2007-06-28

Richard Dawkins compounds the Sam Harris error on suicide bombers

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by Neil Godfrey

There is much to commend The God Delusion as a clear presentation of a wide range of reasons for viewing atheism as not only a rational but a wholesome and positive alternative to religion. I will probably address some of these in future posts. (The book is also far by miles from being the rabid polemic against religion that it has been promoted as being in many quarters.)

But there is one area where the book disappointed me — it follows Sam Harris’s End of Faith in simplistically reducing the fundamental cause of Islamic suicide terrorism to the belief that a martyr’s death will translate into heavenly and/or virginal bliss.

At least Dawkins acknowledges that there are other factors pressuring such terrorists to their acts, but he still comes down on this fanciful belief as being the bottom line that enables such actions.

The reason I think it worth addressing this claim is that I believe it has the potential of stoking the flames of intolerance, especially against a large part of non-western humanity, and contributing to western blindness that can only serve to perpetuate the whole problem.

On this morning’s news it was declared that one in seven Iraqis are leaving their homes and resettling either in neighbouring countries or elsewhere in Iraq. A main reason, of course, is religious violence, Shia versus Sunni, and the associated violence of both the occupying and other forces. For generations many Sunnis and Shias had lived harmoniously together in Iraq, intermarrying, trading, working together. There was a political denial of Shia rights but at the common everyday level of social discourse, on the whole, politics did not dominate social discourse. When Hussein was toppled they did not immediately fly at each other but together hoped for a new Iraq, so their cooperation was not forced on them against their will by an iron fist, as had largely been the case in much of former communist Yugoslavia.

If Dawkins and Harris are correct in their claims then this would not have been the case. There would not have been the free and easy social mixing and intermarrying and hopes for a future of harmonious peace and equal rights of the two Islamic branches. There would have been violence for generations between the two. Suicide bombing would not be a new phenomenon. Today’s suicide terrorism in Iraq is clearly the consequence of multiple factors but do we really believe that in today’s Iraq every suicide bomber sees himself as religious martyr? Blind Freddy can see that the underlying theme of the violence there now is political and national, for political domination and national liberation. In every such struggle there are always martyrs for the cause and not all are motivated by hopes of heavenly reward. They are more impelled by national humiliation and preparation to give up their lives for their political or national cause. To live on in the memories of their compatriots is more important than some other place in heaven, or even just to live out a self-dignity and pride by being willing to die for their nation or group can often be sufficient. In the conditions of occupation we generally always find a willingness to exchange intolerable physical existence for symbolic existence.

Suicide terrorism would have been introduced to the West long before the 21st century if Dawkins and Harris are correct on this particular point.

Robert Pape’s Dying to Win demonstrates through research that the earliest case of modern suicide terrorism was carried out by mixtures of Islamists, Christians and Socialists without any particular allegiance to religion in Lebanon. The cause was political and national.

Imagine living under foreign occupation. We know that we would find volunteers for suicide missions, even ones destined to cause maximum carnage in order to eventually wear down the occupiers, from among all ranks of society, atheists included. Religion might help some muster an ethereal form of Dutch courage to carry out those missions, but it might just as often even restrain many from surrendering their lives that way too.

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