Friday, December 09, 2005I am neither a conventionally religious man or an atheist. I am perfect willing to accept the beliefs of both those who passionately believe and passionately disbelieve in God. While I am not going to dwell on my own theological commitments, I would like to take issue with one of the arguments presented in the well-written and challenging piece by Sam Harris, "An Atheist Manifesto." (via Gadflyer) - that only atheism can be rational.
This denies that many (if not most) of our greatest thinkers - philosophers or otherwise - have been people of faith. Can one seriously claim that Isaac Newton, John Locke, or Augustine were not serious intellects? One may not agree with their ethical claims or religous beliefs, but it is the height of arrogance to blithely assert that a person of reason cannot be a person of faith. Mr. Harris might like to read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Kant is perhaps history's supreme rationalist, yet a man who also believed in God. How does Mr. Harris square that circle?
Mr. Harris is also on very shaky ground when he claims that atheism is immune to irrationality. Yes religious belief has been the cause of a number of social horrors. Yes irrational religious commitments are dangerous both to the one who holds them and to those who don't share those beliefs. However, Mr. Harris also claims that atheism, because of its rational foundation, has no such track record. He simply waves away the evidence that atheist political regimes (Mao, Stalin, Hitler) have committed great crimes against humanity (he might have included Robespierre's uber-rationalist Reign of Terror, but that might be tad inconvenient). He doesn't present any arguments. He just claims that those regimes were delusional. How exactly does this statement rebut the argument that atheists can be irrational too?
I can admire Mr. Harris' commitment to rationality, but to confuse reason with unbelief is a serious mistake. There have been far too many irrational atheists who have done terrible things, and just as many rational theists who have done good deeds, to make so easy an equation as atheism = rationality. Frankly as a philosophical theist I'm a little offended.
I am less concerned with religious belief (or not) as such than the maintenance of mutual respect and compassion. I don't care what God someone prays to (or doesn't) as long as he or she treats me with the dignity that I offer them, and as long as they recognize that we have mutual commitments that have nothing to do with our religious beliefs. Many of my closest relationships are with people who don't share my religious perspectives. In fact, none of them do. That does not make me love them any less.