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Sam Harris: The Language of Ignorance

Posted on Aug 15, 2006
The Double Helix and the Cross
Illustration: Karen Spector

By Sam Harris

(Page 2)

On the question of why God simply doesn?t provide better evidence for his existence:

If the case in favor of belief in God were utterly airtight, then the world would be full of confident practitioners of a single faith. But imagine such a world, where the opportunity to make a free choice about belief was taken away by the certainty of the evidence. How interesting would that be?

One is tempted to say that it might be more ?interesting? than a world unnecessarily shattered by competing religious orthodoxies and religious war, only to be followed by an eternity in hell for all those who believe the wrong things about God. But, to each his own.

How does Collins settle the problem of theodicy—the mystery of why there is evil and misfortune in a world created by an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly benevolent God? He takes it very much in stride:

Science reveals that the universe, our own planet, and life itself are engaged in an evolutionary process. The consequences of that can include the unpredictability of the weather, the slippage of a tectonic plate, or the misspelling of a cancer gene in the normal process of cell division. If at the beginning of time God chose to use these forces to create human beings, then the inevitability of these other painful consequences was also assured. Frequent miraculous interventions would be at least as chaotic in the physical realm as they would be in interfering with human acts of free will.

But why was God obliged to make cell division susceptible to the perversity of cancer? And why couldn?t an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly benevolent God perform as many miracles as He wanted? There isn?t time to entertain such questions, however, as Collins must solve all outstanding problems in the science of cosmology:

The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.

It is worth pointing out the term ?supernatural,? which Collins uses freely throughout his book, is semantically indistinguishable from the term ?magical.? Reading his text with this substitution in mind is rather instructive. In any case, even if we accepted that our universe simply had to be created by an intelligent being, this would not suggest that this being is the God of the Bible, or even particularly magical.  If intelligently designed, our universe could be running as a simulation on an alien supercomputer. As many critics of religion have pointed out, the notion of a Creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God? To insert an inscrutable God at the origin of the universe explains absolutely nothing. And to say that God, by definition, is uncreated, simply begs the question. (Why can?t I say that the universe, by definition, is uncreated?) Any being capable of creating our world promises to be very complex himself.  As the biologist Richard Dawkins has observed with untiring eloquence, the only natural process we know of that could produce a being capable of designing things is evolution.

Any intellectually honest person must admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Secular scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Believers like Collins do not.

The major and inescapable flaw of ? [the] claim that science demands of atheism is that it goes beyond the evidence. If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason.

Is disbelief in Zeus or Thor also a form of ?blind faith?? Must we really ?disprove? the existence of every imaginary friend? The burden of producing evidence falls on those making extravagant claims about miracles and invisible realities. What is more, there is an enormous difference between acquiring a picture of the world through dispassionate, scientific study and acquiring it through patent emotionality and wishful thinking—and only then looking to see if it can survive contact with science.

Consider the following fact: Ninety-nine percent of the species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct. There are two very different questions one could ask about a fact of this sort, if one wanted to assess the reasonableness of believing in God. One could ask, ?Is this fact compatible with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and compassionate God?? Or, one could ask, ?Does this fact, alone or in combination with other facts, suggest that an omnipotent, omniscient and compassionate God exists?? The answer to the first question is always, ?Well, yes—provided you add that God?s will is utterly mysterious.? (In the present case, He may have wanted to destroy 99% of his creatures for some very good reason that surpasses our understanding.) The answer to the second question is ?absolutely not.? The problem for Collins is that only the second question is relevant to our arriving at a rational understanding of the universe. The fact that a bowdlerized evangelical Christianity can still be rendered compatible with science (because of the gaps in science and the elasticity of religious thinking) does not mean that there are scientific reasons for being an evangelical Christian.

Collins? sins against reasonableness do not end here. Somewhere during the course of his scientific career, he acquired the revolting habit of quoting eminent scientists out of context to give an entirely false impression of their religious beliefs. Misappropriation of Einstein and Hawking, while common enough in popular religious discourse, rises to level of intellectual misconduct when perpetrated by a scientist like Collins. Where either of these physicists uses the term ?God?—as in Einstein?s famous ?God does not play dice??—he uses it metaphorically. Any honest engagement with their work reveals that both Einstein and Hawking reject the notion of Collins? God as fully as any atheist. Collins suggests otherwise at every opportunity.

In his role as Christian apologist, Collins also makes the repellent claim that ?the traditional lore about Galileo?s persecutions by the Church is overblown.? Lest we forget: Galileo, the greatest scientist of his time, was forced to his knees under threat of torture and death, obliged to recant his understanding of the Earth?s motion, and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life by steely-eyed religious maniacs. He worked at a time when every European intellectual lived in the grip of a Church that thought nothing of burning scholars alive for merely speculating about the nature of the stars. As Collins notes, this is the same Church that did not absolve Galileo of heresy for 350 years (in 1992). When it did, it ascribed his genius to God, ?who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions.? Collins clearly approves of this sordid appropriation, and goes on to say that all the fuss about Galileo was, in the end, unnecessary, because ?the claims that heliocentricity contradicted the Bible are now seen to have been overstated?.? (And what if they weren?t overstated? What then?) It is simply astonishing that a scientist has produced such a pious glossing of the centuries of religious barbarism that were visited upon generations of other scientists.

If one wonders how beguiled, self-deceived and carefree in the service of fallacy a scientist can be in the United States in the 21st century, ?The Language of God? provides the answer. The only thing that mitigates the harm this book will do to the stature of science in the United States is that it will be mostly read by people for whom science has little stature already. Viewed from abroad, ?The Language of God? will be seen as another reason to wonder about the fate of American society. Indeed, it is rare that one sees the thumbprint of historical contingency so visible on the lens of intellectual discourse. This is an American book, attesting to American ignorance, written for Americans who believe that ignorance is stronger than death. Reading it should provoke feelings of collective guilt in any sensitive secularist. We should be ashamed that this book was written in our own time.

Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation. He is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and has studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions, along with a variety of contemplative disciplines, for twenty years. Mr. Harris is now completing a doctorate in neuroscience. His work has been discussed in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, The Economist, The Guardian, The Independent, The Globe and Mail,  New Scientist, SEED Magazine, and many other journals. Mr. Harris makes regular appearances on television and radio to discuss the danger that religion now poses to modern societies. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. Several foreign editions are in press. Mr. Harris lives in New York City.

His most recent book is “Letter to a Christian Nation” (Amazon)


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By Ed W., August 16, 2006 at 5:14 am Link to this comment
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This is frustrating, why is that christianity needs its apologists.  Isnt faith enough?  This is just proof that people crave reasons and explanations for their beliefs - we are finally reaching the point where simply faith isn’t enough.  Maybe its only a matter of time before people start to think about their unsubstantiated beliefs. 

Sam Harris, you are god.

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By ralph mathekga, August 16, 2006 at 4:52 am Link to this comment
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a wonder piece that exposes the weaknesses of monty python reasoning behind christian fundantalism…

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By Sophia, August 16, 2006 at 3:15 am Link to this comment
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Sam Harris’ insight to the core of reality
is energizing to say the least !

Collins, the deluded devotee of an apparition
shows he is a writer of FICTION here:

>>A PAGAN question here.


On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains … the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.

How is it that a hundreds of feet high waterfall
can be frozen while there is dewy wet grass underfoot ?

And this is in the FALL of the year?

Any Nature wanderer knows a whole waterfall wont
freeze as it is FED in constant motion.

Only a very small water fall will freeze where the back up
feed is small enough to also freeze and has had to
dry up as Spring rains and melts ran scarce so
by FALL it is stagnant and CAN freeze.

A waterfall hundreds of feet high has a huge constant
year round feed, It cannot freeze.

In a mountain area cold enough to freeze a water fall
there wont be any DEW on any GRASS which will be
dry brown crunch. NOT dewy wet green .

If ANY waterfall ANYWHERE more than a foot high
is EVER frozen it IS time to see appirations!

This guy is writing FICTION and claiming some super
natural vision and Pauline encounter.

His recompense for using his academioc stature to
press the GREAT LIE must have been as big as his lies.

Reminds of when a famous radio host sold his
soul for $295 million to preach the same BS
for the same MASTERS. <<

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By Dr. Kenneth Noisewater, August 16, 2006 at 2:43 am Link to this comment
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Sam Harris is sounding a lot like Fundamentalist Right-wing Christians: “I am uncomfortable with your position, so rather than offering dialogue, or attempting to understand you, I will attack you personally, and counter your arguements with pseudo-science and sarcasm.”

Congratulations, Sam; you’ve come full-circle,

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By morgan-lynn lamberth griggsy, August 16, 2006 at 2:14 am Link to this comment
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Collins,following Lewis ,shows again my contention that logic is the bane of theists.All theists are creationists -they believe in a creator without any reason .They put forth spurious reasons why they believe in a Sky Phallus ,but it redounds to sucking on that Sky Phallus-faith .McGrath in his shallow book on Dawkins states that , in effect, although A Sky Phallus is redundant,the believer has the right to believe because of awe.If something is redundant ,it is useless .So ,he does not accept the principle of parsimony and thus is contemptuous of logic.He states that to use faith for blind faith , one is wrong;but in using that redundancy ,he shows blind faith. He further states it is wrong to compare Santa Claus to Sky Phallus,for no one seriously maintains wants to worship Santa ,but that is an ignoratio elenchi-beside the point, which is that both are redundant .The child learns that dad puts the presents around the tree and we learn that natural causation does the job of creating. Yes, my contention holds.Why should one put her head in the cesspool of faith and logical falllacies when reality beckons? We are the believers in reality; they the, unbeievers therein. Sam Harriss is so right.And Dawkins book on religion will outclass McGrath’s shallow one on him !

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By erie miller, August 16, 2006 at 1:22 am Link to this comment
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well, sam, you did it again. you’ve impaled another poor christian! but don’t worry, your logic and reason will roll off of him like water off of a beaver’s back, and you’ll have to do it again with some other damp-eyed religioso who’ll take his place.

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By William Belote, August 16, 2006 at 12:44 am Link to this comment
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Mr. Harris is a writer with a rare combination of eloquence and reasoning ability.  Reading him is humbling for someone like myself who harbors notions of “Christlike” love blossoming in open hearts, compassion for all and cosmic intelligence.  I am a believer in the ancient Vedic idea of some intelligence beyond our own collective consciousness that is not subject to the normal constraints of time and space.  However, it is clear to me that I could not prove this notion true or false to anyone outside of myself, and a ‘proof’  that personal is of no use to others.  It is a personal belief.  There is nothing inherently dangerous about that as long as the believer can maintain the humility that seems a natural response to an amazing universe, and a world of such diversity.  There is so much we don’t know.  Yet, we do know something about our history on this planet, and Mr. Collins’s dismissal of Christian persecution as noted with Galileo is sad and rather obscene.

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By heavywithsediment, August 15, 2006 at 11:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

i am so looking forward to reading the rest of this article…

but before i fall asleep, i would like to make this statement.

speaking as an ‘agnostic’ that nevertheless finds religion fascinating for all its present political, social, and economic machinations, i would like to caution would be fans of mr. harris in that, in due time, his adamantly atheistic, rational materialist mysticism will eventually mature into an egually adamant and mystical ‘christianity’; as soon as he realizes that all the great christian ‘minds’ (st. augustine, thomas a kempis, thomas aguinus, st. francis, and the saints, all of the saints) were essentially theist buddhists (figure out the possibility), far removed intellectually from the fundamentalist mutts that we commonly associate with contemporary popular christianity. his task then, hopefully, if he retains any of his current integrity, will be to rewrite the ‘language of god’ in a way that will offer sanctimonious fodder against the zealots that currently want to destroy the planet, instead of, as i assume this other bastard’s book does, feed their flame.

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By Tommy Gleason, August 15, 2006 at 11:30 pm Link to this comment
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Collins says: “The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. ...I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.”

Fine. Now what created the supernatural force?

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By Lexi, August 15, 2006 at 11:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you Sam, for not being shy. Revolting and shame are appropriate words to describe the writing of this scientist who dishonors his profession and his country with such trash. I saw this man interviewed on TV and didn’t have the stomach to keep watching.

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By Dr Mark, August 15, 2006 at 10:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Another razor sharp dissection of religious nonsense, and this from a leading scientist! Your outrage is warranted, as I read in disbelief what Collins has written. Unbelievable jibberish. One can only imagine what would have happened if Collins had seen the face if GW Bush frozen in the waterfall. Great work as usual sam. I’ve got your new book on pre-order already.

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By David Reed, August 15, 2006 at 9:58 pm Link to this comment
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I’m always delighted to see a posting from Sam Harris.  He seems to keep getting more resourceful with his logic and his examples.
I’m gratified to see such emotional judgmental language used skillfully from a secularist - words like “vile”, “repellant” and “sins.”  A scientific mindset does not need to be vacant of human feeling, quite the opposite.  The harsh light of dogma and authority desaturates the colors of our experience (as I’ve learned as an artist the harsh light does to a subject’s color in painting) and reason offers a better seat from which to view the world.

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By Jim, August 15, 2006 at 9:17 pm Link to this comment
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I haven’t read “The Language of God”, and I don’t know if I ever will.  Perhaps as a kind of inadequate penance for living in this country.  Is DNA the language of God?  If so, then why not bury a message from Jesus in the nucleotides?  Too obvious, I guess.  I am woefully ignorant of genetics, and yet I get the sense of a man using his expertise in one field of study to browbeat the world.  C.S. Lewis could be annoyingly subtle in his thinly veiled apologies, and yet from the few examples of Collins quoted in this essay, I get the sense of a shell with no sublimity at all.  The prose is all bland surfaces, like linoleum. 
Anyway, thanks again to Sam Harris for this essay and for his last book, “The End of Faith”, which I did read (and love).  I think he started this as a reaction to the growing danger of Islamists with nuclear weapons.  And yet, there is a revival in this country that would be risible if it weren’t for the level of military spending.  Come to South Carolina sometime, if you really want to be depressed.

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By KT, August 15, 2006 at 8:53 pm Link to this comment
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Thank you, Sam Harris.

Just more proof that some Americans are just insane despite all their “credentials.”

Just looney. Personally, I prefer Zeus and Thor over all the apocalyptic nonsense.

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By Stanley Gluck, August 15, 2006 at 8:22 pm Link to this comment
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Sam Harris has done it again! Another wonderful piece exposing the absurd “logic” of dogmatic religious fanatics disguised as scientists.


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