If beliefs determine what we do it follows that no society can allow people freedom of religion or conscience. If religious beliefs cause some people to perpetrate terrorist carnage then we have to say good-bye to the West’s short-lived experiment with secular Enlightenment ideals. That is the conclusion (and I think it is correct) of Marek Sullivan in The New (Anti-) Secularism: Belief Determinism and the Twilight of Religious Liberty.
According to Harris, ‘Belief is a lever that, once pulled, determines almost everything else in a person’s life’ (12). This is why he thinks religious profiling may be a good idea (see below), that the ‘war on terror’ is fundamentally a ‘war of ideas’ (152), and that ‘Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them’ (52-3). Since what people believe determines what they do, the battle against religious violence is fundamentally a matter of doctrine, not guns or bombs (though guns or bombs are handy if the belief is dangerous enough). Rather than struggle with a torrent of violence, it is more effective to challenge the spring of belief before it metastasises into action. [Page numbers refer to Harris’s The End of Faith.]
Harris does indeed acknowledge (sometimes at least) the implications of such views:
If belief really does determine behaviour as a lever triggers a mechanism, then absolute liberty of conscience makes no ethical sense. Second, anyone familiar with Harris’s writings will know he does not always talk about the necessity that freedom of speech and thought be safeguarded. In fact he often seems to be talking about the opposite, as, for example, when he claims ’the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss’ (2005: 15).
It follows that the principles of liberty of conscience and religious equality have to go.
And it’s less easy today to hide forbidden thoughts than it has ever been before. The internet is potentially storing all the things we have been thinking about whenever we have browsed the web or communicated online.
Philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers once coined the term ‘extended mind’ (1998) to describe the way technologies of information production and circulation (paper, pen, books, computers, the internet) blur the boundaries between self and world by extending human consciousness into the external domain. For them, our cognitive dependency on these technologies (e.g. as problem solvers or memory supports) makes it hard to tell where humans end and technology begins; this technology becomes, quite literally, us.
What are the implications for human freedom of an extended subjectivity, grafted onto personhood through the prostheses of email accounts, internet histories, and Facebook, and accessible to state powers? Can liberty of conscience and the invulnerability of the private sphere survive a situation where not only is belief ‘not simply in the head’ (Clark and Chalmers 1998: 14), but the government can peer into the extended self at the click of button?
Why not take Islamist terrorists at their word?
Sullivan poses the question:
At the crux of Harris’s anti-secularism is a simplistic and reductive conception of human agency. For him, jihadist terrorists do what they do because of their consciously-held and publicly-articulated beliefs—beliefs we know about because these have been communicated to us ‘ad nauseum’ in propaganda material and pre-detonation cries of ‘Allahu Akbar!’ Harris simply takes the jihadists at their word. And why not?
Any serious discussion about the nature of human agency must surely, at a bare minimum, deal with Freud’s unconscious, theories of self-deception and rationalization, and could even touch on Latourian or ‘New Materialist’ conceptions of human/technological ‘distributed agency’ (Latour 1994; Bennett 2010). What we do and why we do it often has very little to do with consciously-articulated beliefs, no matter how vigorously we may wish to defend these in public. I will take this as a given—a comprehensive analysis of human agency is beyond the scope of this essay.
I do believe we should take the words of any criminal seriously but I also believe that it does not necessarily follow that their words offer the best, simplest or comprehensive explanation for their acts. Of course the principle applies to us all, not just our criminal element.
Are New Atheists paving the way for the end of free society?
Our modern secular societies have been built upon the view that people can and do make clear distinctions between their personal (private) beliefs and how they choose to act in society at large”
[T]he public/private divide makes no sense unless one accepts the possibility—indeed, utter normality—of a disconnect or dissonance between belief and behaviour. The dualism or aporetic censure surrounding belief and behaviour inscribed in traditional secularism is what enables secularists to punish external (public) action without punishing the internal (private) belief that may or may not have led to the action in the first place, thereby avoiding charges of hypocrisy (e.g. intolerance of intolerance) and remaining broadly ‘liberal’. Implicit here is the possibility that beliefs do not determine behaviour. Otherwise freedom of conscience would be indifferentiable from freedom of action and equally inapplicable in civil society. (My own bolded emphasis as always.)
Marek Sullivan comes across to me as more pessimistic (or realistic) than I think is healthy when he writes:
The more belief and behaviour merge in the minds of policy drafters and radical atheists, the more liberty of conscience becomes ethically untenable. Just as liberty of conscience is floundering, new surveillance technologies and neuroscientific discoveries are making thought-legislation a realistic prospect. Writers like Harris are sketching out the necessary ethics for this to happen; Republican candidates seek the political clout to make it happen. The question is, are we ready?
Maybe I’m just too old to keep up with the changing times but old-fashioned as a I am I really do like to think that fighting to preserve the secular and rationalist values of the Enlightenment is a most worthy cause.
Example: I have expressed my strongest opposition to Islamist views that lay at the heart of terrorist beliefs even though the people expressing those views publicly denounce and deplore violence. They want to replace our secular democratic ways of life with Islamism. I think these ideas are dangerous and need to be opposed. One regular commenter on Vridar was regularly taking the opportunity to espouse the same Islamist propaganda (its non-violent form) and after we exchanged views at length I did eventually ask him to desist from using my blog as a platform for his evangelism. I need to trust that ongoing efforts to share ideas and knowledge will eventually result in enough people acknowledging the value of a society based on secular principles so that religion is kept in the private domain. Let the Islamists share their ideas in the market place using their own platforms and let others use their platforms to refute them. Let mutual exchanges occur for the public benefit on both platforms. As for those Islamists who plot violence let the secular authorities who are accountable to the public take quick action.
The alternative is surrender our secular societies built on freedom of conscience and beliefs and crush dissent the way military dictators do — in the name of and for the benefit of the people, of course.
If that happens then we have let the terrorists destroy our freedoms. They may not have won, but we will have lost.