Saturday, November 24, 2007

Do Sam Harris Books Convert Theists?

Sam Harris' books (The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation) are a pleasure to read, for an atheist (at least for me, anyway). The arguments are so clear and articulate, and he directs his attention to many of the really important issues. I am pretty sure that quite a few Christians have read his work or heard him speak, and yet very few of them were converted or otherwise persuaded by his discussion. I spend a lot of time pondering how this can be. I have a few ideas. Here is one of them. For most people their religion is intensely personal, and includes a core certainty that is not really subject to question. For them, religions arguments are simply side-stepped by a sense that their religion is not like that. The arguments are really about other people's religion.

Is there any solution to this problem? In many cases the core certainty is simply too strong, and comes with a community support system that helps prevent any serious doubts. It may be possible, however, to engage the derivative beliefs by engaging them one-on-one such that the discussion is personal, and, in so far as possible, non-confrontational. I have the idea that if someone takes the time to think about what their personal god is like and what (s)he actually does in the world, then people can be shown that there are mistakes in their specific view. If the belief system can be stripped away, then the core belief might become more fragile. If a person somehow agreed that god was irrelevant, but despite that, still existed, then is not such a person already an atheist in some sense?


Melody said...

I think your root problem is you do not see how much people need for there to be a god. Life can be pretty darn bleak, and to strip away the comfort that a personal god can give people is to take away their hope, which is what keeps many people going -- hope that things will get better, if not here on this earth, then after death. That need is going to trump all the arguments based on reason every time. It's why I'm inclined to think arguing for tolerance of other people's beliefs is more efficacious than trying to argue people out of their own beliefs.

Nougiecat said...

Certainly the psychological support is a factor. But if this is the only factor, then it ultimately won't stand up in the face of a realization that the actual beliefs of religion are absurd. Sam Harris has a bit about this in his second book. Imagine that a man believes there is a huge diamond buried in his back yard. Every sunday he gathers his friends and neighbors and they dig for the diamond. Despite the potential social and psychological rewards, this doesn't happen, because everyone knows there is no diamond.

The reason I don't argue for tolerance is that religious moderates already practice tolerance. Religious extremists, however "know" they are right and see no need for tolerance. The extremists are actually dangerous and shouldn't be tolerated. Moderates are generally harmless and can reasonably be tolerated while at the same time trying to convert them. There is no conflict between tolerance and evangelism. Maybe I'll blog about tolerance though, as it is really quite interesting.