The Little Red Book is Non-secular

In order for institutions based on Lyotardian grand narratives to flourish, such as totalitarian regimes and organised religions, a certain amount of unquestioned belief is needed. Consider the following excerpts out of the preface to Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, published in China as the Red Treasure Book in 1964:[1]

‘Study the writings of chairman Mao, obey the words of chairman Mao and act according to the words of chairman Mao.’
– Lin Biao, Vice Chairman of the Communist Party of China 1958-1971 and Marshal of the People’s Republic of China (p. 5)

‘Over the past few years, the ‘Thinking of Mao Zedong’ has been dressed in the aura of the one and only universal truth. More so than the explicitly confessed Marxist-Leninism are the sayings and writings of Mao Zedong that are revered and studied, and are used by everyone from the professor to the melon salesman, and the marine engineer to the table tennis champion to achieve greater accomplishments.’
– Cornelis Schepel, Institute of Sinology, Leiden (p. 7)

[1] These citations were not featured in the original Chinese publication of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, but have been translated to English from a Dutch translation of Zedong’s most famous work, first published as Het Rode Boekje in 1967 by A.W. Bruna & Zonen and reprinted in 2005 by Forum.

Embracing the Preposterous

‘Clearly, it is time we learned to meet our emotional needs without embracing the preposterous. We must find ways to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity— birth, marriage, death—without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality. Only then will the practice of raising our children to believe that they are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish be widely recognized as the ludicrous obscenity that it is. And only then will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.

I have no doubt that your acceptance of Christ coincided with some very positive changes in your life. Perhaps you now love other people in a way that you never imagined possible. You may even experience feelings of bliss while praying. I do not wish to denigrate any of these experiences. I would point out, however, that billions of other human beings, in every time and place, have had similar experiences—but they had them while thinking about Krishna, or Allah, or the Buddha, while making art or music, or while contemplating the beauty of Nature. There is no question that it is possible for people to have profoundly transformative experiences. And there is no question that it is possible for them to misinterpret these experiences, and to further delude themselves about the nature of reality.

You are, of course, right to believe that there is more to life than simply understanding the structure and contents of the universe. But this does not make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about its structure and contents any more respectable.’

Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 28-29

Civilization of Ignorance

‘All complex life on earth has developed from simpler life forms over billions of years. This is a fact that no longer admits of intelligent dispute. If you doubt that human beings evolved from prior species, you may as well doubt that the sun is a star. Granted, the sun doesn’t seem like an ordinary star, but we know that it is a star that just happens to be relatively close to the earth. Imagine your potential for embarrassment if your religious faith rested on the presumption that the sun was not a star at all. Imagine millions of Christians in the United States spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to battle the godless astronomers and astrophysicists on this point.

Imagine them working passionately to get their unfounded notions about the sun taught in our nation’s schools. This is exactly the situation you are now in with respect to evolution.

Christians who doubt the truth of evolution are apt to say things like “Evolution is just a theory, not a fact.” Such statements betray a serious misunderstanding of the way the term “theory” is used in scientific discourse. In science, facts must be explained with reference to other facts. These larger explanatory models are “theories.” Theories make predictions and can, in principle, be tested. The phrase “the theory of evolution” does not in the least suggest that evolution is not a fact. One can speak about “the germ theory of disease” or “the theory of gravitation” without casting doubt upon disease or gravity as facts of nature.

It is also worth noting that one can obtain a Ph.D. in any branch of science for no other purpose than to make cynical use of scientific language in an effort to rationalize the glaring inadequacies of the Bible. A handful of Christians appear to have done this; some have even obtained their degrees from reputable universities. No doubt, others will follow in their footsteps. While such people are technically “scientists,” they are not behaving like scientists. They simply are not engaged in an honest inquiry into the nature of the universe. And their proclamations about God and the failures of Darwinism do not in the least signify that there is a legitimate scientific controversy about evolution. In 2005, a survey was conducted in thirty four countries measuring the percentage of adults who accept evolution. The United States ranked thirty third, just above Turkey. Meanwhile, high school students in the United States test below those of every European and Asian nation in their understanding of science and math. These data are unequivocal: we are building a civilization of ignorance.’

Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 22-23

Lucille is Always Right

Daniel Dennett: The main thing we want to talk about is “What should we do? What is the moral course of action to take?” And if that is to be a reasonable discussion, we have to take a few cards off the table.

Bill Moyers: Such as?

Dennett: – The faith card. We have to take the faith card off the table.

Moyers: What do you mean “take the faith card off the table?” I mean, if one is a man of faith one can’t take the gene out.

Dennett: Well, you know, Lucille says you’re wrong. … You don’t know who Lucille is? – She’s a friend of mine. She’s always right. – I can’t play that card in an argument! It’s just rude of me to say “Well, Lucille says you’re wrong.” and you say “Who’s Lucille?” and I say “Friend of mine. Always right.”

The Charlie Rose Show: A Conversation With Philosopher Daniel Dennett (April 4, 2006)

Knowledge, Belief and Truth

‘I come now to the definition of “knowledge.” As in the cases of “belief” and “truth,” there is a certain inevitable vagueness and inexactitude in the conception. Failure to realize this has led, it seems to me, to important errors in the theory of knowledge. Nevertheless, it is well to be as precise as possible about the unavoidable lack of precision in the definition of which we are in search.

It is clear that knowledge is a sub-class of true beliefs: every case of knowledge is a case of true belief, but not vice versa. It is very easy to give examples of true beliefs that are not knowledge. There is the man who looks at a clock which is not going, though he thinks it is, and who happens to look at it at the moment when it is right; this man acquires a true belief as to the time of day, but cannot be said to have knowledge. There is the man who believes, truly, that the last name of the Prime Minister in 1906 began with a B, but who believes this because he thinks that Balfour was Prime Minister then, whereas in fact it was Campbell-Bannerman. There is the lucky optimist who, having bought a ticket for a lottery, has an unshakeable conviction that he will win, and, being lucky, does win. Such instances can be multiplied indefinitely, and show that you cannot claim to have known merely because you turned out to be right.’

– Russell. B. (1912) The Problems of Philosophy

Faith and Infelicitous Facts

‘Examples of God’s failure to protect humanity are everywhere to be seen. The city of New Orleans, for instance, was recently destroyed by a hurricane. More than a thousand people died; tens of thousands lost all their earthly possessions; and nearly a million were displaced. It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Hurricane Katrina struck shared your belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate God. But what was God doing while Katrina laid waste to their city? Surely He heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Do you have the courage to admit the obvious? These poor people died talking to an imaginary friend. […]

As Hurricane Katrina was devouring New Orleans, nearly a thousand Shiite pilgrims were trampled to death on a bridge in Iraq. These pilgrims believed mightily in the God of the Koran. Indeed, their lives were organized around the indisputable fact of his existence: their women walked veiled before Him; their men regularly murdered one another over rival interpretations of his word. It would be remarkable if a single survivor of this tragedy lost his faith. More likely, the survivors imagine that they were spared through God’s grace. It is time we recognized the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. It is time we acknowledged how disgraceful it is for the survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs.

Once you stop swaddling the reality of the world’s suffering in religious fantasies, you will feel in your bones just how precious life is—and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all.

One wonders just how vast and gratuitous a catastrophe would have to be to shake the world’s faith. The Holocaust did not do it. Neither did the genocide in Rwanda, even with machete-wielding priests among the perpetrators. Five hundred million people died of smallpox in the twentieth century, many of them infants. God’s ways are, indeed, inscrutable. It seems that any fact, no matter how infelicitous, can be rendered compatible with religious faith.’

Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 18

Inferential Justification

Justification, according to the tripartite theory of knowledge, is the difference between merely believing something that is true, and knowing it. To have knowledge, on this account, we must have justification. How our beliefs are justified is among the central questions of epistemology.

Having justification for our beliefs is, plausibly, about having good reasons to think that they are true. For a belief to be justified, it seems, it must be inferred from another belief. This type of justification is called inferential justification. It seems that three conditions must be met for a belief to be inferentially justified.

First, there must be some other idea that supports it. This other idea need not establish what is believed with absolute certainty, but it must lend some degree of support to it, it must render the belief probable. Without a supporting idea, there can be no inferential justification.

Second, we must believe that this other idea is true. It is not enough for justification that there be another idea that supports our belief; if we thought that that other idea were false then it could not possibly help to justify our belief. Inferential justification, therefore, requires the existence of a supporting idea that is believed to be true.

Third, we must have good reason for believing that this supporting idea is true. If we irrationally believe the supporting idea, then that irrationality will transfer to the belief that we base upon it; a belief can only be as justified as are the other beliefs on which it is based. For a belief to be inferentially justified, therefore it must be based in a supporting idea that is believed to be true with justification.