Covering shallow arguments

LetterToNationHow does a reporter write a balanced profile of a guy who thinks that anyone who believes in God is an idiot and “that religion is the root of all evil”?

The ever-edgy Washington Post‘s Style section took on “Atheist Evangelist” Sam Harris in a lengthy profile Thursday that reads like a ping-pong match where one player refuses to do anything but swing as hard as he can at the ball without regard for his accuracy. The other player, who really doesn’t want to play in the first place, does his best to engage himself in the match, but his opponent continuously slams the ping-pong ball back, preventing a real match from taking place.

To say the least, I am guessing that Harris would not like the mission of GetReligion.

In reading the piece over a couple of times, I am left wondering whether Harris, the author of Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, can fashion a decent argument against religion. Which is, I guess, the point:

There are really just two possibilities for Sam Harris. Either he is right and millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews are wrong. Or Sam Harris is wrong and he is so going to hell.

This seems obvious whenever Harris opens what he calls “my big mouth,” and it is glaringly clear one recent evening at the New York Public Library, where he is debating a former priest before a packed auditorium. In less than an hour, Harris condemns the God of the Old Testament for a host of sins, including support for slavery. He drop-kicks the New Testament, likening the story of Jesus to a fairy tale. He savages the Koran, calling it “a manifesto for religious divisiveness.”

Nobody has ever accused the man of being subtle. Harris is straight out of the stun grenade school of public rhetoric, and his arguments are far more likely to offend the faithful than they are to coax them out of their faith. And he doesn’t target just the devout. Religious moderates, Harris says in his patient and imperturbable style, have immunized religion from rational discussion by nurturing the idea that faith is so personal and private that it is beyond criticism, even when horrific crimes are committed in its name.

“There is this multicultural, apologetic machinery that keeps telling us that we can’t attack people’s religious sensibility,” Harris says in an interview. “That is so wrong and so suicidal.”

sam harrisThere are few serious arguments to work with here. Part of me wonders why the Post decided to pursue this story, but there is interesting material here and Harris has an interesting life story. Then again, if Harris weren’t taking on religion, would anyone care for his shallow arguments about a subject that is rich and substantial?

One part of the piece that I felt was appropriately highlighted is Harris’ attack on religious moderates. The idea that religious moderation provides cover for extremists is in a way honest and refreshingly clear. The only thing missing was a response from another genuine atheist. (The article quotes a retired religious studies professor saying that the “country needs a sophisticated attack on religion,” and that “pushing moderates into the same camp as fanatics … seems like a very crude mistake”).

“I could have told you what is wrong with religious dogmatism on September 10th,” [Harris] says. “But after 9/11, I realized the role that religious moderation played in providing cover for fundamentalism.”

Reporter David Segal quotes various religion and theology professors on Harris’ belief system (can you call it a set of beliefs?), but near the end of the piece Segal gives us a hint of his own conclusion:

Of course, if religion were merely failed science, it would have been supplanted by real science centuries ago. But it has survived and thrived through a revolution in our understanding of the solar system as well as our bodies and our minds, which suggests that it offers something that deduction, data points and reason do not.

All in all, Segal does a solid job poking and prodding a thinker who offers little substance but plenty of style. There are obviously more significant and thoughtful atheists out there, but few can be compared to Evel Knievel.

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  • Robert Strickland

    If you are truly “wondering whether Harris can fashion a decent argument against religion”, you might try actually reading the book, rather than dismissing Harris’ arguments as “shallow” based on a review of the book.

    There is a great deal of substance in “The End of Faith”, and I find his central thesis refreshing – it is high time that we become critical of shoddy irrational beliefs that claim immunity from challenge simply because they are religious.

    Our noble tolerance does not extend to people who believe the earth is flat, or people who declare natural selection does not occur, or unfortunates who think the moon is composed of cheese; neither should it embrace those who expouse religious belief, especially when the consequences are so much blood, violence, and suffering.

  • Matt

    But Robert, haven’t you forgotten something? Atheism is also a religious belief, predicated on faith.

    And given the number of folks dead in the 20th century at the hands of athiest ideological movements — at least 100 million — maybe _atheism_ is the root of all evil.

  • dpulliam

    Robert, if I had the time, I would read Harris’s books. It does look somewhat like a good read, but it’s not like I haven’t heard what he has to say before. I felt that this review gave me a pretty good idea of what he has to say and I found it to be fairly shallow. Can you show me that there is more substance to Harris’s argument than what was presented in the review? Is there a GetAtheism blog out there that can show me why this reporter blew it in covering Harris? Based on your comment, I don’t see it.

    Also, on a more personal note, I’ve read Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, enjoyed it, and found my faith strengthened because of it. So go figure.

  • tmatt

    And remember, folks, try to stay focused on the POST ARTICLE and not turn this into a believer-unbeliever scrum. Is that the name of the rugby huddle thing?

    tmatt, in St. Louis

  • Will

    But Matt, that resembles the neon-pagan condemnation of Satanists on the ground that they are “really” Christian. They contempuously refuse to confront the argument that in that case anti-semites are Jews, and anti-Communists are Communists, and that indeed they themselves are “really” Christians.

  • Larry Rasczak


    HUH? I don’t get that at all. Could you rephrase in more detail?

    I think that what Matt is saying is that Harris’s argument of “religion is evil because religious people killed all these folks in (the Islamic Conquest, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the French Wars of Religion, the Reformation, the Thirty Years War, etc.)” is a shallow one. Harris seems to argue that since the above wars show that people who belive in God sometimes have Religious wars; and since Atheists don’t believe in God, therefore Atheisim is more peaceful (and thulsy superior) because it assumes that Atheists won’t have religous wars.

    The argument falls apart on three fronts. First it purposely ignores the millions upon millions of people killed by atheistic governments as part of their anti-clerical and anti-religous purges. Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, Lennin, Hitler, the Spanish Republicans, the Mexican Government of the 1920s, the Paris Communards, the First French Republic (or was it the Dirctorate?) with the Vendee and their Apotheois of Reason, are but a few examples. The historical evidence is that Atheistic governments are MORE bloody, not less. How would Harris respong to that?

    Secondly the argument strongly implies that since Atheists are immune from religous wars they are less likely to have wars period. Again this can be disproven by history. The largest and bloodiest war in Human history was what the Russians call “The Great Patriotic War”, the Germans and the British call “The Eastern Front of WW2″ and the Americans generally refer to as “HUH?” because John Wayne never did a movie about Stalingrad, Lenningrad, or Kursk. This war was fought between the Scientific Socalist Marxist-Atheist Soviet Union and the anti-Clerical anti-Semetic, anti-Christian, National Socialist Germany. All the fine progressive, non-believing, terribly rational, scientific socialist reason oriented minds in the world didn’t stop that one. Again how would Harris respond?

    Lastly the implication that Atheisim = Peace ignores the fact that many wars have no religous component. Yes people kill each other over Religion, but we also kill each other over such issues as who will dominate the Western Medeteranian Trade routes (the Punic Wars) or will the Black Hills be open up to White Settlement and Mining (Little Big Horn) or who is the righful King of France (Hundred Years War) or the rightful King of England (Norman Conquest, War of the Roses). Harris doesn’t seem to go here, but I’d like to hear what he has to say on that point.

    Religions don’t kill people, People kill people. And if the best argument Sam Harris has can be disproven by a 12th grade history text and a rewrite of an old NRA slogan, I’d say it is safe to call his arguments shallow.

    I would have liked to see the reporter hit Mr. Harris with specific examples, and see how (or if) he responds to them with anything but venom.

    For a guy who claims to be arguing from Reason and Logic he sure seems to have a lot of emotional issues going on here. Does the piece cover WHY and HOW Harris came to be this way? I’d love to know that.

    Lastly, “There are really just two possibilities for Sam Harris. Either he is right and millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews are wrong. Or Sam Harris is wrong and he is so going to hell.”

    It is true that there are only two possibilites, and they are mutually exclusive here. I REALLY like the fact the reporter recognizes that. I like the fact that he introduces logic into a relgion piece. That is FANTASTIC.

    Still I’m not really comfortable with saying Sam is going to Hell. Yeah, he may have a higher probability of damnation than say Mother Teresa, but that’s not a call for me, or any other human, to make. It worried me.

  • Karen

    “Scrum” is indeed the name of it in rugby. And as a player, I think it’s fun to note that a scrum rarely covers much ground. :)

  • Dennis Colby

    My guess about all the coverage people like Harris and Richard Dawkins get (see the hullabaloo over his new book) is that it functions on the same principle that unerringly returns Pat Robertson to the front page after every foot-in-mouth moment. That is, Harris and Dawkins (and, before them, Madalyn Murray O’Hair) may not be particularly skilled theologians or philosophers, but they’re brilliant publicists.

    I know a lot of atheists who groan whenever Harris or Dawkins pops up in the press, much like many Christians roll their eyes at every Fred Phelps photo op. But the press is drawn to bright, quotable people who know how to cater them (Quick! Count the Barry Lynn quotes in the last three months of Lexis-Nexis!). It’s hard to dig up good, thoughtful atheist sources, particularly when you have the Sam Harris Show going on.

    Whether this makes for good journalism, though, is another story. Is Sam Harris representative of atheist opinion in general? Does he have penetrating insights into the nature of religion that escape other unbelievers?

    Wired recently did a big story on prominent atheists, roping in everyone from Dawkins and Harris to the magicians Penn & Teller and the punk singer Greg Graffin. What they all seemed to have in common was a mutual ability to give the press what it wants, plus a delight in shocking Christians.

    These really are the most public faces of a very small current of thought in the United States. So my question is: How should journalists handle this? Where can reporters go to hear from atheists who aren’t the usual suspects? Are atheists being ill-served by focusing on a few ringleaders?

  • Jinzang

    Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins approach religion as a failed science and as such reject it. It’s a popular argument on the Internet. What this argument misses is that religion is less concerned with this “is” of the Universe than the “ought.” To use an analogy, if you’re in a lifeboat you have two questions: how to row the boat and which direction to row it in. It’s the second question that religion’s chiefly concerned with. It’s a simple point, but somehow this distinction escapes the most vocal critics of religion.

  • Jinzang

    Two more points. Sam Harris’s latest book gets a critical review by Alan Wallace in the November issue of the Buddhist periodical The Shambhala Review. And it seems to be an unfortunate fact that the most vocal proponents of a philosophy are often the least worthy to present it. Something about empty barrels making the loudest noise.

  • JS

    For you newsroom vets – how is atheism usually handled in the mainstream media? Is there a generally common approach? Promoted, usually ignored, treated like another religion?

    Will the press ever start making the connections between guys like Harris and, say, the religious fundamentalist stereotype? Will they ask him to clarify statements about “eliminating” people from society for thinking certain thoughts? Maybe they already have – I haven’t googled the latest in a while.

    Side note: From the little I’ve read of Sam Harris (some online articles by him), he responds to the “atheist wars” point by defining the governance of Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, etc., as essentially “religious.” They were being religious with their ideology. If atheists make war, it’s because they’re too religious.

  • mjbubba

    JS, of course athiesm is a religion. That is how you have to understand Harris, Dawkins, et al.; they are evangelists for athiesm. I have not seen this angle presented in any of the press coverage I have seen, though. It goes unnoticed that they condemn those adherents of their own faith that would forceably convert others to athiesm, but they do not allow other faiths to make the same distinction. Instead they condemn all Christians on the basis of their condemnation of those who have tried to forceably convert others to their faith. They seem to be especially anti-Christian as well as anti-religion in their emphasis, but this also seems to go unnoticed by the press.

  • Robert Strickland

    No doubt people will still kill each other even in the absence of religion. Sam Harris’ main concern is with irrational belief in general, such as the faith-based notion that Hitler is the infallible Fuehrer – but religion is a particularly important and dangerous category of irrational belief because our tolerance of religious belief has rendered it immune from critical appraisal. So far from being disrespectful of an individual’s religious belief, Americans positively require professions of faith from their political leaders.

    Given that a person who absolutely believes in some religious concept is capable of the most bizarre and destructive behavior (witness Islamic terrorism or the Catholic Inquisition), it behooves us to replace our tolerance of religious claims with the same critical responses we would make to people who make unsupported claims regarding physics or history.

    This is the main point of Harris’ book, we cannot afford to be tolerant of irrational religious faith because the results are often far too catastrophic.

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  • Drew Slagle

    Robert, I’m not sure whether you agree with Harris or if you’re just trying to restate his point. Either way, Harris’s line of reasoning is fatally flawed. Religion has shaped Western Culture and given it innumerable benefits. Education would have died out in Western Europe w/o religion. The abolition of slavery was led originally by the Quakers. The greatest minds in history were predominantly all religious. I’d say your characterization of Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Aquinas as irrational is a tad pretentious.

    Also, you’re totally off base with the Catholic Inquisition. The original inquisition in France was against a group that would be illegal in the U.S. today. The Albiginsians refused to recognize any civil authority and participated in ritual suicides. The Spanish inquisition is similarly mischaracterized. In Spain, when the official Church inquisition ended in the 1800’s Spaniards rioted in the streets. The religious inquisition was seen as a much better alternative to the secular inquisition. You might argue that both were religiously motivated, but the fact remains that it was inquisition conducted by actual religious that was fairer and more merciful.

    You and Harris seem to be defining religion as any extreme belief that is not founded on solid evidence. You ignore that extreme belief and intolerance are more common and more pronounced among atheistic governments.

    Religion is and has been a moderating and benevolent influence on the lives of billions of people. It brings meaning and stability to the lives of most that it touches. Most religions promote peace and tolerance and charity and the idea that they cause more violence than they prevent is absurd.

    Drew Slagle

  • Andrew

    Some good criticisms here, but I’d just like to try to correct a couple misunderstandings that I’ve seen repeated in multiple posts above.

    Misunderstanding #1: “Atheism requires faith, just as religion does”
    One likely source of misunderstanding here is a confusion between “absence of belief” and “belief of absence”. Most atheists fall into the first category with respect to the existence of deities (called “weak atheism”). In other words, they’re not convinced that no deities exist, they just don’t see a convincing enough reason to start believing in them – so they don’t. There are an infinite number of things most or all of you actually take this same stance on today. For example, does it require faith for you not to believe in the existence of unicorns, dragons, faeries, or Poseidon? It’s like that for an atheist with the concept of any deity.

    Of course, there are atheists who do take it to an extreme that could legitimately be called faithful, but you shouldn’t stereotype against all the others based on these few. That said, I still wouldn’t go so far as to call that a religion – since it doesn’t include a belief in anything supernatural.

    Misunderstanding #2: “But I can think of many horrible atheistic government regimes…”
    Harris’ beef is really with dogma, which just happens to be abundant in many many religions but also has been prevalent in many totalitarian regimes (some atheistic) such as those listed above. These regimes are just as much a target of Harris’ criticism as religious dogma, in that they are similarly uncoupled from evidence and reason.

    Harris’ books (as I read them) are actually not primarily about religion or atheism at all, but rather on his opinion that we as a culture need to start applying the same standards of reasonableness and self-criticism to matters of religious belief that we already apply to nearly all other matters of belief.

  • Drew Slagle

    I have not read Harris’s books, so I can only go off what I am reading here.

    First of all, I would tend to believe that if Harris’s problem was about unreasonable dogmas he would want more religion, not less. The violence usually associated with religious wars is usually due more to cultural disputes rather than religious ones. In the past, those who are truly religious usually tried to stop violence. The crusades were, I would say, every bit as much about culture as they were about religion. The same goes for today’s jihad. You don’t see many American raised Muslims blowing up buildings. From what I have heard, Harris’s primary focus is on religion.

  • Drew Slagle

    Also, I have not heard any sympathy for the jihadists except from secular progressives who, by the way, don’t seem to be holding Christianity in very high regard anyway.

    The only reliogions that ever get any respect are the centuries old ones that millions of people subscribe too. When any organiztion has lasted that long it is riddiculous to say that it lacks standards of reasonableness and self-criticism.

    Drew Slagle

  • Rathje

    Andrew, the problem is that people are self-labeling themselves as “atheists” when in reality they are actually some brand of “agnostic.”

    Atheism ALWAYS requires an active and positive belief in absence.

    That’s why, while you can make a reasonable argument for agnosticism, atheism is almost always a ridiculous position. It’s philosophical position – that of proving a negative – is nonsensical and its historical rationale is frankly delusional.

    But calling yourself an “atheist” justs sounds oh so much more “edgy” than calling yourself an agnostic. It gets you so many more admiring looks at the Barnes and Noble coffee bar. In fact, call yourself an agnostic, and half America is likely to greet you with slack-jawed stares of incomprehension. Which is just so much less satisfying than being met with self-righteous outrage.

    What’s the point in being a deviant if nobody cares?

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Sam Harris’ main concern is with irrational belief in general, such as the faith-based notion that Hitler is the infallible Fuehrer ”

    You know, it may seem (from out post 1945 viewpoint) that the notion of Hitler as the infallible Furerer is “irrational” and “faith based” but if you go back and read what was written at the time, the supporters of Hitler (Lady Astor and such) couched their arguments in terms of progressive reason and logic.

    They argued that Hitler (and Franco and Mussolini) were the only people fighting fighting the Communists; that the Western European Democracies were weak, the American’s weren’t interested in spending money and lives to save Europe, and thusly Hitler was the only thing standing between the USSR and total domination of Europe.

    They argued that Democratic Capitalisim was fatally flawed, that the Depression and poverty proved that, and representative government and free markets were a thing of the past. The Depression had caused a great many people to feel this way.

    They argued that he had turned around the German economy, (and He had… I’ve seen photos where children are playing with blocks of banknotes, because the blocks of banknotes are worth less than the cost of toy blocks). Hitler’s backers talked about how he had created the Autobahns, the Volkswagen, Lufthansa, and had set up state payments so mothers of large families could stay home and raise their kids.

    They had “race science” and “eugenics” which wasn’t good science but had a lot of highly politicized support, (not unlike the global warming debate today).

    There was his astonishing military sucess, taking Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgum, Greece, and taking France in weeks when in WWI the Germans had been unable to take France at all. There was the infamous argument that “he made the trains run on time”.

    You have to admit, that if you were living in 1940, and had no idea of how the next six years would work out, it was a pretty persuasive argument. I mean the guy kept winning.

    My point is, it is very possible to support an irrational view through arguments that sound, and seem to be founded entirely on reason and logic. I think that is what Harris, and more than a few others of his stripe, are doing.

  • Andrew

    Drew wrote: “Atheism ALWAYS requires an active and positive belief in absence.”

    Drew, I used to see it this way as well, but eventually came to see that this is just to simplistic nowadays. Historically, the term has meant a whole range of things, including your definition, but the modern definition is much more nuanced.

    There’s a good article on this in wikipedia (
    “Atheism is the disbelief in the existence of deities. It is commonly defined as the explicit (i.e., conscious and deliberate), positive rejection and denial of theism; however, others—including most atheistic philosophers and groups—define atheism as the simple absence of belief in deities (cf. nontheism), thereby designating many agnostics and people who have never heard of gods, such as newborn children, as atheists as well.”

    If you look it up in several dictionaries, you’ll find that many define it in both senses.

    So why don’t those atheists in this latter group just call themselves “agnostics”? Because agnosticism concerns knowledge, but atheism concerns belief. For example, one can be an agnostic theist, meaning someone who readily admits that they don’t KNOW for sure, but they believe in a deity nonetheless. Probably many others on this board fall into this category. In order to distinguish between this sort of agnostic and the kind that doesn’t believe either, people use the term “agnostic atheist” or “weak atheist”.

  • Andrew

    Larry wrote: “My point is, it is very possible to support an irrational view through arguments that sound, and seem to be founded entirely on reason and logic.”

    Larry, I entirely agree with you on this point. I don’t think that’s what Harris is up to, but will admit that it’s possible. The important followup question, though, is this:
    How should we proceed in order to determine which arguments actually are reasonable, and which only seem reasonable but aren’t?

    Harris and I (and you?) would agree that we should apply the same standards of evidence and reasoning that we do in nearly all other arenas of discourse, as opposed to using faith.

    Just because it is possible for people to be fooled into thinking that something is reasonable when it isn’t doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the act of reasoning itself.

  • Drew Slagle

    Can you guys recommend any good religion blogs? I’m looking for more theological debate. I like the “Media coverage of Religion” aspect, but I want more confrontation. Religion vs. Atheism. Catholicism vs. Protestantism. Stuff like that. I just got the internet and I don’t know where to go next.

    P.S. Andrew, you read the tag wrong. Rathje said that quote. I’ve heard that distinction before. Good distinction between Agnosticism and Atheism though; that was new to me.

    Also, I do not believe that you can entirely apply the same standards of religion and evidence that you do to everyone else. I agree absolutely that a religion whose members tend to behave destructively or antisocially should be inspected. But a religion whose members tend to be a boon to society should be respected no matter how crazy their actual beliefs are. After all, religion is more about philosophy and psychology than science, and every philosophy has its fanatics. I guarantee you that there is at least one atheist nut out there who thinks the world would be much better off if every religious person was dead tommorrow. You have to look at the norm in terms of religion.

    Furthermore, dogmas that a person would die for are not bad. I would like to think I would die to protect an Eucharist. Does that make me crazy? Possibly. Does it make me a threat? Only if you go after my religion first (even then, violence probably would not be initiated by the person protecting the Eucharist first). In mainstream religion, dogmas that people would die for are (in theory) common. Dogmas that people would kill for are far more rare, and usually not mainstream at all.

    Drew Slagle
    My Quote Ends Here :)