Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sam Harris takes sides

Sam Harris is no friend of religion. I enjoyed reading his End of Faith if for no other reason than it validated some of my opinions about religion. One of the faults I found with his book is that he does not realize that religion comes naturally to us; religion will be with us for a long time. Religion is not the kind of thing that is amenable to persuasive logic. Skeptics tend to forget this.

Harris weighs in on Islamic extremism and the Liberal response with this LA Times opinion piece: Head-in-the-sand Liberals.

On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right.

This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that "liberals are soft on terrorism." It is, and they are.

A cult of death is forming in the Muslim world — for reasons that are perfectly explicable in terms of the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. The truth is that we are not fighting a "war on terror." We are fighting a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise.

This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims. But we are absolutely at war with those who believe that death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy.

Unfortunately, such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope. Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities.

Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb — and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise. And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.

I am sympathetic to that statement. However, he goes on to say:

Given the mendacity and shocking incompetence of the Bush administration — especially its mishandling of the war in Iraq — liberals can find much to lament in the conservative approach to fighting the war on terror. Unfortunately, liberals hate the current administration with such fury that they regularly fail to acknowledge just how dangerous and depraved our enemies in the Muslim world are.

Recent condemnations of the Bush administration's use of the phrase "Islamic fascism" are a case in point. There is no question that the phrase is imprecise — Islamists are not technically fascists, and the term ignores a variety of schisms that exist even among Islamists — but it is by no means an example of wartime propaganda, as has been repeatedly alleged by liberals.

In their analyses of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, liberals can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions. For instance, they ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. Muslims routinely use human shields, and this accounts for much of the collateral damage we and the Israelis cause; the political discourse throughout much of the Muslim world, especially with respect to Jews, is explicitly and unabashedly genocidal.

Given these distinctions, there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah. And yet liberals in the United States and Europe often speak as though the truth were otherwise.

This is where my sympathy ends. This taking of sides between Israel and its enemies is exactly the sort of thing the religious skeptic should not do or recommend if the skeptic wants to maintain consistency. The US ought to be the leader in bringing both sides to task, negotiation, and settlement of disputes. Israel contains its fair share of religious extremists too, and they influence a policy of brinksmanship and war as the ultimate solution. All kinds of people think that the only thing you need to do to get to heaven is be right in your own mind when you die: another one of those things that is pretty to think so.

The religious skeptic who recommends reason as the curative for overcoming religious zealotry and destructiveness ought to apply the tonic to all afflicted parties equally.


At 4:42 PM, Blogger sonia said...

ought to apply the tonic to all afflicted parties equally

I disagree. There is simply no comparison between OUR religious fanatics (who might protest at abortion clinics or foam at the mouth when seeing pornography) and THEIR religious fanatics (who fly planes into buildings, behead people, burn embassies, mutilate little girls, and engage in 'honor' killings of women)...

At 9:30 PM, Blogger Lynn said...

Sonia -

As I mentioned regarding part of Harris's article, I recognize the danger of Islamic terrorists and the brutality of their tactics.

Harris is, however, a radical religious skeptic who has written about all religion being too dangerous in a world of WMD. The other part of his opinion piece seems a reversal of that position. As a religious skeptic, I see that as wrong.

I simply refuse to play the game of which religious extremists are more benign. None of them are benign. I don't trust any of them to do the right thing given the right circumstances and opportunity. They have never shown they can.

Using a vocabulary of collateral damage, etc. to account for civilian deaths does not make those civilian deaths any less horrific, no matter from which side the rhetoric comes or what the methods used.

Our religious extremists have supported Jewish extremists in their desire for war as a solution. They are culpable in my eyes.

The point cannot be made enough times that the US has not played as positive and productive role as it could have in helping Israelis and Palestinians settle their differences. Their differences are part of a dangerous global conflict. Settling those differences should always be one the US top foreign policy priorities, but it falls off the radar screen all the time.

I also find it frustrating that moderates of all religions don't take a more vocal and militant stance toward religious extremists within their own faiths. Instead, we hear, "well, it is really the extremists of other faiths that are causing all the problems." To which I reply, baloney.

I am not an enemy to religion, but I am under no illusions as to how religious extremism can turn repressive and deadly in a hurry no matter where it arises. I think history is on my side when I say that.

At 9:35 PM, Blogger Lynn said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:07 AM, Anonymous Sinthome said...

Hi Lynn, I share a number of your sympathies in this post. I notice that, towards the beginning, you assert that religious belief is natural. I don't disagree with your thesis that there is something in the nature of our psychology that leads us towards religious belief, but I get suspicious whenever the term "natural" (innate? instinctual?) is evoked. Do you have any sort of thoery as to what it is that leads us to religious belief?

On another note, I see the discovery of universalism in Islam and Christianity as a positive thing. However, I think the problem that emerges is that this universalism ends up being based on a particulate identity. For instance, among many Christians, the universal is only extended towards other Christians, such that the astonishing dictum to love one's neighbor is only exercised with regard to other Christians, and not those outside the community. In short, I think one of the major problems here is identification with ethnic and national identities. How different the world would be if we identified with values such as justice, the Good, etc., which are independent of any geographical location or blood!

Incidentally, I lived a number of years in Chicago, on the north side in Rogers Park. I miss it tremendously. You're a lucky frumpy geezer!

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Lynn said...


The ideas of Pascal Boyer have influenced me. Boyer contends that religion is a by-product of mental processes that evolved for other purposes. Religious beliefs use the mental processes and inferential systems we normally use to negotiate the world. As a result, religion is here to stay. Something like that seems to me the proper place to look for the naturalness of religion.

Large organized religions tend to enforce identity. The apostate is a greater enemy than the infidel is. This could be another case of religion riding along with natural mental processes designed for other purposes.

I agree it would be great to discover (create?) some universal notion of Justice and the Good that would transcend sectarian, ethnic, and national identities. Your article about what you teach your students and what you research made me think about all that again. To be honest I am mightily ambivalent about the possibility of finding universal ideas that would transcend identities.

Rather than that, might there be a way to establish some world order where we can moderate the excesses of identity by opening up channels for persuasive communication and argument? Can we negotiate the conflicts caused by identity differences? I am ambivalent about the possibility of this project too.

My thoughts are more muddled than usual these days. I find myself fleeing from thinking about the world situation, yet I am, for some reason I do not know, always seduced into doing it again.

Alone at night, I read my Euclid more and my Plato and Bible less.

By the way, I really enjoy your blog. I discovered it via I cite. Your articles open new paths for thought and research. I wish I could be as productive with my blog as you are with yours, but I do not fool myself on that score.

At 11:41 AM, Anonymous Sinthome said...

I tend to hold sociobiological explanations at arms length, as there's a marked tendency to treat genetics as hard-programming, ignoring the manner in which any given gene can take on multiple valences depending on how it enters into relations with other genes and how it is stimulated by the environment. As a result, sociobiologists tend to perceive inevitability where there is none, and to forstall the possibility of ding anything about our genetics. I take it that this question about environmental triggering and how it reveals the variability of "genetic programs" that otherwise appear fixed is tremendously important, given that our environment has changed so remarkably in the last century in our half (indeed, it might even be possible to make the case that the search for a set of human instincts has ideologically been promoted out of the very fluidity we've today discovered).

Nonetheless, despite my distaste for sociobiological explanations which so often strike me as teleological and determinist, there does seem to be some fixity in our tendency to identify. I take it that this is a byproduct of how our egos develop through identification. I wrote about this a while ago here:

I take it that part of the problem is that boundaries have been erased in current social organization. Social systems such as the economy, media, and communications are no longer organized or localized according to national or tribal boundaries, but are one and the same system throughout the entire world. Yet on the other hand, our development is such that we still develop in terms of national and tribal identifications that are geographically localized. As a result, we find ourselves in a perpetual state of conflict between how our identities are formed and the social situation in which we find ourselves. Whether this will lead to the emergence of new forms of identification, I don't know.

Regarding universals, I'm not sure how important it is that they have substantial content. Laclau, for instance, proposes that we treat universals not a filled with a particular content, but rather as the empty site of problems that perpetually pose themselves to us. Like a tangent curve approaching a point in differential calculus, we asymptotically approach the universal without ever getting there.

I know what you mean about finding solace in Euclid. Everything is exhausting these days.

Thanks for the kind words about my blog.

At 1:07 PM, Blogger Lynn said...

Sinthome –

Thanks for the link to your article. I scanned it, found interesting, and will return to it later.

The interesting thing to me about evolution is that it created imaginative and creative beings who are not slaves to genetic programming. Religion, science, philosophy, art, and language came into being at about the same time, at least on the evolutionary scale. That may coincide with the time our minds became imaginative and creative. Creative mental processes did not evolve as such, but rather took hold of the material at hand and originally used for other purposes. I see evolution and our seemingly limitless capacity for creation as compatible.

I agree with your point about the conflict between how we form our identities and the social situations in which we find ourselves. “Whether this will lead to the emergence of new forms of identification, I don’t know.” Our inability to find new forms of identity creation that keep pace with our capacity for social creation might become our ultimate undoing. We might be better off if we were merely genetically determined!

It is a beautiful day in Chicago. I am sure you would enjoy it.

At 2:31 PM, Anonymous Sinthome said...

"It is a beautiful day in Chicago. I am sure you would enjoy it."

Ha! You like to rub it in don't you! Last night I ordered some "atomic" relish from vienna beef, out of nostalgia (couldn't afford the shipping and handling on the dogs).

I'm on the same page regarding the creative potentials of evolution. This is what I'm trying to focus on in my most recent work.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home