Count me in Sam's club.
The Washington Post has published a lengthy article on Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith. It is a typical journalistic profile piece which is meant to entertain even if it has to distort the facts a bit to do so. If you look past the journalistic techniques to “be interesting” you will find a somewhat decent story here. But there are still many problems with it which I will try to dissect.
The headline is “Atheist Evangelist: In His Bully Pulpit, Sam Harris Devoutly Believes That Religion Is The Root of All Evil.”
The reporter is clearly uninformed as to what “bully pulpit” means. The term came from President Theodore Roosevelt who called the presidency a “bully pulpit” and the phrase has come to mean any political office sufficiently high enough that the holder of that office will get attention on issue about which he speaks regardless of what he says. George Bush has a “bully pulpit” but Sam Harris does not. If the reporter did not know this (and they may not be responsible for the silly headline) then surely the editor overseeing this section of the paper should have noticed this glaring error. If he didn’t the author should have noticed and complained about it.
I won’t bore you with a long discussion as to whether an atheist can be an evangelist or not. But I will note that I read the book by Harris and I did not get the impression that he thinks religion is the “root of all evil” as claimed in this headline. There is much evil in the world and a good deal of it is religious in origin but not all evil is religious. I don’t believe Harris has ever said this. I consider it a bad start when an article, attempting to be cute, gets two glaring distortions in the subtitle for the article alone.
The “hook” to get the reader interested is that if Sam Harris is right then millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews are wrong and if Harris is wrong he is “so going to hell.” Again cutesy but not accurate. First the reporter has to learn that there are more religions out there than the three he mentions. Second, most Jews and many Christians clearly don’t believe in a hell. And those who do are equally convinced that other believers in a god are going there because it is the wrong god. Many a fundamentalist Christian says all Jews and Muslims are going to hell as well.
But the idea is to show a massive conglomerate of people against one man and to do that he has to ignore that the believers don’t believe that the others believers really do believe. Many believers are sure that other believers are really heretics doomed to hell. So it is not a question of do you believe in a god and thus get heaven or, not believe in a god and thus get sent to hell. Ask around and it quickly becomes apparent you are supposed to believe in the “right” god.
Now the author, and the critics he runs to for support, clearly think that Harris is wrong for going after all faith. After all, they say, isn’t the problem really extremism? Harris says even moderate believers, as the journalist puts it, have “immunized religion from rational discussion by nurturing the idea that faith is so personal and private that it is beyond criticism, even when horrific crimes are committed in its name.”
Well Harris is right there. We aren’t supposed to challenge another person’s religion. It is considered taboo to do so. But more importantly, as I will argue in an essay I’m working on for later, the believer justifies beliefs without evidence and that is dangerous. He also, usually, advocates the “one true god” theory which automatically makes all those outside his camp into opponents of the one true god and thus dangerous. Exactly how far they are willing to go to stamp out the evil of heresy varies but the concept of a monopolistic deity does mean that other beliefs are dangerous.
Religion is inherently intolerant if taken seriously. And the idea that the holy book contains the truths is a dangerous one. Your only choice is to take the book seriously and literally. The moderates are usually embarrassed by the book and prefer to find allegories and symbols not literal lessons. But the fundamentalists can beat them in that war. Either the book means it or it doesn’t they argue. And the believers move in the fundamentalist direction while the moderates see their numbers dwindle.
When you have “the book”, as Jews, Christians and Muslims do, then the fundamentalists are going to grow and moderates and liberals will see their numbers constantly diminishing. The choice, as I will explain later, really is between fundamentalism and reason.
The article does mention that the books by Harris have sold very well. The End of Faith sold 270,000 copies. Now I have stated that I think fundamentalism in the US has overplayed its hand. It has become so intolerant and hateful and power hungry that I think it will be in for some rough patches. I believe the numbers of people clinging to fundie fantasies will diminish. Unbelief, true unbelief, will grow in America. I just hope it does so quickly. I think the sales of the Harris book is just one indication of the backlash against the fundamentalists.
Another indication we will see when Americans vote in November. The Christianists in America have tainted the Republican Party with their intolerance and viciousness and voters seem to have become sick unto death with it. The only thing preventing an absolute landslide for the Democrats is that the Democrats are equally out of touch with people and cling to antiquated left-wing economics and are trying to buy off special interest groups. They don’t realize that it is those policies that drove voters to the Republicans and which gave the Religious Right, who controlled the GOP, the power they now have. People are moving back to the Democrats but not because they like what they are saying but because they are disgusted with Republicans. The extreme Left in the Democratic Party is rubbing their hands with glee anticipating all the absurd and destructive policies they can implement. The net result will be that one or two terms of such stupidity will drive voters back to the Republicans unless the Democrats learn from this that the extremists on the Left are just as dangerous to them as the Fundamentalists are to the Republicans.
The Post article, of course, rushes off to religious folk to get their impression of Harris. When wss the last time you read an article on religion where the journalists rushed off to get quotes to the contrary from atheists? An article on moronic Mormonism might discuss two strains of the Morons contending with one another. But you won’t typically find a paragraph on how atheist so-and-so has this to say on the topic.
This really does illustrate the point Harris is making about not being allowed to question religion and how moderates give cover to extremists. Any article which dares criticize religion must have the view of the religious presented. But articles that present the religious view never have to be balanced with the atheist view. The faith mongers get special treatment.
The Post says that Harris “oversimplified scripture, they [the critics] say. He has drawn far-reaching conclusions based on the beliefs of radicals. As, bad, his stand against organized religion is so unconditional that it’s akin to the intolerance he claims to be fighting.”
Let’s dissect this crap. And it is crap. You have “the book” from “the god”. It is the only book and he is the only god. It has “the truth”. And you need to follow it, believe it, cherish it, etc. Does it mean what it says or not? The fundamentalist says yes. The “moderate” tries to ignore the parts that are a bit scary. And in this case the Post only interviews “moderates” and no fundamentalists. That skews the article to prove the point that Harris is wrong. But who actually holds political power in America? Is it the religious moderates or the fanatics? Polls of the beliefs of American Christians would seem to indicate that the Post interviewed the advocates of the minority opinion.
The Old Testament says that if a man lies with a man as with a woman (they lie in the OT they don’t “have sex”) both men should be put to death. It is there. This is not an allegory. You might argue that it doesn’t apply now but it says what it says and if it every applied it shows the author of that book to be a tyrant. What to do? The fundamentalists says: “Of course the Bible means what it says.” The moderate says “well sometimes it means what it says and sometimes it doesn’t.”
How do they know which is which? Well if it sounds awful then it doesn’t mean it. If it sound nice then it does. They use current moral values to judge the Bible and don’t use the Bible to judge current moral values. The fundamentalists uses the Bible to judge modern society. Now I think the fundamentalists are silly and the Bible is false. But the moderate doesn’t want to say that. He wants to have his cake and eat it too.
Harris does not “oversimplify scripture”. Scripture is scripture. The moderates over complicate it in order to try and weed out the vile parts that infect that book. They want an inhumane book at the center of their life and they want to ignore the unpleasant parts. So now god doesn’t want believers to kill gays. That he wanted to do so at any time in history is an indication he is a monster (an imaginary monster but still a monster).
A retired professor of religious studies says that Harris is making “a very crude mistake” by “pushing moderates into the same camp as fanatics.” No, the moderates, while rejecting the fanaticism, endorse the book from which the fanaticism flows.
Imagine “moderate Nazis” using Mein Kampf to forge a political system but rejecting the anti-Jewish views as fanaticism. The anti-semitism is in the book. No interpretation or revision removes what it says. The fanaticism the moderates hate is in the book. They are the ones ignoring the very book they claim to believe in one form or another. And as long as they are endorsing the book there will be a good number of “moderates” who find the anti-Jewish parts and be willing to put them into practice.
Remember the Bible is not “man’s book” but “God’s book”. Man may make mistakes and errors. But God? Well, did a god inspire it or not? If he did why let errors creep in? Couldn’t he keep it error free knowing how such errors would lead to misery? Didn’t he have the power to preserve his own words? So the fundamentalist counters and claims the book means what it says. And, taking the false premises of religion, the logic is on his side.
The idea the Bible contains the word of a god but is not the word of this god is silly. If it merely contains the thoughts of the deity then how do we discern what are ideas from heaven and ideas from fanatics? How do we pick and choose what to believe? We can’t. The fundamentalists know this is the weakness of the moderates. The fanaticism the moderates hate is in the book they preach. By holding up that book as something special they encourage people to rush to it for answers. And when people do that they find the fanaticism and the numbers of fundamentalists grow.
Religious moderates are like army recruiters. They make enlisting sound all nice and pleasant. But when someone enlists and goes off to boot camp they are turned into a fanatic. The moderate gets people into the Bible and then the Bible quite effectively turns people into fanatics. If you don’t believe this is the case then check out church membership statistics.
The moderates are seeing their members, in large numbers, going off to the fundamentalist churches. Very few “converts” to fundamentalist Christian are unbelievers, Jews of Muslims. Fundamentalism grows because it finds it so easy to move moderate Christians into their camp.
The most absurd quote comes from Reza Aslan author of No God but God on Islam. He says that: “Religion doesn’t make people bigots. People are bigots and they use religion to justify their ideology.” Aslan writes about one of the most bigoted and hateful religions on the planet and tries to claim there is no correlation between that hate and that religion.
If religion doesn’t make people hateful then why are the suicide terrorists all so religious? Why aren’t secular humanists strapping dynamite to their chest and blowing up children on buses? Not all hateful people come from religion. But many people are hateful because of their religion.
The state of the Islamic world is no accident. They live in a world ruled by theology and they suffer accordingly. It is said that for good people to do evil they need religion. I know good people who are very bigoted against various groups. Why? It is not in their nature to be this way. They really are nice people. But they believe that “the book” tells them they have to be this way.
I have seen too many people who were not hateful and bigoted get “converted” into a religion and become bigots. I have also seen people who were in those religions abandon their faith and become tolerant. Aslan is full of it. There is a very strong correlation between hate and theology. The theologically inclined are more intolerant and the less theologically inclined are less intolerant. If you increase the level of religiosity you increase the level of prejudice and bigotry.
It is no accident that lynching in America was mostly confined to the Bible Belt states. It is no accident that so many Klan leaders were fundamentalist Christians and many of them were fundamentalist preachers. At the very least, if the Bible does not create bigots, it cheers them along the way.
The Post writer says “To find religion so scary is like being terrified of cellphones -- there is no end to the potential for fright.” What? Maybe cute but nonsense. Bad writing, bad editing. Let us recount some facts. Religious nutters rammed air planes into the Twin Towers and killed a couple of thousand people. Religious nutters across the Middle East, and now elsewhere, are killing innocent civilians in their holy war. Throughout history hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have died in religious conflicts. And to worry about this influence, and these results, is like being “terrified of cellphones”!
The author of the article clearly believes that “moderates are a bulwark against fanatics” and that we are in a “war between moderation and extremism, which is a war one needs moderates to fight.” While I would love the moderates, small as they are, to fight the fanatics what does history show us.
Are moderate Nazis the answer to fanatical Nazis? My forthcoming essay on why fundamentalism is winning will discuss this topic in detail. Suffice to say for now that this author in fact concedes ground to evil in every conflict. He would fight communism by adopting socialism. He would fight Nazism by adopting fascism. Any compromise between good and evil is a victory for evil. Fanaticism is not fought by compromising with it and being only partially fanatical.
The retired professor quoted at the beginning of the article is brought back to say “You’re not going to convert everyone to atheism.” Exactly where does he get this information? Everyone might be an exaggeration. But as Harris noted many formerly religious nations in Europe are now dominated by unbelievers. Calvin once roasted people alive in Geneva but the Swiss today are mostly secular, mostly non-religious. The Calvinists once ruled Holland but most Dutch today are not believers. Something like only one out of ten English bother with attending any church.
The religious values of a nation can change and they can change rapidly. I am still optimistic that America is turning away from religion much the way it turned into a religious country in a relatively short period of time, from about 1900 to 2000. Contrary to common myths America was less religious in the past and church attendance only reached 50% of the population in the 1940s.
The Post article takes on Harris for being an advocate of reason. They find a theology professor to say this is an error. Of course he would, he’s an advocate of believing without evidence. A theologian is someone with a license to invent “facts” about the universe and use them to tell others how to live. By nature a theologian can pontificate on anything with nothing more than his imagination as the foundation of what he says.
This theologian says that the “Bible was inspired by God” but limited by the knowledge of the authors. It contains God’s word but isn’t God’s word. He’s back into the nonsense that every Christian moderate has to claim in order to remain a Christian. A Christian moderate is someone too humane to be a fundamentalist and too frightened to be an atheist.
The Muslim nutter says Harris is equally wrong about the Koran because “the Koran is by far the most tolerant of the views of other religions.” Right! We believe you. Those are tolerant beheadings that get filmed by Islamic fanatics. The two gay teens hung in Iran were executed tolerantly. What bullshit! Islam is evil. Christianity is evil. Lies are evil. Faith is evil. Any claim not rooted in reality is destructive and dangerous.
Aslan says that the Koran is intolerant of polytheists but says we shouldn’t worry as there are not many of them around these days. What rubbish. First, in many places of the world there are lots of polytheists around. Second, there are not many in Islamic nations since the tolerant Islamists killed them. Third, Islam is intolerant of freedom. It will endure as second class citizens monotheists of other faiths but it will harass them and use the state to infringe on their rights. And if a Muslim converts to one of these other religions or becomes an atheist he will be killed. Islam around the world is killing people for converting to other religions and Aslan must know this. He is a dishonest advocate for a vile religion.
In closing I want to tackle one other claim made in this article. Is atheism as intolerant as fundamentalism? Did atheists drive jets full of people into buildings full of people? There are plenty of people who do evil directly as a result of their religion. No atheist has done evil directly as a result of being an atheist. Atheism is the lack of a specific belief. You don’t organize well around a “lack of a belief”. There is no cohesion in the absence of a belief. Nor is there any “fuel” that drives people to action from the lack of a belief.
Born again nuts can gather together because they have a common belief uniting them. There is no common belief uniting atheists. There is the absence of a common belief. So most attempts to gather atheists never amount to much.
To be intolerant in the way fundamentalists are intolerant requires a believing foundation of some kind. The few atheists in history who were mass killers were almost exclusively the communists. (HItler was not an atheist.) Their desire to kill came from their shared belief in communism not from their lack of a shared belief in religion.
It is critical to properly understand that atheism is not an assertion to a positive belief. I don’t use positive in the sense of “good” but in the sense of existence. A positive belief then is a belief making an assertion where as atheism merely denies an assertion. It is merely the lack of a belief and it is hard, if not impossible, to get motivated to act about what you don’t believe.
The people demanding censorship in America are not atheists but Christians. No atheist has demanded that churches be shut down. It is not atheists attending Christian rallies demanding that believers be put to death. But Christian groups do picket others they consider to be sinners demanding they be executed. It is easy to find a religious leader saying how the state should kill or strip people of their equal rights. Atheists don’t want to kill Christians. We aren’t trying to to use the law to close their churches or burn their Bibles. But the Christian can’t help himself in wishing to impose his will on others.
Is Sam Harris as intolerant as the people he condemns? Obviously not. Is he adamant they are dangerous? Yes. This journalists seems to think that any strongly held belief is the same as any other strongly held belief regardless of the reason for holding it provided it is strongly held. And he thinks any strongly held belief is inherently intolerant. Thus the Jews who strongly opposed the Nazis were no different than the Nazis who strongly opposed the Jews. Obviously that is false. And just as obviously it is false to equate Harris’ respect for reason with the intolerance of fundamentalists who would engage in the wholesale violation of the rights of others if given half the chance.