religion and science

My chair keeps trying to get me to read stuff that demonstrates that religion is Wrong with a big W. Most recently he asked me to read Evans and Evans’ piece in the Annual Review on the religion-science “conflict” which is rather friendly to religion. He asked me to do so because he thought it was “disingenuous” and wanted to talk to me about it. I haven’t yet talked to him about it, but just read it, and will report back on my conversation with him when it happens. Meanwhile, after the break, an old-ish think piece I wrote on some prior books he wanted me to read: Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Harris’ The End of Faith.

Comments on Dawkins and Harris

Andrew J. Perrin

Books discussed

  1. Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton
    Mifflin, 2006
  2. Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the
    Future of Reason.
    New York: Norton, 2005

In two recent books, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins pursue similar
arguments against belief in God and, by extension, religious faith in
general. Both books are well-written, powerful in their argument, and
logically devastating on first read. However, both are seriously
flawed. To tip my hand prematurely, I believe both suffer from the
error of failing to recognize the eminently social character of
religion, to borrow Durkheim’s phrase
[4,5]. Because of this failure, they adopt
the modernist view of the unitary, thinking individual subject as a
assumption and proceed from there. But there is good evidence to show
both that:

This unified subject, and its
valorization, appeared at a particular historical moment and are
therefore culturally and historically contingent. It is therefore
an inadequate basis on which to build the trans-historical arguments
both books seek
to make; and
The modern subject is not particularly unitary;
indeed, individuals behave remarkably differently in different
situations, suggesting that trans-context similarities in
individuals’ behaviors is the result of “spillover”
[1], not a unitary subjectivity.

In what follows, I examine concerns with the arguments of the two
books together. I then include my notes on each book in specific. I
start, though, with a favorite passage from Durkheim:

[In the modern world,] there is indeed one area in which the common [religious]
consciousness has grown stronger, becoming more clearly delineated,
viz., in its view of the individual. As all the other beliefs and
practices assume less and less religious a character, the individual
becomes the object of a sort of religion. We carry on the worship of
the dignity of the human person, which, like all the strong acts of
worship, has already acquired its superstitions…. therefore it is
indeed a common faith.[3]

The General Argument

The reason for opening with Durkheim–beyond my general belief that
his work ought to be cited in any serious book on the social impact
of religion1–is that both authors assume a kind of individual that is
simply indefensible in the light of evidence emerging from the
Durkheimian tradition. Dawkins expresses revulsion at the idea of a “Muslim
child” or a “Catholic child.” He argues that, since religion is an
idea that ought to be actively adopted, children cannot be religious
because they cannot independently evaluate ideas. The key here is
“independently.” Here lies the first big assumption in both books,
but most importantly in Dawkins: religious identity must be, as
a matter of right and wrong, the decision of a fully rational,
unitary, and independent adult. People cannot be differently religious
in different settings, as that would violate the unitary
criterion. More importantly, people cannot be religious for reasons
other than independent, logical judgment. There is no way to justify
this position abstractly; it is assumed (with great gusto) but not

Ironically, I have no real quibble with the central
technical claim of both books: that contemporary scientific evidence
strongly suggests that there is not
an intelligent, creative, God with human-like
subjectivity; and, furthermore, that belief in the specific
claims of religious scriptures is irrational in the literal sense of
the word. But both books engage in a kind of intellectual sleight of
hand: they argue against these beliefs in a relatively narrow way,
then proceed without justification to expand that argument to include
wide swaths of religious belief, experience, and practice that do not
fall into the same categories.

Harris spends particularly much time seeking to convince the reader
that “moderate” religion is no better than “fundamentalist”
religion. That is, those who practice some compromise between Reason
and religion are inadequate to both. Like many simplistic arguments,
it is crucial to Harris that this be a black-and-white contest, and
therefore that religious faith be absolute, clear, and specifically
defined as belief in the absolute, literal truth of a sacred text.

Both are motivated by an overwhelming sense that religion does very
bad things in the world, and that it is unnecessary for the good
things attributed to it. To formalize this:

Hypothesis 1
God is false (Dawkins); or religious scriptures are fiction
Hypothesis 2
God/religion is the necessary and sufficient cause for the harms
attributed to it.2
Hypothesis 3
God/religion is unnecessary for benefits done in its name.

I do not disagree with hypothesis 1, at least for the
purposes of these comments. But the other two hypotheses are
unexamined, left as obvious for readers.

We have plenty of
examples of human destructiveness and violence without religious (in
the strict sense both books define it) causes, casting doubt on
hypothesis 2. Scripture and Creator were unnecessary for
the Vietnam War, Rwandan and Angolan ethnic cleansing, the Oklahoma
City bombing, and arguably
even the Holocaust. The amount of violence and even
suicidality3 attributable to affective
attachments to ideology and nation is considerable. Furthermore, it is
impossible to demonstrate that, but for literal religious belief,
there would be fewer terrorists such as those responsible for the
9/11, 3/11, and 7/7 attacks.

Both books go to great lengths to claim that religion is unnecessary
for morality (hypothesis 3). Harris simply claims,
de novo, that “…questions of right and wrong are really
questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures”
(171). The problem therefore becomes “…how members of our species
can be made as happy as possible” (182). This evokes well over a
century of theoretical attempts to define and measure happiness; to
evaluate the importance of happiness relative to other good things
(e.g., progress, fairness, enlightenment, knowledge); and to explore
the limits to which aggregate happiness may be taken. For example, it
is generally considered wrong to kill a colleague who is
unpleasant for many others to work with, even though his death might
raise the overall level of happiness in his (former)
workplace. Indeed, even punishments short of death, such as
imprisonment, banishment, and verbal abuse are generally considered
wrong. Harris’ flip “as happy as possible” standard ignores these sorts of
questions as well as the religious origins of such ethical claims.

We get a glimpse into Harris’ oversimplified view of the world in his
discussion of the stem-cell “debate.” While I have no sympathy for
banning or limiting stem-cell research on ethical grounds, Harris’
glib condescension is nearly enough to make me rethink that position!
On page 166 he offers a standard: “…the capacity to sense pain, to
suffer, or to experience the loss of life….” On 167, he adds that
“…the point at which we fully acquire our humanity, and our
capacity to suffer, remains an open question.” But we are never
treated to any defense of the capacity to suffer as the appropriate
standard for humanity. This claim cannot be derived from abstract
reason, as Harris implies; it can only be understood as Harris’ gut
feeling–no better than that of the religious leaders whom he
pillories for substituting their own gut feelings.

Dawkins’ approach is to argue that being nice to each other is
evolutionarily sound. That is, people and groups are more likely to
reproduce when they are nice to one another. This is a curious claim,
since it is wildly refuted by the available evidence, which Dawkins
claims to care so much about. It is much more reasonable–more
parsimonious, to use Dawkins’ term–to expect that, in certain
circumstances, moral behavior is more fit, and in other circumstances
immoral behavior is more fit. But this would be profoundly
unsatisfying to him, largely because it casts doubt on hypothesis

In the service of hypothesis 2, both authors refer to
anti-homosexual violence (Dawkins, 289; Harris, 171). The implication
is that there would be no heterosexism–and, by extension, no
irrational prejudice in general–without religious belief. But, once
again, this is very far fetched. Schoolchildren, even those from
nonreligious families and communities, routinely internalize and
practice brutal anti-gay bigotry. Furthermore, adults engaging in hate
crimes are at least as likely to do so with the affective language of
“eww, disgusting” than with the religious language of “God said you
are wrong.” Again, the challenge of hypothesis 2 is to
show that, but for religious belief, the violence wouldn’t have

To tie these disparate threads together: the crucial reality that both
books ignore is that religion is empirically and analytically
inseparable from culture, history, science, and morality.

Ironically, it is the
religious piety of the American puritans that led them to assert the
separation of religion from the rest of everyday life–without that
key move, it would be unthinkable to argue that religion should, or
even could, be walled off from the rest of life. Indeed,
Durkheim [4] demonstrates that the practice of modern
science emerged from the standardized ritualization of activity,
which, in turn, emerged from religious practice. Religious passion and
motivation, not to mention religious habits and beliefs, are part and
parcel of the genealogy of the modern world, emphatically including
modern science and Reason. These are eminently social phenomena and
cannot be so easily excised from the modern mind.

I am not suggesting that religious fundamentalism is a good thing, or
that states and governments should be run according to what we think
of as religious laws. If only it were that easy! My point is that the
religious thread is so interwoven in the fabric of modern society that
its removal (if even it were possible) would necessitate the
unraveling of that fabric.

Notes on Dawkins[

uses lots of different definitions of religion,
including specific supernatural God beliefs all the way to
Sunni-Shia differences.
apartheid people did write that race mixing was
against their religion, as did white US Southerners!
God is “Anything and everything supernatural” (but
notably lacking in having been creative of the world)
why assume the chaplain can answer anything,
i.e., why anything is beyond science? Dawkins’ only response is
snot-nosed cockiness. Having conceded in principle that there may
be good questions beyond science, he has painted himself into a
corner. He cannot then offer a scientific answer as to their
appropriate province.
“The God Hypothesis,” as Dawkins refers to it, goes
unstated in specific terms through chapter 2: what evidence would
support it? What would refute it? ALSO: the tone is so
condescending and “clubby” with public friends and enemies that
it undercuts the overarching claim to scientific dispassion.
can’t even be bothered to drop an email to Bart Ehrman
asking if the different titles refer to the same book!
he gives a lot of weight to “true” origins (here,
etymology of “history”) without any sense of the continuing,
strategic, and evocative power of current perception.
Hauser’s claim that moral near-universality implies
evolutionary (i.e., genetic) etiology ignores exactly the
path-dependent logic Dawkins relies upon previously.
the “in Chicago” metaphor is illumnating because it is
so disingenuous. “In” and “Chicago” are far better defined than
God and religion.
Are only religious people anti-gay?
“only” religion makes people do the horrible, strange
things noted. This is false, and gets at the causality question
above. But for religion, what proportion of good would have been
avoided, and what proportion of bad?

Notes on Harris[

Chapters 1-2:
  • Reason/rationality are presented totally naively as universal,
    timeless, and benign.
  • Religion and fundamentalism are conceived as different by
    degree, not kind–Durkheim’s religion is entirely absent. Indeed,
    later on (page 148), Harris summarily dismisses (without evidence
    or argument) Fareed Zakaria’s essentially Durkheimian point that
    “…Islam, like any religion, is not what books make it but
    what people make it…. Most Muslims’ daily lives do not
    confirm the idea of a faith that is intrinsically anti-Western or
  • Telling the faithful to be “rational” is likely to increase
    violence, not decrease it!
  • What about liberal Islam [7]? What about the
    cultural roots of scientific practice?
  • Beliefs are treated as isolated, empirical propositions, not
    moral principles.
  • Logical coherence is taken as a requirement across the board.
    The concern with belief consistency (e.g., pages 57-58) is
    crucial because it is here that Harris can charge religious
    moderates with illogic. If the requirement of absolute consistency
    is relaxed, moderation becomes a much more reasonable stance.
Chapters 3-4:
Harris now turns to case studies of evils done,
ostensibly, by religion. On 85, he admits, even relishes, the fact
that the Bible is heterogeneous in message and even
self-contradictory; this becomes evidence in support of his disdain
for people who hold it sacred. But it’s only evidence insofar as
holding it sacred means believing it all to be literally true–a
very different question!

Harris spends chapter 4 seeking to demonstrate that Islam is worst
among equals. Among all the irrational, wrong-headed religions he
scorns, Islam is the worst. He begins (109) by claiming that it must
be Islam, not deprivation, that causes suicide bombings, since
“…the world is filled with poor, uneducated, and exploited
peoples who do not commit acts of terrorism,… of the sort
that has become so commonplace among Muslims.” But in fact, the
incidence of terrorism in the Muslim population is miniscule, and
probably on a par with the incidence of terrorism in other
historical movements, including the American revolution, Zionism,
Irish Republicanism, Apartheid, and American nativist racism.



Mohamed Cherkaoui.

Good Intentions: Max Weber and the Paradox of Unintended

The Bardwell Press, London, 2007.

Translated by Peter Hamilton, with a foreword by Bryan S. Turner.


Richard Dawkins.

The God Delusion.

Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2006.


Émile Durkheim.

The Division of Labor in Society.

Free Press, New York, 1984.

[1893] Trans. W. D. Halls, Introd. Lewis Coser.


Émile Durkheim.

The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.

Free Press, New York, 1995.

[1912] Trans. Karen Fields.


Karen E. Fields.

Translator’s introduction: Religion as an eminently social thing.

In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life [4],
pages xvii-lxxiii.

[1912] Trans. Karen Fields.


Sam Harris.

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.

Norton, New York, 2005.


Charles Kurzman, editor.

Liberal Islam: A Source-Book.

Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.

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Comments on Dawkins and Harris

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… religion1
His absence from the indices of these two books is

… it.2
Dawkins makes this claim explicit on
page 303.

“I regret that I have but one life to lose for
my country” (Hale, Nathan, 1776).


  1. Posted July 28, 2008 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    What business is this of your chair’s? It strikes me as an odd (and perhaps problematic) thing to keep suggesting to you. Perhaps as a friend, but most certainly not as a chair. Faith in science: a-okay. Faith in anything not science: Wrong!

    You might be interested in Allen Ohr’s review of Dawkins’ book in the NY Review of Books. It is wonderfully entitle, “A Mission to Convert.” The resulting exchange with Dennett is also interesting, here.

    If you liked Orr’s review, Terry Eagleton’s in the London Review of Books is even less hospitable. It’s available here.

  2. Posted July 28, 2008 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Oh, it’s perfectly friendly — just an intellectual debate, and no sense of intimidation whatsoever. Though I do see why you might be concerned.

  3. olderwoman
    Posted July 28, 2008 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I find militant atheism (I find myself tempted to call it fundamentalist atheism) interesting as a phenomenon, as interesting in its own right as militant religion. There gets to be a strange almost insane quality to some of the arguments. (Which is not to ignore the points where people feel they are responding to hostile aggressive attacks from religionists.) I have not read the books you critique so I can’t comment on the accuracy of your characterization, but your comments seem cogent to me.

    I’m reminded of Kelly Besecke’s work on reflexive spirituality: she argues (based on field work) that many people are using rational thought to reflect on the limits of rationality and to talk about transcendent meaning. She has a piece in the Sociology of Religion 2001. Here’s the reference, if you are interested. Speaking of Meaning in Modernity: Reflexive Spirituality as a Cultural Resource.
    Sociology of Religion, Vol. 62, No. 3 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 365-381
    (I know, I know, I should remember how to format a link in HTML but I don’t.)


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