Irrational Respect

What are fundamentalists protecting when they protest stem cell research? A three-day-old human embryo is a cluster of 150 cells, with no brain or nervous system, while the brain of a housefly consists of approximately 100,000 cells. More suffering is visited upon this world when you swat a housefly than when a three-day-old embryo is destroyed. And for this, we prevent a person with 3rd-degree burns covering her body from having new skin grown for her, or a leukemia patient, or paralyzed person from having a second chance. All for the sake of a blastocyst. What is the role of religion in this madness?

300,000 people across Africa die of AIDS every year. Most of those lives could be saved through the widespread use of condoms. And yet Catholic priests across Africa preach to their congregations that condom use is morally wrong. The priests therefore take at least some responsibility for preventable deaths. In the words of author Sam Harris, this is “genocidally stupid” behavior. What is the role of religion here? Is it helping or hindering humanity?

Harris has been on my mind all week. First a Newsweek article covering him and other influential atheists, The New Naysayers turned my head. Then I caught a 30-minute talk he gave to Pop-Tech 2005, The Future of Ideas (podcast). Found that so fascinating I also listened to a much more detailed, 90-minute version (MP3) of the talk I found via the Long Now Foundation.

What is it about religion that prompts us to “respect” others’ beliefs? How is it that a priest can become so convinced he can walk on water that he drowns trying, and still we consider religious beliefs beyond criticism in ways we don’t in any other field of human endeavor? Paraphrasing Harris: “If I stood in front of you and claimed that the Holocaust never happened, you would be under no obligation to respect my beliefs just because they’re my beliefs. You would demand proof. And, if I did a good enough job of proving my case, you would be expected to agree with me. But with religion, it’s different. People can make virtually any metaphysical claim they like, no matter how preposterous, and their beliefs will be ‘respected.’ Why? And more importantly, what kinds of harm does this intellectual double standard — this strange and irrational social acceptance of religion — inflict on societies? Why do even secularists and moderates respect religion, and where is this blind spot taking us?” (Harris speaks about this danger in all religions – he’s not on an anti-Christian jag).

I differ with Harris on this point of respect. Or maybe I just feel conflicted about it. There are religious people in my life for whom I hold tremendous respect, even though I can’t begin to understand their position, how they arrived at the point of religion. Because I know they’re rational, kind people, their religious beliefs don’t “diminish” them in my eyes in the slightest. I understand Harris’ point, but I also don’t feel tempted to stop respecting their beliefs.

Harris’ voice is calm and rational, yet he pulls no punches. He is compelling in ways many will not be prepared for. Those whose religious sensibilities are offended by intellectual challenge should steer clear, even though they undoubtedly would find clearings in the meadows Harris paints that they never expected to find.

I’ve been grappling with the question of whether I’m an atheist or agnostic for a decade, and with questions of faith on and off for a decade before that. Though some of Harris’ stuff is old ground, he covers so much territory, and covers it so well, that I find myself wondering whether it’s time to come to terms with the question once and for all.

What does it take to declare yourself an atheist? What kind of bravery does it require to put yourself so far outside the mainstream? How many people declare themselves agnostic rather than atheist because it’s less “offensive” to family and friends? Why is it that it’s almost impossible to imagine even the most warm, compassionate, ethical, intelligent atheist being elected to a public office? (“Even an openly homosexual candidate has a better chance of being elected to public office than an admitted atheist.”) Would an enlightened society be truly respecting of everyone else’s religious beliefs, or would it not have any?

Music: Wayne Shorter :: House Of Jade

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25 Replies to “Irrational Respect”

  1. Nice job summarizing some of Sam Harris’ important questions/points here. I watched one of those videos of a lecture of his recently too, and found it compelling. I also thought there was something slightly off about it. It seems to me we DO “tolerate” others’ beliefs about all sorts of things. We might think someone who claims that the holocaust didn’t happen is a lunatic, but would we really challenge him about that belief? Depends on the circumstances; in much the same way there are circumstances under which we’ll challenge each others’ religious beliefs.

    The problem with challenging religious belief is that “evidence” doesn’t work. So we can argue with someone who believes in something unprovable until we’re blue in the face, but it’s not going to change their mind. We can stand up and say, “This man believes in something he cannot prove!” but we’re just going to be preaching to the choir. (Erm… the anti-choir.) There are people who are willing to believe things beyond that which can be logically or scientifically proven, and there are those who are not.

    Which is why I don’t get atheism any more than I get religious belief. It’s a difference of “I don’t believe that there is a god,” and “I believe that there is no god.” How can a person believe that there is no god without calling that belief faith?

  2. I’m with squub.

    Atheists that proclaim there is no God are just as egotistical and self-righteous as those that proclaim there is a God, and profess to know what (S)He wants.

    Agnosticism is the way to go. “I’m just a glorified monkey. How can I possibly know for certain the (non-)existence of God?”

    I could ride that train. But saying for sure there is no God? Who TF am I to say that? Hell, I can’t remember most of the books I’ve read. Or TV I’ve watched. Or the middle names of ex-girlfriends. You’re just not going to get me to believe that someone that has locked himself out of his own car is informed about the complete and total lack of God. It’s like letting a snail lecture you on 747 pre-flight engine diagnostics.

    Besides, agnosticism also has Pascal’s wager going for it.

  3. Heck, I’m religious (Episcopalian, which hardly counts with some folks :) and I think it’s irrational to respect some of the garbage that my co-religionists toss about. (yes, I’m intolerant of intolerance, and of irrationality – so sue me)

    And as far as knowing God’s mind ? To be honest, I’m somewhere in the muddled middle between Deism and Panentheism, so the question is probably unanswerable – which is just fine by me :)

  4. Atheism that positively states there is no God is called strong aheism, while weak atheism “is the lack of belief in the existence of deities, without a commitment to the necessary non-existence of deities,” which is what we often refer to colloquially as agnosticism. However, there are also “strong” and “weak” varieties of agnosticism. So it gets messy, and the choice is not so clear cut.

    Related: Are these statements logically the same or logically different?

    I believe that elves do not exist.
    I believe that God does not exist.

    On the first, most of us would say easily that elves do not exist. But if pressed to use pure logic rather than mere lack of evidence, would agree that it’s not safe to state that elves do not exist. Still, we live our lives as if elves do not exist.

    The opposite problem: We live as if we know the sun will rise tomorrow because of empirical evidence, without knowing that it’s true.

  5. There you go, putting a capital “G” on your god again. And a small “e” on your Elves. Each of us has a different notion of what Elves are, based on whatever stories we’ve read or myths we’ve learned or discussions we’ve had. So maybe you’re saying, “I believe that the Elves depicted by JRR Tolkien do not exist in the same way that we exist,” in which case it’s a pretty easy thing to assume. We know what the whole of the Earth looks like enough to know that there’s no Middle Earth on it, and if there’s no Middle Earth on it then there can be no Elves because they, by necessity, have to have a Middle Earth in which to be real.

    Which is a long way of saying that yes, I feel pretty confident (though not 100% so) in saying the God depicted in the Old Testament of the bible does not exist as depicted. But what I don’t feel at ALL comfortable saying is that we have ANY KNOWLEDGE WHATEVER about what put everything here, what “everything” is, what “here” is, or whether or not it’s somehow more logical to say that “everything” was just “here” all along, or that “everything” just arose out of “nothing,” or that “something” must’ve put “everything” “here.” We are within the system, and therefore cannot know what’s outside of it. No matter how many layers of the system we find evidence for, we cannot know that there’s not another layer just beyond that one.

    Why do we need “weak atheism” if we have “agnosticism?” That confuses me. Maybe I should go read something.

  6. I’ve long since declared myself an atheist. So what if a god exists? Does it really make sense that a god would require itself to be worshipped or prayed to, or that it would disseminate knowledge about what it requires of people thru the vehicle of long-dead spell-binding charismatics without constantly updating its communications in a much more widespread, frequent and clear manner? Does it make sense that the vast bulk of the universe consists of staggeringly large and miniscule swirls of inanimate matter and energy mindless following that laws of physics discovered and as-yet-undiscovered, while we wee crawly conscious living things on planet Earth need to suffer the wrath of the Source who set all this in motion because of behavioral infractions? None of that stuff makes sense to me. The universe, the Earth and human existence are awesome and beyond comprehension, but again, it doesn’t make sense to me that a supernatural entity is the cause of all of it.

    It takes courage to live without religion and try to live a life where the rules one lives by stand the test of reason and life experience instead of just obeying often-nonsensical rules passed down from above by your local “prophets”, “saints”, “enlightened” ones and religious professionals who’ve worked all that difficult stuff out for you and insist you believe them or else face disapproval and isolation from one’s community.

  7. I consider leading an examined life illuminated by education and reason to be a gift, since so many people are denied these things by accident of birth.

    Sometimes religion answers questions for people that they are unable to answer for themselves, not just unwilling. Life is a struggle, and things like basic necessities take someone’s entire attention.

    Some people are just lazy, some lack the aptitude.

    And yes, sometimes religion is a dogmatic indoctrination into not leading an examined life, despite your ability or desire to do so.

    Part of my examination of my life and existence is to consider that what my senses tell me may not be all that there is. And even consider the possibility that there may be realms of existence where things we take for granted, like math and physics, do not behave as expected.

    Maybe there’s a God in there. Maybe that deity is in yet another realm. Maybe that deity is in a part of this plane of existence I have never seen (because I have seen very, very little of the universe).

    One thing that my examined life has taught me for certain is that humanity has the unswerving ability to take really great ideas and screw them up (whee! first uses of nuclear fission!).

    I see Jesus turned into someone more concerned with abortion than the world’s crushing poverty by Christians. I see Muhammed’s (PBUH) admonishment that religion should not be cumpulsory entirely ignored by Muslims. The unifying ideas of Bahá’u’lláh eclipsed by petty power struggles among the Bahá’ís. Even Buddha’s fundamental ideas of his own non-divinity have been turned into religion, rather than philosophy, by many Buddhists.

    I think confusing the way that masses of people manifest their religious beliefs with the religious concepts themselves is dicey. The ugly truth is that when discussing the existence of God, most times you’ll get diatribe rather than discussion. Defending what you cannot prove is difficult. And finding people that know when they don’t have to defend anything can be tough. But there are sane voices out there.

    And contemplation on the possible existence of what we believe impossible is an exercise worthy intellectual of the examined life. :)

  8. Beautiful, beautiful comment mneptok. Very well said.

    Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer makes an interesting point in article at Salon, says we’re all atheists on all gods but our own:

    If you were born in India, you’d likely be a Hindu. What does that tell you? From a Christian perspective, it means we need to get more missionaries over there to tell them the truth! From an anthropological perspective, it’s another case. Christians today might say, I don’t believe in Zeus, that was a silly superstition. Yet for many people that was a real god. So it turns out there are 10,000 gods and yet only one right one. That means we’re all atheists on 9,999 gods. The only difference between me and the believers is I’m an atheist on one more god.

  9. Scot, I think we talked about Sam Harris while back, I think he makes some very valid points that needed making, but he does get a little carried away with himself (evangelistic, perhaps?) at times.

    For myself, I decided some 16 years ago to stop calling myself an agnostic and start calling myself an atheist. I still don’t deny the possibility that a god could exist in some form, I just think that it is such an extreme unlikelihood, and so hard to predict what form this god might take or what effect it would have on our lives, that I might as well behave as if to all intents and purposes there was no such thing.

    Douglas Adams once said something interesting about God, I forget the exact details but along the lines of “Religion is like money – both of them represent something which doesn’t really exist, but both have such an enormous impact upon human lives and behaviour that we have to treat them as if they were real”. Actually, that’s a very bad summation of what he said, but I need to get on with some work and I’m struggling to get down my early morning thoughts.

  10. wow – i’ve never found myself so in utter agreement w/ mneptok before! howdy brutha :)

    re the douglas adams quote by Dan:
    i understand that our concepts of god and religion are hopelessly entwined, however I see no reason that necessitates that. religions may be our primary source of “god” (ie, the notion of), but i think that the notion of god exists outside of religion(s) as well, and that its a futile rhetoric that continually conflates the two.


  11. btw – i regard self described athiests the same way i regard fundamentalist materialists or fundamentalist religionists. but i think the “fundament” is the hegemony that science/materialism/logic have in western thought (rather than a literal set of texts, which i believe is the usual definition of fundamentalism, no?).


  12. I see a similarity between fundamentalists and atheists in the sense that both have strong convictions about things that aren’t ultimately knowable.

    But they’re very different in the important sense that fundamentalists rely on inherited dogma while atheists rely on pure science/philosophy. To me, that’s a critical distinction, and makes atheism and atheists much more palatable than fundamentalism.

    So I can’t agree with putting atheists and fundamentalists in the same basket.

  13. but i think the “fundament” is the hegemony that science/materialism/logic have in western thought

    BTW, Point taken, but the difference is that science/logic are inherently open to correction. If you’re a scientist and I prove to you that the opposite of what you believed is actually true, then you’re beholden to change the way you think about the universe (Copernican revolution, quantum mechanics, etc.) Fundamentalism derived from sacred texts does not include this built-in mutability.

    As Harris says, if Jesus comes down from the clouds and proves he’s the son of God, all scientists will then be beholden to agree that Christianity is a science – an exploration of real phenomena.

  14. Thinking further about this comparison of fundamentalism and atheism… Let’s take as a given that everyone is in pursuit of the truth, but that our methodologies differ. The methodology of that pursuit for atheists is science and reason, the methodology of that pursuit for fundamentalists is taking literally words written down by (someone) a couple thousand (or more) years ago. I have no trouble saying that I think the methodology of science and reason is a better approach toward truth than literal interpretation of inherited texts.

    They really aren’t in the same bucket at all.

  15. > 300,000 people across Africa die of AIDS every year. … What is the role of religion here? Is it helping or hindering humanity?

    Up until recently environmentalists were able to prevent DDT from being considered an option to eradicate malaria in Africa (far more preventable and harmful than AIDS in Africa). Is this an indictment of environmentalists or just another example of stupidity?

  16. I’d say it’s an example of people meaning well in the big picture but not taking all of the facts into consideration (so, yes, stupidity). But the context is different from religion/AIDS in the important sense that when religion weighs in on something like this, we’re talking about totally mystical, unprovable beliefs being responsible for deaths. In the case of DDT it is, or was, a serious debate, with at least some sound reasoning on the part of the environmentalists. A real debate on the subject was possible, whereas real debate is not possible when religion is involved (because, as Harris says, we hold religion above and outside the sphere of debatibility, to our collective detriment).

    Your point is well taken, but doesn’t quite hit the mark.

  17. Sorry – I can’t see the direct relationship between (general) religious beliefs and the deaths of people by AIDS (not caused by religious beliefs). We may disagree with the Catholic churches opinion about condoms but they aren’t promoting behavior that fosters AIDS.

    re: What is it about religion that prompts us to “respect” others’ beliefs? It is called tolerance (something Harris rages against) and promotes peace between people that believe different things (most despite Harris’ wishes will continue to believe in irrational things). Many of us change our positions and beliefs as we mature so this beats the monoculture that Harris promotes.

  18. We may disagree with the Catholic churches opinion about condoms but they aren’t promoting behavior that fosters AIDS.

    Barring your congregation from taking the simplest steps to prevent the spread of AIDS is just as bad as promoting behavior that fosters AIDS. You can’t stop people from having sex, but you certainly can stop disallowing them from protecting themselves. That’s insanity. In the name of religion.

    When Harris talks about tolerance not making sense, this is what he means. Why in the world should we be tolerant of these priests? Being tolerant of a mystical view you don’t agree with is one thing (though scientists don’t “tolerate” other scientists saying the moon is made of cheese); being tolerant of behavior that’s harmful to humans is another.

  19. I don’t get your logic.

    (I suppose those) priests are saying ‘don’t have extramarital/gay sex and don’t use condoms’. If parishners obey they don’t get AIDS – if they disobey they may get AIDS but the priest in not culpable. (I also assume this is a consistent message that has not changed over the years.)

    If you don’t tolerate a ‘scientific view’ you challenge it in that arena according to those principles. To challenge a faith view via reason is common – to not tolerate any faith view is to dismiss the majority of world (including scientists). Most of us have had spiritual experiences that can not be adequately explained by science which often leads to a rational acceptance of faith (even if subject to change). Science and faith are not necessarily mutually exclusive but that is a personal call.

  20. The statement “don’t have sex” is at roughly the same level of absurdity as “don’t use condoms” — a preposterous thing to say, an unmeetable expectation. So neither are rational things for a priest to ask of a congregation. In other words, the fact that “don’t have sex” prefaces “don’t use condoms” does not get the blood off the priest’s hands. If the priest wants to help his congregation stay alive, he’ll propose solutions that can help people stay healthy and alive, and that are actually do-able.

    to not tolerate any faith view is to dismiss the majority of world (including scientists).

    Harris knows that his insistence on reason and consensus discourse (science) is dismissive toward the majority of the world’s population. But appeal to majority doesn’t work on me.

    Atheists have spiritual experiences too! But there’s a world of difference between a spiritual experience, which leads to awe and wonder, and religion, which is about politics and dogma (religion is spirituality codified and politicized). A spiritual experience does not need to lead to a life of irrational faith. Don’t know whether you’ve listened to the talk linked to in this post (I get the impression most of the commenters here have not), but he’s very open to the idea of personal mystical experiences. Life would be kind of empty without them.

  21. Abstention from adultery and gay sex have been a hallmark of religions throughout history and is hardly absurd or unobtainable. I may not agree with these priests but I can respect them for their reasoning.

    I am not appealing to majority for acceptance of the ideas of religions but the notion that Harris has a viable proposal in rejection of religious views as a matter of conducting our business. (He really holds an ascetic’s view of how to relate to others he doesn’t agree with.)

    I also respectfully disagree with your definition of religion. I see spirituality at the root of most religions – although some become politicized along with some adherents. I don’t equate emotional or vague nebulous experiences as being all that spiritual but rather those experiences that have a supernatural quality and defy reason.

    I have listened to the IT Conversations version of Harris’ talk. Not sure if your link is substantially different – I doubt it as I have heard Harris in other venues as well and modulates his tone based upon audience. I simply think he is ranting in order to sell more books.

  22. Abstention from adultery and gay sex have been a hallmark of religions throughout history and is hardly absurd or unobtainable.

    Can you name a religion that has succeeded in preventing (or even substantially limiting) adultery or homosexuality in its ranks? Sex is something humans do, whether a religious hammer hangs over their head or not.

    but the notion that Harris has a viable proposal in rejection of religious views as a matter of conducting our business

    Not sure I understand. What is not viable about the notion of religion-free public discourse or policy making?

    although some become politicized along with some adherents.

    Is there a religion that does not have a hierarchy of priests or similar? A religion that does not expect some sort of taxation or dues from adherents? A religion without a codex of some kind? Without positions on human behavior? Religion starts with a spiritual spark, but then tries to organize humans and human behavior. That organizational system is politics. “Pure” spirituality is the same spark, but unencumbered by group think, dogma, etc.

    I simply think he is ranting in order to sell more books.

    Huh???? That came out of left field. So you don’t think he’s sincere? Don’t think he’s brilliant? Don’t think that most of what he says is essentially correct? Why are you being dismissive of him?

  23. > Can you name a religion…
    Sure – Judaism, Christianity and Islam (among others) have all had varying degrees of success in reducing adulterous and homosexual behavior throughout history. Even to this day there are significant portions of the world’s population that restrain their ‘animal’ natures in order to live a more civil or spiritual life. (This is not a discussion about sex since most religions have an honorable view of it that defines a morality.) Your original point about condoms still lacks merit. You either adhere to the Catholic principles or you ignore them. Selectively applying them to prove a point doesn’t make sense.

    > but the notion that Harris…
    As Harris himself states around 90% of the US population may be considered religious so excluding the religious perspectives from any discourse is a ridiculous notion. Harris heaps his abuse upon ‘fundamentalists’ as equally as he does upon ‘religious moderates’. While Harris is entitled to reject religious perspectives he is not entitled to constrain the majority of the world. He sadly goes from a valid criticism that people won’t challenge Muslim behaviors and positions (outside of the fundamentalist community) to a rejection of all religious positions.

    > Is there a religion that does not have…
    Of course there are… most of Islam has no formal hierarchy, as well as Judaism and some Christian denominations.
    However your greater point seems to confuse religious institutions with the adherents. ‘Pure spirituality’ is like an object class in that it is abstract and uninstantiated. Religion provides frameworks for people that are on a spiritual path. People are very dynamic embracing religion, adopting to facets of it, perhaps even changing or dropping their beliefs over time. Within Judaism there are two sides to prayer – a fixed liturgy and a ‘spiritual’ or heart felt aspect. To those who haven’t experienced this effect it is hard to appreciate the difference or value of either. I have met many people of different faiths who are not fixated on the organizational aspects of their religion but see it as their best place for growing spiritually. Religion and religious experiences are likely to be more of an antidote to ‘group think’ than other experiences. Just because someone functions within a framework does not mean that you must lose your individuality anymore than competing in the Tour de France makes a competitor a lemming.

    Being a free spirit and independent is at times a good and necessary thing. But as humans we are also social creatures that find important social meaning from within religious communities.

    > Huh???? That came out of left field…
    Actually I am giving Harris perhaps more credit than he deserves. He is an author and he is selling his books. Controversy is a great way to put food on his table and I won’t deny him that. If he wholly believes his own statements then I have less respect for him (see my recent post that offers a critique of his talk). His analysis just doesn’t hold up.

  24. holding a priest responsible for telling a congregation not to use condoms is just picking and choosing, because the same priest also tells them to maintain one partner within the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. so why are people listening to one injunction and ignoring the other?

    commenting that the position of the priest/church is laughable is justified, but hey humans are rational, if you don’t like what xyz is saying, there is an abc out there who will say what you want to hear like planned parenthood or something.

    what is beyond me is how people want to do whatever they want and then hold someone else accountable for their actions. you know the drill, if you can’t do what is being asked of you, then go all the way and protect yourself, don’t come crying ‘i’ve got AIDS and its all the fault of the priest’

  25. holding a priest responsible for telling a congregation not to use condoms is just picking and choosing, because the same priest also tells them to maintain one partner within the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. so why are people listening to one injunction and ignoring the other?

    Gigi, that’s pretty much what Stewart is saying above, and my response to that is that it’s an absurd request to ask people not to have sex with each other. A priest who cared about his congregation would be begging his congregation to use condoms, not admonishing them not to. It’s irresponsible, plain and simple.

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