Friday, December 14, 2012

Sam Harris: a Compassionate Buffoon



Today, in response to the tragic shootings in Connecticut, a Facebook friend posted a quote from card-carrying new atheist, Sam Harris. I noticed many of the comments in response to Harris' thoughts were positive. Many were praising Harris for what they thought to be insightful wisdom. I wanted to take this opportunity to expose some of the self-defeating views coming from today's most vocal atheists. In this case, God-hater Sam Harris.

"The only sense to make of tragedies like this is that terrible things can happen to perfectly innocent people. This understanding inspires compassion.

Religious faith, on the other hand, erodes compassion. Thoughts like, 'this might be all part of God’s plan,' or 'there are no accidents in life,' or 'everyone on some level gets what he or she deserves' - these ideas are not only stupid, they are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this.”

― Sam Harris

First of all, I would like to say that I agree with Harris that this is a horrific tragedy, and that we, as humans, should get broken hearts over these things. That is where our agreement stops.

Now, Harris says quite a lot of things in this short two-paragraph statement. My intention is not to unpack and demolish every logical fallacy or mistake in thinking. I just want to draw attention, in particular, to the outrageously self-defeating intellectual stance the new atheists take on certain issues.

That said, I feel it necessary to call Harris out on a particularly heinous false generalization. Harris states that "religious faith . . . erodes compassion." I am assuming Harris actually means "Christian faith" rather than simply "religious faith," as he said. These guys don't usually bother to go after the actually harmful religious faiths, such as Islam. So, speaking about Christian faith, Harris' assumption is not always the case, and it is oftentimes quite the opposite. I will say that Calvinistic soteriology, brought to its logical end, can serve as a means to escape the obligation to feel compassion, and I have no doubt that many, many Calvinists do just that. However, if one simply observes the Lord Jesus; His actions and words in the New Testament, then it becomes crystal clear that true Christianity is a religion built upon the foundation of selfless love and altruistic compassion. Enough said on that point.

I'm not going to assail Harris' assessment of certain cliche Christian phrases, because their truth or falsehood is not important to my main point here. What I would like to point out, for those who care, is that Harris is trying to have his cake and eat it too. He must borrow from religious morality to even make the statements he is pushing here. Because his argument presupposes that there is a transcendent moral law he defeats his own argument. In other words, if he's right he's wrong. He can't be right that there is no moral law and also be right that it's wrong to act or think in any way. If there's no moral law then there's no right and no wrong. Evil and good are words akin to yellow and blue, vanilla and chocolate.

I'll phrase it in the form of a question so that the reader can come to the correct conclusion by using his or her brain.

If there is no God, and thus no moral law, then why is it wrong to kill people, whether adult or child? Why is it wrong to lack compassion?

In order for the word "wrong" to carry any weight there must be some sort of ethical framework that is universal. A localized morality - a system of rights and wrongs based upon the consensus of the inhabitants of the land - doesn't work. We saw that in Nazi Germany. We see it today in many nations at which we Westerners scoff because of their barbaric beliefs (i.e., the stoning of a woman for adultery, the steam-rolling of children for being part of a family that illegally practices a religion not approved by the government). Right and wrong are clearly not determined by the consensus. The law of the land can punish or praise for actions deemed unlawful or lawful, but it doesn't have the power to actually make something morally right or wrong - only legally right or wrong.

To put it into perspective, if our own government made it mandatory for every man or woman to "euthanize" their parents once they reach an age at which they are unsafe behind the wheel of an automobile, would that mean that it's right to do it? A better question is, "would it be wrong to not do it?" You would be breaking the law by not murdering your mom!

I hope you can see how fault cultural ethics prove to be in the real world.

The only non-religious option at this point is an egocentric morality, a.k.a. situational ethics. This would mean that each person chooses what is right or wrong depending on each individual situation. Well, this is clearly not an option because I'm sure Harris, like me, would agree that just because a guy finds it acceptable to murder children for this or that reason doesn't mean that it is.

This brings us back to the question of why.

Why is it wrong to murder? Why is it wrong to do anything? Why is any option better than another, morally-speaking?

Harris is trying to play the white knight riding in on his shining horse, trampling under foot all of the mean people of faith who try to find meaning in situations which may not have any, other than to serve as a painful illustration of the depths to which our nation has fallen in the realm of ethics, but in reality he makes himself out to be more of a village idiot who doesn't even understand the basic foundation of ethics, of the morality he feels so free to espouse without having any right to hold within his chosen worldview.
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