Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Sam Harris: militant atheism

I recently came across Natalie Angier's review of Sam Harris's book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. It has stuff like this:

''We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common, we call them 'religious'; otherwise, they are likely to be called 'mad,' 'psychotic' or 'delusional.' '' To cite but one example: ''Jesus Christ -- who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death and rose bodily into the heavens -- can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad?'' The danger of religious faith, he continues, ''is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy.''

In my view, those sorts of pot-shots don't do anyone any good.

But Angier argues that Harris is going a little further than that. The point is not his snide comments about religious faiths, but rather his right to make them. Harris feels that this right is in jeopardy:

''Criticizing a person's faith is currently taboo in every corner of our culture. On this subject, liberals and conservatives have reached a rare consensus: religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse. Criticizing a person's ideas about God and the afterlife is thought to be impolitic in a way that criticizing his ideas about physics or history is not.''

I don't think this is true. People in mainstream venues do criticize some religious beliefs quite openly, especially when those beliefs are seen as pernicious to human rights (for instance, the idea that God is against abortion and homosexuality can be widely and readily criticized).

Harris is worried that believers in the "metaphysics of martyrdom" (read: Muslims) will destroy the world. It is necessary to challenge their beliefs for the dangers they pose to us:

''We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation,'' he writes, ''because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.''

Harris reserves particular ire for religious moderates, those who ''have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths'' and who ''imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others.'' Religious moderates, he argues, are the ones who thwart all efforts to criticize religious literalism. By preaching tolerance, they become intolerant of any rational discussion of religion and ''betray faith and reason equally.''

I'll go check out the book in the bookstore, but I am very skeptical of all this. It seems like Harris has a rather over-simplified (and Christian-centric) view of religion. I also wonder if he has any interest in whether his words will have an effect. Simply equating religious beliefs with irrationality is not going to get you anywhere, anyhow. (To loosely quote the Beatles)


Anonymous said...

You're full of crap dude.

Anonymous said...

Interesting take, but please do read the book before dismissing Harris as "simplistic" or "militant". Many reviewers have their own agendas to stoke. As it happens, however, there is some evidence to refute your point even in the quote you reproduce.

When Harris talks of the "metaphysics of martrydom" he is surely referring to the current state of islamic extremism, but he goes on to add "...or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation", which just as clearly refers to the current state of christian extremism. What he argues in the book is not "Islam bad, Christianity good!" but that ANY irrational basis for life decisions is almost certainly bad for societies. It is not religion per se, but the lack of rational thinking, particularly in positions of power (policital, religious, etc) that has traditionally led to great social strife.

My own hypothesis is that these emotional myths (religious tradition, blind patriotism, love at first sight) are little levers we carry around inside us. Sam Harris refers to this as a need for spirtual dimension (or something close to that). People in power (politicians, imams, hollywood directors) who recognize this process are able to manipulate us via these levers unless we learn to routinely question our own motivations as well as those of others. Accepting a premise without rational evidence is lazy. Accepting a premise despite rational evidence to the contrary is delusional, as Harris suggests in the first paragraph you quote. It was refreshing to read a book that confronted such issues head-on for a change, rather than simply trying to pull another set of emotional levers to get its desired effect. I hope you will read it with an open mind as well. You will be rewarded and challenged if you do.

locutanex said...

Can any Religionite explain to me why it is that the various supernatural "creators" of everything, appear to have only one motivation.
That is, to have every being (created by themselves) in The Universe (also created by themselves) worshipping them, and "loving" them?

What's the point?

What kind of being exists only for the total and everlasting adoration of every other being with the capacity to do so?

Anonymous said...

I would agree with the recommendation that you read Harris' book. I am only about 1/2 way through it right now, but I can say with certainty that he is not promoting the Christian faith over others. He does spend a good deal of the book discussing the particulars of Islam because of the relevance to our current historical moment.

I think Harris makes a very valid point about the inability of our society to openly discuss religion based on the "incorrectness" of attacking people for their beliefs. Yes, religion does play a role in political discourse. Christian "values" are used to defend anti-gay and pro-life sentiments all the time. There is a distinction b/t this type of clearly biased discourse and an open conversation on the validity of religion itself. People's beliefs are considered sacred unto themselevs, to the point where it's considered beyond the pale to critisize them. Any hope for progress or rationality stops when communication becomes thwarted.

Sorry for rambling on so long, but I really do think Harris has written quite a book--definitely worth taking the time to read.

Take care.

Anonymous said...

HI, I have not read the book , my library here in Va. in the country won't get it. I first saw and heard Sam on booktv and he caught my eye and ear. I listened and rapidly wrote to him asking if he was a believer, he didn't answer me. Those without FAith can not believe, some people need Hope and long for it and it suppys their need, it comes by believing not by seeing. Keep an open mind, and try to happy in all you do, Peace. -Superunknown - Acts 24

Anonymous said...

I don't believe the new atheism has been effective and I cite the following regarding the new atheism