The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

November 21, 2010

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: The Necessity of Tolerance

I read Sam Harris’s new book, “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values,” the other week, even though I knew I did not agree with much of his thinking in his earlier book, “The End of Faith.”   Being a proud atheist materialist myself, you would think I would have much in common with Harris.  Not so much.*

Harris, like many of the “New Atheists,” is angry, almost to the point of rage.  And when Harris discusses some of the ongoing human atrocities on his mind, I can understand the depth of his anger.  The situation in the Congo is so nightmarish as to be almost incomprehensible, the prevalence of honor killings in the Middle East is horrifying, and the practices of female genital mutilation and religiously justified subjugation are a cause for outrage.  Not only is Harris angry at the ideologies and ideologues that perpetuate these atrocities, he is angry at the secular “moral relativists” he encounters who refuse to condemn them. 

Can killing women who disobey their families’ wishes or mutilating a girl’s capacity for sexual pleasure or forcibly restricting women’s self-expression through identity-obliterating garb or prohibiting girls from obtaining an education be right?  Absolutely not.  These cultural practices are horrifically misguided in their distortion and degradation of women’s capacities and value as individuals.

Is condemning these practices from my seat in the West some sort of cultural imperialism?  I don’t think so.  I feel confident that had I been born into the cultures that practice them, I would have hated their imposition on me and my sister and friends and would have sought to resist them to the extent possible. 

Widely diverse individual variation is a scientific fact.  Indeed, it is the engine of evolution.  As social animals, the tension between the diversity of individual interests and the dictates of human communities is ongoing.  Human communities have answered the problems posed by this tension in an astonishing variety of ways depending on resources, circumstance, tradition, and adaptability.  One of the most significant circumstances that shapes a society’s answer is who ends up in charge.

The beauty of democracy is that it allows (in theory if not always in practice) for individuals as a group, rather than a defined group of individuals, to be in charge.  And because it allows for diversity and changeability, a democracy also requires peaceful tolerance of difference–up to a point.  And that point is generally where the difference inflicts tangible harm on others.

I am confident that my opinion that there is no God is correct but I am tolerant of differing views, as long as those views do not inflict tangible harm on others.  This position is consistent with the fundamental democratic principle of pluralism.  And because I accept the necessity of tolerance in the face of pluralism, I am not so angry at people who peacefully disagree with me, however wrong I might think they are.

Embracing the fact of pluralism and the value of tolerance that underlie democracy is not the same as “moral relativism.”  Not everything goes, even from a tolerant worldview. 

*My review of The Moral Landscape is at http://www.amazon.com/Moral-Landscape-Science-Determine-Values/product-reviews/1439171211/ref=cm_cr_pr_hist_2?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addTwoStar

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson

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15 Comments »

  1. Where does the asterisk take us?

    Comment by Michelle — November 21, 2010 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

    • I have added the related asterisk to the link to my review at Amazon, which is at the end of the blog. Sorry for any confusion.

      Comment by SAJohnson — November 22, 2010 @ 10:30 am | Reply

  2. Like cultural and moral relativism, this post doesn’t make much sense and doesn’t really go anywhere. You seem to be vaguely objecting to “anger”, something which Sam Harris certainly never overtly expresses. If you’ve ever seen any of his interviews or speeches, you know that he is one of the most mild-mannered, calm, and pleasant of the so-called “New Atheists”. You clearly have no idea what you’re talking about.

    Comment by Durr Hurr — November 21, 2010 @ 2:23 pm | Reply

    • However Harris presents himself in interviews, his books express a deep anger. My actual review of The Moral Landscape is at Amazon. I invite you to read it before you dismiss me as “clearly hav[ing] no idea what you’re talking about.” I would also invite you to ask yourself whether you commented in a calm and pleasant or angry manner.

      Comment by SAJohnson — November 22, 2010 @ 10:31 am | Reply

  3. I haven’t read the book. The unique thing about Harris is his calm aura. I’ve seen him on countless debates and such where the other side said something that made me furious and unable to continue until after pausing it and doing something else for a while. Personally the stuff I get angry at isn’t Nazi Tourettes but rather Chopra style nonsense and Boteach style emotionalism.

    There are good reasons to be intolerant of all religion, and I don’t think there is necessarily a relationship between whether you buy into those arguments or not and anger.

    I don’t think that any endorsement of a “way of knowing” is good if that way of knowing reliably leads to bad results, and I think that even when I’m not angry. If a person thought a good method to measure human weight was to divide their (Gregorian calendar) year of birth by the day of the month they were born on and again by the month of the year, I would give no accolades whatsoever if they actually got someone’s weight perfectly accurately that way. I wouldn’t oppose that method merely when it achieved the wrong answer for human weight, but even when it got the right answer.

    Even if you disagree with the above you should be open to the idea that others operate under the same principles and simply have a different analysis of the effect of (uncriticized) moderate/liberal religion than you do. It’s not enough for you to say “…a democracy also requires peaceful tolerance of difference–up to a point,” as if you were teaching something. Rather, you are admitting that there is a point, what remains is to discuss whether and how certain things cause harm.

    Comment by Brian — November 21, 2010 @ 11:41 pm | Reply

  4. Of course it remains to discuss whether and how certain things cause harm. I think that we must have this conversation in a civil manner and acknowledge that reasonable minds likely will differ. I agree that a “way of knowing” that reliably leads to bad results is not a good way of knowing. I certainly would not advocate or tolerate measuring a person’s weight by division of the elements of her birthdate as a method in a physics or biology class.

    But measuring a person’s weight is almost as pure a scientific question as there is. Harris’s book is not about the value of science in examining the objective, material world. Harris’s book is about attempting to answer moral questions through “science” (which he actually defines so broadly as to mean “rationality”). Moral questions are far more complex than weighing a person and, among other things, require that individuals’ interests, including their subjectivities, be taken into account. How to find meaning in life is a very individualized inquiry and as long as a person is not harming another (still to be defined, no doubt), a person is free to pursue her individual quest. That is the very essence of liberty.

    As I explain in my actual review of The Moral Landscape at Amazon, Harris has an authoritarian bent, so much so that in his discussion of morality, individual liberty does not even make an appearance. Now, I am no libertarian but I cannot endorse an elite group of “moral experts” telling us what right and wrong are, as Harris suggests. Perhaps it is his authoritarian bent in his writing that I perceive as “anger” or perhaps his authoritarian bent–his need to be absolutely right–is the source of his anger. The fact is that while Harris may present himself calmly in interviews, his writing reveals a self-righteousness that is troubling.

    Comment by SAJohnson — November 22, 2010 @ 10:34 am | Reply

    • I continue to be fascinated that the calmest acting man I’ve seen writes in a way that’s commonly interpreted as angry. Assume his writing is angrier than any other’s. Considering his humor and unflappable calm in the face of anger, lies, evasion, misunderstanding, etc. in real time, what is the best way to describe him? For basically everyone else, their writing is slightly calmer than their demeanor, so judging their anger relative to someone else’s is easy.

      Your review implies that it is you who supplies an authoritarian direction for the book. You leave hanging questions such as “What happens if I disagree with this scientific board of moral authority?” as if the only answer were that you had to do it or be imprisoned. I infer from the way you posed the questions as challenges that Harris didn’t actually reach the conclusions you argue are the best or only outcome of accepting his arguments.

      Harris: “if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in this life, such diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science.” “That he questions the fact of human diversity is shocking, frankly.”

      Yet from his quote it appears that he questioned the value of it, and not the fact. I don’t think the question is that shocking for another reason: it is a rhetorical device. He is articulating the challenge he expects his readership to have and by answering it allays their concerns. Likewise for his statement: “I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way human beings live.” He is merely responding to a natural challenge to his ideas, as people often think that if/as there are multiple best ways to live, what he is arguing can’t be true. In general persuasive writing should not be read as if it were a map of the author’s brain, but rather as a reflection of what the author expects his or her readers to think.

      “And how is one to weigh interests in/preferences for taste and enjoyment against the values of nutrition and health, from a perspective of moral truth? This example brings to mind Twain’s saying, “The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.””

      Once again, Harris says that things can be weighed and you engage in an argument from consequences: you assume some values must be reduced to zero, from which you derive that the only conclusion is that authoritarianism is justified.

      “By using such personal examples, Harris paints himself as a moral busybody—a kind of 21st century throwback to 19th century moral crusaders.”

      No, by assuming that the answer to all of these problems is to value individual autonomy not a bit and that it is always right to spend maximum resources forcing others to do what they should but do not want to do, you provide the background for a dystopia that Harris didn’t write about.

      “Is this “unusual disease outbreak” a moral problem for which there is a provably correct answer?…Or is this just a fundamentally painful judgment call with no right or wrong answer, i.e., dilemma?”

      Harris’ theory is entirely comfortable with neither choice being better or worse than the other.

      “If no right answer is objectively discernible, what is the right process for answering this question? Again, Harris fails to even present, much less address, the most interesting moral questions.”

      He doesn’t know the answer to those questions. He wants that to be an object of study rather than neglect. His book title didn’t claim he would be answering how science *does* determine moral values.

      Ultimately, nothing I have heard from anybody implies Harris’s approach to morality, if partly, widely, or universally adopted, would be anything but perfectly compatible with secular liberal democracy. I have a separate criticism of it.

      Comment by Brian — December 6, 2010 @ 5:08 am | Reply

      • Frankly, I don’t think Harris sufficiently defined his “approach to morality” to know what it would ultimately entail. For example, as I mentioned in my review, he asserted: “[S]ome interests are more defensible than others. Indeed some interests are so compelling that they need no defense at all.” But he doesn’t identify these interests. The heart of the philosophical discussion of morality and justice is the prioritization of conflicting interests and values. By not engaging in that discussion, Harris rather begs the question. Where does Harris have any specific discussion about how conflicting interests and values are to be weighed? If I missed those passages, I would like to know so I can revisit them.

        Why do I attribute authoritarianism to him? Because he wrote: “How have we convinced ourselves that, on the most important questions in human life, all views must count equally?” That is called democracy. The polity answers the most important questions in human life every day. And in the US, we have agreed on a one person, one vote principle (putting aside the Senate and the electoral college)–with the exception of the matters left to the US Supreme Court by the Constitution.

        Also, it is interesting that you believe Harris’s approach would be compatible with “secular liberal democracy” when Harris expresses nothing but disdain for “secular liberals.” And I don’t think this disdain is for “liberals” just in the contemporary sense but for “liberals” in the classic sense as well.

        Also, your suggestion that Harris questioned the “value,” rather than fact, of human diversity supports my attribution of authoritarian tendencies. Since diversity is a fact, if it is not properly valued, adverse consequences arise for individuals in their individuality. We are all different. We aren’t going to stop being all different without social engineering. Social engineering almost by definition has an authoritarian bent.

        With respect to the “unusual disease outbreak,” it is you who have said Harris’s theory is comfortable with the choices being morally equivalent, not Harris. Harris is silent on that point.

        His subtitle is ““How Science Can Determine Human Values.” He does not answer this question. He does not say–well, here are the values science tells us we should prioritize and how, or I don’t have these prioritization answers today but I believe science will have them in the future through x, y, z method.

        I am a lawyer, so I deal with questions of justice and right and wrong for a living. I also have read fairly widely in legal/moral philosophy. The legal/moral philosophical discussion from the 18th Century forward has pretty much been a secular discussion. I don’t see that Harris has added much, if anything, to that discussion. If you gained some value and insight from the book, that’s great. From my perspective, he overpromised (in his title) and underperformed. Better to do the opposite in my view–but perhaps not from a marketing perspective.

        Comment by SAJohnson — December 6, 2010 @ 10:26 am

      • Frankly, I don’t think Harris sufficiently defined his “approach to morality” to know what it would ultimately entail.

        You mean as applied?

        For example, as I mentioned in my review, he asserted: “[S]ome interests are more defensible than others. Indeed some interests are so compelling that they need no defense at all.” But he doesn’t identify these interests.

        He has in lectures. That is a weakness in the book. This is your strongest support of what you claim was a widespread pattern and is on point (assuming context of that quote doesn’t implicitly endorse such interests). However, all of the others you cited are unconvincing so evidence of a pattern is lacking.

        The heart of the philosophical discussion of morality and justice is the prioritization of conflicting interests and values. By not engaging in that discussion, Harris rather begs the question. Where does Harris have any specific discussion about how conflicting interests and values are to be weighed?

        This is the weakness of his approach, but it’s not fatal. I have no idea how to weigh different values against each other, e.g. absence of pain with presence of pleasure, or what is good for two and OK for eight against what is excellent for nine and bad for one. However, Harris’ ideas remain highly valuable for two reasons. First, there remains entirely untouched by this criticism the ability to compare scenarios against similar scenarios, e.g. 100 units of pleasure and 50 units of pain against 100 units of pleasure and 60 units of pain. Second, although the overarching absolute correctness of any systems is impaired, plugging in just a few values chosen by people will allow for firm conclusions. E.g., few of us truly value the growth of sunflowers as an end, such that we plant as few crops as we can get by on, cut down all forests to make fields, end urban sprawl and meat eating, etc. to plant as may flowers as we can. Humans basically actually want similar things, and even with their subjective values needed to jump-start the system.

        Why do I attribute authoritarianism to him? Because he wrote: “How have we convinced ourselves that, on the most important questions in human life, all views must count equally?” That is called democracy.

        We simply don’t count all views equally. We count *people* equally, (somewhat constrained through representation and an independent judiciary, which reduce the democratic nature of the system). We have a free market of ideas, there is social ostracism, and so forth and people use expert knowledge as best they can in their life. Why do you assume that the best way to construct society is to deprive people of their franchise? Not only is citizen participation a social good only producible under a similar system as ours, democracy with checks and balances lowers the chances of rebellions, is cheaper to administer than many modern bureaucratic states, etc. You keep assuming the most/only reasonable outcome of starting down Harris’ road is authoritarianism, but I am reminded of Yoda’s cave on Dagobah.

        Also, it is interesting that you believe Harris’s approach would be compatible with “secular liberal democracy” when Harris expresses nothing but disdain for “secular liberals.”

        He’s described himself as a secular liberal.

        Also, your suggestion that Harris questioned the “value,” rather than fact, of human diversity supports my attribution of authoritarian tendencies.

        No, it’s rather shocking that you would punish him for asking a simple question because one answer to it would violate political correctness, even though that isn’t the side he falls out on. I won’t use the “a” word, but I’m thinking of it.

        Since diversity is a fact, if it is not properly valued, adverse consequences arise for individuals in their individuality. We are all different.

        “[P]roperly valued”, that’s begging the question. One could say the same of diet. (You don’t think he means people’s genes do you? He really must be referring to their cultures.) Also, nothing precludes diversity as such or extreme freedom for self expression from being counted as values to be optimized-and those values can’t really be furthered through authoritarianism.

        We aren’t going to stop being all different without social engineering. Social engineering almost by definition has an authoritarian bent.

        We could conclude the costs were not worth the benefits, and then not do it. One would do well to note that Harris specifically doesn’t think we should stop being different either, hence the metaphor of the book.

        With respect to the “unusual disease outbreak,” it is you who have said Harris’s theory is comfortable with the choices being morally equivalent, not Harris. Harris is silent on that point.

        I don’t mean that Harris said which outcome he thought was most ethical. In general: Harris uses the metaphor of the moral landscape to show how different cultures can be equally good, even as they make different choices in the same scenario. You are trying to argue that in a specific case where we have two options equally right, that *must* fall outside of (and falsify) Harris’ theory. On the contrary, the most important part of the metaphor that comprises the title of his book is accommodating our correct intuition that different cultures can be equally valuable within his claim that science (broadly, reason) can determine true answers to moral questions, at least in theory.

        He does not say…how,

        “How” wasn’t in the title…

        …or I don’t have these prioritization answers today but I believe science will have them in the future through x, y, z method.

        Yes, the only weakness of his approach is his lack of direction in selecting from among competing values. Fortunately the bulk of it is still applicable, since people happen to have very similar values even across different cultures.

        I don’t see that Harris has added much, if anything, to that discussion. If you gained some value and insight from the book, that’s great.

        I haven’t read it yet, I have read his other stuff and heard him many times. (I’m commenting on your review and Harris, not the book.) I refrained from leaping at it because he didn’t promise much from it other than popularizing some ideas. Harris said the book was aimed at moral relativists and the general public, to disseminate knowledge-particularly the knowledge that moral choices are more properly a matter of test tubes than personal whimsy.

        Comment by Brian — December 6, 2010 @ 11:53 am

      • I don’t think that people make moral choices on “personal whimsy.” I think people make moral choices based on deeply felt beliefs and concerns. Those deeply felt beliefs and concerns may be more or less based on empirical facts. Where they are less based on empirical facts, they are still very unlikely to constitute “personal whimsy.” I’ve made many moral choices in my life and not one of them was based on a test tube. There are so many more values in life than pleasure and pain. There are loyalty, individuality, order, freedom, equality, diversity, honesty, status, beauty, health, wealth, cooperation, competition–on and on. These values don’t come in units and are not easily susceptible to measurement.

        As a matter of course, we as individuals and our society as a whole weigh these values against each other and make decisions and enforce rules based on those judgments every day. That’s what our secular system of laws and regulations does; that’s what our tax policy does; that’s what our government budgets do. And we as individuals make personal moral decisions every day: to tell the truth or not; to be kind or cruel; to be faithful or self-indulgent; to be humble or self-righteous; to be generous or self-interested; to be violent or peaceful, etc. Harris wrote not one enlightening thing about how our system or our personal choices should operate differently–other than to suggest the installation of brain-scanning truth detectors in board rooms and court rooms. An idea which I oppose for reasons too numerous to get into here.

        Harris decries both moral and cultural relativists, so I’m not so sure he thinks different “cultures” can be equally valuable. I think he thinks different societies governed by “genuine moral experts” might come up with different solutions.

        As far as “secular liberals,” Harris does not have a positive word. This is an example of what he says: “[N]ot knowing what is right—or that anything can ever be truly right—often leads secular liberals to surrender their intellectual standards and political freedoms with both hands.”

        Well, I don’t know what “truly right” means but it doesn’t lend itself to a pluralistic landscape.

        I have no interest in political correctness. I don’t value diversity or individual liberty because of political correctness. I value diversity because it is an inescapable fact (and an often beautiful, exciting, and interesting one at that). I value individual liberty because diversity is a fact and impingement on individual liberty is oppressive because of our diverse natures. We have to balance individual liberty with other values, however, and we are constantly debating how to best do this in our society and around the world. We have robust secular processes in place in the West and many other parts of the world for making these important choices.

        Harris builds a straw man to easily knock down when he suggests otherwise. Whatever he has said in his debates and lectures, his book is a failure.

        Comment by SAJohnson — December 6, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

  5. Harris strikes me as expressing fear, more than anger. I haven’t read The Moral Landscape yet but The End of Faith had a lot of moral outrage, with a starting and ending point being 9/11, extending backward through history, touching on numerous examples of religion blotting out tolerance and encouraging brutality. It struck me that the title emphases “The End” more than “of Faith.” He’s quite plainly (and admittedly) apprehensive that the world he and more rational beings have come to accept and love could be turned into a factual version of the mythical hell if we reach a tipping point and the delusion known as “God said I should” spurs some well-armed entity to force its will upon the rest of the world. He is of the opinion that the more tolerant among us are part of the problem, by even tolerating the belief systems that contain the more fringe elements (Islam, Christianity, Mormonism, etc.). I prefer Dawkins and Carl Sagan, who tend to accentuate the positive and hopeful aspects of science, even while touching on the topics of religious brutality and oppression. They seem to encourage the discarding of gullibility, dependency and lazy thinking, while retaining the sense of wonderment and awe that we see in most faith traditions.

    Comment by Volly — November 27, 2010 @ 1:34 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your comment. I haven’t read much Sagan. Perhaps I should. I do LOVE Dawkins’ scientific writing. The Ancestor’s Tale is one of my favorites. I think he misfired a bit with the tone of The God Delusion. Yes, fear could be at the root of Harris’s attitude. As far as fear goes, however, we have much to fear about the survival of the human species and life on Earth as we know it beyond religiously-framed conflicts. Global warming and other massive environmental destruction comes to mind. Religion didn’t have much to do with that. So, while I can understand being fearful, I don’t single religion out as the primary source of our ills.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 1, 2010 @ 7:28 am | Reply

  6. I find your review and assessment of Harris’ anger spot on. I am currently reading Harris’ book and have read his previous books. I think it is more than fair to argue he an angry atheist. I have met many. I think it is unnecessary, but I understand the sentiment as we see the results of countless centuries of violence. However, it is unfair to simply blame religion for all the horrors of history. To explore morality in a secular framework is not new and to facilitate “scientism” as a possible source of moral though is always an interesting read. Harris makes good points but I remain critical. As a secular thinkers, we have much to explore that still has to be worked out properly. Thank you for your excellent review.

    Comment by Jeff Sharpless — November 28, 2010 @ 2:01 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Jeff. I also understand the underlying anger, and for me it is not just about the history of violence conducted under the auspices of religion but also about the fundamentalist assault on knowledge. I agree completely that “as secular thinkers, we have much to explore that still has to be worked out properly,” and I think that can best be done from a position of inquiry and tolerance.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 1, 2010 @ 7:22 am | Reply

  7. […] Spiritual Life of an Atheist: The Necessity of Tolerance (sannejohnson.wordpress.com) […]

    Pingback by Can science determine human values? | Lilywhitewash's Blog — February 11, 2011 @ 11:34 am | Reply


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