What Sam Harris and the ‘New Atheists’ Got Wrong: Religion and the Christian Right Aren’t Our Biggest Problems

A polemicist and passionate advocate of reason, Sam Harris has reluctantly taken up the cause of defending policy writer Charles Murray’s notorious view that racial differences in IQ are in some significant part driven by genetic differences and are largely fixed. This defense has led to a tense standoff with Vox editor-at-large Ezra Klein, who has criticized Murray and Harris’s treatment of the issue, culminating in a two-hour long podcast debate published this week.

But as Harris finds himself caught in a debate — however unwillingly — that emerged from larger arguments about President Donald Trump, race, and politics, he first became widely known for his critiques of religion. He published The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation in the middle of President George W. Bush’s administration, which were accompanied by the thematically similar The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.

Along with several other prominent writers and thinkers, these three came to represent a movement of so-called “New Atheists”: brash critics of spiritual dogmas and proponents of the idea that religion is a serious threat to society.

It’s a powerful idea. Atheism is philosophically compelling, and the crimes of the religious are legion. And in the Bush years, many American liberals felt surrounded on all sides by religious extremists, between the opponents of stem-cell research and gay marriage in the White House and the 9/11 attackers and their allies.

But there was an alternative hypothesis.

Religion, many of its defenders claimed, can come in good and bad forms like any ideology; nevertheless, there’s nothing particularly pernicious about religion, and there’s no reason to think that fighting religion will make society better off.

Harris was a prominent player in this fight, arguing in a 2006 blog post titled “Science Must Destroy Religion”:

“Religion is fast growing incompatible with the emergence of a global, civil society. Religious faith — faith that there is a God who cares what name he is called, that one of our books is infallible, that Jesus is coming back to earth to judge the living and the dead, that Muslim martyrs go straight to Paradise, etc. — is on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas.”

Religion and the Marriage Debates

In the United States 2006, it really did feel like there was an escalating war of ideas and that religion was a dangerous force in that context. As a teenager growing up gay in the burgeoning fight of same-sex marriage — sparked in large part in my home state of Massachusetts by a state Supreme Court ruling in 2003 — I faced a barrage of religious people in the media claiming that discrimination against me was justified and that my sexuality was perverse.

I dove into the arguments of that debates around marriage and learned all the rhetorical moves. I learned a lot — but I also realized that if someone had a fundamental religious commitment that homosexuality was wrong, then there was nothing I could do to convince them otherwise.

Religion, it seemed, was the end of rational debate — so perhaps Harris was right.

Perhaps the only way to oppose marginalization and oppression of LGBT people like myself was not to simply argue for our rights, but to oppose the fundamental religious concepts that drove people to ignore our rights and dignity in the first place.

It’s now almost 15 years since the monumental court ruling in Massachusetts legalizing gay marriage and almost three years since the U.S. Supreme Court applied that same standard nationwide. According to Gallup, support for gay marriage in the United States reached a high of 64 percent in 2017.

This is a major increase in support from the 42 percent approval the policy got in in 2004, or the 27 percent approval it garnered in 1996.

At the same time, religiosity seems to be falling — but not by nearly as much. In 1996, 57 percent of Americans who said religion was “very important” to them. In 2017, that number was 51.

So while the number of Americans who supported gay marriage spiked 37 points in that time, the people professing a strong commitment to religious belief declined on 6 percent. Persuading people away from religion — or at least, convincing them to take it less seriously — seems to have played a minimal role in winning widespread support for gay marriage.

Meanwhile, opinion on the other major social issue generally associated with strong religious belief — abortion — has remained relatively consistent since the ‘90s. Though gay marriage and abortion were frequently linked as the “social issues” in American politics at the beginning of the 21st century, the trajectories of each issue in public opinion have widely diverged. This suggests that religion in itself may not actually be the key to understand the public’s policy preferences.

Researchers have found support for this claim on other issues. Pew Research Center found in 2015, “Just 6% of U.S. adults in the 2010 survey said religious beliefs have had the biggest influence on what they think about “tougher laws to protect the environment.” They added: “Political party identification and race and ethnicity are stronger predictors of views about climate change beliefs than are religious identity or observance.”

If nothing else, the enduring support Trump receives from white evangelical Christians proves the point. Given the fact that he is on his third marriage, has bragged about sexual assault, and obviously lacks personal religious commitments, many writers have described his support from these religious voters as a mystery.

However, there is no mystery if we don’t think of religion as a primary driver of opinions on public policy.  

Being ‘Reasonable’

This brings us back to Harris. He got his start going after religion, but he has wide-ranging interests. Throughout his career, he continues to cast himself as the defender of rationality against bias, and the promoter of science over superstition.

In his debates with Klein, he’s gone astray by mistakenly thinking Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, is a beleaguered defender of the “scientific” claim that black people are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than white people. He also repeatedly makes a simple error by asserting that, because researchers agree that IQ is partially heritable, then the measured IQ differences between racial groups must also be partially heritable — a leap that is not justified by evidence or logic.

Klein comes back with the more measured — and, I should add, appropriately skeptical — position that we just don’t have nearly enough information yet about the genetic determinants of IQ to make any such claims about group differences. He adds that the long history of oppression and subjugation of black Americans from slavery through today is an inherently confounding variable that undermines attempts to untangle genetic causality.

In response to this, Harris says Klein is “unwilling to differentiate scientific fact and scientific data and reasonable extrapolations based on data, from past injustices in American history. These are totally separate things.”

By assuming that we can make “reasonable extrapolations based on data” about American populations without an understanding of history, Harris reveals his deep biases. He thinks he and Murray can sit and judge how reasonable it is that IQ differences between racial groups could be entirely driven by environmental and social factors. He doesn’t consider that whether this conclusion is “reasonable” may look very different from someone with different experiences from two white published authors.

Harris calls the idea that someone’s racial identity could matter to their interpretation of data an  “indissoluble kind of tribalism.” But there really shouldn’t be anything controversial about saying that people who belong to a marginalized racial group may better understand that marginalization than people in a dominant group.

And when the question under consideration is the interpretation of data as it relates to the social condition of a particular racial group, it should be obvious that members of that group may have a different and potentially better sense of what is reasonable to conclude.

Political Correctness and Identity Politics

Harris is terribly worried that political correctness and identity politics will disrupt good science. But if he hadn’t misidentified religion as the primary threat in American political life and science as the solution, he may have realized his worries are misplaced.

As has become stunningly clear, racist resentment and its interplay with partisanship is the primary challenge the American politics has to overcome. Misogyny, too, clearly plays too large a role, as 2016 and 2017 made all too clear. Trump’s winning the Republican nomination on a platform demonizing Latinos, blacks, and Muslims laid bear what long lay simmering beneath the party’s veneer. The president didn’t invent racism, xenophobia or sexism, but he harnessed them with a directness long absent from mainstream politics.

Despite this development, many writers — typically white — think that “political correctness” and “identity politics” is a serious concern. Some of these thinkers, like Harris, espouse liberal political beliefs on issues like health care, taxes and redistribution, but they fear a focus on oppressed minority groups will undermine progress on these fronts.

So Harris refuses to interview Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most prominent writers on race in American society, who Harris thinks only plays “identity politics.” Murray, who has said that one of his books would assure white people who are afraid they’re racist that they’re actually not, apparently doesn’t practice “identity politics” and merits a two-hour segment on Harris’s Waking Up podcast.

If Harris talked to Coates, they could discuss Coates’ impressive essay “The Case for Reparations,” which documents the extensive influence of racist housing policy has had and continues to have on African Americans to this day. Maybe, with a better understanding of this history, Harris’s view on what is reasonable to conclude about the impact of social and environmental conditions on measured racial differences would shift.

Science, History, and Religion

Science and history are not in tension. But our history influences the progress and interpretation of our science, and a better understanding of our history can inform the judgments we make when evaluating science. Ignoring history can enable supposedly objective and rational assessments of scientific data to simply bolster ingrained prejudice and injustice.

Religious people have been on all sides of the important debates in American history, from slavery, labor, civil rights, women’s rights to LGBT rights. The progress we’ve made on these issues has been the result of mass movements, fierce debates, and a deepening understanding of human nature, and religion has not stood in the way.

Racism, bigotry and factionalism have been the major impediments to making our world and country better. In some of his work, Harris has contributed to these forces, however unintentional this may have been.

If religiosity and undue regard for science were the key factors inhibiting social progress, Harris’s failure — along with the notable failures of Dawkins and Hitchens — would be a mystery.

But history, recent events, and the political irrelevance of New Atheism make it clear that Harris and his allies were wrong about their diagnosis of society’s main challenge all along.


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