The prominent social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who is an atheist and a secularist, writes about the evangelical atheist Sam Harris’s offer to pay $10,000 to a theist who can reason him away from his
atheism belief that science can tell us all we need to know about right and wrong in 1,000 words or less. Haidt says he’ll pay the $10,000 on Harris’s behalf if somebody can do it. Haidt doesn’t expect to pay out because, he says, despite their pretensions to be devoted to reason, atheists like Harris (and Dawkins, and Dennett) are, in their writing, even more absolutist than people like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and Sean Hannity. See the results of Haidt’s analysis of their work above. Sam Harris is the most dogmatic atheist of the lot, Haidt found.
In the opening paragraph of his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume described the futility of arguing with people who are overly certain about their principles. He noted that “as reasoning is not the source, whence [such a] disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.” If Hume is right, then what is the likely outcome of The Moral Landscape Challenge? What are the odds that anyone will change Harris’s mind with a reasoned essay of under 1000 words? I’ll put my money on Hume and issue my own challenge, The Righteous Mind challenge: If anyone can convince Harris to renounce his views, I’ll pay Harris the $10,000 that it would cost him to do so.
Reason is indeed crucial for good public policy and a good society. But isn’t the most reasonable approach one that takes seriously the known flaws of human reasoning and tries to work around them? Individuals can’t be trusted to reason well when passions come into play, yet good reasoning can sometimes emerge from groups. This is why science works so well. Scientists suffer from the confirmation bias like everybody else, but the genius of science as an institution is that it incentivizes scientists to disconfirm each others’ ideas, and it creates a community within which a reasoned consensus eventually emerges.
I agree with Harris that the historical shift away from revealed religion as the basis of society and toward democracy, individual rights, reason, and science as foundations of moral and political authority has been overwhelmingly good for people in Western societies. I am not anti-reason. I am also not anti-religion. I am opposed to dogmatism. I am skeptical of each person’s individual powers of reasoning, and I’m even more skeptical of the reasoning of groups of activists, hyper-partisans, and other righteous reformers who would remake society according to their own reasoned (or revealed) vision.
Read Haidt’s entire entry. It causes me to reflect on the absolutism (sort of) of my own position on God and nihilism. I really do believe that one has to choose between God or nihilism, that there is no middle ground. That is a rationalist statement, though; it’s not how people actually live. As Haidt has shown, moral intuition is something deeply grounded in human consciousness. Most people cannot adequately account for why something seems right or wrong to them; it just does, and we behave accordingly, even if we cannot logically explain it. This explains the frequent go-rounds we have on this blog. I genuinely don’t understand how anyone can ground a binding ethic in anything other than a belief in God, or at least a transcendent realm. That doesn’t make God’s existence true, nor does it make individual atheists and materialists evil. It does mean that unbelievers have walked off a cliff without a wire (versus non-materialists, who must walk off the cliff and work with all their might to keep from having their passions topple them from the wire, which usually happens).
Anyway, Haidt’s point is to puncture the self-flattery of the New Atheists by showing that they are pretty much a pack of fundamentalist materialists.