(Global) Village Atheist

Sam Harris must have felt conflicted when contemplating the outcome of the last U.S. elections. He believes that values are objective and important, and has little time for moral relativism. He thinks that the greatest threat to world security comes from militant Islam and that Western powers may have a duty to take large-scale preemptive action—even at the cost of innocent lives. He is accordingly dismissive of those who talk down Islamic fundamentalism in the spirit of cultural tolerance. Thus far Harris shares views with many on the Republican Christian Right. At the same time, though, he is critical of efforts to control lifestyles, particularly in relation to sexuality and the recreational use of marijuana. He is also scathing in his criticism of the deference accorded religion in America and evidently regards Evangelicals as a poisonous presence in U.S. society.

Those sympathetic to the last judgment should be aware that it is but one example of Harris’s general animus toward religion—understood to include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—an animus he extends both to moderate and fundamentalist versions of these faiths. Indeed, for Harris, religious moderates are particularly irritating because they give the appearance that religion is generally harmless and tolerable. In fact, Harris contends, they are culpably selective in their beliefs, self-deluded, or just not intellectually able to see what reason requires.

There is, therefore, a notable irony in the endorsement on the cover of The End of Faith from the president of Union Theological Seminary, who says the book presents a “ringing challenge to all Americans who recognize the danger...posed by the political alliance of right-wing religion and politics and the failure of the tepid and tentative responses by liberal persons of faith...the need for a wake-up call to religious liberals is right on the mark.” As any reader will quickly discover, for Harris, “liberal persons of faith” are precisely what stand in the way of purging society of religion and securing recognition of the intrinsic malevolence of Islam. It does Harris no justice to suppose that he is just another critic of religious excess or right-wing politics. While some of Harris’s views are libertarian, in his book religious liberals emerge as worse in some ways than orthodox believers for being in intellectual denial.

How should one respond to this? If a defense of the rational credibility of theism is made, it will not favor one side or the other in the debate between religious progressives and conservatives. Harris is clear-thinking in seeing that if credence can be given to the ideas of a divine creator and of revelation, it will not be easy to set aside the possibility that God has handed down such unpalatable commands as are cited by fundamentalists.

The book incluces a bibliography, index, and sixty-three pages of notes. Many of these consist of references, but a good number of them provide elaborations or excursions, and some are inordinately long and ought not to have survived editorial scrutiny. Perhaps they were excused because of the expressive power of the main text. Harris is a lively writer and has a knack for summarizing a line of thought with a memorable sentence, such as: “The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside”; “Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity”; “Reason is nothing less than the guardian of love”; “when your enemy has no scruples, your own scruples become another weapon in his hand.”

His basic message is that “in the best case, faith leaves otherwise well-intentioned people incapable of thinking rationally about many of their deepest concerns; at worst, it is a continuous source of human violence.” Underlying this is the assumption that religious claims lack evidence to a degree that not merely renders them unbelievable but makes the believing of them an intellectual scandal. On that assumption, it will then be hardly surprising if religion becomes a locus of personal and cultural disturbance: a place of madness.

Given the emphasis on reason, however, it is surprising that Harris gives no attention to natural theology. His model of well-founded belief is one based on observation or testimony, but much of what we reasonably hold true is acquired and maintained by less direct routes. Harris must know that the most fundamental elements in our worldview involve unobservables postulated as part of a general explanatory framework. Rational theism is more like cosmology than geography, though it allows for experiential and historical supplementation.

While rejecting traditional religion and any idea of a supernatural order, Harris acknowledges a human desire for spiritual fulfillment. Unsurprisingly he has some difficulty describing this in purely naturalistic terms, but he relates it to the possibility of “self-transcendence.” Long testified to by mystics of different traditions, and now the subject of some scientific interest, the idea is that through meditative and other techniques it is possible to develop states of pure consciousness in which the “self” is seen to be illusory. Thereby one is freed from the obsessions that trouble everyday human life. Here, though, Harris begins to speak philosophically in ways that betray his earlier emphasis on empiricism. For it is hard to see what possible observation could count for or against the existence of the self as a metaphysical entity. Moreover, the common hunger for spiritual fulfillment is more plausibly interpreted in terms of a desire for personal union rather than the annihilation of self. In the haunting words of Augustine, “you made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they come to rest in thee.”

The most contentious theme in the book is the threat posed to the West by Islam: “It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran.” This is a difficult claim to assess, for it mixes theological interpretation, cultural critique, policy analysis, and history. Harris cites various sources to establish the hostility of Islamic societies to Western values, and, provocatively, includes a long list of Koranic passages to show that Islam is at its heart violently intolerant. Now that London and Madrid have joined New York and Washington as targets of Islamists, this thesis cannot simply be ignored.

Readers inclined to take Harris’s seemingly scholarly arguments about religious ideas at face value should note, though, that in discussing Jesus he confuses the Immaculate Conception with the virgin birth. This sort of error may prompt doubt about what he says with regard to Islamic beliefs, but we should allow, I think, that he is on to real issues about how the West should respond to the spread of Islam. Whatever those responses are, they will not likely include the lopsided view of religion advanced by Harris in what is otherwise a very engaging read.

 


Related: Andy Whinery's review of Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape
Don't Assign These Books, by John F. Haught

Published in the 2005-11-04 issue: 
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John Haldane, chair of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, is J. Newton Rayzor Sr Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University and Professor of Philosophy, and Senior Fellow of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

 

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