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.RLC