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?
I appreciate your recognition that your wording has often contributed to this “clash of civilizations” narrative. . . . [W]e are duty bound to try and minimize it [i.e. the tendency of many people to hear only what they expect to hear from a given speaker] through careful wording, so thank you. (pp. 115-116, my own bolding in all quotations)
It appears that Maajid Nawaz has just heard Sam Harris admit that he has carelessly fanned the popular myth of the “clash of civilizations” scenario, the popular view that Islam and the West are incompatible and conflict is inevitable when they meet. Unfortunately it seems to me on reading this dialogue that Nawaz himself has at times tended to hear “only what he expected to hear” from Harris in his sincere efforts to establish a constructive dialogue.
But first, note that Harris truly did admit that sometimes he had contributed to that unhelpful “clash of civilizations” narrative:
Another thing I think we should discuss is the tension between honestly confronting the problems of conservative Islam, Islamism, and jihadism and feeding the narrative that “the West is at war with Islam.” I admit that I have often contributed to this narrative myself, and rather explicitly. (p 113)
Perhaps Harris is recollecting what he wrote in The End of Faith on pages 109
We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so. 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. . .
Samuel Huntington has famously described the conflict between Islam and the West as a “clash of civilizations.” Huntington observed that wherever Muslims and non-Muslims share a border, armed conflict tends to arise. Finding a felicitous phrase for an infelicitous fact, he declared that “Islam has bloody borders.” . . . .
One need only read the Koran to know, with something approaching mathematical certainty, that all truly devout Muslims will be “convinced of the superiority of their culture, and obsessed with the inferiority of their power,” just as Huntington alleges. And this is all that his thesis requires.
That is an unambiguous assertion that (1) we are at war with effectively the entire Muslim world and (2) bloodshed is (with near mathematical certainty) the inevitable consequence when our Western culture meets a Muslim culture.
But no, that’s not what Sam Harris says he meant when he is talking with Maajid Nawaz — and that raises the question of whether Maajid, with the very best of intentions, was too eager to stop hearing after he heard what he wanted to hear. Here is how Harris followed his remarks in Islam and the Future of Tolerance: Continue reading “Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz in Discordant Dialogue”
I don’t recall reading anything by Maajid Nawaz but my introduction to Sam Harris was his 2005 book The End of Faith, a book that disturbed me for reasons I explained in my review back in 2006. Since then I have written a few times in response to anti-Muslim bigotry that has sometimes referred to Harris for its backing. But after viewing the above video I really do hope for something more positive to be coming through Sam Harris in this wider discussion. Harris continues to struggle with his painfully ill-informed views on the nature of religion and the relationship between beliefs and behaviour but — and this is a major step I think — he has moved in his understanding of the difference between Islam and Islamism.
Thanks to his dialogue with Maajid Nawaz. As I said, I don’t recall reading anything by Nawaz but I have from time to time heard negative things. If anything I suspected Nawaz may have been one of those ex-religionists/ex-cultists who turns on his erstwhile faith with as much venom and ignorance as any other bigot could possibly muster. But no, — without knowing any of the background or reasons for criticism, I have to say I agreed with almost everything Maajid Nawaz said in the discussion with Sam Harris. (I maintained my reservation on one detail that I am currently exploring through wider reading.) (Jerry Coyne, sadly, has not moved forward very much, it seems, and is still preoccupied with the negatives of his “apologists for Islam”…. Still, there is hope…. a little…?)
As I listened to the video I took a few notes. The minute markers are only a rough guide — Where I write, say, 12 mins, the relevant section could appear anywhere between 12 and 13 mins or even a little later.
Freelance science writer Dan Jones recently responded to a supporter of Sam Harris outraged over Dan’s criticism of Harris’s popular writings on the role religion plays in terrorist violence. Dan Jones’ concluding remarks strike a chord with me:
(One final thing: I’ve been reading atheists like Dawkins, and older, more philosophical ones like Bertrand Russell and AJ Ayer, since the early 1990s. I’ve also read a lot of Dan Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, and welcomed the rise of the New Atheists in the mid-2000s. However, over time I had to come to accept that on some really important issues, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens simply had no real grasp of the relevant sciences of human behaviour to engage with them in any serious way. It’s been a major disappointment for me – I had hoped that these would be the voices of rational and empirical enquiry into things like religious extremism, but they’ve become like populist columnists, rather than scientifically informed intellectuals. It’s a painful truth to come to recognise that you’ve invested a lot of time and emotional energy in their ideas – I used to be like a one-man PR firm for hard-core atheism until I realised that, when it came to explaining human behaviour (rather than just criticising the emptiness of theology), these guys had nothing to offer, and what they did say was just so wrong that I felt embarrassed to have thought so highly of them in the first place. It took me a good 5 years to shake off this feeling, so maybe you’ll have had a change of mind by 2020.)
Sam Harris in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation has written a lot of uninformed nonsense about religion in general and Islam in particular. Don’t misunderstand. His logical arguments against religious belief systems are entirely valid. For a time when I was in the process of recovering from my own religious experiences I would have endorsed almost everything he wrote. Even mainstream Anglican pabulum was a threat to humanity because it lent social respectability to religious faith and the Bible, and that made it possible for extremist cults — who also claimed faith and the Bible as the foundations of their seriously harmful systems — to germinate. (I was focusing on the intellectual constructs as the easy and obvious target, failing to realize that there was something far more significant at the root of religion.)
At the same time I was going through that phase I could not help but notice a niggling doubt in the back of my mind. Yes, my argument was entirely rational, and borne of experience. But was it the whole story? If there had been no notion of faith or the Bible in any religion, would that really mean we would be living in a Utopia? Was it really only social respectability for faith and the Bible that cults fanned into something monstrous? Was there not also a shared dream of a better world? Should such idealism also be condemned? Was there not also a shared belief in the rightness of doing good? Even the dreams and the morality of the cult could be turned into destructive weapons. But they could also be used for much good, too.
Cults may sprout out from mainstream religions but it does not follow that they are the cause or to blame for them. A host to a parasite is hardly to be blamed for the parasite.
Religion is not going to disappear, or if we believe otherwise, it certainly won’t be demolished by rational answers to its teachings of faith and belief systems. I guess that thought was beginning to dawn on me when I started this blog and that’s why I’ve never been interested in any sort of “anti-Christian” or “anti-religion” crusade of any sort. People will respond to precision arguments and new questions when they are ready. Crusading against irrational beliefs — or against even rational ones based on false data — will rarely accomplish much more among the believers than to send them scrambling for better reasons for holding fast to those beliefs.
That is, polemics like those of Sam Harris are based on a misunderstanding of the very nature of religion and may in fact be backfiring and strengthening religion’s power in the world. It’s only in recent times that I’ve begun to truly grasp this.
This is a disturbing book principally for its ignorant tirade against Muslims. As an atheist myself I had hoped for something more rational and informative given the enormous popularity of this book in the U.S. but find Harris here is too often little more than a mega-mouthpiece for Western (read American?) ignorance of Muslims and the Muslim world outside the U.S. borders. I expected to read along with a like-mind since I also see religion and religious faith as a net negative left-over from our evolutionary past that needs to be eradicated just as acceptance of rape as a natural means for reproduction has been eradicated. But I found points of agreement only at a superficial level. It is bad enough that he blames religion as the principle or fundamental root cause of suicide terrorism: he says it was religious belief, belief in a blissful life after death, that enabled the 9/11 hijackers to commit their atrocity. What rot. A slight amount of reflection and simple logic would inform him that if religious belief were the root enabler of suicide terrorism then we would surely have had suicide terrorism for as long as we have had such beliefs in any religion. Pape’s “Dying to Win” is a scholarly research work that amply demonstrates that suicide terrorism is a function of national identity humiliation brought about by foreign occupation and that perpetrators of this form of terrorism since the 1980’s have included both the religious and non-religious and secular, Christian and Buddhist as well as Muslim. Pape’s research pulverizes Harris’s ignorant diatribe. Continue reading “The end of faith: religion, terror, and the future of reason / Sam Harris. (Norton, 2005) Review”