Friday, May 25, 2007

Harris explained

Sam Harris (among others) likes to portray religious "moderates" and non-"literalist" interpreters of scripture as somehow deviant or deficient qua religious persons. For example, in his opening salvo in his blog-debate against Andrew Sullivan earlier this year, he says:
Given my view of faith, I think that religious "moderation" is basically an elaborate exercise in self-deception....
Harris thinks that all religion is bad, but in the case of "moderates" he not only faults them for being religious, he also faults them for failing to be really religious. He sees "moderates" as guilty of having committed themselves to a bad game, and then guilty again of playing that game really poorly.

In the eyes of many people (both believers and non) who have more sensible views of religion, this attitude can be a bit mystifying.

A common diagnosis is that these are prejudices which get adopted just out of convenience. It is convenient (so the story goes) to cast "literalists" as the paradigm religious believers because "moderates" and non-"literalists" are harder targets for anti-religious manifestos. Now, there might be some truth to this, but I doubt it's the whole story. Besides, it's not at all clear to me that, in general, "moderates" make for tougher game. For example, Sullivan is a "moderate" if anyone is, and is a generally articulate writer to boot, but that doesn't seem to slow down Harris' rhetoric much at all. (I didn't follow the whole debate, but from what I did read, I'm inclined to give Harris the win.)

Another diagnosis, made by Slacktivist, seems to suggest that Harris et al. are, like "literalist" believers (whom he dubs "illiteralists"), suffering from a lack of literacy skills--leading them to be incapable of figuring out how there might be truth in a text without it having to be read literally. But this seems pretty implausible to me. As best as I can tell, Harris functions at a high level of literacy, and is perfectly capable of understanding that, in principle, there is a difference between reading scripture non-literally, and falsifying it. (And actually, I'm not sure this is really the right way to describe what is motivating "literalist" theists, either, but I won't get into that now.)

Anyway, I thought I'd say something about what I think is going on behind Harris' anti-"moderate" and pro-"literalist" attitudes. I can't recall anywhere where he spells this rationale out explicitly, but I think it makes sense of some of the things he says.

It's all based on this starting point (from the same post as above):
Perhaps I should acknowledge at the outset that people use the term "faith" in a variety of ways. My use of the word is meant to capture belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence....
In the philosophy biz, we appreciate this sort of terminological clarification. That said, Harris' explanation of what he means by "faith" could be fleshed out quite a bit more.

First, I think that, at some level, Harris understands, as he ought to, that "faith" is the name of an aspiration. To declare oneself as a follower of a certain faith is to make a substantial commitment, one which makes demands on a person. The religious person can live up to this religious commitment to a greater or lesser extent--it is possible to be more or less faithful in one's religious commitment.

Now, if we assume that faith just is "belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence", we seem to have a pretty straightforward way of measuring a person's faithfulness: tally up the number of "religious propositions without sufficient evidence" which the believer believes, and that will tell you how faithful he or she is.

Now, for this to be at all a plausible picture, we're going to have to clarify it by specifying that, when dealing with a follower of religion X, we need to focus on those "religious propositions" which are associated specifically with religion X. (So, for example, the proposition that Joseph Smith read divine revelation off of golden tablets is a proposition specific to Mormonism, and it would be silly to see it as somehow relevant to measuring the faithfulness of a Muslim.)

But now consider two Christians, both of whom believe in the Bible in some sense--but one of them is a "literalist", and one of them is not. The non-"literalist" is probably going to read the Bible as expressing some "religious propositions without sufficient evidence", but it's pretty certain that the "literalist" is going to read the Bible as expressing a considerably greater number of "religious propositions without sufficient evidence". In both cases, there is some sort of Christian faith, as Harris understands it. But, compared to the non-"literalist", the "literalist" is going to end up believing a greater number of "religious propositions" associated with Christianity. And so, given Harris' method of measuring faithfulness, the "literalist" is clearly the more faithful of the two, with the non-"literalist" being a comparative failure as a person of faith.

So there you go. Doesn't that all make sense?


micah said...

It strikes me that the phrase "religious propositions [believed] without sufficient evidence" should be a bit redundant, from Harris's point of view. So, then, it's religious propositions simpliciter that are objectionable. But then, see Peter van Inwagen's "'It Is Wrong Everywhere, Always, and For Anyone to Believe Anything on Insufficient Evidence.'"

As van Inwagen points out, religious propositions are not the sole category coextensional with "believed without sufficient evidence," as it were, so there must be something distinctive about propositional objects of religious faith other than that. And insofar as Harris can't/won't engage with that, he cannot but miss the point entirely.

Toby said...

Actually, for Harris it's more like belief-without-sufficient-evidence simpliciter is objectionable. At least, this is his stated position. For example, he'll criticize Stalinism on those grounds, and throw it into the same boat as religion-as-he-understands-it (typically in response to an objection of the form "what about the terrible things atheists have done").

But there's a distinction between something like Stalinism and religion in that I don't think he'd be inclined to criticize a "moderate" Stalinist for being a failure as a Stalinist. I think he'd say that religion in particular demands aiming for the highest possible reading on the unjustified-belief-o-meter.

JohnV said...

Who is Harris to determine what evidence should be sufficient?

Actually, the literalist has less faith than the moderate by this definition, because the Bible (or whatever religious text) is itself sufficient evidence for the literalist.