Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sam Harris and Conversational Intolerence

Sam Harris, one of the leading New Atheist authors, has a forthcoming book called The Moral Landscape, due out this coming October. Already, I'm chomping at the bit. Unlike Same'sw two previous titles, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, which were blatant attacks on religion, this new offering purports to argue that science, not faith, can and should be used as a means of determining morality. This will be an interesting read! I have my doubts, seriously, that Harris can put forth an actual sceintific method for determining morals, but will be interesting to see what he says.

The one thing I want to talk about right now, though, is what Harris refers to a "conversational intolerence." What it means, essentially, is to show no respect for opinions which are deemed irrational by the listener. If someone suggested he believed that Zeus, for exmaple, was a real being, they would not be taken seriously, and might well be met with mockery and derision. The same sort of logic, Harris beleives, ought to apply to the Christian God. Since there is no more credibility for him, in Harris's opinion than Zeus, beleivers in Him ought be regardeded similarly. This, of course, doesn't take into account that if one religion is true, we should expect it to still be thriving today, and very influential, and doing the most material good in the world, along with gainging new convets who claim to have persoanlly experienced said relgion's God. Which does all this sound more like, Christ, or Zeus?

To be fair, Harris deserves credit for opposing state enforced intolerence of faith. But the question is, just what good can we reasonably expect from Harris's "conversational intolerence", especially in a debate about relgion? Harris himself may see this sort of intolerence as a sort of "polite disagreement", as he as never used flaming tactics in interviews and debates that I have seen. However, not everyone is civil when it comes to conversational intolerence. I've seen a great amount of trash-talking and personal attacks on beleivers on atheist messageboards, most of which seem to be in the service or so-called rationality. Since I've watched a number of episodes of the Atheist Experience on Youtube. I remember one episode where they were talking about whether atheists should side with religious "moderates" in opposing Creationism in the science class. In general, they did not want to side with theists at all, because if the topic of faith evver came up, they (the atheists) admitted they would instigate conflict. One of them said that if confronted with a beleif he did not consider rational, "sorry, you're going to get flayed alive."
Really? How does this sort of intolerence contribute to any sort of civil discussion? It doesn't, of course. I do not beleive that any theists have seriously reconsidered their opinions after meeting with such "conversational intolerence." Religion is a major force in th world, and treating beleivers as they would an occasioanl beleiver in Zeus is not going to make religion go away. It will, however, create hostility between the two sides, which will make civil discourse more difficult. Harris himself has seemed reasonable when it comes to repsenting his point of view in public. Perhaps theists would do best to follow Harris's example, but not his advice.