Defeating Sam Harris’s Argument about Science and Religion

I thought I would take some time to look at some of the “classic” New Atheist essays where they assert the incompatibility of science and religion. Today, I will look at Sam Harris’s essay, “Science Must Destroy Religion.”

Harris quickly gets to his core assertion:

The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science.

“The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma.” Often? How often is often? 90% of the time? 50% of the time? 10% of the time? 0.1% of the time? Since this sentence can be mean many of these to many different people, it is useless.

Harris does not seem to understand that the majority of science’s successes have not come at the expense of religious dogma. When scientists determined the importance of centromeres for mitosis, it did not come at the expense of religious dogma. When scientists determined that DNA was the genetic material and then, a little later, cracked the genetic code, it did not come at the expense of religious dogma. When scientists discovered various cell cycle genes and the role they play in cancer, it did not come at the expense of religious dogma. When scientists worked out the structure of the cell membrane, it did not come at the expense of religious dogma. When scientists identified and characterized the cell’s core metabolic processes, glycolysis, Krebs cycle, and electron transport chain, it did not come at the expense of religious dogma. When scientists determined the role of sodium and potassium voltage-gated channels in generating action potentials, it did not come at the expense of religious dogma. When scientists figured out how calcium triggers muscle contraction by binding to a protein that is in turn bound to actin, it did not come at the expense of religious dogma. Need I go on? It looks to me like the vast majority of scientific success has not and does not come at the expense of religious dogma.

the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science.

Always? In that case, I need only one counterexample to defeat his claim. Let’s take the religious dogma of not bearing false witness (the Ninth Commandment). How does that come at the expense of science? Is Harris trying to imply scientists need to lie but religion is getting in the way? That would be ridiculous.

The claim of “conflict between religion and science [being] inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum is defeated.

So let’s move on by going into clean-up mode.

Harris says:

It is time we conceded a basic fact of human discourse: either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not.

Yes, we all know that. What Sam doesn’t address is that “good reasons” are in the eye of the beholder. It is a subjective judgment call. One man’s good reasons are another man’s weak arguments. Harris himself should know this from experience. He thinks he has good reasons to oppose gun control, but has been incapable of getting his liberal opponents to acknowledge his own “good reasons” are good reasons. So Sam needs to address the important question – who gets to decide when reasons are truly good?

When a person has good reasons, his beliefs contribute to our growing understanding of the world.

Not necessarily. Say I have good reasons to think my neighbor is cheating on his wife. Does that help grow “our understanding of the world?” Sam needs to make the necessary connection between a person with good reasons and our understanding of the world.

We need not distinguish between “hard” and “soft” science here, or between science and other evidence-based disciplines like history. There happen to be very good reasons to believe that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Consequently, the idea that the Egyptians actually did it lacks credibility.

Yes, there are good reasons. People saw the Japanese planes with their eyes and Japan took credit for the bombing. We would expect both to be true if Japan did indeed bomb Pearl Harbor.

Every sane human being recognizes that to rely merely upon “faith” to decide specific questions of historical fact would be both idiotic and grotesque — that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad’s conversation with the angel Gabriel, or to any of the other hallowed travesties that still crowd the altar of human ignorance.

Here’s where Harris goes off the rails. I’ll just stick with the resurrection of Jesus. Merely upon faith? First, Christians do indeed claim to have “good reasons” for believing the resurrection. Faith comes into play because those good reasons cannot purchase intellectual certainty. Second, the resurrection of Jesus is not like the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As I noted, if Japan did in fact bomb Pearl Harbor, we would expect someone to have seen the planes and we would expect Japan to take credit as it declared war on the USA. And we saw what was expected. In the case of Jesus, Harris would have to employ the same logic and make that following claim: “If indeed Jesus did rise from the dead, we, as non-Christians, should be able to detect the following evidence: X, Y, and Z.” In other words, Harris needs to argue what we should expect to see if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. Without that argument, he has no argument other than materialistic posturing.

Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world.

Science in the “broadest sense?” Harris is dumbing down the definition of science to the point where science is no longer science. That way, he can try to sell atheism as science – a reasonable claim that should be included in science. He can also try to sell his meditation as science – knowledge about himself that should be included in science. I have already discussed this misuse of science before –

Sam Harris’s Subtle Attack on Science
Sam Harris Promotes Himself by Stepping on Science

If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe.

This is nonsense. Once again, Harris completely ignores the immense subjective dimension to “having good reasons,” thus confusing truth with consensus. In science, something becomes part of our rational description of the universe not for mere “good reasons,” but because the experimental results mandate it. Consider the fact that DNA is the genetic material. It took about 10-20 years for this to become part of our rational description of the universe as scientists had “good reasons” to deny it: it was thought that proteins were the genetic material. But DNA-as-genetic-material became part of our rational description of the universe because of some of the most elegant experiments in the history of science (the work of Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty, followed by the work of Hershey and Chase).

At this point, we need to address a crucially important question, one that is ignored completely by all the New Atheists trying to hijack science for their metaphysical agenda:

If the virgin birth of Jesus was true (if it did indeed happen), then should we be able to generate experimental results to detect and confirm it? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then spell out precisely the design of such experiments.

There is a reason people like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and Sam Harris have never conducted and published a single experimental result falsifying the virgin birth or resurrection of Jesus. It can’t be done. It’s a question that is beyond the reach of science. And that means science has nothing to say on these subjects. This, of course, completely undermines the posturing and agenda of the New Atheists, so they will continue to pretend otherwise.

Summary: Sam Harris’s argument completely fails. As I have shown, it is simply not true that the success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma or the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science. Harris’s appeal to “good reasons” ignores the fact that whether or not a reason is a “good” reason is dependent on the person making the judgment, rendering it futile to insist the criterion of “good reason” can generate widespread consensus. Harris also errs in thinking that science has something to say when it comes to the virgin birth or resurrection of Jesus. It does not. One way you can tell this is because neither Harris, nor any other New Atheist, has ever conducted a single experiment to test such claims. That because Harris, and all other New Atheists, have no idea how to design such an experiment. And that is because such claims are beyond the reach of science.
Harris has his own personal “good reasons” for believing religion is filled with “hideous fantasies” and “hallowed travesties” and is trying to infuse these subjective assessments with authority by portraying those opinions as science. He is trying to hijack science to serve his metaphysical and socio-political agenda. That’s all that is happening here.

Harris has been refuted.

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15 Responses to Defeating Sam Harris’s Argument about Science and Religion

  1. Ilíon says:

    The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science.

    As you have explained already, the assertion is “useless”.

    Moveover, in using the term “religion”, he seeks to treat the dogmas of, say, Christianity, as being equivalent in this alleged regard to those of, say, Buddhism. But that gets no one anywhere — if his assertion is to be seen as being true in any way, then it must be made into an assertion about one or more specific religions.

  2. Ilíon says:

    From ‘The Demon-Haunted World‘ by Carl Sagan

    Consider this claim: as I walk along, time -as measured by my wristwatch or my ageing process -slows down. Also, I shrink in the direction of motion. Also, I get more massive. Who has ever witnessed such a thing? It’s easy to dismiss it out of hand. Here’s another: matter and antimatter are all the time, throughout the universe, being created from nothing. Here’s a third: once in a very great while, your car will spontaneously ooze through the brick wall of your garage and be found the next morning on the street. They’re all absurd! But the first is a statement of special relativity, and the other two are consequences of quantum mechanics (vacuum fluctuations and barrier tunnelling,* they’re called). Like it or not, that’s the way the world is. If you insist it’s ridiculous, you’ll be forever closed to some of the major findings on the rules that govern the Universe.

    *The average waiting time per stochastic ooze is much longer than the age of the Universe since the Big Bang. But, however improbable, in principle it might happen tomorrow.

    Ah!

    So, if one were to assert that at any time my “car [might] spontaneously ooze through the brick wall of [the] garage and be found the next morning on the street”, with the caveat that any actual occurrence of the assertedly possible event is so improbable as to be effectively a non-existent possibility … well, that’s ‘Science!‘ On the other hand, if one were to assert (and record) that one had actually witnessed the Risen Christ to *intentionally* walk through a locked door, damaging neither door nor self, well, that’s just superstitious mumbo-jumbo.

    So, if one were to assert that at any time all the oxygen molecules in the auditorium were to spontaneously gather themselves into the upper corners of the room (this was an example assertion by one of my professors as an illustration of what QM “tells us”), thus leaving all the humans in the room lacking for the oxygen necessary to sustain their lives, with the caveat that any actual occurrence of the assertedly possible event is so improbable as to be effectively a non-existent possibility … well, that’s ‘Science!‘ On the other hand, if one were to assert (and record) that one had actually witnessed a certain usefully-shaped collection of (primarily) iron atoms rise to the surface of a body of water into which it had fallen, well, that’s just superstitious mumbo-jumbo.

    So, if one were to assert that, contrary to all experience, and contrary to all scientific and medical findings to date, non-living chemicals can spontaneously arrange themselves into living organisms … well, that’s ‘Science!‘ On the other hand, if one were to assert (and record) that one had actually witnessed a collection of once-living molecules waling around, eating, breathing, and talking to other collections of ambulatory molecules well after one knew that collection of molecules to have been dead, and one attributed this socking-and-totally-unexpected development to the sovereign power of the Being who created molecules and living organisms in the first place, well, that’s just superstitious mumbo-jumbo.

    I think we see how ‘Science!’ operates.

  3. TFBW says:

    When a person has good reasons, his beliefs contribute to our growing understanding of the world.

    It’s this kind of philosophical oafishness which makes me despair of the possibility of reasoned argument with New Atheists and their devotees. This quotation is attributable to Harris, but it could just as easily have been Dawkins, or others.

    “Good reasons for believing” and “a growing understanding of the world” are far from synonymous. The scientists of Galileo’s time had good reason for believing that the Earth did not move. Scientists since pre-Aristotelian times had good reason for believing that living organisms spontaneously arose from non-living matter, such as rotting flesh, but the apparent “goodness” of those reasons was gradually whittled away by scientific experiment in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, eventually being abandoned for germ theory. Scientists of the late 19th and first half of the 20th century had good reason to think that mountain formation was properly explained by Geosynclinal Theory, described in 1948 as, “a great unifying principle, possibly one of the greatest in geologic science.” By the end of the 20th century, however, it was barely a footnote.

    These days, of course, we feel that we have better reasons for thinking that the Earth is in motion, and that life doesn’t arise spontaneously (except in some warm little pond billions of years ago), and that plate tectonics are the primary driver behind mountain formation. Yesterday’s good reasons are the foundations of today’s outmoded theories.

    Harris asserts that religion gets in the way of science, but I know of several cases (just off the top of my head) where “good reasons” got in the way, sometimes requiring centuries of effort to overcome so that science could make real progress. The Galileo thing is particularly relevant here: New Atheists like to hold it up as a prime example of religion being a barricade, but the church was merely bowing to the scientific consensus of the day, which was highly resistant of Copernican theory and had “good reason” to reject it.

    Harris’ precis of science is so incredibly naive that it might be more charitable to interpret it as simple anti-theistic propaganda rather than any kind of serious attempt at a philosophy of science. If he were to submit this tripe as an essay in a university-level philosophy of science course, he should be flunked so hard it leaves a mark.

  4. Bilbo says:

    Nice essay, Mike.

  5. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris > The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum.

    I have seen this, and its like, a number of times — it’s something of an atheist meme. Yet totally absent from that meme is any suggestion that, “The conflict between religion and engineering is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum.”

    Note that the meme always refers to “science”, never to a sub-category such as theoretical science, experimental science, or applied science or engineering. Odd that, and inconsistent.

    That is, if it should be reasonable to claim that, “The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum”, then it should (by similar or identical argument) be reasonable to claim that, “The conflict between religion and applied science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum.”

    That the “engineering” or “science and engineering” claim lacks sufficient plausibility that anybody ever claims and argues it, rather undercuts the plausibility of Sam Harris’ “science” claim.

    A general rule: when Gnus claim that “science” is in conflict with religion, disproves religion, or some other variant of the meme, substitute “science and engineering”, and be aware that the argument (or meme) is probably valueless unless it applies to both of science and engineering.

  6. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris > The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science.

    From Harris’ book, “Waking Up”:

    Buddhism offers a truly sophisticated, empirical approach to understanding the human mind, whereas Christianity presents an almost perfect impediment to such understanding.
    http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/chapter-one

    Such similar quotes. I suspect that Harris has used the (gnu-alleged) conflict between religion and science as a proxy for the (Harris-alleged) conflict between Christianity and the Neo-Buddhism which Harris is vigorously promoting.

  7. Isaac says:

    Harris is totes right.

    Remember when there was a revolution of Christianity in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, when everyone started reading the Bible, missionaries were running around converting people and Christianity completely dominated academic and government institutions?

    It was awful. That’s why they call it the Scientific Revolution.

    See? Zero-sum.

  8. Pingback: Sam Harris: “science must destroy religion”

  9. nate says:

    The nature of religious dogma is that if ONE SINGLE PART of the religion is challenged or found to be untrue, the rest of the claims it is making fall in check as a result of the fact that it is said to be of divine origin. Its the nature of dogmatism. Jesus never rose from the dead or cured lepers by touching them. To believe these stories is to believe in something that flies in the face of science and is impossible. There is zero evidence that either of those things ever happened, and using common sense we can figure out that they’re simply fairy tales written thousands of years ago, very likely with origins elsewhere. The fact that those claims are not true puts the rest of the claims made in the bible in jeopardy, because the Bible is itself claiming to be the word of god. It’s all or nothing. This marriage of purely unscientific belief with blind faith is where science always comes at the expense of religious dogmatism, at least on a philosophical level. Either you practice scientific reasoning or you dont. You dont get to pick and choose with science. You don’t get to throw things into your understanding of science because they make you feel good.

    The success of science at the expense of religious dogma simply amounts to intellectual honesty. Your willfull misunderstanding of dogmatism is all this article amounts to.

  10. Kevin says:

    Let’s say that 2000 years ago a man cured lepers and rose from the dead. This is not a “fairy tale” in this scenario, it’s an ironclad fact. In this scenario, what scientific evidence would you expect there to be?

  11. Kevin says:

    Regarding the overall post, all I will say is that atheism is the single most illogical worldview in existence (at least that I’ve ever encountered, to be fair), so since common sense dictates that there must be a creator, what is possible and what flies in the face of science may in fact be one in the same. Science is not the arbiter of truth.

  12. TFBW says:

    If the “methodological naturalism” model of science is your only tool for determining truth, then you can never recognise that any miracle (e.g. the resurrection) happened, even if it genuinely did. The tool itself only recognises two possible cases: the event did not happen, or the event was not a miracle. See recent lengthy discussion here.

  13. Dhay says:

    Nate > The nature of religious dogma is that if ONE SINGLE PART of the religion is challenged or found to be untrue, the rest of the claims it is making fall in check as a result of the fact that it is said to be of divine origin. Its the nature of dogmatism. … It’s all or nothing. … Your willfull misunderstanding of dogmatism is all this article amounts to.

    Are you playing this for laughs?

  14. Kevin says:

    It’s pretty much standard for a New Atheist to assume that his or her extremely shallow and biased understanding of anything religious in nature is beyond reproach and all there is to know on the subject, so no, I don’t think Nate is joking or trolling.

  15. Ilíon says:

    Kevin:… what is possible and what flies in the face of science may in fact be one in the same. Science is not the arbiter of truth.

    Not only is ‘science’ (*) not the arbiter of truth, ‘science’ (*) isn’t even *about* truth. A given scientific (*) statement or set of statements may be true, or may be untrue, but in neither case can one use ‘science’ (*) to determine which it is. In the regard, the strongest claim that ‘science’ (*) can ever make is “this statements is consistent with that statement (or set of statements)” … which, of course, doesn’t even touch the question of whether any of the statements are, in fact, true.

    If an accused murder says, “I did not murder X“, and if she (**) then says, “Y murdered X“, the set of statements is consistent, but that consistency does not establish whether either statement is true. There is no means within this “system” of generating statements about the murder to determine which, if any, of the statements the “system” generates are actually true and which are actually false.

    Likewise with ‘science’ (*), which is a system for generating statements about the physical world of mechanical cause-and-effect: there is no means within the system to determine which, if any, of the statements the system generates are actually true and which are actually false.

    Moreover, as ‘science’ (*) is strictly a system for generating statements about the physical world of mechanical cause-and-effect, it can’t *honestly* be used for generating statements about things that are not limited to mechanical cause-and-effect. This is the intellectual error of which these ‘Science!‘ fetishists always insist in engaging.

    (*) whatever that word is intended to signify in any given context

    (**) just to be clear, I’m mocking “gender neutral language”

    ============
    Dhay:Are you playing this for laughs?

    Of course he is. Well, in the sense that he’s not *intellectually serious* about what he asserts.

    Consider these absurd scientistical claims —

    Consider this claim: as I walk along, time -as measured by my wristwatch or my ageing process -slows down. Also, I shrink in the direction of motion. Also, I get more massive. Who has ever witnessed such a thing? It’s easy to dismiss it out of hand. Here’s another: matter and antimatter are all the time, throughout the universe, being created from nothing. Here’s a third: once in a very great while, your car will spontaneously ooze through the brick wall of your garage and be found the next morning on the street. They’re all absurd! But the first is a statement of special relativity, and the other two are consequences of quantum mechanics (vacuum fluctuations and barrier tunnelling,* they’re called). Like it or not, that’s the way the world is. If you insist it’s ridiculous, you’ll be forever closed to some of the major findings on the rules that govern the Universe.

    *The average waiting time per stochastic ooze is much longer than the age of the Universe since the Big Bang. But, however improbable, in principle it might happen tomorrow.

    Concerning purported miracles, it’s not the alleged “breaking the Laws of Nature” that pisses off these ‘Science!‘ fetishists — Hell! when pressed, they’ll deny that there *are* any “Laws of Nature” (which is what Carl Sagan is doing in the above quote, without even being pressed) — it’s that, definitionally, a miracle points to something beyond mere materialistic/mechanistic atheism. It’s the intentionality of a miracle, not the inexplicability, that gets their panties in a wad.

    Consider one of the scientistical assertions Sagan makes on the above quote — “Here’s a third: once in a very great while, your car will spontaneously ooze through the brick wall of your garage and be found the next morning on the street. … The average waiting time per stochastic ooze is much longer than the age of the Universe since the Big Bang. But, however improbable, in principle it might happen tomorrow.

    Now, consider a similar miracle recorded in the New Testament (John 20:19), wherein it is stated that Christ’s followers were meeting behind closed doors (it seems to me to at least imply that the room’s door was locked), when the resurrected Christ appeared in their midst … or, to put it into terms Sagan’s disciples might be able to follow, Christ oozed through the closed door.

    Now, what are the differences between these two claims? What is it about the first that justifies (in their cramped little minds) the ‘Science!‘ fetishists asserting that if one “insist[s] it’s ridiculous, [one will] be forever closed to some of the major findings on the rules that govern the Universe“? What is it about the second claim that justifies (in their cramped little minds) the ‘Science!‘ fetishists asserting that “to believe these stories is to believe in something that flies in the face of science and is impossible“?

    Well, the *main* thing about these two claims is that the first is meaningless, whereas the second points to God. *That* is what all the constant snivelling of these ‘Science!‘ fetishists is always about. But, some other differences are —
    * no one claims ever to have witnessed the first; whereas there were onle people people living who claimed to have witnessed the second, and they wrote it down;
    * and, in fact, the further claim about the first is it is expected than no one will ever witness it;
    * the first, were in ever to happen, is not intended by anyone, and, in fact, is not *caused* by anything, and serves no purpose; whereas, the second is said to have been intended and caused by someone, for a purpose;

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