Theism, atheism, and antitheism (Sam Harris is Wrong, Part 3)

Harris fails to appreciate the narrative power of religion, or the importance of belief. Here is an excerpt from a debate between Harris and Jordan Peterson, moderated by Bret Weinstein. 

Harris: I’m not saying that stories aren’t incredibly powerful and useful and inevitable…

Peterson: You are. You might be saying that they’re inevitable. But you are debating their utility and power. You said that we don’t need the stories as an intermediary [force to generalize values].

Harris: ….I think this may be a good place for us to touch the distinction between literal and metaphorical truth. For my mind, that covers this different emphasis on stories. 

Weinstein: …I agree that metaphorical truth is relevant here. Metaphorical truth is my argument that there are some things that are literally false, but if you behave as if they were true you come out ahead of if you would if you behaved according to the fact that they are false. 

Weinstein: So these things hover in a kind of intermediate space. To call them false is incorrect. 

Harris: Right. And I hear Jordan wanting to call them “true” because they’re so useful. 

Weinstein: ….Let’s swap out the idea of metaphorical truth for something a little harder-headed. Heuristics. We have heuristics. We use them to perceive the world. They’re often highly reliable. In fact, almost everything that you believe that lets you operate has to be a heuristic of some kind.

He goes on about heuristics. See my article that relates to this.

Weinstein: If it were true that religious heuristics actually increase wellbeing by allowing people to, on average, operate in the world in a way that increases wellbeing, what would you say about them then? 

Harris: But [the belief in God] wouldn’t make sense for the right reason. Useful fictions have to be retired at some point. Useful truths stay true… You can have a completely rational conversation, in terms of human psychology, sociology, and what you want society to look like – about moral truths like the corrosive nature of pornography… You don’t have to invoke mythology to do that. 

Peterson: How do you do it? That barely works for sex ed. That barely works for condom education. That barely works… People aren’t nearly as amenable to behavioral changes as a consequence of rational interventions as you might hope. That’s part and parcel of the broad clinical literature. 

They continue to have interesting conversation in that night of debate. But I actually want to skip to the second night of debate. Right before this, Harris asked Weinstein to re-explain his concept of metaphorical truth:

Weinstein: To call metaphorical truths simply false is an error, in the fact that the universe has left them true in some sense. Religious would fall into this class of things. 

An example of metaphorical truth is “a porcupine can throw its quills.” If you believe that, you may be better protected against porcupines than if you didn’t. You’ll be more cautious in encounters with porcupines. 

And this is where it gets fascinating:

Harris: I think there’s a good analogy that you and I stumbled onto after we did a podcast together. You had an analogy about porcupine that could shoot its quills. A listener gave us a better example: anyone who’s worked with guns at all must have heard the admonishment to treat every gun as if it is loaded.

Harris: …But the only way I can understand metaphorical truth in a way that’s comprehensible is by distinguishing it from literal truth. 

Then, after a long back-and-forth between Harris and Peterson, Weinstein is able to respond: 

Weinstein: Interesting observation: when your listener presented the example of a metaphorical truth, he submitted, “all guns are loaded.” But you didn’t say, “all guns are loaded.” You said, “treat all guns as if they are loaded.” Which is, I think, the same reflex you have faced with any metaphorical truth. We always unpack…

Harris: But that’s the way Jordan talks about believing in God as well. 

And there you have it.

And to Harris’ point, Peterson is an unconventional religious person. Peterson is willing to frame the God conversation in his opponent’s language. 

“Treat every gun as if it is loaded” is NOT metaphorical truth. It is an instruction for action. The metaphorical truth version of the same claim would be: “every gun is loaded.” 

Not acceptable for Harris. He would never abide actual metaphorical truths, because he hates falsehoods. Which is fair enough; I do too. But he also underestimates the importance of belief. 

For him, it is sufficient to simply say, “act as if (x thing) is true.” In other words, advice.

Some advice is passed down, generation to generation, for centuries. But that is difficult; people will start to second-guess the advice. “Why should I do that? What is the reason?”

It is much easier for religious truths to be passed down, generation to generation for centuries. People don’t second-guess the reasons for religious instructions as much, because they are content to say, “I do it because God instructs it.” 

You may find it interesting to read Taleb’s Twitter comments, or academic work on this topic.

It’s trivial to defend atheism. Anti-theism, however, is incorrect. Religion can have a positive (or negative) impact on society. It depends on the religion. 

I have to admit, though, I sympathize with Harris’ position to a huge extent. I don’t like doing behaviors because society tells me to. Cultural things seem arbitrary. I like reasoning for myself what are the optimal actions to take. I want to figure things out from first principles, especially topics like morality. 

However much pretentious this may sound, the problem is not just that most people wont do that. The problem is that most people are not capable of doing that. 

What happens when vast swaths of people are supposed to “invent” their own morality? You could get something like contemporarily Chinese morality. You could get something like the far-left PC culture that’s gripped the West. And you could get, dare I say, “gulags?” 

In other words, they don’t. People don’t think for themselves, at least very few do. Either they simply have no morality, or they copy their moral precepts from whatever happens to be fashionable. 

How many times have the New Atheists told us that atheism is not responsible for the crimes of Communism and Fascism? It goes something like this: 

“I don’t fault religion for everything bad that happened with religion present, only things that were done in the name of religion. Communism and fascism were not done in the name of atheism!

“Besides, both of those things were actually highly religious in nature, only disguised as secular. North Korea, for example, is organized like a faith-based cult.” 

The first claim is only partially true. The second claim only serves to bolster my point.

It is evident that humans are naturally superstitious, naturally dogmatic. They will be dogmatic no matter what. And some dogmas are worse than other dogmas, a point which Harris agrees about. Finally, if you remove one dogma, it will be replaced by another.

What is the sense in destroying one dogma (Christianity), only to create a void that will be replaced by something else (Communism/fascism)? It is possible that, although Christianity is irrational, it is still the most rational that large societies can be without adopting some even-more-crazy ideology.

So who’s to say, “a lack of Christianity didn’t cause the gulags.” Maybe, a lack of Christianity DID cause the gulags. Maybe, the lack of Christianity caused people to adopt an even crazier ideology that caused the gulags.

I’m not saying religious aren’t capable of bad things as well, but it’s an unfair double-standard to compare a non-ideology, pure ideological negation (atheism), against a positive, prescriptive worldview (a religion), to say, “look at everything evil done by religion,” while atheism gets a pass.

It’s not fair, but it’s also not correct. Pure wrong ideas behave like fads. Ideas that have passed the test of time, especially on the scale of thousands of years, should make you wonder how they’ve done that.