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.
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 –
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.