Monday, April 2, 2007

Argument From Extremism

Well-known anti-theist Sam Harris delivers himself of an argument that serves as a great example of self-refutation.

Sounding very much as though he's been reading Mark Steyn's America Alone he writes that:

Within every faith one can see people arranged along a spectrum of belief. Picture concentric circles of diminishing reasonableness: At the center, one finds the truest of true believers - the Muslim jihadis, for instance, who not only support suicidal terrorism but who are the first to turn themselves into bombs; or the Dominionist Christians, who openly call for homosexuals and blasphemers to be put to death.

Outside this sphere of maniacs, one finds millions more who share their views but lack their zeal. Beyond them, one encounters pious multitudes who respect the beliefs of their more deranged brethren but who disagree with them on small points of doctrine - of course the world is going to end in glory and Jesus will appear in the sky like a superhero, but we can't be sure it will happen in our lifetime.

Out further still, one meets religious moderates and liberals of diverse hues - people who remain supportive of the basic scheme that has balkanized our world into Christians, Muslims and Jews, but who are less willing to profess certainty about any article of faith. Is Jesus really the son of God? Will we all meet our grannies again in heaven? Moderates and liberals are none too sure.

Those on this spectrum view the people further toward the center as too rigid, dogmatic and hostile to doubt, and they generally view those outside as corrupted by sin, weak-willed or unchurched.

The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism. Ordinary fundamentalist Christians, by maintaining that the Bible is the perfect word of God, inadvertently support the Dominionists - men and women who, by the millions, are quietly working to turn our country into a totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of John Calvin's Geneva. Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals - who aren't sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally - deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality. And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society.

What's wrong with this argument aimed at what Harris regards to be the folly of religious moderation? It works, As Mike Gene at Telic Thoughts points out, against any kind of moderation, including atheistic moderation. It thus winds up undercutting his own metaphysical position:

Harris's argument is an argument against all moderates and is thus an Argument From Extremism. This should surprise no one as Harris himself can be placed inside a set of concentric circles. As someone who strongly advocates that all religion is evil and must be eliminated, Harris stands toward the center. Outside of him are the atheists who agree, but don't waste their time in the futile quest to rid the world of religion. Outside of them, are the atheists who don't agree religion is evil and must be eliminated (they remain agnostic on this issue). Further out are the atheists who actually think religion is a force for good in the lives of many people, making it a net positive for society. According to Harris, we should criticize such reasonable atheists because they inadvertently shelter Harris.

Or, we could move one more step inward from Harris. We know from the history of many communist nations that there have been atheists who have favored the execution of religious people. These are people who would strongly agree with Harris's "religion is evil" message and have followed the logic to take strong actions against such evil. From this perspective, Harris himself acts as a shield and should thus be criticized. Is Harris Stalin's dupe?

There's more that Harris writes in this piece that's dubious, and we'll consider a couple of examples in a future post.


Chocolate Jesus

As you've probably heard by now, the New York art gallery that was slated to display Cosimo Cavallero's sculpture in chocolate of a totally naked Christ titled "My Sweet Lord" during the Easter season has decided it didn't need the controversy and cancelled the exhibit.

Too bad. One has to admire an intrepid artist like Cavallero. Surely he knew what a risk he was taking by portraying an unclothed Christ. He knew that depicting a Christian icon in such a pose would probably result in riots in the streets, death threats, fatwas against his life, and a possible beheading. Nevertheless, he remained faithful to his art, undeterred by the fanatics who would suppress his freedom of expression.

No doubt the New York art community is feting him for his heroic stance against the fearsome theocratic mobs stalking Manhatten. We hear, in fact, that his next project is a chocolate Mohammed in conjugal embrace with his nine year-old wife, but we're skeptical. That might require more courage than should be expected of one man. Offending the Christian Sisters of Mercy requires one level of fortitude, but offending Muslims demands of one a whole different category of courage.

In any event, the valorous MSM has not shrunk from reporting this incident. Newscasts of the exhibit even included photographs. Ironically, these were the same people who were too punctilious about religious sensitivities to run the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed a year ago, offering instead pious demurrals like these:

"CNN has chosen to not show the cartoons in respect for Islam."

"CNN is not showing the negative caricatures of the likeness of Prophet Mohammed because the network believes its role is to cover the events surrounding the publication of the cartoons while not unnecessarily adding fuel to the controversy itself."

"They [the cartoons] wouldn't meet our standards for what we publish in the paper," said Leonard Downie, Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post. "We have standards about language, religious sensitivity, racial sensitivity and general good taste." ...

At USA Today, deputy foreign editor Jim Michaels offered a similar explanation. "At this point, I'm not sure there would be a point to it," he said about publishing the cartoons. "We have described them, but I am not sure running it would advance the story." Although he acknowledged that the cartoons have news value, he said the offensive nature overshadows that.

And the Boston Globe sniffed that "Newspapers ought to refrain from publishing offensive caricatures of Mohammed in the name of the ultimate Enlightenment value: tolerance."

It's not clear how many of the above newspapers which refused to show the Mohammed cartoons chose to show photos of "My Sweet Lord," but CNN did, or at least more of it than they showed of the Mohammed cartoons. Likewise MSNBC which did not run the offensive Mohammed cartoons nevertheless showed the naked Christ repeatedly throughout an entire segment of Hardball the other night. It all makes one wonder which is greater, the media's pusillanimity or their hypocrisy.

Anyway, thanks to Michelle Malkin for digging the above quotes out of her archives.


Scientific Malfeasance

So, you say you're convinced that fossils prove that man evolved from ape-like ancestors. Well, before you write out the intellectual check you might want to read these stories about anthropological dishonesty.

The first is about how a world renown expert in carbon dating has been fudging the ages of old bones. The second is about how perhaps the most famous researcher in human evolution, Louis Leakey, has been discovered to have manipulated one of his most important finds to make it look human.

It all makes you wonder what other evidence for human evolution has been fabricated.