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A Response to Jonathan Haidt - Comments

Richard Dawkins's Avatar Comment 1 by Richard Dawkins

Brilliant as usual. Sam is so very very good.

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 21:32:00 UTC | #66337

hayesky's Avatar Comment 2 by hayesky

Another ignorant misunderstanding, and another applauded correction by Sam.

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 21:41:00 UTC | #66338

Neil Daener's Avatar Comment 3 by Neil Daener

I had read Haidt's essay earlier today and came to this site to start a thread to discuss it. Imagine my surprise and pleasure to find myself beat to the the punch by Sam Harris' above response! Thank you Sam for saying it far better than I could hope to have done.

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 21:45:00 UTC | #66339

Mango's Avatar Comment 4 by Mango

Anyone feeling nostalgic for the "wisdom" of the Aztecs?

Great how Sam Harris dissolves a banal platitude with real examples from history.

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 21:48:00 UTC | #66340

BAEOZ's Avatar Comment 5 by BAEOZ

At the risk of being labelled some atheist version of a fawning beatles fan....another great article from Sam. I still think his writing rocks.

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 21:55:00 UTC | #66341

Inferno's Avatar Comment 6 by Inferno

I'm sick of hearing comments that religious people give more time, money and blood to charity. I'm sorry, but any organisation with principles that exclude people solely on sexual preference and believes that the majority of people in the world will be tormented for eternity in a firery hell, is not a moral organisation. Any morals they do have must be purely coincidental!

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 22:01:00 UTC | #66342

BT Murtagh's Avatar Comment 7 by BT Murtagh

I have yet to read a new article by Sam Harris that doesn't contain at least one gem of phrasing that I'm compelled to add to my sig file. This time I think my favorite is this:

Surely we can grow in altruism, and refine our ethical intuitions, and even explore the furthest reaches of human happiness, without lying to ourselves about the nature of the universe.
As well as a clear mind, he's got a remarkable gift for this kind of writing. He's on a par with Hitchens IMO.

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 22:08:00 UTC | #66343

sabre_truth's Avatar Comment 8 by sabre_truth

While I agree with the main spirit of Harris' argument, I say that it is very necessary that we keep a methodological relativism in the scientific study of all aspects of culture, including religion. Science is about descriptive, not normative claims. Ethics, though it may be informed by science, is not itself a science. The social scientists who study religious traditions, beliefs, and practices, must endeavor to understand the context within which the subjects of their studies emerges, and should keep their descriptive and explanatory work on those levels. These scientists may in other places delve into ethical considerations drawn from their work, and indeed speak out boldly for moral principle without relativism. But that should not be construed as scientific work. Though it may draw on scientific studies whose purpose it is to give an accurate description and explanation of the various forms of social behavior, it is the distinct and no less vitally important work of ethics. Ethics can achieve its purpose best when it has access to a store of scientific data with a minimum of bias. Both scientific and ethical study suffer if the two are muddled.

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 22:13:00 UTC | #66344

Russell Blackford's Avatar Comment 9 by Russell Blackford

It is good, though I must say that I find Sam's final para rather unconvincing.

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 22:15:00 UTC | #66345

dloubet's Avatar Comment 10 by dloubet

Pardon me as I light up a cigarette in the afterglow.

Was that as good for y'all as it was for me?

Sam's clarity is unmatched.

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 22:20:00 UTC | #66347

jonjermey's Avatar Comment 11 by jonjermey

Assuming for a moment that Christians are in fact happier, healthier and longer-lived than atheists -- who's to say which is cause and which is effect? When a particular superstition permeates society, who's going to be happier: the unquestioning human sheep who put up with it or the thinking people who witness the damage it causes? Are people less happy because they're atheists or do they become atheists because they can't bring themselves to believe nonsense, no matter how comforting it is?

Besides, Christians are supposed to say they're happy. It's in the contract. Let on that you're not satisfied with your tidy Christian life and the God-botherers will be round with their pamphlets in a flash. Much safer to just smile and nod.

But take heart: happiness measures are notoriously unreliable (see here for instance), and it may be that when sociologists claim to measure 'happiness' they are only measuring conformity. Christians are more conformist? No surprise there!

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 22:22:00 UTC | #66348

Hizulvej's Avatar Comment 12 by Hizulvej

Very nice, as always from Sam Harris.

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 22:51:00 UTC | #66351

ahouston's Avatar Comment 13 by ahouston

• Religion is man made. Man made god in his own image and no doubt women made goddesses in their own image. There is therefore no point in attempting to explain religion in terms of natural selection on the basis that it should confer some selective advantage on our species or within our species.

•Religion is culturally determined and it is competition between cultures, that explains the "survival of the fittest" element which Richard seeks. This missing concept was new to me, until I read Roy Baumeister's address titled " Is there anything good about men?" in which he states;

Let's turn now to culture. Culture is relatively new in evolution. It continues the line of evolution that made animals social. I understand culture as a kind of system that enables the human group to work together effectively, using information. Culture is a new, improved way of being social.
Feminism has taught us to see culture as men against women. Instead, I think the evidence indicates that culture emerged mainly with men and women working together, but working against other groups of men and women. Often the most intense and productive competitions were groups of men against other groups of men, though both groups depended on support from women.
Culture enables the group to be more than the sum of its parts (its members). Culture can be seen as a biological strategy. Twenty people who work together, in a cultural system, sharing information and dividing up tasks and so forth, will all live better — survive and reproduce better — than if those same twenty people lived in the same forest but did everything individually.

The full article is available on the www.

•Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens demonstrated how culture consisted to a large extent, of the elements of play. Religion which is a part of every culture, also consists of a series of play phenomena – laughter, crying dolls, music, imaginary friends, tolerance of incongruity, misattribution etc. For a fuller description readers can go to my home page at

• The words illusion and delusion derive from the Latin verb Ludere meaning "to play". When you see the word delusion you should understand it in that sense, of a false belief derived from play. Psychiatry will have to share this word with us all because that is its original meaning.

•Religion is a game which is culturally determined in which one player, the religionist, attempts to delude others, the rest of us, using all the phenomena of play at our disposal. It is a peculiar game however, for it is a game which actively denies itself as being a game. In other words one of the rules of this game is – this is not a game. Those players who believe it to be real, are deluded.
Perhaps the question from Richard's point of view could be restated as " What is the evolutionary basis of Play?"

• "The God Delusion" means "The God from Play"

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 23:02:00 UTC | #66353

Damien White's Avatar Comment 14 by Damien White

The 'new atheism' is new, and therefore is bound to attract critisism from some 'old' atheists who regard it as a form of 'rocking the boat'. As I have commented on this site before, religion is nothing more than a form of wish fulfillment. Haight's essay reminds me of nothing more than the response I eventually get from the religious when we debate this point, which invariably goes: "Maybe, but who are you to take their hope and comfort away from them?"
I can appreciate this point of view, though I do not agree with it or like it, because I am compassionate towards those members of my family who rely on that comfort to get them through the day. However, I do not appreciate it when the argument is used to stifle reasoned debate in the proper forum. Play it again, Sam, again and again and again, until they listen.

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 23:09:00 UTC | #66354

Darwin's badger's Avatar Comment 15 by Darwin's badger

Excellent piece there, even if the flaws in Haidt's reasoning were so glaringly obvious. Score (another) one for the good guys. :)

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 23:24:00 UTC | #66355

pewkatchoo's Avatar Comment 16 by pewkatchoo

The point is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it.

I would suggest not just at odds with science, but with just about every area of human study and endeavour.

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 23:35:00 UTC | #66357

the izz's Avatar Comment 17 by the izz

I don't think Haidt is wrong when he says that religion strengthens the cohesive bonds of a society and the members of a stronger society have a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes. But really this falls under the heading of a in-group vs. out-group. In-group/out-group social bonding seems to be part of the human genetic makeup, and religion is a weird particularly virulent category of group.

But what Haidt misses is that humans are capable of seeing that their group boundaries are really just a matter of opinion and can redefine in-groups. With religion the criteria to judge groups is elevated to TRUTH and becomes even more resistant to change and more dangerous to its out groups. I don't think any "New" Atheist is claiming that we can get rid of in-group/out-group hostilities, just that we should open up the most intractable in-group to criticism and bring it back to the level of opinion.

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 23:47:00 UTC | #66358

roach's Avatar Comment 18 by roach

Always enjoy reading Sam Harris. Reason and humor are the two most important aspects of writing (or any type of communication) in my book and he has a great talent for both.

Religion = Sacred tribalism

Wed, 12 Sep 2007 23:57:00 UTC | #66359

Logicel's Avatar Comment 19 by Logicel

Every since I first heard of Haidt's research back in May when CJ started this forum discussion thread (,
I was troubled by his approach. Harris has done an excellent job of cutting through the wonkiness of Haidt's viewpoint.

One of the questions on the morality quiz was if I would be disgusted if tomato ketchup was mixed with ice cream. At first, my disgust registered, and then reason kicked in. I realized that the ketchup was not blood, and though I doubt that such a culinary mixture would be pleasing, I certainly would eat it if I was very hungry. That realization drove home the value of reasoning and information. That question I would suppose was to see if I leaned toward the purity basis of morality. I found myself doing that with that type of question found on his quiz, as soon as disgust was triggered, I used facts and reasoning to counter the triggered disgust--it was very liberating.

Haidt seems to me to have a set opinion and is misusing/twisting data to support it. Like several other atheists participating in the above-mentioned forum thread, I leaned towards justice and concern for harm to myself and others as the basis of morality. Yet, what I consider to be the instinctual impulse to avoid contamination based on empirical information available to my ancestors, I was able to go a step further, and challenge the effectiveness of that instinctual push, making better and INFORMED decisions. Reason and facts go a long way against blind following of authority and ungrounded fears.

Thu, 13 Sep 2007 00:15:00 UTC | #66361

fides_et_ratio's Avatar Comment 20 by fides_et_ratio

6. Comment #69813 by Inferno on September 12, 2007 at 11:01 pm

'I'm sick of hearing comments that religious people give more time, money and blood to charity.'

If I was you I'd be sick of it too. That sort of thing must really shake the faith of even the most ardent atheist.

Thu, 13 Sep 2007 00:24:00 UTC | #66362

Jiten's Avatar Comment 21 by Jiten

A brilliant response from Sam.I love the clarity of his writing.

Thu, 13 Sep 2007 00:36:00 UTC | #66367

Jiten's Avatar Comment 22 by Jiten

P Z Myers has written a brilliant response too on his pharyngula blog.

Thu, 13 Sep 2007 00:44:00 UTC | #66371

Corylus's Avatar Comment 23 by Corylus

I have to say I have a lot of amount of respect for Haidt.

I read his essay first and for the first 10 ten minutes I sat and wondered what Sam would be responding to. For example, Haidt makes the points that:

a) important to be open minded when studying morality (in fact when studying anything)
b) moral judgements are (at heart) emotional judgements


Unfortunately all became clear later on. Haidt correctly states that

...that academic researchers may have inappropriately focused on reasoning about harm and rights because we primarily study people like ourselves—college students, and also children in private schools near our universities, whose morality is not representative of the United States, let alone the world.
Absolutely. However he then spectacularly falls into his own trap when he puts forward his own definition of morality:
So here's my definition of morality, which gives each side a chance to make its case:
Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.

Does Haidt honesty think that that the average proponent of religiously based morality would consider that a workable half-way point??

(Some of them wouldn't even admit that psychological mechanism have evolved!) Notwithstanding this, the vast majority would completely reject this societal definition of morality wholescale. Morality for them is about objective truths and values which they either get from scripture (naive version) or via their god-given reasoning abilities (sophisticated version).

This brings me to Sam's killer point:
Perhaps Haidt's thinking on this subject has been powerfully distorted by his own atheism, as he seems incapable of seeing the world as the faithful see it. We might well wonder, at this juncture, just which of us atheists are in danger of "misunderstanding religion." At least Dennett, Dawkins, and I have made some attempt to understand what it might be like to actually believe what people of faith say they believe.

The average religious person reading Haidt's essay would find it unbelievably patronising and condescending. The more sophicated ones would smell a rat. "Is he saying our faith makes us more controllable?"

When atheist thinkers talk about 'respecting' religion I actually think that they are doing the opposite. When you respect someone you listen to them and do them the basic courtesy of assuming that they mean what they say.

Thu, 13 Sep 2007 00:49:00 UTC | #66372

Quetzalcoatl's Avatar Comment 24 by Quetzalcoatl


If I was you I'd be sick of it too. That sort of thing must really shake the faith of even the most ardent atheist

Fides, but how much of religious giving is motivated by fear of the big man in the sky, or a sense of obligation? Nobody pressures atheists and agnostics into giving, but many do.

Oh, and that crack about atheists' faith? Very reminiscent of the Wee Flea.

Thu, 13 Sep 2007 00:50:00 UTC | #66373

heathen2's Avatar Comment 25 by heathen2

Regarding Comment #69833 by fides_et_ratio

'I'm sick of hearing comments that religious people give more time, money and blood to charity.'

If I was you I'd be sick of it too. That sort of thing must really shake the faith of even the most ardent atheist.

As an atheist, at least I can say that my charity is unfettered (no reward in the next life needed, thank you). I give it with a clear conscience. I don't know if the theist can separate his giving from what he thinks god wants or expects him to do. And he is expecting some reward for behaving so generously. Those are not good motives in my opinion. Well, Professor Dawkins covered this issue, and with much more elegant phrasing than I have.

Thu, 13 Sep 2007 01:01:00 UTC | #66377

fides_et_ratio's Avatar Comment 26 by fides_et_ratio

Not that your assumptions about why religious people might give are correct, but I wonder if the receiver in need cares about the motives of the giver. I think at that stage they probably don't.

Thu, 13 Sep 2007 01:07:00 UTC | #66378

Fanusi Khiyal's Avatar Comment 27 by Fanusi Khiyal

Bang on the money, as always. Sam Harris proves once again that he is a man who thinks.

In particular:

>>The same point can be made in the other direction: even a liberal like myself, enamored as I am of my two-footed morality, can readily see that my version of the good life must be safeguarded from the aggressive tribalism of others. When I search my heart, I discover that I want to keep the barbarians beyond the city walls as much as my conservative neighbors do, and I recognize that sacrifices of my own freedom may be warranted for this purpose. I even expect that conservative epiphanies of this sort could well multiply in the coming years—just imagine how we liberals will be disposed to think about Islam after an incident of nuclear terrorism. Liberal hankering for happiness and freedom might one day yield some very strident calls for stricter laws and tribal loyalty.<<

Pissants who believe they are being 'sensitive' or 'tolerant' by excusing religious insanity now, make what will come, much more terrible.

Thu, 13 Sep 2007 01:08:00 UTC | #66379

Paula Kirby's Avatar Comment 28 by Paula Kirby

'I'm sick of hearing comments that religious people give more time, money and blood to charity.'

If I was you I'd be sick of it too. That sort of thing must really shake the faith of even the most ardent atheist.

Why, Fides et Ratio?

Suppose for a moment the claim is true, and that religious people do indeed give more time, money and blood to charity. (And let's be generous for a moment, and assume that these surveys aren't including donations and tithes to churches as part of this fabulous charitable outpouring.)

Why should that in any way be evidence for the existence of a god?

At best, surely, it could be seen as an argument that religious belief is beneficial to society. (Though even so, it would have to be placed alongside, and viewed in the context of, all the evidence pointing the other way too.)

But it has nothing whatsoever to contribute to the debate over the reality or otherwise of the existence of a god, and that's the central issue for atheists: anything else is just a sideshow.

Thu, 13 Sep 2007 01:08:00 UTC | #66380

heathen2's Avatar Comment 29 by heathen2

As far as the response to Haidt, I am so impressed by Sam's excellent writing skills. Yes the humor really helps, too. I was a semi-weak atheist until I read The End of Faith. Now I'm addicted to this website!

Thu, 13 Sep 2007 01:10:00 UTC | #66381

Robert Maynard's Avatar Comment 30 by Robert Maynard

Is there some wisdom in these cults of human sacrifice that we should now honor? Must we take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Or might we want to eat that baby instead?
Solid gold black humour. :D

Thu, 13 Sep 2007 01:12:00 UTC | #66382