Sam Harris' Atheism -- Sightings

Atheism is fashionable once again.  Leading advocates such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris have all seen their books rise to the top of the best sellers lists.  They argue that religion is dangerous, though I have yet to recognize my faith in their portrayals.  Of course, that's the point.  It's all black and white.  You're either for us or against us.  You're either Fred Phelps/Osama bin Laden or you must be a scientific positivist (that's what Sam Harris is).  I wrote a response some years ago of Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation, in which I noted that there are those who fit his stereotype, but a majority who do not.  Today, in his weekly posting, Martin Marty points to a lengthy response to Harris' reductionist "scientific positivism."  Take a look at Marty and continue the journey!  And if you don't see yourself in the stereotype, then live out that faith in a way that lets the world that the stereotype doesn't hold!!



Sightings 5/23/2011

Sam Harris’s Atheism
-- Martin E. Marty

“Same Old New Atheism,” last week’s clipping about religion sighted in the public sphere (it might as well be labeled “Same New Old Atheism”) is a 6800-word review which places the trendy “New Atheism” in the context of previous efforts to establish scientific positivism in the place of religion. Religion, in turn, is to be done away with, as it’s been done away with for centuries. The review in question is not a fundamentalist screed against defamers of the faithful, but the voice of Rutgers Professor Jackson Lears, whose critics describe him as a “man of the left” in a “magazine of the left.” Lears reviews three books by Sam Harris, who to Lears is a “scientific fundamentalist.” Harris, in turn, has responded that Lears’s review is “idiotic.” It isn’t.

We can only hit some high spots of Lears-on-Harris and hope that readers will all follow through by reading the whole article, one of the best short criticisms yet of the old/new or new/old atheism. Lears locates the genre in a “back-to-1910” cultural fashion in which now “deregulation” and “starvation of the public sector” have returned to the pre-World War I style. The key in philosophy, including manifestly in Harris’s works, “depends on the reductionist belief that the entire universe, including all human conduct, can be explained with reference to precisely measurable, deterministic physical processes.” The positivists, their outlook revisited by Harris, “assumed that science was the only sure guide to morality, and the only firm basis for civilization.” With them came “pop-evolutionary notions of progress,” “scientific racism and imperialism” and, most measurably, “eugenics” and the like.

Sociologists of knowledge (Karl Mannheim, Peter Berger, Thomas Kuhn and others) countered positivism, but it has come back in the works of authors Lears cites. They were also countered, in turn, by fellow scientists who found it philosophically and scientifically weak. But since 9/11 it is back again in Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and, of course, Harris, who now “press the case against religion with renewed determination and fire.” The Christian Right’s absolutism next provided a fat target, and Islamic Fundamentalism one even fatter. Its presence legitimates torture—in Harris’s books, at least—while “multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance,” writes Harris, hobbles “the West” in its war against “radical Islam.”

Harris argues that to be un-hobbled, the West must reject “both religion and cultural relativism, and [embrace] science as the true source of moral value.” Lears praises sciences but rejects the implicit (and sometimes explicit) metaphysic which the new atheists do not discern in their putatively scientific empirical approach to morality. How Harris roots his metaphysic in brain research, which is his main work, and how Lears criticizes it is a story too complex for this brief article, but is available in Lears’s essay.

The title term “Infidelity,” the colonial and early modern word for atheism, agnosticism, and radical religion through three centuries, was the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation in 1956 in “The Uses of Infidelity.” Protestant conservatives would show how unmoored Christianity and faith in general were when infidels, never great threats on their own, got a hold of them. Now again, it is usually “infidels” who do the most telling reviews of fellow infidels’ books. Conservatives through the decades hollered, and gave those of other faiths and no faiths a potency they had otherwise not known. Now, again?


Jackson Lears, “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris,” The Nation, May 16, 2011.

Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


Can American Muslims be both loyal to their tradition and full participants in American civil society? In this month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum, Vincent J. Cornell argues that an embrace of the tenets of Shari‘a fundamentalism has led even would-be moderate Muslim leaders to reject the principles of American constitutional democracy. Consequently, they advocate (often unintentionally) a retreat from full participation in American civil society into sectarianism and “millet multiculturalism.” Against this tend, says Cornell, it is necessary for Muslim thinkers to find an “overlapping consensus” between Shari‘a and constitutionalism—one that gives warrant for the exercise of “unsupervised reason.”


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Mystical Seeker said…
The idea that simply by using science one can objectively provide us with moral answers is not new, even if Harris thinks he is somehow a brilliant thinker for coming up with this idea. It is a much more intractable problem than Harris thinks. Sam Harris shows his own naivete, with a little hubris added for good measure. I think that in a way he digs this hole for himself with his own scientism. Harris just doesn't impress me as having anything particularly sophisticated or interesting to say.
Brian said…
I suspect Harris's positivism is not the same as Herbert Spencer's. That said, I’m no Harris advocate.

My defense of atheists, and atheism, is rooted in my Christian faith. I know this sounds weird to most people. My thinking is that atheists are discriminated against d/t their views. They continue to face bigotry in the US. Imagine a presidential candidate being open about being an atheist. She would not stand a chance to be president of the US (yet). Frankly, I think it is reasonable to assume that being an atheist in a small town could be physically dangerous! Certainly being a known atheist could impact decisions in hiring. In other words, I’d say that there is religious privilege in our culture not unlike white privilege. (I don’t want to press this point too far, but I hope the idea is getting conveyed.)

I feel that standing up for atheism/atheists is not morally different from standing up for any other oppressed group. One difference is that atheists are not forced to face such bigotry. They choose to be true to their thoughts and feelings. This is courageous and honorable.

It is my opinion that too often mainline Christian criticisms of contemporary atheism is based not on ideas, but on tone. Since I’m viewing this from the perspective that atheists are discriminated against, my perspective sees the criticism of their “angry tone” to not be unlike previous generations calling oppressed persons speaking out “uppity”. Atheists should be angry! They are treated as second class citizens.

As far as critical thinking goes, I find atheists to be refreshing. They are my conversations partners. Not in debating religion. Just in free-thinking. Many liberal Christians consider themselves to be non-theists. While I’m not in love with that label, it is pretty accurate for me.

Lastly, I have no interest in reading Harris. An article is good, but an entire book of him belittling my commitment to Christ and the Church is not on my to-do list. Frankly, I find the Mr. Deity videos to be much more fun. These videos were introduced to me by the Disciples pastor who is married to a theology professor at Lexington. His name is Michael Davison The Mr. Deity videos are a fun way to glean the wisdom of our sisters and brothers from atheism.

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