Kim Jong Il and Sam Harris

December 22, 2011

The recent death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il brought to mind a claim by Sam Harris that I had wanted to write about some time ago, but never found the time to. Sam Harris’ statement was in his September blog post on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He wrote:

Whatever else may be wrong with our world, it remains a fact that some of the most terrifying instances of human conflict and stupidity would be unthinkable without religion. And the other ideologies that inspire people to behave like monsters—Stalinism, fascism, etc.—are dangerous precisely because they so resemble religions. Sacrifice for the Dear Leader, however secular, is an act of cultic conformity and worship. Whenever human obsession is channeled in these ways, we can see the ancient framework upon which every religion was built. In our ignorance, fear, and craving for order, we created the gods. And ignorance, fear, and craving keep them with us.

Here Harris engages in unprecedented sophistry. Obviously in and of itself the fact that Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and the Ils killed tens of millions of people and imprisoned tens of millions more is itself ‘evil’. It is in fact the worst sort of evil in human history. And the regimes that conducted this evil did so without ever resorting to a belief in God or gods – which is the ordinary definition of a religion. Harris of course realizes this but to say so would show that atheism is as capable of atrocities as any other belief, so he twists that definition. Instead of the ordinary view of religion, Harris re-defines religion as any act of cultic conformity and worship of a leader. In saying this Harris displays an egregious, and sadly all too typical weakness amongst New Atheists, that being ignorance of history. The Marxist ideology which led to these regimes was wholly secular – and the movements which installed Stalin and Mao and the Ils weren’t mere devotions to particular leaders, but were the result of the acceptance of the truth of Marxist ideals. These leaders gained power because of the acceptance of a bad secular political and economic philosophy; they didn’t impose this philosophy on the societies in which they ruled. The fact that Harris misses this is wrong-headed and dangerous because it is precisely this sort of ignorance that allows such ideals to grow and metastasize into monstrous regimes.

Contra Harris, the existence of places like the Soviet Union and North Korea show us the critical importance of transcendent beliefs. Rights and liberties that don’t emanate from an immaterial order (as those in the US do) invariably must emanate from the state, and the state is invariably subject to the corruption of human ambition. This is why in declaring their independence from Britain the American founders didn’t appeal to democracy or science or economics in and of themselves, but instead rooted the rights liberties of man in an endowment by a transcendent Creator. That is in fact the only reasonable place from which certain rights can emanate.

North Korea and South Korea are perfect exemplars of these principles in action. Though not explicit in its Constitution, historically the South Korean notion of rights developed as a product of Western (particularly American) influences on political thought. Rights in South Korea are inherent, not bestowed by the state. North Korea on the other hand was modeled after a Soviet style totalitarian society. The ascendency of the Dear Leader in North Korea was a product of the dominance of the secular state not particular religious behaviors. Such ‘cultic conformity’ occurs whenever humans have no authority to answer to but their own coupled with the power to carry out their will.

The only bulwark against such monstrous behavior is the very thing Sam Harris and his co-secularists would eliminate – a set of transcendent truths rooted in the nature of God and his purposes for humanity.

Blogging the EPS Conference 3

November 24, 2010

Another breakout session I attended was by Dr. Frank Beckwith, Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He spoke on Natural Rights and the New Atheists, primarily discussing how New Atheism undermines the notions of moral rules and inherent rights. I have been following the writings of Dr. Beckwith for sometime having blogged about an analysis of his on gay marriage a few months back and so it was great to see him in person. This particular discussion was as thorough as I had hoped on the topic.

He began by noting an inherent contradiction in the atheist position. He did so by way of noting how New Atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins adopt the language of purpose and meaning while denying that it exist. The example he cited for Dawkins was from The God Delusion where Dawkins laments the fact that geologist Kurt Wise had surrendered a promising secular career in science because of his adherence to Biblical truth. Dawkins writes:

….I find that terribly sad; but whereas the Golgi Apparatus moved me to tears of admiration and exultation, the Kurt Wise story is just plain pathetic–pathetic and contemptible. The wound, to his career and his life’s happiness, was self-inflicted, so unnecessary, so easy to escape. All he had to do was toss out the bible. Or interpret it symbolically, or allegorically, as the theologians do. Instead, he did the fundamentalist thing and tossed out evidence and reason, along with all his dreams and hopes.

Beckwith pointed out that this situation is only and ‘sad and contemptible’ if one believes that it is wrong not to live up to one’s talents and abilities – a belief that only makes sense if one believes we have an intrinsic purpose or design to live up to and that some morality prompts us to live up to that purpose. Of course Dawkins believes in no such purpose and so to lament one not fulfilling it is itself irrational.

From their Beckwith went on to make the point that if moral rules or rights exist, they are not physical – thus they defy empirical observation. According to the New Atheist rationale then, they do not exist. To contend rights do exist is to deny a materialistic and naturalistic view of reality. I find this interesting considering the consistency with which atheists will assert the ‘right’ of homosexuals to marry – if atheism doesn’t exist, not only do homosexuals not have a right to marry, no one else does either! They can’t even argue it on the basis of ‘equal rights’ because it is an assertion of inherent good or rights which cannot exist in the atheist worldview. All talk of objective inherent rights is nonsense when proffered by an atheist.

Beckwith went on to respond to the notion that morality and rights might be a product of evolution, and thus are inherent to us humans as social beings – the problem with that view is that the tendency to suppress rights and dominate others could as easily be justified by the same rational, and so there is no particular force in such an argument for rights.

Ultimately the existence of morality and rights is best explained as a product of intelligent intent – that we were designed to live a certain way and best do so when we can flourish according to that design. And that the adoption of certain morality and respect for certain rights best allows us to live in accordance with that design. This was the motivation for the assertions in the Declaration of Independence and subsequent adoption of the US Constitution – and interestingly, other human rights charters. The concepts of rights and moral duties are unintelligible apart from the concept of God, and New Atheism either contradicts itself by adopting the language of rights and responsibilities, or undermines these notions all together.


October 30, 2010

Atheism is logically inconsistent with the notion that all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and thus undermines this truth.