07 December 2010

Wright is Wrong

Some folks get their jollies by watching competitive sports. Not me, though - I insist on being weird. When I want to watch a competition where one side gets soundly beaten, I watch debates. The latest of these was between Sam Harris and Robert Wright. (Watch it on YouTube.)

Now, both Harris and Wright are technically atheists, but they disagree on the details. Wright agrees with Harris that religion is wrong, but parts ways with him when it comes to religion being bad. It's Wright's contention that religion is always neutral in any situation, neither bad nor good. He claims that the bad that Harris would attribute to religion is actually caused by other factors: cultural, political, socioeconomic, etc. He even goes so far as to characterise the the Israeli-Palestine conflict as a "land dispute".

This isn't the first time Wright has argued for this position. I've seen him do it once before with Christopher Hitchens. It seems to be his "shtick". He even admits when challenged that the question of religion's neutrality is a hard one to answer; that he hasn't done enough research or gathered enough evidence to be firm in his conclusion; and that it's his "intuition" about it. This is starting to sound more and more like an a priori assumption to me. It's amazing the wriggling he'll do to defend it, as well. In the debate with Harris, Richard Dawkins happened to be in attendance. During the Q&A, he asked Wright (in so many words) whether the conflict in Northern Ireland would exist without the artificial religious labels that continue to fuel it. Wright's prevaricating answer suggested that the conflict grew out of an imbalance in the two groups' access to power. This didn't go a long way to answering Dawkins' question - the concept of being two distinct groups would never have existed in the first place if not for theological differences - but whatever.

Basically, any time someone gives an example of an evil in the world that is ostensibly caused by religion, Wright will dutifully trot out a rationalisation that conveniently absolves religion. As he's not religious himself, one wonders why he bothers - but one can uncharitably speculate. When Harris asked him why he's against criticising Islam, but not against criticising the comparable (and quasi-religious) situation in North Korea, he said "Well, what are they gonna do?" Perhaps Wright is being hypocritical. He's okay with stepping on an ant hill, but not knocking on a bee hive.

Anyway, it's not my intent to figure out why Wright argues for the neutrality of religion. It's my intent to refute it. You'd think Sam Harris could have done so amply in the debate, but he seemed a little off his game (though Sam Harris on a bad day is still a force to be reckoned with). Unfortunately, the conversation turned to Islam more often than not, and much time was wasted with Harris reiterating its dangers. "There's a reason why we're not all lying awake at night worrying about the Amish," he said, making a great point in his great quotable style. But he said nothing that began to cut through Wright's argument and kill it at its root.

Wright's clung-to position that "religion is always neutral" is twofold: when an example of an evil of religion is brought up that he can't quickly dismiss, he'll move the goalpost, shifting the meaning of neutral to mean that while religion actually can inspire bad after all, it also inspires enough good that it's on balance neutral again. Once more, of course, he says this is difficult to measure and that he doesn't have any concrete foundation for his claim. (One wonders, then, why he makes the debate circuit arguing such a shaky claim.)

Both claims of neutrality, however, are easily and quickly dismissed. It's a shame Harris didn't do so, because maybe we'd be spared further flogging of the idea by Wright in the future. Anyway, I'll tackle them.

First claim of religious neutrality: "Religion never inspires bad things, people do bad things anyway and use religion to defend them. Take religion away and they'll just justify the bad things with something else, such as bastardised science."

This seems like you could dismiss it easily by finding something bad that a holy book tells people to do, and find an example of people doing it. For example: Not treating gays equally. That's a foul thing to do, and it's caused by religion, right?

Well, it may or may not be (though I'd say that in most cases, yes, it is), but Wright's rejoinder would probably be something like, "Yes, but there are lots of religious people - even ones who follow the very same holy book - who don't do it. Therefore, the bigots are practising homophobia because of their culture or some other reason, and simply using "God's word" to justify their behaviour."

That's a pretty sneaky response, and it can send one reeling just long enough for the subject to be changed. And it works with pretty much any minority group.

Except one.

Atheists. Pray tell, without religion, how there could possibly be such a phenomenon as discrimination against atheists? This is at least evil that can't be explained away as due to "socioeconomic factors" and completely hamstrings the argument that religion itself generates no evil.

Second claim of religious neutrality: "Okay, you might have got me there. Maybe religion causes that. But it causes enough good to make up for it in the end!"

This second claim is so facile that one wonders who couldn't shred it, but here goes. Doing good after doing bad doesn't make one good, or even neutral. The guilt of having done bad remains. For example, if I murdered someone, and then donated one of my kidneys or lungs to save someone else, would I be "neutral"? No, I'd still be in gaol for having murdered someone! At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, Wright's claim is tantamount to saying that the Nazis were on balance neutral because, hey! they rebuilt Germany's economy while they were at it.

Unless I've grossly mischaracterised Wright's position, it's pretty clear that it's pathetically easy to take apart. Fortunately for him Harris was fixated on Islam for so much of the talk; because if the light of reason had fully shone on his silly notions, they would have been embarrassingly revealed as unclothed in logic or consideration.

6 comments:

  1. How exactly are you supposed to measure something like the effect of religion, anyway? We don't have a world without religion with all else held constant that we can compare our world too, and so we cannot say one way or another what the overall effect of religion is. There are way too many variables. (Not to mention measuring “good” and “bad” is just politics masquerading as science since those are relative value judgements). It's the same reason why determining whether an economic stimulus worked or not is impossible. If the economy gets worse, you can just say it would have been even worse had the stimulus not happened. So of course any opinion on this issue is going to be largely a priori, not to mention value-based. And if anything, you'll have better luck trying to figure out the answer a priori than through observation. Believing you can prove otherwise is scientism, not science.

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  2. "We don't have a world without religion with all else held constant that we can compare our world too, and so we cannot say one way or another what the overall effect of religion is."

    We don't need a world without religion to study, only societies with varying degrees of secularity, which we do happen to have. The subject is not impervious to measurement. Besides, was not my example (that of the discrimination against the non-religious) enough?

    Don't think for a moment that there is no discrimination, or that it is not great, either. In the US, a large number of people wouldn't want to marry an atheist, or see one hold public office. It could even count against you when it comes to the custody of your children.

    And though I didn't mention it in the article, the example could also be expanded to include discrimination against those with another religion, or simply another interpretation of the same religion. How, without the vile concept that faith is a virtue and mere belief in the proper god (or earthly dictator) can divide the human population into the superior and inferior, would there be so much killing and strife over mere ideas? I see few populations slaughtered over their preference of cheeses - why is religion in such a different (and dangerous) category?

    "There are way too many variables."

    This is not a legitimate reason to throw up our hands and unquestioningly accept that it must then be neutral.

    "(Not to mention measuring “good” and “bad” is just politics masquerading as science since those are relative value judgements)."

    They are not relative value judgements; "good" and "bad" are shorthand for "good-" and "bad for the well-being of conscious creatures" which is all that can possibly ever matter to anyone.

    "And if anything, you'll have better luck trying to figure out the answer a priori than through observation. Believing you can prove otherwise is scientism, not science."

    And this very statement of yours is not an a prior conclusion because?...

    Accusations of scientism ring hollow to me; nothing is either impregnable to or diminished by rational inquiry.

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  3. I responded to this and it looked like it had posted correctly but now I don't see my reply. Did you get it? If not, well, so much for that...

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  4. "I responded to this and it looked like it had posted correctly but now I don't see my reply. Did you get it? If not, well, so much for that..."

    I don't know why Blogger comments are such a pain, but I did get the body of the text in my inbox:

    "This is not a legitimate reason to throw up our hands and unquestioningly accept that it must then be neutral."

    No, that wasn't my argument. My argument is that it's impossible to tell either way. I'm agnostic in regard to the question.

    "Besides, was not my example (that of the discrimination against the non-religious) enough?"

    Actually, I agree with you that religion certainly has caused harm in specific cases--of course it has! But was that really the question? That would seem kind of silly. I'm assuming that the question is whether religion is a NET harm or good--whether the good outweighs the bad.

    Your example is enough to show that religion sometimes causes people to prefer people who share their religion and reject those who don't, yes. That's a point for your side. But then that's true of most any organized (or unorganized) group.

    "Don't think for a moment that there is no discrimination, or that it is not great, either. In the US, a large number of people wouldn't want to marry an atheist, or see one hold public office. It could even count against you when it comes to the custody of your children."

    I'm sure that you'd generally rather hang out with people who agree with you (atheists) than hang around in religious circles, wouldn't you? You'd probably rather vote an atheist into office because they're more likely share your views on what promotes societal well-being, right? You discriminate based on all sorts of factors when you choose a mate or a friend--intelligence, looks, beliefs, personality... Life is all about discriminating. What you believe affects how you discriminate. I'm really not sure what that proves.

    "They are not relative value judgements; "good" and "bad" are shorthand for "good-" and "bad for the well-being of conscious creatures" which is all that can possibly ever matter to anyone."

    I am actually VERY sympathetic to this viewpoint. However, 1) choosing to value what is good for the well being of conscious creatures is still a value judgement, and 2) whether an action is good for the well-being of conscious creatures is often difficult to determine (are we talking long term or short-term well-being? How is it defined?) and almost always open for legitimate debate. i.e. We might agree on the ends, but agreeing what policies will lead to the ends is another matter entirely.

    "And this very statement of yours is not an a prior conclusion because?..."

    I didn't say it wasn't :)

    "Accusations of scientism ring hollow to me; nothing is either impregnable to or diminished by rational inquiry."

    Maybe you misunderstood me. A priori inquiry can and should be rational. It means (as I understand it) using logic rather than trying to infer through observation-- which is very difficult (if not impossible) for complex systems like societies. Much of economic theory, for example, is a priori logic because of the many errors that arise in trying to infer economic theory through macroeconomic observation.

    What I mean by scientism is faith disguised as science. I didn't mean to suggest that anything is beyond rational inquiry.

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  5. And my reply...

    "I'm assuming that the question is whether religion is a NET harm or good--whether the good outweighs the bad."

    I'm not convinced that good CAN outweigh bad. Can any amount of bad, no matter how great, always be nulled by a correspondingly greater amount of good? If so, that would mean that the eradication of bad is not necessarily a moral imperative - for instance, it could be eschewed in favour of the creation of good. If it were theoretically possible, and one were to create another world with 6 TRILLION people living perfect lives, would it then become inessential to better the lots of the 6+ billion on our own?

    I would say the eradication of bad is a goal independent from the creation of good.

    "I'm sure that you'd generally rather hang out with people who agree with you (atheists) than hang around in religious circles, wouldn't you? You'd probably rather vote an atheist into office because they're more likely share your views on what promotes societal well-being, right? You discriminate based on all sorts of factors when you choose a mate or a friend--intelligence, looks, beliefs, personality... Life is all about discriminating. What you believe affects how you discriminate. I'm really not sure what that proves."

    This discrimination should be based on how well someone is suited to a job, not what they believe. There may be a Christian candidate who would fight for separation of church and state and the other constitutional values they would be sworn to uphold, while there might be an atheist candidate who would want to force unbelief on the populace. The discrimination I'm talking about is because of the ignorant belief that atheists are bad people simply because they lack faith - which can hardly be defended.

    "2) whether an action is good for the well-being of conscious creatures is often difficult to determine (are we talking long term or short-term well-being? How is it defined?) and almost always open for legitimate debate. i.e. We might agree on the ends, but agreeing what policies will lead to the ends is another matter entirely."

    Keyword here is "often". Sometimes people will use the complex issues as an excuse to claim that nothing can be known even in cases where right and wrong are clearly obvious. Unwarranted deference to the religious position for the sake of some kind of relativism can't long be supported without pretending to have less knowledge about the world than we really do. (Note that I'm NOT accusing you of this.)

    "What I mean by scientism is faith disguised as science. I didn't mean to suggest that anything is beyond rational inquiry."

    Alright then. But it can't be faith and therefore scientism on my part unless I believed it on no evidence or refused to change my mind about it.

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  6. Ah, thank goodness. There was no way I was writing all that out again!

    The key phrase in my original post was "with all else held constant." You could still effectively measure the effects of religion in societies with varying degrees of it if you knew that the effects weren't due to some other variable in the society. But I think there's also a question of whether religion is more of a cause or an effect to begin with.

    And is it really useful to lump all religions and denominations together for critique? After all, isn't religion just a set of beliefs--some rational, some irrational--that people unite around?

    "I'm not convinced that good CAN outweigh bad. Can any amount of bad, no matter how great, always be nulled by a correspondingly greater amount of good?"

    Not in the sense that it cancels out the bad and leaves the guilty party faultless.

    "If it were theoretically possible, and one were to create another world with 6 TRILLION people living perfect lives, would it then become inessential to better the lots of the 6+ billion on our own?"

    It wouldn't become inessential, but I think it would be just as silly to ignore the good as it would be to ignore the bad.

    [tangent] This is a good example because it brings up a lot of the issues around how to define, measure, and pursue well being. Should the well being of one person ever be sacrificed for another? For example, if decreasing the well being of the 6 trillion by giving it to the 6 billion were to improve the well being of the 6 billion, should it be done? If it was taken involuntarily? If it was done voluntarily? What if the resulting positive effect on the 6 billion was short term and unsustainable, requiring frequent transfers? What if it actually reduced the total reported happiness even though it meant more people could reach a certain level of well being? What if the long term result of the policy would eventually result in ruin, 1000 years down the road? Do we take that into account as well? Well being has to be subjectively determined by each individual. What might make one person feel better off might make another less so. With that in mind, which policies create the greatest well-being might not be the ones that would seem obvious.[/tangent]

    "This discrimination should be based on how well someone is suited to a job, not what they believe. There may be a Christian candidate who would fight for separation of church and state and the other constitutional values they would be sworn to uphold, while there might be an atheist candidate who would want to force unbelief on the populace."

    Agreed. And I'm glad we agree that the former is a positive trait and the latter is a negative!

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