We’re up to Chapter 5 of The Irrational Atheist, but if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to go back and revisit something from Chapter 3 again. Sam Harris, you may recall, had made the argument that with the development of nuclear weapons and other catastrophic devices, it was no longer safe to let people run around thinking God had commanded them to smite unbelievers. Vox responded with a kind of gun control argument: guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people, so if you just deprive people of their guns, then everyone else will be safer.
Of course, Vox said “science” instead of “guns,” but the principle is the same: deprive people of the means (i.e. guns, bombs, science) and the motive (religion, etc) will no longer matter. Of course, the reverse could also be said, since violent crimes require both motive and means, so eliminating any of the contributing factors is bound to be an improvement. As I’ve suggested, the most prudent thing is not necessarily to throw the baby out with the bath water either way, but to specifically identify the significant risk factors on both sides, and try to eliminate or at least minimize them. But there’s another reason why I think Sam Harris’ proposition, while arguably too extreme, nevertheless makes more sense than Vox’s, and I’d like to illustrate that point via the analogy of a jealous husband.
Suppose we have a pathologically jealous husband who is convinced that his wife is sleeping with the mailman while he’s at work. In fact, he’s so certain, and so angry, that he has purchased a handgun and is planning to murder the mailman some time soon. Unknown to the husband, however, his wife is not cheating on him, and in fact the mailman is gay and isn’t even interested in seducing his wife. The husband’s murderous plans are entirely the result of a false belief.
Now, we can say that guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people. We could go in and deal with the means of violence, and confiscate his guns. But is that the best possible solution? It might indeed help, but if the motive is strong enough, he’s just going to find some way to get another gun, or come up with some equally lethal alternative. And even if we do prevent him from acquiring a lethal weapon, his false belief is going to cause a lot of suffering, both for himself and for his wife, whether he murders the mailman or not.
Granted, there are other reasons why people get murdered: robbery, feuds, conflicts of various types. Granted, in other words, that false belief is not the sole cause of violent crime. Granted all that, does it not make sense that if false belief is ever a cause of violence, it’s desirable and beneficial to show that the belief is false?
Vox might argue that the analogy doesn’t really scale to questions like terrorism and international warfare, but I think the key points are applicable. The causes and conditions of war are complex and subtle enough as it is, and yes, any simplistic attempts to reduce war to a single definitive cause are going to be easy to refute. But that said, does it not make sense that we would all be better off by eliminating false beliefs, and especially false beliefs that are highly motivational, from the equation?
The motivational aspect of religion is one that Vox gives little heed to, but it’s the flaw in his whole argument, because regardless of whether or not it would be smart to get rid of science, people aren’t going to actually do it if they are still motivated to seek some means of inflicting great harm on others. Even if we were to buy into Vox’s “modest proposal,” we’re not going to be able to carry it out unless we also undertake Harris’ suggestion.
Science is just the how. The problem lies in the should or should not, which is the domain of religion (and politics and commerce too of course). Try to take away the means, without dealing with the motive, and you’ll merely ensure that some other means will be found, but if you deal with the motive then the means is not a problem (and we can still get the benefits that science also offers).
The core issue, of course, is the one Vox refused to face: does God really exist. If this is a false belief, then the above argument applies; if God really is real, then it does not. Unfortunately, the closest Vox comes to addressing the central issue is a throwaway remark about atheism being absurd. And that’s a shame.