Monday, June 25, 2012

Review of The Moral Landscape

Sam Harris
In November 2006, Gary Wolf published an article in Wired magazine in which he used the term ‘new atheists’ to describe the recent insurgence of atheism popularized by men such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens.

Of course, atheism itself is nothing new. Throughout the ages there have always been those who were foolish enough to say there is no God. However, what is new, and perhaps unexpected in our postmodern era, is the virulent energy with which these men and their votaries have asserted their atheistic dogmatism.

Dawkins set the tone for ‘the new atheism’ in 2006 with his bestselling book The God Delusion (which I reviewed here). In it Dawkins argued that religious belief is not just false, but evil. It is so evil, in fact, that Christianity is like a virus threatening the very health of the human race. Government must respond to the challenge of religion, he argued, by measures such as criminalizing Christian education and removing the tax exemptions enjoyed by religious organizations.

Moral Absolutes Without God

Next to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris is probably the best respected of the new atheists. He distinguished himself in 2005 by writing The End of Faith, and a year later by writing Letters to a Christian Nation. These books attempted not only to undermine the central tenants of Christian belief, but also to show the harm that religion allegedly brings to society.

Harris’s 2010 publication, The Moral Landscape, takes up where Letters to a Christian Nation left off. If, as the New Atheists argue, religion is bad for the well-being of the human race, then what is the alternative? More specifically, if God does not exist, then how can human beings derive a sense of moral absolutes?
When Dawkins took up this problem in The God Delusion, he came about as close to conceding a point as Dawkins is capable of coming. The fact is, if God does not exist, then it is hard to maintain that our concepts of right and wrong have any ultimate legitimacy. Philosopher of science Michael Ruse articulated this position like this:
“The position of the modern evolutionist… is that humans have an awareness of morality… because such awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves . . . Nevertheless . . . such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction. . . and any deeper meaning is illusory…”
Harris disagrees. Moral absolutes can and do exist, he asserts, but they are not rooted in either God or biological evolution. Rather, they are grounded in neuroscience. This is the thesis of Harris’ entire book.

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