Quote of the day

June 11, 2009 • 8:02 am

“Many well-educated, secular people have learned to fear the suffering of their less educated, less socially advantaged neighbors. It seems to me that such fear is often confused with compassion. The conviction that there are no easy remedies for social inequality has led many of us to conclude that it may be best for the great masses of humanity to be kept sequestered in a blissful, sanctum sanctorum of wishful thinking. Many atheist scientists believe that, while they can get along just fine without an imaginary friend, most human beings will always need to delude themselves about God. Inevitably, people holding this opinion fail to notice how condescending, unimaginative, and pessimistic a view this is of the rest of humanity — and of generations to come.”

–Sam Harris

34 thoughts on “Quote of the day

  1. Robert Sapolsky (pdf)

    It might be argued that religious belief remains relevant because of the comfort it can provide.
    But this one doesn’t do much for me. Solace is
    not benign when reality proves the solace to have been misplaced, nor are beliefs that reduce anxiety when the belief system is so often what generated the anxiety in the first place.
    So why is belief still relevant? To this I’d offer a very a-scientific answer. It is for the…

    1. RE Sapolsky: Ecstasy? There’s plenty of ecstasy for atheists: how many of us have felt moved when we saw a beautiful landscape, or read a beautiful poem, or heard a beautiful piece of music? Sapolsky’s view is not only wrongheaded, but condescending: let’s have religion around even if the beliefs are WRONG, so long as it provides us with “ecstasy.” If reality proves the solace to have been misplaced, it also proves the ecstasy to have been misplace.

      But this is just want Templeton wants.

      1. Ignorance is bliss!

        As a joke, I started telling my religious friends that I worshipped Odin, simply because he was cooler than Jesus. Of course, they were insulted because my set of misplaced beliefs didn’t match theirs. It seems it’s not enough to claim ignorance; you have to claim a particular flavour of ignorance to make most people happy.

      2. Yeah, I thought that Sapolsky’s answer was a pretty lame strawman, too. I would argue that the most addictive part of religious belief is the certainty–moral, social, cultural, and metaphysical–that serves to give life “meaning.”

        Even if the once fervently religious become disillusioned, they seem to be disappointed with reality and long to have that “god-shaped hole” filled by some other kind of certainty.

    2. I was ecstatic with mirth to read the pdf from Robert Sapolsky.

      Religion can be replaced by people sitting around singing kumbaya and someone patting people on the back going ‘there, there, it will be OK’. That is the total worth of religion.

    3. I have different dilemma but of similar structure like extatic irrationality vs sober rationality.
      For example it is rational to express solidarity with other animals (they are not much different than us), we do not like to see them suffer and thus the natural consequence would be to become vegetarian. But refusing meat means major discomfort (to many) – just meat is so good!
      Sapolsky’s concern is not about obvious benefits of having knowledge and good thinking skills (living in reality) but he emphasis is placed on our humane feature that we have certain values attached to our lives which may have ground in irrationality which can mean for us something. Sapolsky sees us, humans as thinking animals with animal brains and needs for simple pleasures which sometimes mean more for us than benefits of rationality. You can argue with smoker that smoking is harmful and he will agree – but just the precious while with the cigarette means more for him than additional 1 day of life without it. That is the Sapolsky’s message (which I hope I have understood correctly) and with which I agree but in the same moment this is disturbing to me, just like truth for conscious smoker or meat-eater. It is us who ultimately who makes the distinction what is good for us or bad regardless if it is true or false. There is a category of people who do not value truth over their own preferences, which does not make their life less valuable even if they are bullshitting through its course.

  2. “Inevitably, people holding this opinion fail to notice how condescending, unimaginative, and pessimistic a view this is of the rest of humanity — and of generations to come.”

    There’s nothing inevitable about such a failure. In fact, I suspect most who hold such an opinion do so with such a failure in self-awareness, holding the pessimism and unimaginativeness to be realism, and the condescension to be benevolent.

    1. I meant, above: “I suspect most who hold such an opinion do so without such a failure in self-awareness…”

  3. Very nice quote indeed.

    One of my favorite quotes comes from Hitchens. Interestingly, it’s from a blurb above Victor Stenger’s contribution to The Portable Atheist. I don’t have the book with me here so I can’t quote it verbatim, but it goes something like this:

    Pretty much everyone accepts that both the existence and non-existence of God is not provable. If existence, the most basic fact, is not provable, any further assertions about the nature or character of this god are untenable. This is the basic agnostic position.

  4. I agree with Kitchener.

    It’s basically the whole Animal Farm thing, the crows (preachers) were gotten rid of at the beginning. Yet the animals ended up calling them back, for they needed the empty yet somehow comforting caws of those crows.

    And yes, that’s not a bad rendition of what happened in the Soviet Union, even though it’s highly simplified. We can’t take away religion, because of the importance of freedom, and we cannot speak down to people by telling them that they don’t need any opiate, look at what we know and how wonderful it is for us.

    In fact, it might not be time to decide that inequality, or at least present levels of inequality, are inevitable. Sure, true equality won’t be achieved, but there seems to be a lot of self-serving fatalism among the “I’ve got mine” majority in this society (good luck persuading them, though).

    Religion won’t fade away any time soon, but it could be reduced by improving security for people (health) and by making success less of something that many can only hope for in some afterlife that will never be.

    We have no business kicking the crutch of religion out from under people who psychologically need it. Actually trying to improve their psycho-social health might allow a good number of them to let go of the crutch.

    Glen Davidson

  5. welp, yet again i find myself disagreeing with Sam Harris. i’m one of those condescending, unimaginative, and pessimistic atheists i guess. religion provides relief from the crushing awfulness that is awareness of your own mortality. atheism offers nothing for THAT bitter pill, so i don’t try too hard to convince someone that they won’t live forever. let ’em believe. makes no difference in the end, folks.

    1. Well, really, in the end nothing makes a difference does it? So we can all just close up shop and never have an interesting discussion again. ;^}

  6. I give the mass delusion of ‘godbelief’ another hundred years – at least for Western civilizations. The combination of science, technology, and education that is only recently coming together has already had a huge impact on opening up the conversation, and should continue apace.

    Science: Genetic, paleontological and other scientific discoveries are making fewer and fewer places for the god of the gaps to hide.

    Technology: The internet has created the first real peer to peer method of mass communication in history. Previous forms of mass communication (books, newspapers, radio-TV) simply fed us information with little, if any, capability for input or argument.

    Education: A large number of people (in the US) were illiterate as few as 100 years ago. Many of our great grandparents couldn’t read or write. For England and Western Europe, make this 150 years ago – still a relatively short time.

    England and Western Europe are well ahead of the US in casting out gods, and I am optimistic that we will follow their lead.

  7. Sam Harris has, in my view, framed the issue of hope unfairly, and in a way that is actually patronizing to the complexity of the issue. I’m an agnostic, but I really think that a theologian like Reinhold Niebuhr (or a Catholic existentialist like Gabriel Marcel) lays out the dilemmas of human hope v. human despair with a clearer eye than Harris.

    And hope and ultimate meaning, and an engagement with the ontological mystery (mystery of being), are not things that the self-satisfied wealthy and intelligent can easily do without. If they could, there wouldn’t be so many wealthy and intelligent people living, as Thoreau put it, lives of quiet desperation, would there?

    And to pretend, as Harris does, that atheism is a form of strength (because it lives without hope) while theism is a form of delusion and weakness (because it lives with hope) is a gross oversimplification. People who believe that the world is a cosmos, not a chaos, and contains some higher(if unknown) purpose or telos, often translate such a belief into admirable forms of fortitude and social empowerment (I am thinking of Martin Luther King as an example).

    Not only that, but the notion that the theist’s hope is absurd is premature. We live in the system that we are trying to describe, and so who knows what “black swans” are in the future that might surprise us all? To assert that atheist conclusions are certain is to overreach what we can, as humans, know.

    I’d also ask those of you who care to, to look at John Updike’s last collection of short stories (just released this past week). Updike has written movingly on the stresses and strains of religious concerns as people age, as well as what it means to approach death as an atheist.

    In contrast with Harris’s smug platitudes, I think that there are more subtle, honest, and deeper ways, to approach the issues surrounding hope and despair. The post-WWII atheists (like Camus and Sartre) are so much richer and interesting and honest about the consequences of their atheism than our contemporary popular purveyors of smug, happy-face atheism (such as Harris).

    I guess I’m just wishing that contemporary atheism and agnosticism would exchange its juvenile smugness for some nuance and depth. Abolishing fundamentalism from the earth won’t change the fucked existential situation that we all find ourselves in. After you’ve won your battle against the religious devils outside, you’ve still got to confront yourself, and face the genuinely hard questions underlying nihilism, ultimate meaning, and death. And if you want to be Nietzsche’s decadent “last men”, and pretend that epistemic and metaphysical questions don’t matter, be my guest. But then don’t ask to be taken seriously.


    1. As usual, Santi uses nastiness, character assassination and straw man pseudo-arguments to mischaracterize what most atheists say and argue. Long winded smoke smoke being wafted here.

  8. New England Bob:

    Nice to hear from you again (I think).

    But really now, let’s think about this. All human beings (and that includes you, me, Prof. Coyne, the rich, the dumb, the poor, the intellectual, and Sam Harris) are forced, as limited existent beings, to nevertheless make some very real choices about questions of large ultimate concern.

    Here are some of those questions: Do I inhabit a chaos or a cosmos? Are things, ultimately, as bad as they appear? Is there any ultimate meaning to the universe? Was the universe made, or has it just always, in some sense, been, and what might that mean?

    You may not like it, but these types of ultimate questions are not settled by an appeal to evidence, but to inference, guess—and even faith. Yes, an atheist and a theist are in the same boat when it comes to such questions. Science can bail out neither one. If it could, then there would be no scientists who are theists, or there would be no scientists who are atheists. One or the other would have to be shown the door. But both types of scientists exist, don’t they? Obviously, the reason that they both exist is because they have to make complex inferences about ultimate questions from inadequate, contradictory, and ambiguous data, and they come to different conclusions. Thus it is not an oxymoron to be a scientist appointed to the post of Vatican astronomer.

    It’s not a matter of intellectuals not telling the masses “the truth” about how the world really is, and thus coddling superstition. The fact is that nobody knows. And here’s another truth: Those who pretend to know are lying, or are naive to the complexities inherent in questions of metaphysics and epistemology.

    Harris’s quote is thus, ultimately, silly, presuming that intellectuals have a duty to not coddle religious faith, when in fact most questions of ultimate concern are not readily ameniable to scientific refereeing.

    As the king of Prussia said to Mozart: “A little humility might suit you better.”


    1. I disagree with all your assumptions in that post.

      The answers are: the latter, no, yes, yes.

      You say science does not have the answers, but religion, based on fantasy and fiction, certainly answers little.

  9. New England Bob:

    One more thing. Since you live in New England (I presume), I suppose that you also know your Melville. I’d ask those of us who self describe as “agnostic” or “atheist” to at least consider the possiblity that despair saps human vitality, as in Melville’s famous short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” If you reread this short story, Bartleby’s lifelessness is almost a metaphor of what it might mean for most people to face the full existential meaning of the dead letter office. Laugh if you want, but the great poets and novelists have something to say to hard-edged positivists. Not even the agnostic and atheist is really capable, in a sustained way, to absorb, without severe emotional scorching, the full implications of a universe not somehow woven by a sympathetic telos or poetic justice, but by a blind mechanical spider.

    It is a nightmare to think of the blind mechanical spider at the beginning and center of space and time, don’t you think?


    1. Hmmm. Science replacing religion, now where have I heard that before. Aha! Auguste Comte in the 19th century. Didn’t work out so well. A good example is the supposedly free-thinking UK. In a 1998 MORI poll, 18% of the public said they believed in fortune telling or tarot, and 38% in astrology. 40% said they believed in ghosts, and 15% said that they had ‘personal experience’ of ghosts. Since then belief in ghosts has gone down, but belief in psychic powers has skyrocketed. Belief in fortune telling has doubled since the fifties.

      In this particular instance santitafarella is right but no-one appears to be listening to him/her.

    2. I absolutely disagree with your assumptions. Things are not as bleak and useless as you paint them. There is wonder, excitement and meaning in a universe that is bottom-up mechanical towards complexity.

  10. Lord Kitchener:

    I think this quote of John Updike is a fitting retort to Harris’s glib dismissal of what it means, psychologically, to reject out of hand all hope of any ultimate meaning, and to fully embrace the mechanistic, blind, contingent, and relentless mathematical dicing spider of time:

    “The non-scientist’s relation to modern science is basically craven: we look to its discoveries and technology to save us from disease, to give us a faster ride and a softer life, and at the same time we shrink from what it has to tell us of our perilous and insignificant place in the cosmos. Not that threats to our safety and significance were absent from the pre-scientific world, or that arguments against a God-bestowed human grandeur were lacking before Darwin. But our century’s revelations of unthinkable largeness and unimaginable smallness, of abysmal stretches of geological time when we were nothing, of supernumerary galaxies and indeterminate subatomic behavior, of a kind of mad mathematical violence at the heart of matter have scorched us deeper than we know.”

  11. Sad and discouraging, but not condescending, I think. Religious feelings seem to be part of human nature. Although we can overcome some aspects of human nature, such as inappropriate aggressiveness, it is a constant effort.

    I don’t think it is condescending to think that most people will still have religious feelings and be subject to magical thinking. It’s just what we’re stuck with.

  12. Bald Ape:

    You said: “Religious feelings seem to be part of human nature.”

    I don’t disagree with your statement, but I think you might be missing the import of Harris’s statement. Harris equates religious feeling with “wishful thinking.” In other words, he identifies the gesture of hope that the universe might be ultimately a cosmos (as opposed to a chaos), or any gesture that asserts that things are not as bad as they appear and there may be some ultimate purpose to things, with religion. He DOES NOT equate the opposite gesture (the universe is, ultimately, a dicing chaos of contingencies and does not care about you) as AN EQUALLY HUMAN RELIGIOUS RESPONSE.

    But neither of these responses to life are based on science. They are based on metaphysical premises and emotional responses to how the universe appears to each human individual.

    Atheists and the religious are in the same boat (in terms of evidence and emotional formation of opinion). Science cannot referee the choice between them because it cannot reach that far (unfortunately).

    Harris thus treats optimism as religious, and pessimism as “realist.” But he has no objective or scientific criteria for doing so, or for claiming that one is a juvenile impulse and the other a heroic and “adult” one.

    I could just as easily offer a juvenile interpretation of atheism. Atheism rejects optimism about the idea that the universe has a purpose because atheists don’t want the supervision of a father god. No god means that they can be a Nietzschean god. They are engaged in an act of oedipal rebellion against limits.

    I don’t necessarily believe that this is true of all atheists. I say it as an illustration of how two can play the game of making childish and juvenile the position and motivation of the other.

    The reality is that both atheists and theists are engaged in a religious gesture (when they make an evaluation of whether the universe is, at bottom, a chaos or a cosmos, and whether things are as bad as they appear).


    1. Harris thus treats optimism as religious, and pessimism as “realist.”

      Where do you get this from Harris’ quote? Nonsense. Just the opposite – Harris says the condescending attitude by some is the pessimistic view. Read what he wrote.

  13. Let me put it another way: What liberal theologians (like Niebuhr) wish to retain is the gesture of basing life on ultimate hope and meaning in the face of bad appearances. What atheists with to retain is to get on with life based on the gesture of despair (things are as bad as they appear; there is no ultimate meaning to existence; the universe is not, ultimately, a cosmos, but a chaos. Now, get on with life).

    These two positions mirror one another and cannot be refereed by science. And they are choices deeply tied up with individual emotional ways of being in the world.

    Both are, ultimately, religious gestures. All humans, in this sense, are religious. Atheists just don’t like to admit that their gestures have no more basis in “reality” than theist ones.


    1. Once again, Santi, you get absolutely wrong what most atheists believe. Most atheists believe there IS meaning withing existence. Dawkins for one, speaks quite loudly about it.

  14. New England Bob:

    Atheists believe that each individual can construct limited meaning around the contingencies of his or her own individual existence, but atheists do not believe that there is any telos, purpose, or ultimate meaning underlying the cosmos, history, or humanity as a whole.


  15. Another with the attitude Sam describes:

    Philip Kitcher: “Living with Darwin: evolution, design, and the future of faith”

    He understands evolution very well, but see his last chapter: so many folks would be devastated without their religion.

  16. Another way to look at this dispute may be that it is human nature to seek meaning in actions. We assign agency to things that can’t possibly posses agency, like volcanoes and thunderstorms. The opposite, the conclusion that many things happen for no particular reason, is quite contrary to human nature.

    So the motivation for engaging in wishful thinking is relevant too. That’s why most people don’t consider materialism as a religion, even though the claims are of a kind with religious claims; people don’t believe those things for the same kinds of reasons.

  17. Holy shit Santi, stop your whinging! You sound like a child who has lost his toys. Allow me to demonstrate exactly what I think of your bawling all over this forum:

    It is exactly BECAUSE the universe has no ultimate goal, and its origin and the conditions that allowed life to arise were accidental and non-inevitable, that we are immensely fortunate just to exist at all. If a single species of worm had died out in the PreCambrian extinction, there’d be no vertebrates. If the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs had arrived just 10 minutes later, there’d be no mammals larger than rodents. Every one of our ancestors had to survive and reproduce at exactly the right time for any of us to be here, while avoiding all the hazards of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. It’s exactly because of the accidental character of nature that just being BORN is the win of the ultimate lottery.

    From this perspective, when I hear someone moan about not having ‘eternal life’ or ‘objective meaning’, it sounds very much like a man who has just won a hundred million dollars in lottery, and all he does is bitch about how he ‘didn’t win infinity million dollars’, or that the hundred million dollars he has ‘is boring’ and ‘meaningless’.

    What would YOU say to such a man??

Leave a Reply