Harris vs. Armstrong

January 5, 2010 • 11:29 am

No contest.  As you may remember, a while back the “theologian” Karen Armstrong wrote an article in Foreign Policy defending God, or at least her apophatic, may-or-may-not-exist God.  She stopped along the way to take the obligatory swipe at “new atheists”:

So-called new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have denounced religious belief as not only retrograde but evil; they regard themselves as the vanguard of a campaign to expunge it from human consciousness. Religion, they claim, creates divisions, strife, and warfare; it imprisons women and brainwashes children; its doctrines are primitive, unscientific, and irrational, essentially the preserve of the unsophisticated and gullible.

These writers are wrong — not only about religion, but also about politics — because they are wrong about human nature. Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.

In his inimitable style, Sam Harris responds today, also in Foreign Policy.  A sample:

I can’t quite remember how we got it into our heads that jihad was linked to violence. (Might it have had something to do with the actual history and teachings of Islam?) And how could we have been so foolish as to connect the apparently inexhaustible supply of martyrs in the Muslim world to the Islamic doctrine of martyrdom? In my own defense, let me say that I do get spooked whenever Western Muslims advocate the murder of apostates (as 36 percent of Muslim young adults do in Britain). But I now know that these freedom-loving people just “want to see God reflected more clearly in public life.”

I will call my friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali at once and encourage her to come out of hiding: Come on out, dear. Karen says the coast is clear. As it turns out, those people who have been calling for your murder don’t understand Islam any better than we do.

And how does Armstrong respond to the accusations that she’s put the kindest possible face on faith? What do apologists always do when backed into a corner? She plays the why-can’t-we-be-civil card! (Her response is on the same page):

It is clear that we need a debate about the role of religion in public life and the relationship between science and religion. I just wish this debate could be conducted in a more Socratic manner. Socrates, founder of the Western rationalist tradition, always insisted that any dialogue must be conducted with gentleness and courtesy, and without malice. In our highly polarized world, we really do not need yet another deliberately contentious and divisive discourse.

Armstrong goes on to deplore the “desecration” of religion represented by the Crusades, inquisitions, and persecutions conducted by the faithful, but asserts they are “distortions” of true faith.  But who is she to tell millions of Muslims that their understanding of the Qur’an is simply wrong? What she doesn’t see is that religion by its very nature  lends itself to this kind of persecution.  It’s an autocracy not amenable to reason — which is a sure recipe for immorality.

And that’s the point of the new atheists.  Most of us would be content to leave religion alone if it simply represented a private activity whose adherents left us alone.  But, for obvious reasons, many of them can’t, and that’s why a lot of us, including Harris, see the more moderate faithful as enablers of extremists.  Recently, a liberally religious friend told me that practitioners of all faiths were equally moral: he saw no difference between Muslims and Quakers.  Such blindness to the palpable facts of the world characterizes the enablers, leading directly to Robert Wright’s indictment of America for Major Hasan’s murder spree, to Nancy Graham Holme’s claim that the Danish cartoonists brought violence on themselves, and Karen Armstrong’s refusal to face the bad side of faith.   In the end, she holds us nasty atheists responsible for those “abuses of faith”:

In the past, theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Rahner, and Paul Tillich enjoyed fruitful conversations with atheists and found their theology enriched by the encounters. We desperately need such interchange today. A truly Socratic dialogue with atheists could help to counter many of the abuses of faith that Harris so rightly deplores.

48 thoughts on “Harris vs. Armstrong

  1. Well, someone has got to win the Templeton thingy. She was probably feeling the heat from Bob Wright or something.

  2. What struck me most was this sequence:

    “Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere.”

    I must be confused. I thought that “god” was the quintessential “theological idea”. Here it turns out that “god” belongs only in the “quest for meaning” category. Silly me!

    I think she’s right that the “quest for meaning continues”. But atheism proves that it can continue quite well indeed without any reference to theology.

  3. I agree with Karen on one point: it’s human nature to seek meaning in life. This, however, does not mean religion is justified.

    The fact that religion was created so early in human history does not mean it’s still the best way to go today; it was simply the best we could do at the time given the knowledge we had.

    I think our knowledge base, as well as scientific inquiry, long ago eroded the need for supersitious beliefs to comfort us in our mortality. It’s certainly not a moral guide, and I really can’t think of any modern use for it. The sooner we get rid of organized religion, the better.

    1. it’s human nature to seek meaning

      Well, we are pattern seekers by way of neural network nature, but moreover incessant modelers of others and self by way of evolution of social behavior. (Or so the hypothesis goes, AFAIU.) This modeling is overactive even under normal conditions.

      In fact, I’ve just finished an infuriating read of David Deutsch’s “The Fabric of Reality”.

      It is a creative and inspiring read on testability against the ever popular crypto-inductionism, especially in fundamentalists strawman of science.

      [Further: Independently of the later Vic Stenger in “God – the failed hypothesis”, he proposes and uses Isaac Newton’s/QM axiom of material systems.

      That they “kick back when kicked” as Samuel Johnson put the criteria of reality, or react on actions (Newton)/decoheres into observations when interacting with the environment (QM).

      This can of course be used in the natural and testable theory that natural phenomena is all that exists. Say falsifiable by prayer studies ending up without natural explanation, or uncaused creation events. Even if Stenger hesitates to take that step specifically.]

      Even so he manages to finish with overselling “explanation”.

      He starts early on with noting that a black-box predictive oracle would be meaningless as a theory. What would you ask it?

      But instead of acknowledging that no theory have hidden mechanisms, and that we explicitly need to compare equally predictive theories on content, say, by parsimony, he turns the table. He declares against observation that explanation, visible mechanism, is more important than test, falsification of wrong observation and theory.

      In the last chapter he criticizes and embraces Tipler’s quaint hypothesis of “omega point”. (This was written 1997, and already 1998 came dual sets of observations that shows that Tipler’s Big Crunch universes doesn’t happen. Instead we have now the standard cosmology of ever faster expansion, and also theoretical evidence that “bounce” universes can’t happen.)

      Even if he extracts Tiplers quasi-religious ideas, and skewers them in the process, he manages to replace them with an equal non-predictive “explanation” in the very end. For example, he declares moral behavior as explainable by “ethical theory” and so on.

      As I said, infuriating to see analytical minds stretch beyond breaking as they want to fill explanatory gaps. Even if they know, as Deutsch acknowledge, that we won’t explain everything. (For example, mathematics is unbounded by way of Gödel’s results that means that we can always append new axioms.)

      If there is a take home message in all of this (besides that we can easily make a testable theory that implies that gods doesn’t exist, fitting for this blog :-D), it is perhaps that human nature is all too human.

    2. I think the more “primitive” religions, e.g., “shamanism”, were about manipulating the world to improve one’s life or often just to improve one’s (or one’s family’s) chance of survival. There is plenty of this in modern religions, too.

      The quest for “meaning” is a luxury that comes from having a full stomach, a warm house, and some leisure time.

  4. If only one thing comes out of the rise in prominence of unapologetic atheists, I suspect it will be an end to the immunity from criticism by mainstream people that religion has enjoyed for so long. I can already see the cracks in the U.S.

  5. I very much agree with Armstrong’s last paragraph. We would be well served by theologians who might find themselves enlightened by a challenge to their beliefs, instead of slippery asswipes like Armstrong who move the goalposts every time the dialog starts getting anywhere.

  6. You really should have quoted Armstrong’s second reply paragraph.

    When I was a student, I was taught to listen to all sides of a question, examine the evidence impartially, and be prepared to change my mind. For many years, I wanted nothing to do with religion and would have agreed wholeheartedly with Sam Harris; my early writing definitely tended to the Dawkinsesque. But my study of the history of world religion during the past 20 years has compelled me to alter my views.

    Look! She was a militant atheist before! We can trust her because she’s been where we are and has moved past it, as should we. We’ve moved past apologetics using the “I used to be an atheist, before I learned better and found god”, and they’re taking the simpler “I used to be a militant atheist, but then I grew up and learned history, and now I’m an accomodationist”.

    It occurs to me that Mooney pinned his transition from militant atheist to accomodationist on a period where he read up on history and philosophy. Think he and Armstrong have been sharing notes?

    1. I was thinking along the same lines when I read that paragraph myself. Does she find the likes of Lee Strobel to be ‘compelling’ as well?

      1. That one’s a little unfair. I’ve repeatedly heard her accuse fundamentalists of promoting “bad theology”. I’m sure, if she’s even bothered with Strobel (which she probably hasn’t), she considers him a bloody fool.

    2. what Armstrong is admitting through implication is fairly amazing here…her “altered views” have led her down a path of absolute certainty, one closed-off from new ideas and impartially examined evidence. She then compliments (unintentionally) Dawkins and Harris.

    3. Armstrong says she studied “the history of world religion” for twenty years. With her restrictions on what qualifies as “true religion”, one wonders why it took so long.

      1. One especially wonders why, after 20 years of studying world religion that varies so widely from her view of “true religion”, she comes out swinging against out atheists. You’d think she’d be using that 20 years of material to point out all the ways the religionists are “doin it rong”.

        1. “You’d think she’d be using that 20 years of material to point out all the ways the religionists are “doin it rong”.”

          She frequently does.

      2. She has been taken to task on this claim by better than I.
        It seems that by ‘studied’, she read a handful of popular books on tangential topics.

    4. I wouldn’t say “sharing notes”, but as the biblical scholars say “common source”. Whether that be sharing notes or fawning over that moron Nisbet doesn’t matter, “common source” is still appropriate.

    5. I’ve noticed that fundamentalists and lifelong Catholics imagine that they have pasts as militant atheists because once during Sunday school they doubted some absurdity being promoted.

      Where are all of Armstrongs “militant atheist” tracts? I’ve never seen one at the book store.

    1. Sure does; a good high school buddy died a few weeks ago from MRSA and no goddamned gods helped him. Idiots like Armstrong would undoubtedly make up some excuse like the god was testing him and his family.

  7. It’s pretty much a waste of time pointing out the flaws in Armstrong’s arguments still less attempting to have a civilized debate with her. She is as dogmatic and unmovable as any fundy, indeed that’s what she is a hardline accommodationist. Anyway she’s obviously not terribly bright so she’s never going to grasp the essential absurdity of her position that religion is really fine, whilst all around her the evidence that it isn’t is plain to see.

  8. I just wish this debate could be conducted in a more Socratic manner. Socrates, founder of the Western rationalist tradition, always insisted that any dialogue must be conducted with gentleness and courtesy, and without malice.

    It’s the continual mosquito whine that we get from IDiots and other people who are unwilling to understand the importance of fairness in debate. Above all, it ignores the fact that Socratic dialog is highly flawed for anything but a very narrow band of discussions (it’s based on the court model, where there actually are just two sides), and it led to a great deal of poor dialectical thinking in the West and near East over the past couple of millenia–which is not to suppose that its results were all bad, either.

    What she specifically covers over is the fact that in essence she’s demanding that religion be both accepted and respected prior to this “Socratic dialog,” and finding religion to be behind a great deal of bad thinking (and demands for politeness where it isn’t reciprocated), tribalism, and nonsense is just to be off the table. She’s not going to be polite to Sam Harris’ position, she demands Harris to be polite (read “deferential”) to her position.

    I don’t disagree that religion’s unlikely to go away for good (Europe’s no great example of secularization, as it may be quite temporary), a possibility that wouldn’t be so bad for “New Atheists” to accept better than they do. But the notion that they should shut up about religion being a fantastical way of thinking that prevents honest discussion, and thus to themselves refrain from honest discussion, is the height of dishonesty.

    And actually, I’ve studied a significant amount of philosophy as well, particularly focusing on how society places pressures on people to conform to religious and cultural norms via metaphysics and a priori assumptions about what should be said and how. Armstrong and Mooney seem not to have learned much about the importance of breaking through barriers to thought, preferring to reinforce them.

    Glen Davidson

  9. Armstrong also wrote: [religion] like sex, it is often tragically abused.

    Karen, you say it so clearly yet still you seem unable to fully understand this parallel! This is it exactly. No one is calling for the abolishment of religion (or sex) — but many think both are something best left out of the public forum for many of the same reasons. Atheists are calling to make religion, much like sex, an essentially private and personal matter. As you point out, like sex, religion is often used in a tragic and abusive manner — so why is it so difficult to accept that society may need some criticism and protections placed on religious practices and practitioners, like those using sex, to keep people from abusing one another? Is it wrong to criticize those who practice rape or coerced sex? Is it wrong when people of power use their station to coerce those they lead or instruct into having sex with them? Is it wrong to criticize those who force sex into their children’s lives before they are ready to enjoy and comprehend it? Such occurances don’t make all of sex wrong, but such acts make sex into something society rightly wants to control and punish those who use it abusively. The same needs to be true when it comes to religion. That is what atheists are often fighting for. It is wrong to ignore discussions of the darker side of sex in the name of its beauty and the basic human needs it fulfills — and the exact same is true about religion. If religion did not have a side to it that’s was very much like rape, society wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.

    1. Christianity may be OK between consenting adults in private but should not be taught to young children.
      – Francis Crick

  10. Karen Armstrong does it again! The great religion cover up! Everything that is bad about religion is a desecration of religion, but true religion, aside from being about compassion, etc., is really – now get this – an endless search for meaning! The problem with religion – and poor Karen hasn’t noticed yet! – is that religious people think they’ve found the meaning. If it’s just a search for meaning, how come all the baggage! Without religion life would have no meaning, no purpose, remember?! Dog, this woman is thick!

    What really angers me about Karen Armstrong, however, bad as this kind of walleyed thinking is, is the way she covers up for Islam, every time. Jihad was, “originally” – now get this, this is the Islam that started with Mohammed and his gang of religious cut-throats murdering travellers, and other tribes, and stealing their goods and women (the women which, according to the Qu’ran, turn into ‘the women which your right hands possess’!) – “the ‘effort’ required to implement the will of God in a violent world.” And, ignoring the fact that Islam was violent and imperialist from the very start, and even made several attempts to conquer Europe, Armstrong thinks that this perversion of jihad has come about only because these poor souls are “driven by political humiliation and alienation.”

    And this is the woman who wants a Socratic dialogue. She once shared Harris’s view, she says, but her “study of the history of world religion during the past 20 years has compelled me to alter my views.” Well, she hasn’t studied enough, and if she really wants to have a Socratic dialogue, she’s going to have to admit to a little ignorance now and again, which is something she refuses to do. Socrates, bless his heart, was the man who said that he didn’t know, but that, unlike so many, he knew that he didn’t know. Armstrong knows. Her study of ‘world religion’ – what is this, by the way? – tells her so. This is not even marginally better than ‘the Bible tells me so.’

    And oh, by the way, Karen, if you really want to know, the crusades, miserable and violent as they were, started out, in the first place, as a response to Muslim imperial expansion into Christian Anatolia. Islamic jihad contributed to the violence of the world from the very start. After all, everyone outside of Islam is in the house of war, just waiting to be brought into the house of peace, like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. etc.

    1. For every major religion-based atrocity there is a corresponding non-religious based atrocity; Mao, Hitler and Stalin..maybe Genghis Khan??

      1. So….you see it as a good thing that the atrocities caused by religion alone are on par with the *summation* of all other atrocities ever committed? In your view, then, can we say you believe religion is the single worst human creation ever?

    2. Uh, Eric, that’s not quite the full picture.

      The genesis in the Crusades began earlier in the 11th century when the Byzantine Empire annexed an Armenian kingdom in eastern Anatolia. This deprived the Byzantines of a buffer state between them and the Seljuk Turks, who were arriving on the scene.

      The Seljuk leader Alp Arslan wrested some territory in Eastern Anatolia from the Byzantines and then made a peace treaty with them, because he really did not want to take them on in a full scale war, as his true ambitions lay in conquering Syria and Egypt. However, a new Byzantine emperor, Romanos IV, felt he needed a big win in order to secure his hold on the throne, so he decided to recapture the lost territory from the Seljuks while Arp Arslan was engaged elsewhere.

      It ended up being a bad decision. First off, a large part of his army consisted of mercenaries, some of whom were Turkish warriors who shared kinship with the Seljuks, with no sense of loyalty to the Byzantines. Second, Romanos felt obliged to bring along one of his rivals in court on the expedition because he could not trust the man to refrain from stirring up trouble in Constantinople in his absence. So, from the get go, a contingent of the Byzantine army was commanded by a person who had a vested interest in the emperor’s failure.

      Any casual student of the history of the period knows that the Byzantines got their asses kicked at Manzikert in 1071. Even then, Alp Arslan still did not want to commit his resources, and made another treaty with Romanos. However, after returning to Constantinople, Romanos was shortly afterwards deposed, and if memory serves, executed. Only after that did the Seljuks commit themselves to the conquest of Anatolia. And that is what caused the Byzantines to ask the West for help, which sparked the Crusades.

      The irony of it all is that Alp Arslan died not long afterwards and the Seljuks became divided. If the Byzantines had simply waited instead of embarking on an ill-advised war, the loss of Anatolia might not have happened at all.

      So, to wrap up this rather lengthy comment posting, the loss of Anatolia owes just as much to Byzantine incompetence as it does to Islamic expansionism. Furthermore, Islam was in retreat elsewhere in the Mediterranean. They had lost part of Sicily, Sardinia, Crete, Cyprus, and northern Iberia. Equally important, the Crusades were just as much about the Catholic Church trying to achieve supremacy over the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Byzantines and the Crusaders never trusted each other. If the Crusades were really about pushing back Islamic expansionism, they would have focused on recovering all of Anatolia rather than setting up little kingdoms and duchies on the Levantine coast that lacked defensible borders. Because as long as Anatolia remained in Muslim hands, the defense of the Crusader states was untenable.

      1. Yes, well, Tommykey, my foray into history was a bit potted. But while acknowledging all the complexities of the relationships between Muslim and Christian jurisdictions in the period of Muslim expansion, the fact still remains that Islam was expansionist from the start. That it had lost part of Sicily, Sardinia, Crete, etc., shows how consistently expansionist it had been, harrying the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe for centuries. Indeed, there was a steady market for European slaves during this period in Arabia and North Africa.

        So, certainly, the crusades were complexly related to the schism between the Eastern and Western churches, and political realities in the the Eastern Empire (such as it was), but it is simply a misrepresentation to think of them as rather crudely one-sided attempts of ‘Christendom’ to conquer Muslim lands, which is clearly where Armstrong is going here. And that’s all I wanted to say, without getting tied up in historical knots.

        Europe was on the defensive for centuries, and Islam was not the peace-loving religion that Armstrong thinks has been desecrated by the interpretation of ‘jihad’ in crassly military terms. It had that meaning from the start, even though it could do duty for more peaceful religious striving as well for those not minded to go looking for religious glory in more dangerous ways. A history of Levantine and Eastern Asian Christianity would show just how warlike and intemperate Islam was from the start, and how intolerant it really was of other ways of believing; and Armstrong’s continuing whitewash of Islam is is worrying and annoying. If she thought the convent was repressive, she should try Saudi Arabia.

  11. “And that’s the point of the new atheists.”

    Please, let’s not use the loaded and idiotic term “new atheist”. That just plays into the hand of people like Armstrong who want to suggest that atheists these days are mean and ignorant, unlike those of yesteryear like [fill in the blank].

  12. Armstrong has gone from inanity to insanity. She is dead wrong with that “homo religiosus” assertion. In many European countries more and more people have been abandoning churches for decades. Religion is more like a crutch, people use it when they are insecure. A book full of numbers and stats, by the name “Sacred and Secular” (written by Harvard and University of Michigan staff) shreds the idea to pieces quite thoroughly.
    I got an ad in the mail to subscribe to “Foreign Policy”. I think I should write back and tell them this is why I’m not subscribing.

  13. “I just wish this debate could be conducted in a more Socratic manner.”

    I recall a conversation with Richard Dawkins not too long ago which had many elements of a Socratic dialog. The gadfly made Armstrong so dizzy (dizzier than she usually is) that the Socratic dialog resembled a Platonic or Aristotelian monologue at times.

    No, Armstrong doesn’t truly desire a Socratic dialog; what she desires is what she practices: Sophistry – otherwise known as lying. Hypocritical cow.

  14. One thing really stands out in her words.

    “As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures.”

    “Men and women began to create religion”

    Nothing about a god or gods coming to man/woman and engaging us…WE started to create the religions.

  15. Karen Armstrong has clearly never read the Platonic dialogs with any care or attention. Socrates talked about being polite while he logically eviscerated foolish, muddle-headed nonsense a lot like Armstrong’s. I would suggest she start with Euthyphro, but there’s really no point to her reading anything: She’s repeatedly and quite consistently shown herself incapable of any sort of honest investigation of any subject in which she has a vested emotional interest – which is the only way to explain her ludicrous and patently counter-factual claims about the One True Nature of Religion and God ™.

    1. Spot on. I was thinking of Socrates’ polite eviscerations when I spoke of Armstrong and Socratic dialogue earlier on. Socrates’ interlocutors are eviscerated because they are shown not to know what they claim to know. I think Armstrong would not only be eviscerated in a Socratic dialogue, but flayed as well

      MadScientist, can you point us to the Dawkins-Armstrong exchange?

  16. I must not be understanding something Armstrong is saying.

    How does she know her interpretation of religion is correct ? Does she claim to have some access to a list of what is true religion and what is not ?

    1. Yeah, maybe Allah really does want to have the idolaters exterminated and forced to convert to Islam, and the Jews and Christian subjugated. How does Armstrong know that the “search for meaning” isn’t about the thrill of the hunt.

  17. It is getting to the point where I sometimes just feel sorry for the religious. All of their most prominent apologists are just so freaking vapid. My feeling of sorrow is quickly replaced with disgust when I remember how many people think the Karen Armstrongs and William Lane Craigs of the world are brilliant scholars with brilliant arguments that prove religion is good and true. As is typical with these brilliant apologists, Karen Armstrong is ignorant, foolish, lazy, dishonest, and just plain old fashioned not very bright. But, she has a decent vocabulary and the ability to compose sentences that superficially sound scholarly to many people. However, when examined for actual semantic content you are left wondering how so many people can be fooled.

    The best evidence and arguments will do no good against Karen Armstrong. For whatever reasons, pride, habit, enculturation, hideboundness, laziness, dishonesty, etc., or a combination thereof, she will not change her tune regarding her religious arguments no matter how foolish, shallow, juvenile and counter to realtiy those arguments are shown to be. It can’t be pointed out often enough how pathetic the arguments of the best religious apologists are.

    This ever so common whine about how rude the “new atheists” are alternately cracks me up, and pisses me off. There are many ways to be rude and “foul” language is only one of them. Do people really not understand that it is trivially easy to be quite rude without using any “foul” language whatsoever? Do these apologists and accomodationists that complain about our rudeness really believe that they are not rude, in those fairly frequent instances that they surely are, because they restrict themselves to “proper english”? Is there a name for the phallacy of rejecting evidence and or arguments because the person that presented them was rude while doing so?

  18. Why don’t we just let P.Z. Myers
    have the last say here regarding
    Ms. Armstrong’s writing:

    “gooey, meaningless drivel…”

    I think that says it all.

  19. There is nothing more rude, insulting and belligerant than to call humanity “homo religiosus” and thus to raise the implication that atheists are not human. Obviously Armstrong is shrill, strident, militant and fundamentalist.

  20. Professor, you had me at “But who is she to tell millions of Muslims that their understanding of the Qur’an is simply wrong?”

    When I was a Muslim, I felt the same way about this lady. Her recent screeds all smell like a desperate attempt to hold on to a livelihood in a time of growing indifference to “good religion” and irritation with “bad religion.”

  21. Certainly as we became recognisably human we began to seek answers to the why and wherefores of the world around us but some of us are prepared to realise when our primitive beliefs in religion and a supreme being are not justified by our extended knowlege of how things actually work and these beliefs have to be put aside. We manage to replace our flat earth and geocentric beliefs so we should with other beliefs shown to be superstition.

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