Because my local public library never has the latest, I have not read the newest Sam Harris’ book which XGH posts TNR’s review of, but I did read his previous one simply for the sake of seeing many of the anti-religion arguments that pop-up in the jblogsphere in the original. For those of you shamelessly borrowing his rhetoric, at least give credit where credit is due. It would take weeks to analyze his book piece by piece (I find the tone borders on the hysterical more than the analytical and its arguments suffer from bloated excess), but my overall impression is that once you move beyond the hyperbole and rhetoric, Harris actually offers nothing more than repacked ideas that have been around since the Enlightenment.
In 1877 William Kingdon Clifford, a professor in University College, London, wrote a book called “The Ethics of Belief” which was the Sam Harris tract of its time. His motto: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Evidentialism, as it is now known, soon became the rage. It was scientific, it spoke of rational proof, and seemed so much more modern than good ol’ fashioned belief. Clifford offers an analogy to a ship owner alerted to the possibility that his boat is in need of major repairs and overhaul at great expense. Rather than take such considerations seriously, the ship owner mollifies his doubts by trusting fate and relying on the ship’s record of successful previous voyages. Is the ship owner not guilty of negligence should the ship sink mid voyage? Clifford writes, “He did sincerely believe in the soundness of the ship, but the sincerity of his convictions can in no wise [sic] help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.” Is man no less negligent when he leads life according to religious faith without investigating the truthfulness of those beliefs? Pushing away doubt or labeling “impious those questions which cannot be easily asked without disturbing faith” is in Clifford’s words, “one long sin against mankind.”
Sam Harris approvingly cites Bertrand Russell’s teapot argument, which is also the basis for the TNR review’s title "The Celestial Teapot":
"Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense."
If this sounds new and exciting, compare it with Annie Besant’s “Why I Do Not Believe in G-d”, written in 1887:
"If my interlocutor desires to convince me that Jupiter has inhabitants, and that his description of them is accurate, it is for him to bring forward evidence in support of his contention. The burden of proof evidently lies with him; it is not for me to prove that no such beings exist before my non-belief is justified, but for him to prove that they do exist before my belief can be fairly claimed. Similarly, it is for the affirmer of G-d’s existance to bring evidence in support of his affirmation; the burden of proof lies on him."
So much for the history lesson. Of course, in the past 125 years religious thinkers have had a chance to digest these ideas and offer cogent responses, but you will probably never discover them if all your diet consists of is Harris, Dennett, or Dawkins. I gleaned material for this post from "The Twilight of Atheism”, a well worth it read by Alister McGrath, a professor at Oxford, once an atheist himself but now a believing Professor of Theology (one cannot help but chuckle at the title of his forthcoming book – "The Dawkins Delusion").
The TNR reviewer, James Wood, who is an atheist, records his personal struggle with faith, and writes, "I vividly remember the day I sat down with a piece of paper and drew a line down the middle: on one side I would compile my reasons to believe and on the other the reasons not to. Perhaps this was rigged--anyone who does something like this has already lost his faith, well before the pretended ratiocination." The irony is inescapable - a review of a book rejecting religion because G-d cannot be proven must resort to personal anecdote to make the case for disbelief, admitting that rationalizing the choice occurs only after the fact.
Suffice it to say that Clifford and Harris’ view does not correspond to the way most of us lead our lives (nor does it even correspond to the methodology of pure science, as McGrath discusses). Did you have proof that your job would be successful before signing an employment contract, or proof that your wife was the best mate you could find before plunging into marriage? Probably not, but you went ahead and made these major life decisions based on your intuitive sense of what seemed reasonable. If using an intuitive sense of reasonableness to make decisions constitutes “one long sin against mankind”, as Clifford wrote, I’m afraid most of humanity will be found guilty.