21 March 2007

Marzipan at the center of the Sun

A good posting from Sam Harris in his debate on religion with Andrew Sullivan.

So far this debate has followed the usual pattern: the arguments for religion hinge not on any objective evidence that it is true, but rather on the emotional reassurance it provides. If this were a valid basis for choosing what to believe in, it would be fine for adults to believe in Santa Claus. While it is almost impossible to prove the falsity of the proposition that any given deity exists (most religious propositions are formulated in such a way as to be incapable of being proven true or false), the universe certainly looks exactly as one would expect it to look if it were purely the product of the operation of ordinary physical laws, without any guiding intelligence.

Note: in the illustration, the tabletops are actually of slightly different lengths (probably the drawing was poorly reproduced for the posting), but the widths are the same despite looking very different, which illustrates the point being made.

On another issue in the Harris-Sullivan debate -- whether moderate religion is just as bad as the fundamentalist variety -- I think one must distinguish between the objective validity of a doctrine and the practical threat it presents. That is, all religions are equally false, but they are not all equally dangerous. Islam is far more dangerous than Christianity, tolerant secular Christians are far less dangerous than the politically-aggressive Christian Right, religions with no doctrine or tradition of aggression against unbelievers (such as Judaism or Wicca) are the least dangerous. As a pragmatist I believe in the the practical value of supporting anyone who opposes the imposition of a fundamentalist religious agenda on society (see here for an elaboration of this view), even if these allies hold supernatural beliefs every bit as absurd as the fundamentalists themselves do.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

It doesn't make a bit of sense to try to argue that religious beliefs are somehow factually true. For instance, the Grand Canyon is not physical proof that any God carved and shaped the wonder. There's absolutely nothing wrong with accepting that proof of the spiritual is a personal thing, that those who weren't meant to or don't want to see anything outside of physical facts, won't, and there's everything wrong with trying to frame it somehow otherwise. Religion "imposed on society" is dangerous on so many levels. The least of it is that it steals freedom and knowledge. The worst, that it brainwashes and steals lives. I, too, think some religions are more dangerous than others, based on their common beliefs and on history.

21 March, 2007 11:15  

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