Dec 142006
 

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and the just out Letter to a Christian Nation (L2CN) has a remarkable capacity for constructing straw men. Indeed both his books are filled with total misrepresentations of views with which he adamantly disagrees. I guess he deems it easier to beat up a monster of his own making than attempt to deal with actual arguments and facts. As an example, let me offer the following quote from the introduction to L2CN:

According to a recent Gallup pole, only 12 percent of Americans believe that life on earth has evolved through a natural process, without the interference of a deity. Thirty-one percent believe that evolution has been “guided by God”. If our worldview were put to a vote, notions of “intelligent design” would defeat the science of biology by nearly three to one. This is troubling, as nature offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design. But the current controversy over “intelligent design” should not blind us to the true scope of our religious bewilderment at the dawn of the twenty-first century. The same Gallup poll revealed that 53 percent of Americans are actually creationists. This means that despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antquity of the earth, more tha half of our neighbors believe that the entire cosmos was created six thousand years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue. Those with the power to elect our president and congressmen — and many who themselves get elected — believe that dinosaurs lived two by two upon Naoh’s ark, that light from distant galaxies was created en route to the earth, and that the first members of our species were fashioined out of dirt and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake, by the hand of an invisible God.

From Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris, (New York, Alfred A. Knopp, 2006), pp x-xi.

How many misrepresentations of facts and arguments can be stuffed into one paragraph ( like cramming college kids into a VW bug!).

Note the clever switcheroo in the sentence “nature offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design.” Here he cleverly switches from designer to design. ID isn’t about evidence for any particular designer but about evidence of design. Harris thus uses the cliam that nature exhibits “unintelligent design” as evidence (proof?) of no designer. This is a subtle, but clever, re-statement of the old “God wouldn’t not have done it that way” argument we’ve seen so often in the past. Laying aside for the moment all the general problems with the argument from dysteleology, you have to marvel at the slippery substitution of a handy strawman — bad design = no design — instead of dealing fairly with the actual claims of ID regarding how certain features of nature exhibit hallmarks of intelligent design, while not making any claims or speculations about the designer. Also, the entire notion of “no compelling evidence” only means “not compelling to Harris”. He certainly offers no compelling reason to accept his claim of “no compelling evidence”.

Harris, then swiftly moves to creationists…that dastardly group of neer-do-wells who actually believe dinos were on the ark!! Amazing how easy it is to lump anyone who doubts or questions evolution into the big, broad creationist label, and then pretend that that automatically means believing dinos were on Noah’s ark and that earth is only 6,000 years old. And these people vote!!!! Yikes!!!!! This must keep Harris up nights, pacing the floor with worry!

The entire book, short though it is, is filled with mischracterizations of theology, Christianity, scripture, ID, and just about everything else that Harris is railing against. Mostly, Harris just hates religion…period! He wishes it would all just go away like a bad nightmare. That, he thinks, will usher in a grand Athesitic utopia where humans flourish with brotherly love and concern for the general welfare, and the welfare of all life on earth. Apparently, he’s never heard of Marx, Lenin, Stalin…to name a few such utopians. How did that atheistic utopia work out? At the end of the book Harris writes:

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns — about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering — in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellecual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith…Clearly it is time we learned to meet our emotional needs without embracing the preposterous…without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality. Only then will the practice of raising our children to believe they are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish be widely recognized as the ludicrous obscenity that it is. And only then will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous factures in our world.

(L2CN pp, 87-88)

How can you beat such a logically sound argument as that?

  2 Responses to “Sam Harris on How to Build a Straw Man and Other Fallacies”

  1. How can you beat such a logically sound argument as that?

    With love, of course.

  2. Where I come from, this is called propaganda. In other words Marx attack!

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