A Rational Alternative?

Here are two interesting articles on the growing vocality of atheists.

The first is a  New York Times piece on a recent conference on atheism and strategies for furthering atheist arguments in American society.  
The article highlights the dissent within atheist ranks about how to spread their gospel.  Disagreement between those more traditional atheists that seek to not challenge religion directly, and those who see no good purpose in masking their utter disdain for religion and those who adhere to some form of it.  These latter are often referred to as the new atheists , who are marked by a much greater willingness to unequivocally condemn religious thought and argue for not just it’s elimination, but it’s prohibition.  
The second article is a short interview with one of the new atheists, Sam Harris.  He has recently published another book arguing that there is a reasonable alternative source for morality – science.  Harris portrays scientists as the new moral authorities in the coming age, finally eliminating what Harris believes is the last bastion of religious holdout – the argument that without religion there is no source or reason for morality.  
These two articles are rather interesting in what they highlight.  Harris’ claim that a better understanding of genetics is the key to a new basis for morality is intriguing, particularly in light of some of the things highlighted in the coverage of the convention.  They represent an amazing naivete and trust in the human nature that Harris believes is essentially itself the source for morality.  
Just in watching how atheists interact with one another, it seems clear that there isn’t much of a stronger evidence of a higher or more consistent morality than what some religions argue for (or against).  Their bitterness towards their ideological adversaries is at times shocking.  Some of them seem quite at ease with completely dismissing the scientific work of Francis Collins, apparently simply on the grounds that he is also an evangelical Christian.  They disrespect one another in how they characterize nuances of opinion or approach that differ amongst themselves.  An atheist at the end of the story essentially advocates for dishonesty as a matter of convenience.  She alleges that her dishonesty is for the betterment of her employer, but this is really a rather thin sham.  Her dishonesty is to protect her employment because she realizes that her ideological stance is not compatible with the purposes of her employer.
If there is a greater or higher morality that is implicit in human nature and awaits only the intelligent teasing out or revelation of it through genetics or secular philosophy, it doesn’t seem to be on display here.  And if it’s not, then it only has itself to blame.  An attempt to posit a consist moral framework based on human nature leaves very little reason or excuse for failures to comply with this moral framework – especially by those who seem most able (on their terms) to discern it and promote it.  It seems a very good example of the old maxim that those who can’t do, teach.  
Harris’ trust in human nature is, at best, childlike, as is his dismissal of religion.  He asserts that religion is “dangerous” for asserting things that are contrary to human nature based on the promise of an afterlife Harris insists “doesn’t exist”.  That’s pretty incredible reasoning for someone – demanding acquiesence to an assertion about the nature of reality based only on the ‘evidence’ that if you can’t prove it’s there, it cannot be there.  
Harris asserts that despite despite mankind’s terrible track record of acting in a moral manner, we ought to be able to trust humans to tell us the best way to behave based on something that is already internal to us.  We are the source of our own morality, though he’s not very clear on exactly how this is the case, or why if this is the case we seem to manifestly fail in following it.  He’s insistent that religion is out of step with reality, but only if you dismiss all religions together as equally ridiculous without examining what a particular religion may actually say.  
Christianity is unique in saying that regardless of what we know about how we’re to behave – whether we look internally to our own best ideas or even externally to a God-given law – we are incapable of improving things at all.  Christianity describes reality incredibly well.  Here we are, trapped in guilt and fear and angst over a world that we know isn’t the way it’s supposed to be (despite it being all we’ve ever known), and trapped in guilt and fear and angst over our own lives that we know aren’t the way they’re supposed to be (despite our best efforts to the contrary).  Terrible things happen and we know that they are terrible and real, yet we also know that they’re not appropriate to this world, that they are aberrations, incongruous with how reality ought to be.  We are creatures saddled with an amazingly developed sense of should that doesn’t at all match what is.  If what is is all that’s ever been, why aren’t we used to it?  
And as for Harris’ assertion that the lab-coat scientist as the future of moral law is not a figure to be feared, wow.  Amazingly naive.  Or else he thinks we’re all stupid (which I’m betting is also the case).  Having dismissed (rightly so) the ridiculous notion of relative truth, we know darn well what truth he is convinced is really true and real – his truth.  His understanding of reality.  And he stands ready to dismiss every single other idea that contradicts or in any way disagrees with his assertions.  He advocates for genetic modification but only if we can be “confident that what we’re doing isn’t going to be harmful in the end.”  How are we to know this?  Whose confidence to we rely on?  And when that confidence turns out to be erroneous or misplaced, who puts Humpty Dumpty back together again?
Notice the vagueness with which Harris answers the question for a specific moral issue that science can provide an answer to.  Notice first of all how Harris begins by throwing out science all together as even a pre-requisite for a new moral law.  Science is to be our guide rather than God, he asserts, yet he immediately dismisses even science as a necessary guiding force.  It’s self evident.  Fascinating.  So there is to be no moral guide then other than self-evident common sense?  The people wielding the machetes and perpetrating the rapes appear to have an understanding of reality that justifies their actions.  In a competing market space of ideas with no greater authority to discern Truth, how is one understanding any more valid than another?    How do we avoid might makes right?  Or in Harris’ case, smart makes right?  And if smart makes right, it isn’t very long before the ones with the guns figure out that they have all the smarts they need to seize right for themselves.  
As for Orwellian visions of dystopian authoritarianism?  Silly fairy tales, according to Harris.  We’re going to “discover” new ways to convey the value of compassion, and we’re simply going to leave it up to people to use this information wisely and uniformly?  Hardly.  Harris needs a good look backwards at human history to see what happens to utopian promises of a better tomorrow as safeguarded and defined by a handful of the elite or special.  The common good is already held up to be the trump card over individual liberty and freedom.  The costs to the whole from the ability of a few to lie seem to justify to Harris using technology to make lying impossible.  And of course that technology will be applied equally and fairly to everyone, I’m sure.  
Overall Harris would like to trade one fairy tale for what he believes is the fairy tale of religion.  He pitches the well-worn promise of human ingenuity and goodness eradicating the problems of the world and leading us upwards and onwards towards a better quality of life.  We know how that fairy tale ends.  Ask the citizens of the former Soviet Union.  Or the Chinese who lived through the Cultural Revolution.  Ask the Cubans.  Ask anyone who has relied on the wisdom or persuasiveness of a few to lead them to a better life.  Substituting scientists in lab coats for soldiers in riot gear will not result in a different end.  The route to that end may look different, but the end is assured.  If you want a world view that is radically out of sync with all of human history and experience, one need look no further than the sugar-coated myopia of Harris.  
Christianity is far more obvious in stating what we have experienced directly and historically – we are broken and we cannot fix ourselves.  The good that we want to do, we don’t, and the bad that we would rather not do, that is what we end up doing.  Who can save us from this predicament?  (Romans 7:18ff).  It is the Bible’s answer to this that earns it the disgust and disdain of Mr. Harris and others who would prefer us to place our trust in them.  If the Bible were merely a description of our situation, it would still be unparalleled for it’s unblinking honesty and forthrightness.  But it doesn’t stop there.  The Bible also describes the solution – and that solution is not within us, though it has walked amongst us.  The solution to the conundrum Paul states in Romans 7 above is God, not me.  The solution has already been given in the God-Man Jesus Christ.  The cure has already been administered.  But the cure is not complete – not yet.  And the cure requires the eventual death of the disease and all those who make their stock and trade in it.  The good news is that the cure is available to them as well – it is freely offered.  Not everybody is interested in it.  Not everybody knows that they are sick, and that the sickness is fatal.  
Changing those in power does not eliminate the problem of a broken human nature.  Assuming that intelligence is immune to corruption and greed and all of the other forces that open up vistas of misery to those in the right positions is foolish wishful thinking on a par easily equal to whatever other religions Harris wishes to dismiss.  Stupidity is not our problem, sinfulness is.  And sinfulness affects the intelligent as well as the stupid.  There’s an argument to be made that the intelligent can become an even greater power of evil because they can rationalize to themselves and their victims why their behaviors are not inconsistent, not in fact, flawed or evil.  The thug understands mostly that he is strong and the other is weak, and that exploitation is an opportunity.  It is a rough form of street justice wherein the possibility of a larger bully on the block is always real and always understood.  The genius sees that same exploitation as a duty, a sacred trust that he must bear for the improvement of humanity – regardless of the cost to actual humanity in the meantime.  Nobody can be seen as better equipped for this duty.  The pride of the mind will tolerate no rivals.
Don’t get me wrong.  This is not a diatribe against intelligence, but rather a strong warning against the pride that accompanies it.  I don’t blame Mr. Harris for wanting to make a better world.  It’s a commendable desire.  But in his rash arrogance he demonstrates how this is not even remotely possible, even for the smartest of us.  

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