Notes on Sam Harris’s responses

1. When you wrote the Red State/Blue State argument quoted by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, were you aware that the electoral data for the various counties in which the various cities mentioned are located was available? If you were not, are you willing to concede that the more accurate county data supports a conclusion that is the precise opposite of the one you reached in Letter to a Christian Nation?

I haven’t seen the electoral data you mentioned. Feel free to send a link, if you have one.

Shockingly careless, but much better than the alternative of intentional misrepresentation. It will be interesting to see if he retracts the argument now that he is aware of the relevant facts, although one can’t reasonably expect him to verify the data until after he completes his dissertation. Of course, Dawkins will need to revise future editions of The God Delusion as well….

2. Are you willing to admit that religion is not the explicit cause of more than 90 percent of the war throughout recorded human history? Are you also willing to admit that religious faith is not a significant aspect of military strategy, tactics, recruitment or discipline?

I wouldn’t be able to quantify this, but I freely admit that religion is not the only explicit cause of war and it probably is not the main cause. I would say that tribalism generally is the cause, and religious tribalism is a subset. Still, I think religion creates the most energetic and pathological forms of tribalism, and it is the form I am most worried about in the future. The other forms are showing clear signs of evaporating (racism, nationalism, etc.). Religion is the only one that has very good defenses against modernity.

He’s essentially conceding the point here, although again it’s clear that he hasn’t considered the relevant information. However, even setting aside the obvious fact that he wasn’t attacking tribalism in his two books, but religious faith, as it happens he’s incorrect about tribalism as well. Harris would do rather better to look at economics, geography and individual ambition. Moreover, nationalism is again on the rise in direct reaction to the success of the global political elites in imposing multiculturalism and supranational governmental frameworks around the world. I have some serious doubts about the evaporation of racism, too, considering the voting results in Mississippi yesterday, where Obama won the black vote, 91% to 9%, and Clinton won the white vote, 72% to 27%. I suspect that even if Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction vision of one unified irreligious brown species was ever achieved, Man would promptly create distinctions based on height, weight or foot size.

3. Were you aware that the professional historians’ estimated bodycount of the most deadly Inquisition, the Spanish, was less than 3,000 deaths over 345 years when you described the inquisition as one of the two “darkest episodes in the history of faith”? I’d also be interested in knowing your understanding of the inquisition’s lethality at the time you wrote that.

I wrote about the Inquisition as a whole (not just the Spanish). Here is what I said in The End of Faith (p.87) Witches,in all likelihood, did not even exist, and those murdered in their stead numbered perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 over three hundred years of persecution;19 Along with the associated endnote (p. 255). 19 R. Briggs, Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft(New York:Viking,1996), has this to say on the

“On the wilder shores of the feminist and witch-cult movements a potent myth has become established, to the effect that 9 million women were burned as witches in Europe; gendercide rather than genocide. This is an overestimate by a factor of up to 200, for the most reasonable modern estimates suggest perhaps 100,000 trials between 1450 and 1750, with something between 40,000 and 50,000 executions, of which 20 to 25 percent were men.”

Such a revaluation of numbers does little to mitigate the horror and injustice of this period. Even to read of the Salem witch trials, which resulted in the hanging of “only” nineteen people, is to be brought face to face with the seemingly boundless evil that is apt to fill the voids in our understanding of the world.

Several errors here. The most obvious and significant one is that the European and American witch burnings had no relation to any of the four inquisitions. Second, in The End of Faith, Harris refers to “the Inquisition” as a singular institution and a specific “episode”, one of the two darkest in the history of faith, and refers to certain devices used only by the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions as well as devices never used by any of the four. This is another indication of his characteristic carelessness and happens to directly conflict with his subsequent assertion that the evils of Communism can somehow be tied to faith.

By his own estimation, the European witch-burnings amounted to 166/year out of a population of 70 million in 1600, which is roughly similar to the number of annual bike deaths… in California (141/year, population 36.5 million). However absurd one might consider witch-burning to be, I’d be curious to know why it is any less necessary than bicycle riding. Indeed, one could easily make a Darwinian case that witch-burning is preferable to bike-riding, since the former harmlessly eliminates the old and weak while the latter removes the young and healthy from the population. So, perhaps it would help if everyone would think of witch-burning as a precursor to modern euthanasia.

Anyhow, without witch-burnings we wouldn’t have had that classic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I don’t know about you, but based on a happiness-suffering metric, I’d say the trade-off was well worth it. What is the screaming death of thousands over centuries when compared to the laughter of millions over decades?

4. How does your long-term vision of world government differ from Bertrand Russell’s? Why are you opposed to American national sovereignty?

I’ve forgotten what BR said about world government. And my brief comments on the subject were made with the full knowledge that it is unlikely to be desirable or practical any time soon. In the meantime, I am not opposed to American sovereignty. I’m opposed to nationalism (because it is idiotic), but I am not opposed to safeguarding civilization. For what it’s worth, I think we need to put even more resources into our military than we do.

To refresh everyone’s memory, Bertrand Russell wrote that a science-based dictatorship willing to engage in Communist-style mass horror was necessary in order for the human race to establish a utopian world government of the sort that Sam Harris desires. The fact that Harris accepts American sovereignty now doesn’t explain why he opposes it in the future. As for the idiocy of nationalism, I fear that we will all soon be reminded that nationalism is necessary for safeguarding civilization. Certainly history suggests that given the fate of civilizations which abandon nationalism – both the Roman Empire and the Ming Dynasty spring to mind – the concept is less idiotic than vital.

5. Are there other forms of “unjustified belief” or “an absence of rationality” than religious faith?

Of course.

This admission of the obvious proves my point related to his attempt to construct a No True Atheist argument in order to disassociate atheism from the bloodshed committed by the dozens of atheist Communist leaders. One cannot substitute the set for the subset. See TIA pages 128-131.

6. Did you forget that you had defined Buddhism as not being a religion of faith when you compared the societal health of the U.S.A. t
o that of “the least religious states”?

But I said that most Buddhists don’t realize this and practice Buddhism like a religion.

A very nice example of the common atheist dance. Buddhism is atheism… except when it’s not useful for Buddhism to be atheism, in which case it isn’t. Come on. If one accepts this line of reasoning, one must go on to admit that most atheists practice atheism like a religion. The High Church atheists do, anyhow.

7. If the world is genuinely imperiled by nuclear weaponry in the hands of religious individuals, isn’t it true that science is as much to blame as religion? And if the peril is both imminent and genuine, wouldn’t it be more practical and far less costly in terms of human life to end science rather than religion?

You are committing a genetic fallacy here. The problem with Nazis, for instance, was not the railroads and ovens. The problem was their beliefs (and subsequent actions). Blaming the technology (or its source in science) misses the point. That said, I believe that certain types of scientific information should not be published (and there may be some that should not be sought in the first place) — things like the recipe for synthesizing the smallpox virus, etc.

Oh dear. I am doing no such thing. Sam apparently hasn’t properly understood the genetic fallacy, which is a logical fallacy wherein “a conclusion is suggested based solely on something or someone’s origin rather than its current meaning or context.” Sam’s mistake is to conclude that the danger in his Extinction Equation stems solely from the scientific origins of today’s lethal weaponry, but that is manifestly not the case at all. The danger from nuclear weaponry and other science-related evils stem from both their scientific origins and science in its current context, therefore I cannot possibly have committed a genetic fallacy when pointing out that it is not the potential motive of Faith that is the danger facing man, but rather the current means of Science.

If Sam waved a wand and magically caused all religion to disappear, the threat to the species would remain in its entirety, indeed, one can make a case that it might actually increase since religion has been a mitigating factor as well as an exacerbating one in human conflict. If, however, every scientist was taken out and shot, the knowledge base was suppressed and the method was suppressed, then weapons development would be severely hampered, the risk of biological and super-colliders going awry would be eliminated, and over time, the weapons themselves would decay and become unrepairable as the knowledge of how to maintain them died out. Indeed, I tend to suspect that this is a notion that the utopians supported by Sam Harris have in mind for the future; it’s what I would do, anyhow, if I wanted to preserve a status quo in which I already ruled the world. Science is an existing threat in itself, it is not merely the origin of the threat.

While I’m at it, on a tangential note, less sophisticated thinkers than Sam have attempted to criticize the case against science by using a “guns don’t kill people” argument. The obvious problem with this is that science is not an inanimate object, an aspect of it specifically incorporates people. While a gun cannot be held responsible for its actions or forseeing how it will be used, a scientist most certainly can and should be held responsible for what he is doing and how his work will be used. In any event, this defense – which I hasten to point out that Sam Harris is not foolish enough to make – has little relevance to the extinction equation, because a gun requires a person in order to kill. As I have proved in my chapters on war, Science does not require Faith in order to do likewise. It should perhaps be kept in mind that my purpose in pointing this out was not to blame Science, but rather to exonerate Faith from a responsibility it was errantly and illogically assigned in Sam Harris’s thesis. IF we accept the extinction equation that Science+Faith=Human Extinction, THEN we must logically conclude that the only rational response is to end science.