others points of view.If Mr. Harris, and Mr. Dawkins, were religious and made similar claims about their faith in similar tones they would receive a professional drubbing by the secular elites that run the nation. The only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts. Amen. Let’s us follow the evidence wherever it leads!Only openness to evidence and argument will secure a common world for us. Nothing guarantees that reasonable people will agree about everything, of course, but the unreasonable are certain to be divided by their dogmas. It is time we recognized that this spirit of mutual inquiry, which is the foundation of all real science, is the very antithesis of religious faith.I am for openness t

o evidence and Socrates is my hero. Religious people can hold their “dogmas” (misuse of a religious word by Harris) lightly subject to investigation, modification, and change. Just as secularists can.

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