You have to wonder how long it will be before the Gnus decide to throw Sam Harris under the bus. The media want us to have this debate about guns so Harris decided to put his new PhD in Neuroscience to work again. This time by writing an essay in defense of guns. Oh, oh. As we have been learning, atheism these days entails acceptance of certain political and social positions and strict gun control seems to be one of them. So one has to wonder if Harris is a True Atheist. How can one be both an Atheist and a gun supporter at the same time?! That would be as ridiculous as an Atheist who opposes abortion! Right?
Needless to say, the atheist blogosphere has risen to the task of defending True Atheism. For example, the RDF’s Sean Faircloth calls out Harris. He tries to be polite but according to Faircloth, Harris, who is so supposed to be so damn insightful on religion, can’t seem to get anything right when it comes to guns. Harris, of course, fires back. He not only pushes back against Faircloth, but he takes on all his atheist critics with a FAQ.
Feel free to read the two essays, but I think they can be summarized as follows: Faircloth thinks Harris is full of crap and Harris thinks Faircloth of full of crap.
Now, you might be tempted to weigh in and join the debate about guns. But I would challenge you to step back from the exchanges and see the larger truth about our world and ourselves.
Here is the problem. Both Harris and Faircloth supposedly champion reason and evidence. In fact, both of the essays come across as two people relying on reason and evidence. Facts, data, logic, etc. Yet the facts, data, and logic result in further entrenchment and polarization. Harris, in his FAQ comes across not as someone with doubts or concessions about his previous claims. He comes across as someone more convinced than ever. After all, it’s now a FAQ.
So how is it that reason and evidence cannot bring consensus among two people who claim to so deeply value reason and evidence? You might say that reason and evidence show that one is right and one is wrong. But then explain why they both think they are right because of the reason and evidence. Also, who is right and who is wrong? It’s not reason and evidence that will tell you. What will tell you is who champions the position that you yourself hold.
I wrote about this almost a year ago as this use of reason and evidence has been studied:
They selected two groups of participants, one known to believe that the death penalty is an effective deterrent and one known to believe that it is not an effective deterrent. Both groups were presented with two arguments, one that pointed to the deterrent efficacy of the death penalty and one that pointed to its inefficacy as a deterrent. Each argument consisted of a brief description of the design and findings of a study supporting or opposing the death penalty (e.g., a study showing that a state’s murder rate declined after institution of the death penalty) and was followed by criticisms of the study itself, as well as rebuttals of these criticisms. The best-known finding associated with this study is that the pro-death-penalty and anti-death-penalty participants became more polarized in their beliefs– and hence more different from one another–as a result of reading the two arguments. Note, however, that this result is a logical consequence of another more basic finding obtained by Lord et al.: When participants were asked to rate how convincing each study seemed as evidence (i.e., assessments involved participants’ judgment of the argument’s strength rather than their final belief in the conclusion), proponents of the death penalty judged the pro-death-penalty arguments to be more convincing or stronger than the anti-death-penalty arguments, whereas the opponents of the death penalty judged the anti-death-penalty arguments to be more convincing. This is the prior belief effect, and it has as one of its consequences the polarization of belief.
So a study from 1979 perfectly describes the atheist gun debate in 2013. This is because Harris and Faircloth are not using reason and evidence to illuminate the truth. They are both using it to as means of propping up their beliefs through confirmation bias and disconfirmation bias.
While you read their essays, chances are you have been conditioned to see them as detectives using logic and evidence to discover the truth. Then you, using reason and evidence, are supposed to objectively decide whose position is best supported by reason and evidence. But this is not how the human brain usually works. In reality, it’s more like two tribes having a beauty contest. The gun lovers have Harris and he uses reason and evidence to preen for them. The gun haters have Faircloth and he uses reason and evidence to preen for them. And there are no objective judges. The gun lovers will vote for Harris and the gun haters will vote for Faircloth. Reason and evidence have simply played the role of adornments, like the peacock’s tail.
What’s the point? We are told and assured that reason and evidence can determine whether or not God exists. Yet the atheist community itself has shown us how silly this claim is. Reason and evidence does not lead to any truth consensus among the atheists when it comes to guns. Heck, it can’t even lead to any truth consensus about what gets said in an elevator. It can’t even lead to any truth consensus about how the atheists want to label themselves! What it can do, and does do, is to help entrench and deepen the divisions within the atheist community.
Given the manner in which reason and evidence are ripping the atheist community into factions over small things, why in the world would anyone think reason and evidence will magically discover truth when it comes to the existence of God?