Sam Harris: Talk to Me About Morality, Not Your Superiority

Sam Harris is offering $20,000 to anyone who can refute, disprove the central thesis of his book The Moral Landscape. The task, he writes on his website is this:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds -- and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

He writes that the essay contest is meant to push the conversation around theism-atheism forward, and to get more young people thinking critically about what morality is and, most importantly, where morality originates. In reality, though, Mr. Harris' challenge is a pissing contest disguised as a thoughtful and academic endeavor, and serves as yet another of his attempts to show how his camp is better and smarter than the religious camp. How ridiculous.

The argument Harris makes about religion and morality is not a new one, although the twist he puts on it is. His version of morality relies on scientism, a thought system that asserts science and technology can and will eventually explain all that there is to be explained. The furthering of science and technology, Harris and his peers suggest, will provide the solutions for the myriad problems of the world. This argument for a scientific justification/origination of morality is meant to take away the stickiness and relativity of morality. The hope is to create a moral measuring stick that all humans can point to and abide by. The thought here is that a scientifically proven morality will undercut the need for religion and disprove the existence of God. With God and religion gone, there will be no more religious wars and no using God to justify the worst of human endeavors.

There is no denying that religion, and especially Christianity, is well practiced at being on the wrong side of history. Too often, religion has stifled human progress and too often religion is the excuse given for prejudice, bigotry and hatred. But to assume that religion is the reason people hate, or that religion is the reason equality cannot be reached, is both shortsighted and simplistic. For instance, if we want to blame religion for war, then we should first talk about the colonial and imperialistic policies of the West that upset otherwise stable -- and deeply religious -- regions in the Middle East. We should also first talk about the deep economic, social, and territorial factors that incite the fear and hate behind war. Once those conversations are done, then we can talk about how religion and religious fervor are used to justify war. It's true: religion almost always plays a role in war but it is often an ancillary role, a righteous façade used to justify the grab for money, power, and territory.

Religion, when done poorly, can be used to cause real harm, and for this reason there need to be serious conversations about how to deal with toxic religiosity. However, even if religion were to be extinguished (something that won't happen), the world's problems will not go away. It would do Harris well to remember that. Whether or not God is real, defensible, or practical is immaterial. There is a deep yearning within a great many people for God or for the reassurance that organized religion/belief provide. Since religion is here to stay, the question isn't about who is the most right/moral but it's a question of how the religious and the non-religious can best together to create the most moral and inclusive world possible.

Sam Harris needs to keep talking. We need people like him to keep the conversation moving forward but I wish that he would apply more critical thinking to his critiques and be less of a jackass when he does it. His $20,000 challenge reeks with elitism. It lets everyone know that he thinks he's smarter than everyone else and that he has plenty of money to throw around. His snobbery undercuts his appeals to morality and builds walls around him and the religious people he hopes to make more moral (whatever that may mean). It becomes "us vs. them" rather than "us and them," coloring the conversation of morality and debilitating the chance for productive dialogue.

Yes, the religious wrote the book on how to be annoying proselytizers, but that doesn't mean Harris -- or anyone else for that matter -- should be taking tips from that book. If we've truly come to the point that Harris believes we have, that is, the point in human history where we have outgrown the need for religion, then I think it is safe to assume that we should be past the point of taking cheap shots at each to feel better about ourselves.

If Harris is sincere in his efforts to improve morality, which I believe he is, then he would do well to check out what the people at "Interview an Atheist at Church Day" are doing. Here, the religious and non-religious are able to come together in a safe space to foster better understanding of the other and to find points of connection. The goal is to create more understanding and inclusive communities that are able to bring about meaningful change. In short, it's much harder to despise a person that you've gotten to know and everyone is much better off because of it. Maybe Harris should try offering $20,000 for an essay on how the religious and the non-religious can find mutual moral ground to overcome serious social problems. That's something I could definitely get behind.