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Nov 20 2012

The Magic Wand of World Peace

Oh, no…I have to defend Sam Harris a little bit even while disagreeing with him! There was a strange flare-up, a revival of an old interview with Harris from 6 years ago, in which he said something controversial:

If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.

This is one of those fraught philosophical scenarios loaded with emotional biases against an unrealistic, overly simplified moral dilemma that can never occur in the real world, and all I can say is…I hate those things. And there it was, all over twitter, and people were emailing me about it, and I just wanted the stupid story to go away, but now David Futrelle has highlighted it and John Wilkins has storified it.

So first, let’s put it in context. It’s not a pro-rape comment, or one that dismisses rape as unimportant.

Saltman: Isn’t religion a natural outgrowth of human nature?

Harris: It almost certainly is. But everything we do is a natural outgrowth of human nature. Genocide is. Rape is. No one would ever think of arguing that this makes genocide or rape a necessary feature of a civilized society. Even if you had a detailed story about the essential purpose religion has served for the past fifty thousand years, even if you could prove that humanity would not have survived without believing in a creator God, that would not mean that it’s a good idea to believe in a creator God now, in a twenty-first-century world that has been shattered into separate moral communities on the basis of religious ideas.

Traditionally, religion has been the receptacle of some good and ennobling features of our psychology. It’s the arena in which people talk about contemplative experience and ethics. And I do think contemplative experience and ethics are absolutely essential to human happiness. I just think we now have to speak about them without endorsing any divisive mythology.

Saltman: Your analogy between organized religion and rape is pretty inflammatory. Is that intentional?

Harris: I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology. I would not say that all human conflict is born of religion or religious differences, but for the human community to be fractured on the basis of religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible, in an age when nuclear weapons are proliferating, is a terrifying scenario. I think we do the world a disservice when we suggest that religions are generally benign and not fundamentally divisive.

To rephrase it in a more general way: if you could get rid of a chronic, pervasive, causal malignity that afflicted all of humanity, would that be a wiser choice than getting rid of an acute, specific affliction that caused direct harm to a large subset of humanity? In those terms, it’s actually an interesting question (in that philosophical conundrum kind of interesting, which I hate), and the next question ought to be about the magnitude of the chronic malignity vs. the acute affliction. So it’s not an utterly idiotic scenario, but one that might expose legitimate and thoughtful differences in opinion.

And that’s where Harris and I begin to differ.

First, rape is pretty damn horrific, a toxic violence that isn’t just acute, but truly dire, that directly harms or threatens to harm over half the population of the planet, and indirectly causes suffering for the other half. It is an explicit crime against human beings. I am confident that Harris would agree with me, and that he’s not trying to diminish the magnitude of the harm done by rape and violence against women. So, boom, he and I would both throw a great horking weight, dense as osmium, on that side of the harm scale.

But then we go to the other side, carrying world religions in hand. Harris and I would agree that religion is universally malignant (John Wilkins disagrees, but he’s wrong: an idea that is not only incorrect, but encourages disinterest in the truth of ideas, is universally dangerous, and I’m going to come right out and say that all religion is bad), but we’re going to disagree with the magnitude of that harm.

Harris clearly believes that religion is a tremendous source of death and destruction, and while not as acutely damaging to an individual as rape, given the immensity of that problem, he thinks that it outweighs rape overall as a source of harm. In that case, he is making a rational choice with his hypothetical magic wand, and maximizing human happiness by eliminating religion.

I don’t agree. For one thing, the comparison is inappropriate and can’t be made: religion is not a primary causal element of rape. If you thought getting rid of religion would reduce rape and a host of other problems, there would be some relevance, but it wouldn’t. If we magically eliminated religion right now, Israel would still be bombing Palestinians, misogynist assholes would still be misogynist assholes, poverty would still be driving people to desperate crimes, and violent thugs would still be attacking women. If there’s one thing we’ve learned recently, it’s that atheism does not equal benevolent enlightenment.

Another problem is that while we can easily point to pathological extremes of religiosity as causes of great harm (say, the Taliban, or the American Republican party), the overwhelming majority of religious people are harmless and even benign (sorry, Wilkins, their religious beliefs are not benign at all, but the people themselves are mostly decent. There’s a difference). Getting rid of religion would not maximize human happiness, and might in fact decrease overall human happiness while increasing human rationality, and definitely would not ease the pain and suffering of human beings anywhere near as much as eliminating the threat of rape.

I can see where Harris is coming from, but I wouldn’t make the same choice he would, because I don’t see religion as quite so intensely damaging as he does. And for the majority of people, I don’t think it’s possible to make any kind of objective case that their religion is even close to being as harmful as a rape in their family.

Also, there’s this irony further into the interview.

Saltman: Are you a Buddhist practitioner?

Harris: I’m a practitioner, but I don’t really think of myself as a Buddhist. Buddhism can be distinguished from other religions because it’s nontheistic. But I think Buddhists have to get out of the religion business altogether and talk about what the human mind is like, what the potential for human happiness is, and what are some reasonable approaches to seeking happiness in this world.

Oh. So my religion isn’t as bad as those other religions, therefore it’s exempt from my condemnations. That doesn’t work for me.

The point about it being “nontheistic” is also a non sequitur. My complaint with religion isn’t over one specific point of the doctrine of certain religions, it’s about the whole gigantic problem of gullibility, unfounded beliefs, and rejection of evidence. If being nontheistic is a loophole to avoid criticism, then there’s nothing wrong with astrology, homeopathy, racism, sexism, and nationalism, either.

By the way, I looked up the rules on magic wands. They have 50 charges! So I’m going to simplify this problem by getting rid of rape AND religion (including Buddhism), and also war, poverty, racism, sexism, patriotism, and disease, and then I’m going to give everyone universal literacy and competence in math and fluency in language.

Then, a personal palace on a remote part of the Pacific Northwest coast with an army of cleaning robots to maintain the place. I’ll think about what to do with the rest of my charges later. Go away, don’t bother me with requests, I just gave you a peaceful utopia!

118 comments

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  1. 1
    jamessweet

    I think I’d just have to refuse to answer the question.

    But yeah, what you said: Harris was making a point about the ubiquity of the harm that religion does. Clumsily made, to be sure (one might argue that his comment is as offensive to women as Godwinning is offensive to Jews) but not really scandalous.

  2. 2
    Becca Stareyes

    Also, the use of a magic wand to heavily alter existing human thought processes strikes me as… well, in non-scientific terms, it gives me an ooky feeling.

    Eliminating rape is a very specific thing. Without rape, those that want power over others* probably still will, but it cuts out one of the really nasty ways they can carry it out. It might not magically make them a decent person, just take away one tool to hurt others.

    Eliminating religion invasively alter the thought processes of a majority of humanity to not just prevent a specific behavior, but a wide variety of thoughts and actions. If someone did that to me without my permission — even if it was a ‘bamf, no more horrible anxiety disorder’ (to pick something I’d like to get rid of) — I’d be unhappy at people messing around with my brain. And it’s harder to argue that it prevents a problem (like rape) in a minimally invasive way since, as you note, Palestine and Israel will still be cross at each other, a number of Middle Eastern countries will be cross at us, and the power-hungry will still try to sway others by emotion rather than reason.

    (Alas, I don’t think you can fit Wish on a wand, since it’s a higher level spell than 4th level. The DM is also encouraged to be creative when players make open-ended wishes like ‘no more religion’.)

    * Usually men wanting power over women.

  3. 3
    BubbaRich

    But would the Palestinians still be bombing Israel?

  4. 4
    Thomathy, Such A 'Mo

    I can disagree with him on the harm factor, and the hypothetical that he proposed and answered is ridiculous, but I can’t, no matter how much I generally dislike Sam Harris, fault him exactly for coming to a different conclusion on the relative harm.

    It’s a bit disingenuous, I think, to call what Harris said controversial without due application of context (which, of course PZ did). I wonder what narrative can be extracted from Harris’s comments as applies to him except to say that he made a silly decision on the relative harm of rape and religion in answer to a silly hypothetical. Without taking the comment from Harris and in some meaningful way applying it to current discussions, I fail to see any use in criticising him.

    Are people really going to have arguments, or expect Harris to answer to an argument, about whether one or the other of rape and religion is globally worse or, for that matter, specifically worse in regards to any given person’s experience? That would be utterly ridiculous and futile an exercise; especially given that such arguments would, at their core, be over a silly hypothetical situation and quite irrelevant to the actual experiences of people who may be or have been affected by either or both rape and religion (which, not even being mutually exclusive, may be individually harmful in significant ways to real people).

    Frankly, any such discussion is bound to be rather dismissive and quite disgusting. I’ll agree with PZ that I wish the stupid thing would just go away, but I’ll go further and refuse to answer, even to the point of merely weighing the relative harms out; whatever my thoughts on that are, the whole enterprise is quite masturbatory. Of course, that possibly is exemplified in the last two paragraphs of PZ’s post.

  5. 5
    beergoggles

    Wouldn’t eliminating religion reduce the incidence of rape as a side effect? Patriarchy and the commodification of women I would suggest are greatly supported by religion. As Becca Stareyes’ post above argues:

    Eliminating rape religion is a very specific thing. Without rape religion, those that want power over others probably still will, but it cuts out one of the really nasty ways they can carry it out. It might not magically make them a decent person, just take away one tool to hurt others.

    Sorry for modifying that but I did want to point out that religion is a huge power trip. Perhaps both religion and rape come from the same place of the psyche? Religion controls even more than a rapist in the sense that it can control way more people and subjugate via their own consent and make it ok for more people to rape women just because they are married to them or because those women are their property. Rape seeks to control by violence, religion seeks to control by indoctrination, violence, fear, guilt and any other method humans can imagine.

  6. 6
    vaiyt

    Can I have a magic lasso? [/obscurereference]

  7. 7
    buddhabuck

    BubbaRich: Yes, they would. At this point, the conflict has very little to do with Islam and Judaism, and more to do with who controls the land and past indignities that need to be righted. Both sides feel aggrieved, both sides feel their cause is just, and neither side acknowledges the truth behind the other sides view. Eliminating religion would not stop anything.

    Becca: I supposed that one of the first results of players wishing ‘no more religion’ would be that all clerics, druids, paladins , etc would lose their special abilities. Which of course means most methods of healing would go away as well.

  8. 8
    Pierce R. Butler

    Would it be possible to eliminate rape without erasing (major parts of) aggression in general? Any psychological change which would enable the “hell with it, let her go” component of the brain would seem to favor the “hold your fire, let the negotiators handle this” module as well.

  9. 9
    marthabie

    Sorry, the rules say magic wands have 50 charges of one spell, so you can’t do all that; you can only eliminate rape 50 times.

    Actually, given your opposition to “dictionary atheism,” wouldn’t it be fair to assume that by eliminating religion, Harris meant eliminating the tendency towards irrationality that makes people so readily religious? If so, then eliminating that is a much better choice than eliminating rape, since rape, and the culture that tends to allow rape, are both substantially exacerbated, if not outright caused, by rampant sexism which is, in turn, promoted by religion and related irrationality.

    The connection between religion and sexism is too strong to assume that eliminating the former will have no effect on the latter.

  10. 10
    ivarhusa

    Magic lasso? PS, I love you.

  11. 11
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    I agree with the general uselessness of those hypothetical scenarios, especially since they’re often an attempt to play “gotcha” in order to to show the apparent “immorality” of somebody.
    But the problem is that Harris came up with this shit all by himself.
    He thought that rape victims would be the appropriate group to use in order to stick the label “not as important as religion” onto and he is very, very clear about that.
    Without hesitation!
    It’s not even something worth pondering about, or having some moral scruples about. It’s a no brainer!
    And that makes this statement pretty disgusting to me.

  12. 12
    vaiyt

    How would that magic wand get rid of religion anyway?

    Would it prevent the birth of religious institutions? Religion can survive just fine without them.
    Would it prevent people from believing in deities? Ideologies can work just fine for the same ends. Mythological thinking is independent of deities.

    Someone out there has a clue?

  13. 13
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Seconding (thirding or whichever) the wish that this just goes away.

    This is not just comparing apples and oranges, it’s comparing apples and Jupiter.

  14. 14
    scienceavenger

    …religion is not a primary causal element of rape

    I think there are many Fundie and Mormon wives, as well as a lot of former alter boys, that would disagree with you, not to mention most of the fenale side of the Muslim world, where wife-rape is practically an oxymoron. Getting rid of religion might not eliminate rape altogether, but it’d take out a huge chunk of it. Combine that with the other huge advantages of eliminating religion, and I’d have to side with Harris.

    But yes, its a silly question, with silly premises.

  15. 15
    McC2lhu doesn't want to know what you did there.

    The magic of the intertoobz. Put one thing out there and it will be quote-mined out of context into perpetuity. I’m glad you have the intestinal fortitude to be point man on the issues, P-Zed. I certainly would get annoyed every time some old anti-contextual shite was dredged up, tossed into a flaming paper bag and tossed on my doorstep an absurd number of times.

    Anyhoi, if the wand was really that fully magical you could get rid of both. Half-magic? That is for tossers like David Blaine.

  16. 16
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Religion’s causation of rape is because of how (most) religions intersect with and uphold the local variant of patriarchal societal structures. The religion does not make the people misogynistic, the culture is misogynistic and the religion is used as a tool to support and prop up the misogyny. Eliminating religion might cause a dent in rape incidence, but the core of rape culture is the devaluation of women and the assertion of male supremacy. This does not require religion. By contrast, for rape to be eliminated, for the occasion of rape to be eliminated, for rape to be unthinkable, then a whole stack of social/cultural practices, including the patriarchy as a concept, would have to be simultaneously eliminated.

  17. 17
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    scienceavenger
    I think as we have seen over the last year, being an atheist doesn’t make people decent folks. Sure, those religious ideas reinforce those horrible things and explicitely permit them, but people don’t stop once they stop believing in religion.
    Just look at all the horrible evopsych about rape.
    I have a friend who was raised catholic but who’s an atheist. I can tell you, her mind is as muddled as that of your garden variety of religious person, like opposing assisted suicide, and abortion and vehemently enforcing gender norms for the “good of the child”

  18. 18
    Art Vandelay

    Dumb question for sure. Gun to my head though…I’m going with religion. In a world where morality is guided solely by reason, I’m just going to sit back and watch all forms of violence and oppression diminish.

  19. 19
    Kaguya

    Well, a magic wand might not be able to hold wishes but there is a ring that can hold up to 3 charges of Wish.

    I still don’t know if you can kill gods with those though…they were pretty OP from what I remember.

    Yet I think there is a way, though there were also automatons sent out to prevent things like cheating death and deicide.

  20. 20
    jackal

    First, rape is pretty damn horrific, a toxic violence that isn’t just acute, but truly dire, that directly harms or threatens to harm over half the population of the planet, and indirectly causes suffering for the other half.

    Sexual violence is overwhelming used as a weapon against women and girls, but it is also used against men, boys and non-binary-gendered people. We’re not helping anyone by ignoring that fact.

  21. 21
    Randomfactor

    Sadly, I scrolled down your last link and it doesn’t appear that removing religion OR rape seems among the magic spells available.

    You might try casting “ice storm” against global warming, though. Worth a shot.

  22. 22
    Mr. Fire

    But the problem is that Harris came up with this shit all by himself.
    He thought that rape victims would be the appropriate group to use in order to stick the label “not as important as religion” onto and he is very, very clear about that.

    Yes. It is especially clear in this exchange:

    Saltman: Your analogy between organized religion and rape is pretty inflammatory. Is that intentional?

    Harris: I can be even more inflammatory than that.

    Harris takes Saltman’s point, and deliberately – needlessly – repurposes it to create his false dichotomy.

    Harris is dismissive of rape, in as much as he sees the need to compare it to something else without even being asked.

  23. 23
    dantalion

    I think Harris was basing his calculation on the idea that nullifying religion would reduce rape and a host of other problems.

    If your wand only has one charge, do you target the effects of irrationality or the cause of irrationality.

    Religion is not a primary cause of rape. Religion, particularly catholicism, is a primary cause of the cover up and acceptance of rape.

    Those bishops who covered up the rape of children by priests, and knowingly sent those priests to prey on more children did so not because they think rape is good, but because they think the highest moral good is the protection of the church. Unholy concerns like human suffering don’t begin to tip those scales.

    The broader catholic culture who knew of these things but didn’t say anything, or the catholics who defend the church’s practices now, do so not because any of them think rape is good, but because they think speaking against the church is not good. It is hard to imagine any statistically significant percentage of the population looking the other way while someone who isn’t a priest rapes children.

    Eliminating religion would not completely eliminate the threat of rape. But in a world without religion, there would be considerably less rape.

    Without religion some misogynist assholes would still be misogynist assholes. But without holy books that treat women as less than human, society would be slightly less of a society that encourages misogynist assholes.

    Without religion Israel would still be bombing Palestinians. People have been fighting over that piece of land for a very long time, and not always for religious reasons. But without a holy book telling the jews god has given them this land and commanded them to kill anyone else on said land, the indiscriminate killing might bring up some uncomfortable ethical questions. If the government of Israel were not in bed with the most right wing elements of jewish society, there might even be slightly less killing.

    Without religion, poverty would still be driving people to desperate crimes. As that one guy said, “the poor shall be with you always”. But without evangelical christianity’s dogmatic attachment to capitalism, a larger portion of american society would demand a functioning safety net. Less poverty = less desperation = fewer desperate actions.

    Religious people are not all bad people. What they are is dangerously misguided.

    Religion doesn’t make decent people into not decent people. It makes decent people approve of indecent things. Religion appropriates the human desire to do good and steers it to evil ends.

  24. 24
    scienceavenger

    But what started the misogyny in the first place, and what sustains it, except religion? What institution evalues women apart from religion? It sure as hell wasn’t something calmly reasoned out from a rational analysis of the world? I think you guys are underestimating just how deeply the religious infections of misogyny are ingrained in our cultures because so much time has passed that they may have the appearance of being caused by something else. How is a society supposed to become less misogynistic when the social establishment most revered is completely patriarchal? I’d be curious to see the differences in attitudes on these subjects between the more and less religious cultures. Is there more or less rape in say Mexico than Germany, America vs France?

    And yes, I’m very aware that being an atheist does not make one a saint. But it sure removes a whole lot of motives for being an asshole that infect other groups.

  25. 25
    Dunc

    Wouldn’t eliminating religion reduce the incidence of rape as a side effect?

    I doubt it. People are capable of coming up with a virtually infinite variety of bullshit justifications for almost anything, of which religion is merely one. Take that away, they’ll just justify it some other way. They’re perfectly capable of using religious texts which explicitly forbid murder to justify murder, so I don’t believe that the link between people’s professed religious beliefs and their actions runs in the direction you propose.

    People do not base their moral beliefs on their interpretations of their holy texts, they base their interpretations of their holy texts on their moral beliefs. What’s actually in the book is irrelevant.

  26. 26
    ChasCPeterson

    Just look at all the horrible evopsych about rape.

    show it all to me and I’ll look at it all.

  27. 27
    skeptifem

    I can see where Harris is coming from, but I wouldn’t make the same choice he would, because I don’t see religion as quite so intensely damaging as he does. And for the majority of people, I don’t think it’s possible to make any kind of objective case that their religion is even close to being as harmful as a rape in their family.

    SO you get why its a really really fucked up thing to say, but feel like defending him anyway. Gross.

    I’ll say what I always end up saying in these situations: there is not a politically neutral way to discuss rape. When you say something about rape, inevitably a rape victim will hear/read it and it will fuck with them if it can be seen as trivializing their experience. If your point needs paragraphs of explaining in order to not totally fuck with victims of rape perhaps shutting the fuck up is a better idea than making whatever clever comparison the author thinks is important. The potential for harm for rape victims is not trivial- the lack of social support already causes tons of complications for victims trying to deal with the aftermath of sexual violence. This is in a population that already experiences high levels of repeat violence and mental illness as a result of rape.

    Assholes like harris can just pick another fucking crime to make their comparisons with, ok? Rape isn’t taken seriously in society and should not be used as some kind of card or token to prove a point in an interview. It hurts people to talk about it that way.

  28. 28
    skeptifem

    @24 science avenger

    But what started the misogyny in the first place, and what sustains it, except religion? What institution evalues women apart from religion? It sure as hell wasn’t something calmly reasoned out from a rational analysis of the world

    look into old school obstetrics and gynecology.

    look into history, when eugenics was a scientific discipline one could study at college.

    look into how many ‘biological’ explanations of racism are from actual scientists at the time.

    these were ideas, whole areas of study, that emerged from what were deemed to be the most reasonable men of the time.

    there is no reason, NONE, to think that the cultural biases against women have all been scrubbed from science now, much less from people who simply value reason. it would be foolish to assume that things have changed considering the track record that exists. The fact is that rational people are good at rationalizing their actions, even grossly immoral actions that hurt other people.

  29. 29
    Amphiox

    Regarding the Palestinians and Israel, the root cause of the conflict is that both sides lay claim to the same land and neither is willing to share on terms that the other would find acceptable. Religion is actually peripheral to the point – an opportunistic amplifier for ill-will that could just as easily be replaced by any other similar type of amplifier.

    So if religion vanished from the earth tomorrow both sides will still be bombing each other just the same. They’ll just be excusing their actions with nationalism instead.

  30. 30
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    The problem is not religion, it is the patriarchy. Religion, in many – most – cases, is of the patriarchy and supplies an “excuse” for misogyny.

    But seriously. Religion is not a prerequisite. Appalling misogyny can – and does – manifest in the absence of religion.

  31. 31
    Worldtraveller

    I think it was a bad choice on Harris’ part to pick rape as as the juxtaposition to religion.

    I would add, though, that given the choice, I can see his point from another standpoint besides the purely ‘which does more harm’. I would add that most of the world (with some notable barbaric exceptions) already think that rape is bad. The same can’t be said of religion.

  32. 32
    Amphiox

    Re @24;

    I think you got it backwards. Religion did not start misogyny. Misogyny started and sustains religion, or at least the misogynistic parts thereof.

    If you have to seek a cause for misogyny, then the place to look is probably evolution, and sexual selection. The divergent evolutionary goals of males and females as observed throughout the animal world in human ancestors probably produced the behavioral traits that became the precursors of true misogyny once humans evolved the capacity of consciousness and symbolic thought.

  33. 33
    davidhart

    Re Palestinians and Israelis still launching rockets at each other: my take is that it would continue for a little while, but without religion, the people on both sides who refuse to consider any compromise because they believe God promised the disputed territory exclusively to their lot would no longer have a veto on peaceful solutions. Eventually, everyone would realise that, since neither side was going away, and neither side thought that God had their back, figuring out a way to coexist would be far better than a zero-sum game of irrendent violence.

  34. 34
    Mr. Fire

    skeptifem’s comment @27 is perfect.

  35. 35
    mepmep09

    I agree with what Skeptifem said above (#27 and #28).

    Rape-philosopher dudes have (apparently) been with us for as long as The Patriarchy itself. My first encounter with this particular brand of offensive weirdness comes from my early grad student years, back in the late 90s at Ohio State U., when Columbus Mayor Tom Moody felt somehow compelled to compare rape with littering. I’m sure the actual quote can be found in the microfiche records of The Columbus Dispatch, but it went something like ‘I can understand why someone would commit rape, but not why they would litter.’

    Le Sigh…

  36. 36
    mepmep09

    And by late 90s, of course I meant late 70s.

    Le Sigh 2…

  37. 37
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    skeptifem’s comment @27 is perfect.

    Seconded.

  38. 38
    Q.E.D

    mepmep09 quoting Mayor Tom Moody

    I can understand why someone would commit rape, but not why they would litter

    New Rule: Comparing two horrible things, any one of which is rape, is a bad idea.

    Follow up question for Mayor Moody:

    “Mayor, we all understand that the person who litters is inconsiderate, flouting local ordinances and rude but just can’t be bothered to hold onto his rubbish until it can be disposed of properly.

    Please explain to us your understanding of “someone who would commit rape”?

  39. 39
    horrabin

    Yeah, Harris pretty much hung himself out to dry on this one. The response to “Your analogy between organized religion and rape is pretty inflammatory. Is that intentional?” should have been that he wasn’t making an analogy, he was just listing other things that are outgrowths of human nature. He could have-and probably should have-listed positive things as well, the point is that ‘outgrowth of human nature’ isn’t a good enough reason by itself to value something. The magic wand nonsense…he has no one to blame but himself for that.

  40. 40
    JamesY2

    @Randomfactor (21)

    You might try casting “ice storm” against global warming, though. Worth a shot.

    Wouldn’t work. You need one of the epic spells from Frostburn to counter it.

  41. 41
    Charly

    scienceavenger

    I’d be curious to see the differences in attitudes on these subjects between the more and less religious cultures. Is there more or less rape in say Mexico than Germany, America vs France?

    I have made such – amateurish – comparision for blog, for European states only, because data for whole world are not easily available. -click-

    On Y axis is rape occurence per 100.000 people, on X is percentage of strongly religious people. Note, that there is actually very slight negative correlation rape vs. religiosity. This could be interpreted as religion causing people to be (very slightly) less likely to be rapists. It also could be interpreted as religious people- predominantly women – or people living in strongly religious and/or pariarchal countries being less likely to report rape due to associated stigma etc. Not to mention legislational differencies, simple statitic flukes when comparing states with significantly differing populations etc. etc. As I said, it is not science, just playing with numbers.

    And just for clarification, because probably very little of people here can read what I actually write on my blog, I did not compare rape with religion. I was commenting on frequently used argument that religion is necessary for the society to function properly and/or people to be moral and that CZ is hopelessly criminal due to lack of religiosity. I completely agree with the notion, that comparing anything to rape is totaly misguided and it should not be simply done, no matter how important one thinks their point is. I am no particular fan of Sam Harris, neither do I have a bone to pick with him, but this whole scenario is stupid and there are much, much better ways how to convey the same point without insulting significant portion of people whose problems already are way too often trivialized.

  42. 42
    G Pierce (Was ~G~)

    Count me as another who agrees with skeptifem.

    The contrasting comments in this thread reminds me of the way I’ve drifted away from some of my old attitudes especially since “deep rifts”. I am still as vehemently against religion for the reasons PZ states and more.

    However, I’ve drifted from the simplistic view that I am on Team Awesome Atheist and that getting rid of religion will get rid of so much evil that we will all be the heroes of humanity for our smarty smartitude. It’s much more nuanced and complicated than that. Religion codifies, concentrates, promotes, takes advantage of for use by nefarious people, flaws in humanity that already exist and will continue to exist: Tribalism, irrationality, sexism, racisim etc. We can minimize these things, but I doubt eliminate them. Rape culture exists independently of religion, but the Catholic Church has conveniently made use of it to protect their own power.

    As for Harris, he’s using an issue that is very charged to others to promote his own favorite issue without thought. Much like that ill-thought atheist billboard with the slavery quote. Or the FB meme I saw comparing domestic violence to religion with a picture of a battered, crying woman. I made sure to post in the comments lots of information on domestic violence for the poster to also share since they ostensibly cared so much about battered women. I don’t think they did. No surprise there.

  43. 43
    Old At Heart

    Frankly, if I had a wand that could eliminate a Concept itself, I’d use it to eliminate the concept of human-versus-human violence. Much broader category, and also addresses a lot of the religion issues.

    @16: You’re looking too far into it. Magical no-rape doesn’t remove ANYTHING you mentioned. I’d say a world of White Knight Nice Guys out to protect the virtue of every woman alive is an improvement on the current status quo, but it is still solidly a patriarchy, viewing women as fragile things to be protected, like property or pets. And removing rape wouldn’t even achieve this White Knight world. There would still be beatings, regular assault, hate, discrimination, mocking, marginalization, et cetera. You can’t argue removal of religion leaves tribalism and not accept the same of the opposite.

    The “wand” gives this: One side removes a small subset of a patriarchal structure that causes very real, common and visible harm. The other side removes a large subset of patriarchal structure that protects and reinforces those who cause harm, but does not harm in and of itself.

    “A flu shot doesn’t grant you total immunity, but is topical NyQuil instead of having the shot the solution if you can only pick one?” To use a less charged question. Treat a symptom, or treat a disease when there’s more than one disease that has that symptom.

  44. 44
    Rutee Katreya

    But what started the misogyny in the first place, and what sustains it, except religion?

    Which is why scandinavians in the viking era were just as misogynistic as their neighbours.

    Wait, no, that’s the opposite of the truth.

    But would the Palestinians still be bombing Israel?

    Unless the Israelis were going to stop bombing them and restore their rights, most likely. And I don’t think Judaism would fix that.

    also, fyi: Pretending the attacks are equivalent is laughable. One side has advanced bombers, the other has shitty RPGs.

    What institution evalues women apart from religion?

    Atheist institutions generally do, so unless atheism became a religion…

    I mean, that puts aside all the obvious places where scientific ones have.

  45. 45
    woodsong

    Adding my voice to the “Well said, skeptifem!” chorus.

    I just have to say, If I had one Wish that could be used for improvements of a global scale, I’d wish for all pollutants to disappear. Clean water and air? Now that would improve some quality of life, without invasively (and forcibly) changing anyone!

  46. 46
    unclefrogy

    I really am growing to recognize my utter dislike for hypotheticals of all kinds! Just more abstract BS. Is there no other way to talk about things without resorting to impossible and magical situations?
    I will not play which is worse mind games any more this one which I never heard of before finished all that was left of my interest in any of them.

    >But without evangelical christianity’s dogmatic attachment to capitalism,<

    I am not so sure religion is attached to capitalism as such as I think that religion as it functions in "civilized societies" is bound up with authority. The distinction of civilized societies is to differentiate them from the religion as practiced by hunter-gatherers.
    The authority of the status quo the existing powers, be they king and lords or bankers and industrialists or war lords and politicians.

    uncle frogy

  47. 47
    =8)-DX

    I’m a man, haven’t been raped, don’t personally know anyone who has been raped (although I know of cases of harassment, and know some of my own behaviour has been sexist/obnoxious in the past). From that standpoint I can also see the direct harm religion did to me during my youth. So which way would I wave the wand?

    My first answer would be to say that I don’t have enough information to properly weigh into this. And then I’d probably choose to get rid of rape: we’re now living in a time religion can be escaped, denied, disproved, ridiculed, and thoughts in people’s heads are hard to control. Women and other victims of sexual assault are missing precisely that element of control and the safety of consciencs a nonbeliever will always have behind their eyes.

  48. 48
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    Count me as agreeing with skiptifem on this one. That said, while eliminating religion wouldn’t eliminate rape, I’m not sure it would be possible to get rid of rape completely without also getting rid of religion, so if you wave the wand that direction, you’d get a twofer.

    @ Pierce R. Butler #8

    Any psychological change which would enable the “hell with it, let her go” component of the brain would seem to favor the “hold your fire, let the negotiators handle this” module as well.

    Still not seeing the downside here, mate.

  49. 49
    gemfire

    As a woman who has suffered both, I would agree with Sam Harris on which one to destroy with the magic wand.

    Here’s why: Religion in today’s society is not only accepted, it is held up as something good (a judge even ordered a young man to go to church as part of his punishment.) Rape is not. Rape isn’t openly accepted in our society and has laws against it. While they aren’t perfect and they don’t seem to be a very good deterrent, they are still there and a rape victim still has somewhere to turn.

    Those who suffer from religion (and there really is a lot of harm here from children crying themselves to sleep when they learn a friend of theirs is going to burn in Hell forever to the Taliban and Islamic extremists) don’t have anywhere to turn except sites like this. There isn’t an official channel where I can report how my church has done harm because that harm isn’t generally a physical harm. But it can do lasting damage.

    Until we punish those peddling religion at least as much as we punish rapists, I’ll point the wand at the one that society accepts and make do with our legal system for dealing with the other.

  50. 50
    davem

    If we magically eliminated religion right now, Israel would still be bombing Palestinians

    True. But if we’d got rid of religion 100 years ago, the state of Israel wouldn’t exist. It’s predicated on the ‘promised land’, the ‘chosen people’ etc. Just think, no more religious terrorism, all over the World. No more being groped at airports. No suicide bombers. If we’d got rid of religion 2000 years ago, we’d have had another 1000 years of scientific progress behind us.

  51. 51
    susans

    @47, do you know more than a few women? I bet you do know someone who has been raped.

  52. 52
    Jadehawk

    another one agreeing with skeptifem. because

    1)no one made Harris pick rape as the thing that religion is worse than; it was his own decision; he freely decided on devaluing harm done primarily to women for the purpose of being “shocking” and “edgy”

    2)ultimately, such a question boils down to getting rid of either religiosity, or patriarchy. And religion without patriarchy is a largely harmless superstition, while patriarchy without religion is as toxic as ever *coughAVFMcough*

  53. 53
    SallyStrange

    New rules:

    1. If someone poses a hypothetical to you where you compare rape and religion, or some similarly abstract, not-really-comparable things, refuse to answer the question.

    2. Do not pose such hypotheticals in the first place, unless you’re trying to be a complete asshat.

    Since Harris has confessed that he was TRYING to be inflammatory, I guess we can chalk his stupidity up to wanting to be a total asshat.

    New rule: If you’re deliberately trying to be an asshat, your point is going to get lost among the angry responses to your asshattery. If you prefer getting a point across to making people angry, don’t be a fucking asshat.

  54. 54
    Jadehawk

    f we’d got rid of religion 2000 years ago, we’d have had another 1000 years of scientific progress behind us.

    because authoritarian, anti-scientific regimes can’t exist without religion?
    because social collapse can’t happen without religion?

    *sigh*

  55. 55
    Mr. Fire

    My take-home message from this is:

    There is no wand. There is no dichotomy. Don’t honor and indulge shitheads like Sam Harris by pretending there is one.

  56. 56
    What a Maroon, oblivious

    It is hard to imagine any statistically significant percentage of the population looking the other way while someone who isn’t a priest rapes children.

    Jerry Sandusky.
    An unknown number of boy scout leaders.
    An unknown number of prisoners.

    Those are just three examples off the top of my head of non-priests who rape while many look the other way or even encourage the rape. (Granted, you said “rapes children”, which for the most part doesn’t apply to prisoners, but it’s still a relevant example of how rape is tolerated, and even encouraged, by our society.)

  57. 57
    G Pierce (Was ~G~)

    I’m not sure why Harris remained relevant after people stopped talking about the End of Fatih. Is it that he’s kind of like a young, handsome atheist cowboy who shoots from the hip on topics he’s only somewhat familiar with?

  58. 58
    G Pierce (Was ~G~)

    Add to #56, Jimmy Savile of the BBC. Or many families in which a child reports they’ve been raped. Or many schools. Required reading for people who think what happened in the Catholic Church can’t happen in secular organizations with similar levels of power and lack of transperency- http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2012/09/24/120924crat_atlarge_gladwell

    And add to that Carol Tavris’s Mistakes Were Made but Not by Me. Humans everywhere are masters of denial, covering their asses and pretending everything is ok, especially with rape it seems.

  59. 59
    yubal

    Related Question (imaginary problems):

    If having to chose between those two options:

    A) Destroy something that is purely harmonic, good and positive for all beings on this planet

    or

    B) Create something that is purely destructive, vile and cruel.

    and you have to chose one of them, what are you more likely to do?

  60. 60
    unclefrogy

    yubal:
    right that’s it!

    wasn’t there a survey a little while ago with these kinds of stupid questions/choices on it?

    uncle frogy

  61. 61
    yubal

    I don’t know frogy.

    My wife used this riddle to punish our oldest when she was naughty.

  62. 62
    mildlymagnificent

    But the problem is that Harris came up with this shit all by himself.
    He thought that rape victims would be the appropriate group to use in order to stick the label “not as important as religion” onto and he is very, very clear about that.

    Yup. He could have taken neglected children or a feared disease or some other scourge of human society as examples of something that anyone and everyone would understand as desirable to eliminate. He could have chosen something where the get-rid-of-religion alternative would be a topic for real analysis and discussion.

    But no. He just wanted to be offensive. To women in particular. (I very much doubt the existence of survivors of child rape even crossed his mind.)

  63. 63
    firetree

    As an atheist, I find myself in agreement with many of the above statements, Sam Harris’s choice of what to wave his magic wand at is complete nonsense.

    The 4,000 of 5,000 religions are the product of the mind of man. Aside from being mental figments, religions all have two things in common. The first is hierarchy dominance with a system of punishment and reward—heaven or hell—the old B.F. Skinner axiom, which is codified as a personalized modification of a moral code fashioned by those who organized the religion to fit into their scheme of control. Every religion has a leader who benefits and followers who make them leaders—peck order. The second is belief in or sense of a supreme being, spirit, presence, or something equivalent. When they start drinking wine and eating wafers and hanging people on a cross is where I and I assume some other atheists get off the religions train. Although, we claim not to believe in a supreme being, we all seem to agree that rape, murder and stealing, etc are wrong and punishable.

    Most atheists seem to know what they “do not believe in” but most seem not to know what gives rise to their sense of morality. There have a glaring gap in their reasoning. Genome wide synergy that gives rise to a “sense of survival” or the basis of morality is something I can believe in. It does not have weight nor does it occupy space. It is no more real than the taste of salt.

    The Ten Commandments are a list of what one group of religions believes constitutes the moral code. Catholics have ten, Ojibwa have 21, and others have different but manageable numbers. Some violations are worse then others. I live by only one moral code, which is simple. If something may prevent my survival or even affect by quality of life, it is “amoral” to various degrees. If something may prevent the survival of my wife and children (kin) or affect their quality of life, then that is amoral. If something may prevent survival of the species or quality of life then that is amoral. A simple extension of this is that I am responsible for whatever is in my genome. If I have sickle cell anemia, it is my problem; I die young, as I must. If I have too much testosterone it is my problem; I may die in prison, as I should. That is the way it is.

  64. 64
    Amphiox

    True. But if we’d got rid of religion 100 years ago, the state of Israel wouldn’t exist.

    I think it probably would exist.

    But it would be located somewhere in Germany, and would now be part of the EU.

  65. 65
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    mildlymagnificent:
    (I very much doubt the existence of survivors of child rape even crossed his mind.)

    Which makes the insidious, pervasive nature of rape culture *that* much scarier. Rape has been minimized so much that people like Harris make these comments without realizing the full extent and the ramifications of what they’re talking about.

  66. 66
    Ing

    Nice to see someone call out Harris on the fact he’s not attack8ing religion…just everyone else’s. Not sure how he is all that different than xian apologists

  67. 67
    rrhain

    Oh, sure, if you make the magic wand, you’ll have 50 charges to it and indeed, you can conceivably recharge some wands, but we all know that when you find a wand, it is never fully charged. So unless you have a magic-user in your party to identify it and determine how many charges are in there, you should assume it is minimal.

  68. 68
    dereksmear

    If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either Sam Harris or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of Sam Harris.

  69. 69
    John Morales

    [meta]

    dereksmear, why not just come to the point?

    (You might as well have written “I am an idiot”)

  70. 70
    mattand

    At this point, does Sam Harris contribute anything to the atheist community besides embarrasment?

  71. 71
    John Morales

    mattand, yeah. He pisses off theologians.

    (What do you contribute?)

  72. 72
    mattand

    For starters, I’m not saying stupid shit about rape and calling for profiling of suspected Muslims.

  73. 73
    John Morales

    mattand, what stupid shit about rape has Sam said?

  74. 74
    Dhorvath, OM

    What you don’t do isn’t quite a contribution though, is it?

  75. 75
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    dereksmear:

    If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either Sam Harris or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of Sam Harris.

    What the fuck is wrong with you to say something like this?

  76. 76
    mattand

    Skeptifem @ 27 has a pretty good description of Harris saying stupid shit regarding rape.

  77. 77
    John Morales

    mattand, really? Because she’s quoting PZ, not Sam, and merely providing her opinion on the opinion piece.

    You, however, claimed Sam is “saying stupid shit about rape”.

    Again, can you quote or cite this purported stupidity?

    (Because you come across as indulging in spurious character assassination, when you don’t care to substantiate your claim)

  78. 78
    Ing

    Better varient of question

    If you couldwish for either a 100% garuntee to eliminate one kind of crime or a wish to remove what you believe to be a source of greater injustice which would you do?

    IMO Sam here would be taking a leap of faith. Yes he believes religion is bad but he has certainty for the other choice. I say that rationally I cannot claim to be so wise and impartial to gamble what I believe versus a 100% certainty

  79. 79
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    Becca @2:

    Also, the use of a magic wand to heavily alter existing human thought processes strikes me as… well, in non-scientific terms, it gives me an ooky feeling.

    You’re not the only one.
    The more I thought about the idea of waving a magic wand and getting rid of religion, the more I question *HOW* that would happen and what it means to get rid of religion.
    Would he eliminate religious organizations? That wouldn’t do much good, as people would just start new ones.
    Would he eliminate houses of worship? People would build new ones.
    Would he force people to embrace atheism? Morally repugnant.
    Would he manipulate the minds of people to make them not believe in God? That’s morally repugnant too.
    Would he manipulate the minds of people so that they’d be better at critical thinking, logic, and skepticism? * Still morally repugnant.

    Would there be a way to get rid of religion without making alterations to the minds of humanity?

    *Also, would he limit this to just religious believers? If not, it does nothing to affect the magical thinking of pushers of woo, astrology, or ghost hunting.

  80. 80
    Ing

    @79

    Actually a free upgrade/patch to human intelligence would make that a far better dilema. 100% one kind of violent crime or give the entire population the gift of greater clarity of thought and perception…

  81. 81
    yubal

    @80

    there is more to it that population genetics/induced behavior. . .

    Intelligence is the ability to recognize an obstacle to a putative solution faster and therefore allows you to circumvent/solve problems more efficiently. Possessing intelligence is no guarantee for avoiding stupid behavior. Intelligent people can commit stupidity much faster than non-intelligent people and at an amazingly high level. I wouldn’t even extend this to vile behavior since that it totally disconnected from intelligence. Intelligence allows you to be a more effective villain or a more effective citizen. Same is true in non-vile behavior. The choice is still yours.

  82. 82
    Ing

    The choice is still yours.

    GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO PLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANET!

  83. 83
    yubal

    i do not understand you comment. please elaborate.

  84. 84
    Amphiox

    Would there be a way to get rid of religion without making alterations to the minds of humanity?

    Yes. Change the details of human embryonic brain development such that from this point on this process will result in a brain that will not accept religion of any form, no matter what. Then wait.

    No existing individual minds are thus altered against anyone’s will. Only future, as yet non-existent minds will subsequently arise that will be different from the old standard.

    (The idea of a society of humans with brains incapable of religion has, of course, been explored in science fiction, such as in Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax series.)

  85. 85
    Ing

    @Amphiox

    But that would also mean that it would most likely NOT accept things like other woo….or it would be implausibly specific ala laser guided amnesia

  86. 86
    consciousness razor
    Would there be a way to get rid of religion without making alterations to the minds of humanity?

    Yes. Change the details of human embryonic brain development such that from this point on this process will result in a brain that will not accept religion of any form, no matter what. Then wait.

    Uh… but which details? Would it be physically possible to isolate and remove “able to believe religious ideas” with no adverse effects? Or are we still in magic wand territory on this?

  87. 87
    consciousness razor

    Or maybe that’s not what would need to be removed. I mean, I’m able to believe religious ideas. I’d have to be (albeit temporarily) in order to consider them rationally and reject them, right?

  88. 88
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    I’d have to be (albeit temporarily) in order to consider them rationally and reject them, right?

    No, I don’t see where that follows. Do you have to believe in invisible unicorns in order to consider the idea of invisible unicorns rationally and then reject it?

  89. 89
    Ing

    Uh… but which details? Would it be physically possible to isolate and remove “able to believe religious ideas” with no adverse effects? Or are we still in magic wand territory on this?

    That’s why I said a human mind patch. Hardwire in a sense of logic and reason and hard code in an ability to recognize logical fallacies and a revulsion against rejecting such thought.

  90. 90
    consciousness razor

    Do you have to believe in invisible unicorns in order to consider the idea of invisible unicorns rationally and then reject it?

    I don’t really know. I guess it depends on what “believe” means.

    Have an idea long enough to think of it as real/true, even if you end up not acting on it because you decide that thought is wrong?

    Or is it something more like be convinced enough that an idea is real/true that you act on it?

  91. 91
    consciousness razor

    Hardwire in a sense of logic and reason and hard code in an ability to recognize logical fallacies and a revulsion against rejecting such thought.

    But with informal fallacies, you often need to know enough about the subjects to recognize them as such. So, you’d probably also have to prep everyone with lots of raw information about the world.

  92. 92
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    I don’t really know. I guess it depends on what “believe” means.

    Have an idea long enough to think of it as real/true, even if you end up not acting on it because you decide that thought is wrong?

    Well, I can certainly dismiss invisible unicorns without doing this, and have also done so with every religious idea that has so far been presented to me.

    Or is it something more like be convinced enough that an idea is real/true that you act on it?

    And this one precludes belief before being convinced; I’ve certainly never been that convinced of any religious belief, exactly because I consider them rationally and then reject them.

  93. 93
    consciousness razor

    Well, I can certainly dismiss invisible unicorns without doing this

    I’m sure we all can, but would that be rational? If you’re not taking it as a legitimate possibility, thinking about what would be entailed by it and whether it’s consistent with everything else you know, then what’s rational about that?

    Just having a sort of visceral reaction against invisible unicorns (understandable as that is) isn’t enough. We call someone a “non-believer” no matter what their reasons are (because we’re accounting for the existence of clueless, shitheaded atheists), but to be rational your reasoning has to work a certain way. It’s not just “dismissing” certain things.

  94. 94
    Ing

    So to recap it was a bad question and Harris should feel bad

  95. 95
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    I’m sure we all can, but would that be rational?

    Yes. I can consider an idea in the abstract without considering it to be true in any sense. I can, for instance, consider invisible unicorns, create elaborate descriptions of them, imagine what the world would be like if they were wandering around, without at any time considering them to in fact be real. Barring specific evidence for their existence, the only rational course of action is to dismiss the idea out of hand, because it is not congruent with the rest of observed reality: there aren’t any invisible animals, nor any equids with horns, thus anyone claiming that there are had better have some very convincing evidence.

    If you’re not taking it as a legitimate possibility, thinking about what would be entailed by it and whether it’s consistent with everything else you know,

    These don’t necessarily go together. I can think about what would be entailed by the existence of invisible unicorns without considering them a legitimate possibility, and despite the fact that they are inconsistent with what I already know. I can also compare them to what I already know without thinking about what they would entail beyond their own existence, and determine whether they are a legitimate possibility based on that, etc.

  96. 96
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    Amphiox:

    (The idea of a society of humans with brains incapable of religion has, of course, been explored in science fiction, such as in Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax series.)

    Interesting.
    Do you feel this is a book worth purchasing?

  97. 97
    bradleybetts

    I do hate the idea that you can be both an Atheist and a Buddhist. I mean yeah, interpreted in it’s most narrow sense (“no gods”) you can be an Atheist and a Buddhist because Buddhism doesn’t have a God… but it’s still a religion. It still puts one man up on a ridiculous pedestal, you still worship that man and there are still a load of stupid beliefs which require a suspension of critical thinking to believe. So yes, technically you can be an Atheist and a Buddhist, but you cannot be a Rationalist and a Buddhist and Atheism without Rationalism is meaningless because it means you aren’t an Atheist because you’ve thought it through and weighed up the evidence and come to the conclusion there are no Gods; you’re an Atheist for exactly the same reason as the religionists do believe in God. Which makes you no better than them.

  98. 98
    unclefrogy

    bradley there is an element of truth in what you say but also some errors. Same kind of errors creationists make when they speak of Darwinism as a belief in Darwin. Yes scientists “belief” Darwin existed and may revere him and his voyage on the Beagle and his books but he was no god neither was the prince he was a teacher. That is not to say that in the “folk religion” aspect of Buddhism there are not parts that are very much just as you say but that is very much not the whole story read up on it.

    the other thing that bothered me was the idea that atheist should be better than believers and that rational atheists are better the those atheists that did not come to atheism by reason.
    It is not about being better than any one I am not better than any one neither are you. You may have a better understanding of some things or abilities that others do not have but that does not make you in any better or superior to anyone else.

    uncle frogy

  99. 99
    unclefrogy

    way
    uncle frogy

  100. 100
    seasofbrightjuice

    PZ says: “The point about it being “nontheistic” is also a non sequitur.” It would be a non sequitur if he were saying “it’s nontheistic, THEREFORE non-superstitious, needless of criticism, etc.” He says no such thing; he says, explicitly, the opposite. He only says that Buddhism’s nontheism is a distinguishing feature, which of course it is. He then goes on to agree that it contains other unjustified beliefs, worthy of criticism. And further goes on to say — far from “my religion is exempt from condemnation” — “I think Buddhists have to get out of the religion business altogether.”

    I really wonder, PZ, if you know whereof you speak, if you know what sorts of things Harris has in mind when he praises large areas of Buddhist thought as worthy of our attention. What do you consider to be Buddhism’s core philosophical concerns? Granted rebirth and karma are widespread buddhist beliefs, but they’re hardly its distinguishing characteristics. (They’re basically borrowed from Hinduism). The Buddha emphatically said that relief of mental anguish is his first and last concern, for which he prescribed experiential (contemplative) insight into things like: impermanence; lack of a persisting or independent self; compassion & ethical clarity; more-than-conceptual presence of mind that doesn’t cling to or resist what arises in experience; etc. These are all purely phenomenological claims, not supernatural at all.

    Later Buddhist thinkers explored many related subtle points — things like the hallucination (i.e. actual nonexistence) of a subject and object of experience; mental effortlessness, and how it reveals a vivid and undivided field of experience without self or other; you know, stuff like that.

    I don’t understand this desire (not necessarily yours PZ, but evident among some commenters) to say “Buddhism is a Religion (TM), QED, end of story.” Buddhism (along with to a lesser extent Vedanta, Taoism etc.) is a repository of a huge portion of the most interesting philosophy, done by half the world’s philosophizing population, over a couple millennia. “Religion” is a ridiculously partial and uninteresting description of its functions.

  101. 101
    darkstar

    I’ve been raped, and I tell you eliminating the sexual act wouldn’t do much to change the horrific experiences so many men and women endure because the physical and emotional violence would remain.

    And PZ is correct that removing religion won’t stop violence between us ignorant human beings either.

    So what is this choice REALLY about?

    Honestly, my inclination would be to pick religion also — because of the witch burning, the genital mutilations, the immeasurable damage done to women’s self-esteem and rights, and the murders of astronomical numbers of Africans and natives of the greater Americas. But I can’t honestly say things wouldn’t have been even worse given some other random set of circumstances (which doesn’t mean religion is better, it’s irrelevant at best).

    But whatever you pick you have to remember this is a SILLY STUPID question intended only to highlight a specific set of problems with an ARBITRARY judgement. We cannot put an objective number on the harm done by either one, so there cannot be a ‘Rational’ choice here.

    If I can use one of PZ’s remaining charges what I might do instead of either one is inflict upon each person a full empathetic realization of all the consequences of any action that harms another being. On second thought… that might be too much for anyone to bear.

  102. 102
    Ing

    “The point about it being “nontheistic” is also a non sequitur.” It would be a non sequitur if he were saying “it’s nontheistic, THEREFORE non-superstitious, needless of criticism, etc.”

    Someone correct me on this but you’re mistaking a formal non sequitur fallacy with a common language use of non sequitur. A formal one is one where the conclusion is not infered or indicated form premises, a casual one is where the comment is unrelated to the topic at hand or nonsensical.

    Answering “Do you drive a car” with “I often jet ski nude” is a non sequitur as is “We have to combat global warming because otters have long necks”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non_sequitur_%28logic%29

    Though I suppose that a casual non sequitur would be a formal red herring?

  103. 103
    Ing

    is a repository of a huge portion of the most interesting philosophy

    I defy you to prove it is the most interesting.

    A huge core of the buddhist thought is “life is tough to retreat away from it into solipsism”

  104. 104
    seasofbrightjuice

    It’s a good question, “Ing:Intellectual Terrorist etc” — thanks for the opportunity to clarify. In context I think it’s fairly clear that Harris isn’t committing a common language non sequitur, either — he’s just musing on his own personal affinities and dis-affinities with Buddhism, in response to the question “Are you a Buddhist practitioner”:

    “I’m a practitioner, but I don’t really think of myself as a Buddhist. Buddhism can be distinguished from other religions because it’s nontheistic. But I think Buddhists have to get out of the religion business altogether and talk about what the human mind is like, what the potential for human happiness is, and what are some reasonable approaches to seeking happiness in this world.”

  105. 105
    seasofbrightjuice

    I decline the invitation to PROVE that it’s interesting philosophy: for that, cliffs notes will not suffice. I’d be happy to recommend further reading. But rest assured that escapism and solipsism do not exhaust its discourse.

  106. 106
    chigau (違う)

    oh dear

  107. 107
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    talk about what the human mind is like,

    The thing is that philosophers, Buddhist and otherwise, are wildly incompetent to talk about this, as their ideas routinely contradict the findings of neurological and cognitive research. Honestly, given Harris’ actual field of training and presumed expertise (he bills himself as a neuroscientist) I’m surprised that he’s buying into this stuff. OTOH, he took his first degree in philosophy, so I’m not that surprised; IME philosophers generally have an endless capacity for intellectual wankery in the teeth of known facts.

  108. 108
    Ing

    “I’m a practitioner, but I don’t really think of myself as a Buddhist. Buddhism can be distinguished from other religions because it’s nontheistic. But I think Buddhists have to get out of the religion business altogether and talk about what the human mind is like, what the potential for human happiness is, and what are some reasonable approaches to seeking happiness in this world.”

    A good test of a informal nonsequitor is if it makes more sense in a paragraph to remove it

    “I’m a practitioner, but I don’t really think of myself as a Buddhist. I think Buddhists have to get out of the religion business altogether and talk about what the human mind is like, what the potential for human happiness is, and what are some reasonable approaches to seeking happiness in this world.”

    The meaning of the paragraph is not changed by it’s subtraction.

    NOte that Harris is also bullshit. Someone saying “I practice Catholocism but am not a Catholic” is rightfully a ridiculous statement because it’s obviously trying to play bullshit games.

    I’d be happy to recommend further reading. But rest assured that escapism and solipsism do not exhaust its discourse.

    You presume I don’t know anything about Buddhism before coming to that conclusion? Other thoughts aside cowardly pants wetting retreat from the scarey world is basically the tenants of Buddhism as laid down by the 8 truths and all that

  109. 109
    Ing

    As an amusing aside I’m pretty sure Catholics could make almost the same claims about interesting philosophy coming from their religion. I’m equally unconvinced.

  110. 110
    seasofbrightjuice

    I agree he could have said that “practitioner” bit better. “Practice,” particularly in western Buddhist circles, is principally shorthand for meditation. And meditation, of course, tends to go hand-in-hand with an interest in the phenomenological insights of other meditators, others who have explored experience directly, non-conceptually, non-symbolically, in quiet alertness.

    That, incidentally, is a large part of Buddhist philosophy’s particular charm: that it’s so extensively founded on close, quiet observation and description. It’s like the charm of some naturalist philosopher who always does her philosophizing after strolling in the woods, observing ant hills and beaver dams and rotting lilypads. It’s got a lot more musk of the real world in it. In the Buddhist case, the observation is of the movements and non-movements of consciousness itself. And just as you can tell of what you saw on your walk in the woods with considerable assurance, even though you don’t know the underlying physics, you can tell tales of what you saw happen in the texture of your experience without knowledge of what’s happening in the brain.

    Re “cowardly pants wetting retreat” — you’ve got Mahayana Buddhism, for starters, whose guiding ideal is compassionate activity for all beings. (Compassionate activity is no small shakes in Theravada Buddhism either). You’ve got meditation instructions themselves, which usually counsel an unrestrained and unmediated encounter with life just as it is.

    And while there is a sizable and undeniable “retire from the world” streak in Buddhist history, it’s hardly uncomplicated by dissenters, by contrary currents, and just plain moderation. Not to mention that “the active life” isn’t itself undeserving of critique: where that “active life,” far from consisting of compassionate activity, is characterized by things like runaway consumption; compulsive constant motion; a lack of that reflective space & time which can rejuvenate one’s kindness, zest, aesthetic joy, and also (not insignificantly!) one’s awareness of neglected corners of one’s interpersonal relationships, of missed opportunities to express tenderness and camaraderie and fun.

  111. 111
    don1

    Not sure that ‘getting rid of religion’ is even a meaningful statement. If hierarchies, dogmas, sacred texts, prelates and their functionaries, mega-preachers, televangalists, creeds, cults and mysteries, were all put in a sack to be hit with a stick we’d still be left with humans. They would probably arrive at something as spurious, exploitative and over-explained.

    So the only way either option would work would be by magically changing the nature of humans. Serious ethical issues with that.

    So, it was a silly question which Sam asked himself. And a pointless answer he came up with.

  112. 112
    Rutee Katreya

    Buddhism (along with to a lesser extent Vedanta, Taoism etc.) is a repository of a huge portion of the most interesting philosophy, done by half the world’s philosophizing population, over a couple millennia. “Religion” is a ridiculously partial and uninteresting description of its functions.

    Religion does sometimes provide functions that are interesting to its followers and ignored by atheists at large, but ‘philosophy’ is not really one of those functions.

    Re “cowardly pants wetting retreat” — you’ve got Mahayana Buddhism, for starters, whose guiding ideal is compassionate activity for all beings. (Compassionate activity is no small shakes in Theravada Buddhism either). You’ve got meditation instructions themselves, which usually counsel an unrestrained and unmediated encounter with life just as it is.

    Are you an ignoramus? The entire point is to escape samsara; either for yourself, or for as many people as possible, because samsara is scary and hard and tiring. I may not characterize that as ‘fleeing in pants-shitting terror’, but the statement is actually surprisingly grounded.

  113. 113
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    In the Buddhist case, the observation is of the movements and non-movements of consciousness itself.

    And, as anyone who has followed the findings of neuroscience (a category which bloody well should include Sam Harris, but apparently doesn’t) can tell you, you can’t really meaningfully do that. This process cannot, in fact, return valid information about the nature or processes of consciousness, and as such amounts to intellectual wankery of the same type as is engaged in by other types of philosophers, with a slightly different veneer.

  114. 114
    Sili

    While you’re discharging, I want a pony.

  115. 115
    laurentweppe

    If you have to seek a cause for misogyny, then the place to look is probably evolution, and sexual selection.

    Or simply some dude realizing that turning half of his species into second class people would greatly diminish the competition for the spot at the top of the social food chain when we started to live in societies bigger than hunter-gatherer tribes

    ***

    Re Palestinians and Israelis still launching rockets at each other: my take is that it would continue for a little while, but without religion, yada yada yada, everyone would realise that […} figuring out a way to coexist would be far better than a zero-sum game of irrendent violence.

    Without religion, the Ashkenazi bourgeoisie and its chauvinistic demagogues allies would still claim that Palestinians are barbarians who would kill, rape, banish, enslave, insert horrific fate here, every Israeli of jewish decent, while the extremists on the Palestinian side would still claim that Israeli are either white european colonists or their submissive Uncle Toms serving their masters genocidal agenda and that therefore, none deserve mercy.

    ***

    True. But if we’d got rid of religion 100 years ago, the state of Israel wouldn’t exist

    The state of Israel was imagined as an alternative for Jews suffering from antisemitism in Europe. While antisemitism has often used religion as a justification; from the 19th century onward, it became more and more related to ethnic and cultural determinism (precisely the kind of Bullshit that an atheist like Harris keep on pedling to this day), so, since magically removing religion 100 years ago would not have erased ethnic & cultural determinism, it would not have erased antisemitism, and therefore the creation of the State of Israel would still have happened.

    ***

    At this point, does Sam Harris contribute anything to the atheist community besides embarrasment?

    Well, his existence teach american atheists to not be overly tribalistic and blindly trusting. That way, when -sooner or later but inevitably- some relatively well known atheist will start claiming that the rober barons are the Real True Authentic Keepers of a secular society because their policies hurt religious people with brown skin, the rest will not stay dumbfounded and incapable of mounting a counter-attack.

    ***

    If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either Sam Harris or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of Sam Harris.

    What the fuck is wrong with you to say something like this?

    I, for one, would do the same: I would start by waving my magic wand and fix whatever is wrong with his mirror neurons, such obliviating Sam Harris and replacing him by Fringe Harris, a man with the same outward appearance but lacking the tendancies to advocate for white supremacism under the guise of criticism of religion and to make shitty pseudo-phylosophical dilemmas which define the current one.

  116. 116
    lolloo

    The entire point is to escape samsara; either for yourself, or for as many people as possible, because samsara is scary and hard and tiring. I may not characterize that as ‘fleeing in pants-shitting terror’, but the statement is actually surprisingly grounded.

    That’s an intriguing take. Subjectively, I can’t relate to where you’re coming from, but objectively there’s nothing wrong with this argument. A lot of people use practices like mindfulness (essentially secularized Buddhist practice,) for chronic pain, for example. If you want to stay in pain, however, because it seems the more stoic or manly thing to do or whatever, then I can’t argue that you’re wrong. I’d just prefer not to join you in that.

    “I practice Catholocism but am not a Catholic” is rightfully a ridiculous statement because it’s obviously trying to play bullshit games.

    True true. But I think a better analogy would be to say “I practice secularized versions of disciplines that originated within the Catholic Church.” You can be an architect and study Marian architecture without believing in the immaculate conception. You can study Buddhist psychology and meditation without being a Buddhist.

    And, as anyone who has followed the findings of neuroscience (a category which bloody well should include Sam Harris, but apparently doesn’t) can tell you, you can’t really meaningfully do that. This process cannot, in fact, return valid information about the nature or processes of consciousness, and as such amounts to intellectual wankery of the same type as is engaged in by other types of philosophers, with a slightly different veneer.

    I see how this is true for neuroscience (you’re not going to learn about what’s firing in the brain from introspection,) but not psychology. All you need to talk about your own experience is to, well, have an experience and talk about it. I don’t believe anyone’s ever applied Eastern introspective practice to areas like neurology, it’s usefulness is more in areas like psychology.

  117. 117
    seasofbrightjuice

    Rutee Katreya — (sorry for the time-lapse, been in internet-less woods with family for Thanksgiving hols) — my task here is easy. I don’t have to defend the integrity of the Buddhist tradition as a whole, just the bits I like (which are especially such like Dzogchen, Ch’an and Madhyamaka).

    So, I can well believe that an upward-gazing vision of samsara vs. nirvana has had deleterious or stagnating effects on Buddhist societies somewheres, sometimes. But Zen’s version of nirvana? Awfully earthy and immediate. Dzogchen’s version, where this very ordinary “uncorrected mind” reveals itself to be boundless and free and full of wakefulness, openness, compassion? Hardly life-denying. “Samsara IS nirvana” is downright orthodoxy across large swaths of Mahayana and Tantra. This can have two (at least) slightly different meanings: on the one hand, that phenomenal experience (samsara) and free awareness (nirvana) — i.e. free of both clinging and aversion, restraint or willful investment — cohabit the same space, and peacably so. Or, a slightly more interesting variation to my mind: even ATTACHMENT is free of attachment.

    That describes what happens when a person gets the hang of effortless, non-interfering awareness of present experience. Then whatever transpires in and as awareness does so intimately and vividly, but unimpededly — without a sense of “I INHABIT this, I AM this” — this thought, self-image, bundle of muscular contractions, etc. Awareness knows every phenomenon by BEING it from stem to stern, so it’s utterly intimate with “samsara;” at the same time, it’s never LOCATED inside any one phenomenon, and consequently in opposition to other phenomena (e.g. “me and the world”). The experience of this is simple, mind you, it doesn’t require the analytic steps I’ve just taken: it’s as clear as a visual scene at times when there’s presence, clarity, effortlessness (all synonyms here). In the absence of any investment for or against phenomena, they arise and pass freely and vividly, in total clarity but unimpeded. So when a desire or attachment comes, it doesn’t attach itself TO YOU as awareness, but neither is it a hair’s-breadth distant.

    –Oy, please forgive the muddy repetitiveness above, I’ve got limited time on a library computer…

    So anyway I prefer that sort of version of the discourse around samsara & nirvana. But even in the most upward-gazing, “not-again-born-into-this-world” type balderdash, one escapes samsara by a change in one’s attentions and affections.

    The question connects to a broader point about “getting out of the religion business.” There are Buddhist superstitions of a less obviously supernatural nature implicated here — things like excessive respect for tradition, lineage, gurus; an unrealistic expectation that because someone has transformed her attentions and affections in a beautiful way, she will also have privileged knowledge of metaphysics, or will transcend her cultural conditioning. (Though one might hope for just enough transcendence not to fall hook-line-sinker for Japanese imperial propaganda … a dispiriting episode in Zen history, that). Buddhist thought is at its best when it treats its antecedents as freely as a poet treats his antecedents, echoing and departing and reuniting uninhibitedly.

    There are central concerns that render a more than artificial integrity & continuity to Buddhist thought as a whole — concerns like thoroughgoing contingency, lack of a separate self. At the same time the brand name creates both artificial boundaries and strange bedfellows: so some of the subtler Advaita thinkers have more in common with Dzogchen than Dzogchen does with Buddhaghosa, and both Dzogchen and Advaita would benefit greatly by a fuller conversation; here “Buddhism” is quite an artificial boundary. Meanwhile rebirth fits uncomfortably with non-self, karma (universal justice) fits uncomfortably with a godless universe, and free will fits uncomfortably with the Buddhist emphasis on contingency, non-self and an intimate fabric of experience which lacks subject/object, inside/outside. In conclusion, “Buddhist thought” includes both organic philosophical echo and artificial religious boundaries.

  118. 118
    seasofbrightjuice

    Re observing consciousness as a means to know what consciousness is like: obviously it won’t tell you which neurons are firing. But all of literature, psychology, and conversation with friends is doing little else — just without the rigor of observing for a while quite wordlessly, effortlessly, non-symbolically.

    What meditation most crucially offers is deeply FELT, somatically understood, and therapeutic insight. Surely plenty of western philosophers have noticed e.g., that it isn’t entirely coherent to posit a subject and object of experience. But the cognitive insight alone doesn’t nearly exhaust its promise, it’s fairly impotent. To make the insight your first instinct about how the world is structured takes a close and quiet exploration of “me in here, world out there” — explored & transposed into many different situations and levels of experience (thought, sensation, perception, impulse, fear of your boss, defensiveness in internet debates).

    Familiarizing oneself with inner gestures or postures of release, nonreactivity, tenderness, nonconceptual inquiry, etc. is quite similar to developing musical or dancerly skills: insight into the possibilities of any of those spaces has to come mostly just thru exploration of said spaces. Since a pill to induce abiding, felt insight into the nonduality of consciousness is about as imminent a prospect as a pill to turn you into Django Reinhardt, contemplative phenomenology is still the quicker route than neuroscience. (With due respect to shrooms and acid. They can have real and positive results in that general direction, but on the whole quite mixed and evaporative).

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