Sunday, October 29, 2006


Razib at "GeneExpression" recently had a post on Sam Harris to which I left a comment. Razib responded, but my comment grew a bit, and rather than hog the commentbox there, I decided to take advantage of the fact that I have my own weblog and post it here. Keep in mind that all this is purely response, and should only be read in context of both that post and the comments following. (Also, re-reading my comment it came across as less civil than I intended, for which I apologize. It's a regularly problem I have with commenting at other people's blogs -- if I try to be concise, I lose all the qualifications and caveats that keep me from sounding abrupt.)

(Razib said): and yet the way you frame it seems as if "no one" are trivial marginals. the reality is that 1/3 - 1/4 of americans "read" this way, and that the majority of sunni muslims read thsi way. harris knows very well that many (most) do not read this way, but his contention seems to be that this majority enables the genuinely dangerous minority.

I don't think generalizations can be made about the general reading habits of large populations quite in this way, given that they won't be consistent even in the same person across different topics: some people will be more tempted to read in a fundamentalist way on some subjects, and less on others, although most people will tend have aggregate tendencies in one direction or another; perhaps many people will just not read enough to have much in the way of either, just taking their lead from people who do have a direction one way or another. And, again, this isn't an atheist vs. theist opposition; part of that group of people who read it that way, whether deliberately or because they don't know any better, are not theists at all. Given that, I don't see the relevance of Harris's knowing that many don't read it that way; any religious fundamentalist knows that many people don't read it his way as well. What's really at issue is what is done with what is read. And my point was that Harris really can't be said to be interpreting without guile, nor to be taking religionists at their word. For an analogy, think of a critic of the U.S. political system arguing that a a particular reading of the U.S. Constitution is insanely extreme; and that, despite many people not agreeing with this reading, anyone guided by the U.S. Constitution in their political views is enabling this extreme reading. Such an argument is either unintentionally bad through a lack of sophistication or dishonest; in either case it is not unreasonable to call such a critic's reading, both of the Constitution and of the situation, shallow. Nor would it be a reasonable criticism that the sophisticated readers are constantly adapting their understanding of the Constitution to new evidence about what works politically and what doesn't; that's just what happens when rational people learn, and has nothing to do with whether it is good to be guided by the Constitution in politics or not, since it's just what being guided by the Constitution is for people who learn. Again, such an argument would be either unintentionally bad through a lack of sophistication about the U.S. Constitution, or dishonest.

(I agree, incidentally, that modernist interpretations are not always better or more rational than fundamentalist ones. The primary issue, I think, is manner of reading rather than interpretation settled on.)

(Responding to a different comment by Razib): If there is a conflation between Dawkins and Harris, at least to the extent of considering them to be in the same group of atheisms, it's not really mine, since it seems to be fairly common to regard them (along with Dennett) as variations on a theme. I doubt, in any case, that Eagleton would be any kinder to Harris than Dawkins, for exactly the same reasons he wasn't kind to Dawkins in the first place; and the same will be true of other atheists who are critical of any of the 'new atheists'. My point in bringing it up wasn't to treat Dawkins and Harris as exactly the same, but to point out that Eagleton's attack on Dawkins as uninformed is analogous, in that it is part of his more general war on fundamentalist readings and patterns of thought. To that extent most criticisms of some of these more vocal atheists as being shallow or uninformed are indicative not of an atheist vs. theist issue, but of a fundamentalist vs. anti-fundamentalist one.

And that it this is a live issue, I think, is shown by Mustafa Mond's response to my original comment, which both brazenly claims that fundamentalists read more rationally than anti-fundamentalists, and assumes it as indisputable in his argument for that claim, since we can only say that more sophisticated readers are rejecting '90% of the fairy tale' if the fundamentalists are right about that 90% of the fairy tale, which is virtually the whole point in question. I was virtually certain that the assumption that fundamentalists were more rational than their opponents was largely just something accidentally assumed by atheists in the pell-mell of certain arguments, and was a bit taken aback to find someone explicitly defending the assumption, however badly, so quickly. I suppose that the proverb 'Scratch an atheist, find a fundamentalist' is true for at least some atheists. So it's no wonder, as I've noted before, that atheists with more of a concern for reason and truth can get tired and annoyed at this sort of reasoning themselves. Perhaps because they might be accused of enabling it.

Which is not to say, of course, that there aren't serious theist vs. atheist issues; only that the question, whether Sam Harris and those like him are shallow in their understanding of what they are claiming to criticize, is not one of them. An atheist can recognize it as much as a theist can.

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