Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris
Atheism has always been a tough sell in the United States. In Europe, where for centuries religious authority was intertwined with government power, atheists were heroic dissenters against the unholy alliance of church and state. In the United States, where the two realms are constitutionally separate, Protestant Christianity suffused public discourse so completely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that some positivists felt the need to paper over their differences with religion. US politics has frequently been flooded by waves of Christian fervor. Sometimes religion has bolstered the forces of political sanctimony and persecution, as with Prohibition in the 1920s and anticommunism during the cold war; but it has also encouraged dissenters to speak truth to power—to abolish slavery, to regulate capitalism, to end the Vietnam War.
The Christian right, which had risen to prominence in the late twentieth century, provided an unprecedented target for New Atheists’ barbs. Here was a particularly noxious form of religion in American politics—more dangerous than the bland piety of politicians or the ad nauseam repetition of “God Bless America.” From the Reagan administration to that of George W. Bush, the Christian right succeeded in shifting political debates from issues of justice and equality to moral and cultural questions, often persuading working-class voters to cast ballots for candidates whose policies undercut their economic interests. Rage about abortion and same-sex marriage drowned out discussion of job security and tax equity. Fundamentalist Christians denied global warming and helped to derail federal funding for stem-cell research. Most catastrophically, they supplied the language of Providence that sanctified Bush’s “war on terror” as a moral crusade.
Still, it remains an open question how much this ideological offensive depended on religious dogma, and how much it was the work of seasoned political players, such as plutocrats bent on deregulating business and dismantling progressive taxation, corporate-sponsored media eager to curry favor with the powerful and military contractors hoping to sup at the public trough. Even the rhetoric of Providential mission owed more to romantic nationalism than to orthodox Christianity, which has long challenged the cult of the nation-state as a form of idolatry.
* * *
The New Atheists did not bother with such nuance. Hitchens and Harris, in particular, wasted no time enlisting in Bush’s crusade, which made their critique of religion selective. It may have targeted Christianity and occasionally Judaism, but hatred and fear of Islam was its animating force. Despite their disdain for public piety, the New Atheists provided little in their critique to disturb the architects and proselytizers of American empire: indeed, Hitchens and Harris asserted a fervent rationale for it. Since 9/11, both men have made careers of posing as heroic outsiders while serving the interests of the powerful.
Of the two, Harris has the more impressive credentials. In addition to being a prolific pundit on websites, a marquee name on the lecture circuit and the author of three popular books, The End of Faith (2004), Letter to a Christian Nation (2006) and The Moral Landscape (2010), he is a practicing neuroscientist who emerges from the lab to reveal the fundamental truths he claims to have learned there. Chief among them are the destructive power of religion, which Harris always defines in the most literal and extreme terms, and the immediate global threat of radical Islam. Everything can be explained by the menace of mobilized religious dogma, which is exacerbated by liberal tolerance. Stupefied by cultural relativism, we refuse to recognize that some ways of being in the world—our own especially—are superior to others. As a consequence, we are at the mercy of fanatics who will stop at nothing until they “refashion the societies of Europe into a new Caliphate.” They are natural-born killers, and we are decadent couch potatoes. Our only defense, Harris insists, is the rejection of both religion and cultural relativism, and the embrace of science as the true source of moral value.
Harris claims he is committed to the reasonable weighing of evidence against the demands of blind faith. This is an admirable stance, but it conceals an absolutist cast of mind. He tells us that because “the well-being of conscious [and implicitly human] creatures” is the only reliable indicator of moral good, and science the only reliable means for enhancing well-being, only science can be a source of moral value. Experiments in neuroimaging, Harris argues, reveal that the brain makes no distinction between judgments of value and judgments of fact; from this finding he extracts the non sequitur that fact and value are the same. We may not know all the moral truths that research will unearth, but we will soon know many more of them. Neuroscience, he insists, is on the verge of revealing the keys to human well-being: in brains we trust.
To define science as the source of absolute truth, Harris must first ignore the messy realities of power in the world of Big Science. In his books there is no discussion of the involvement of scientists in the military-industrial complex or in the pharmacological pursuit of profit. Nor is any attention paid to the ways that chance, careerism and intellectual fashion can shape research: how they can skew data, promote the publication of some results and consign others to obscurity, channel financial support or choke it off. Rather than provide a thorough evaluation of evidence, Harris is given to sweeping, unsupported generalizations. His idea of an argument about religious fanaticism is to string together random citations from the Koran or the Bible. His books display a stunning ignorance of history, including the history of science. For a man supposedly committed to the rational defense of science, Harris is remarkably casual about putting a thumb on the scale in his arguments.
If we evaluate those arguments according to their resonance with public policy debates, the results are sobering. Harris’s convictions reveal his comfortable cohabitation with imperial power. From him we learn, among other things, that torture is just another form of collateral damage in the “war on terror”—regrettable, maybe, but a necessary price to pay in the crucial effort to save Western civilization from the threat of radical Islam. We also learn that pacifism, despite its (allegedly) high moral standing, is “immoral” because it leaves us vulnerable to “the world’s thugs.” As in the golden age of positivism, a notion of sovereign science is enlisted in the service of empire. Harris dispenses with the Christian rhetoric of his imperialist predecessors but not with their rationalizations for state-sponsored violence. Posing as a renegade on the cutting edge of scientific research and moral enlightenment, Harris turns out to be one of the bright young men who want to go back to 1910.
* * *
The End of Faith, written in the wake of 9/11, bears all the marks of that awful time: hysteria, intolerance, paranoia; cankered demands for unity and the demonization of dissent. The argument is simple: the attacks on the World Trade Center awakened us to the mortal danger posed by dogmatic religion. Enlightened atheists must take up Voltaire’s challenge and crush the infamous thing at last—with the weight of scientific arguments if possible, with the force of military might if necessary. Though The End of Faith includes a chapter of complaint about the Christian right and Bush’s God-intoxicated White House, Harris singles out Islam as his enemy: “Anyone who says that the doctrines of Islam have ‘nothing to do with terrorism’…is just playing a game with words.”
The politics of Harris’s argument are rooted in the Manichaean moralism of Samuel Huntington’s 1993 article in Foreign Affairs about the “clash of civilizations” between the West and an emerging “Islamic-Confucian” civilization. Huntington may have been wrong about the Confucian element, but his apocalyptic dualism fed the revenge fantasies of the post-9/11 United States. Harris endorses Huntington’s argument uncritically, with characteristic indifference to historical evidence: “One need only read the Koran to know” he tells us, that Huntington was right. I am reminded of my fellow naval officers’ insistence, during the Vietnam War, that one need only read The Communist Manifesto to ascertain the Kremlin’s blueprint for world domination.
Harris’s tunnel vision leads him to overlook the roots of radical Islam, including the delusion of a revived caliphate, in the twentieth-century politics of imperial rivalries and anti-imperial resistance. (Indeed, under scrutiny, Islamic jihad is looking less like a revolutionary religious movement and more like the guerrilla fantasy of some angry young Arab men—educated, unemployed and humiliated by actual or imagined imperial arrogance. Radical Islam often provides an idiom for their anger, but its centrality has been exaggerated.) Terrorism is not linked to poverty, oppression or humiliation, Harris insists: the world is full of poor people who are not terrorists. Terrorism is the rough beast of Islam, which is “undeniably a religion of conquest.” Our choices are clear: “The West must either win the argument [with Muslim orthodoxy] or win the war. All else will be bondage.” Ironically, “the only thing that currently stands between us and the roiling ocean of Muslim unreason is a wall of tyranny and human rights abuses [in Arab countries] that we have helped to erect.” It is time to remake the Middle East in the name of science and democracy, to convert the Muslim believers to unbelief and save them from themselves. The recent, extraordinary revolution in Egypt, a nationwide, nonsectarian call for democratic reform and a more equitable distribution of resources, underscores the provincial arrogance of this perspective.
But the intellectual problems run deeper. The conceptual muddle at the core of Harris’s argument is directly traceable to Huntington’s essay. Groping for a global conflict to replace the recently ended cold war, Huntington fell into the fatal error of confusing civilizations with nations. As William Pfaff reminds us, “Islamic civilization is huge”:
Nearly all of the Muslim nations except Iran…conduct normal political and economic relations with most if not all of the Western countries. The notion that the members of this global religious civilization are at “war” with Western civilization, or are vulnerable to political radicalization by a few thousand Arab mujahideen because of Middle Eastern and South Asian political issues—of which most of the global Muslim population knows little—is a Western fantasy.
Fantastic as it is, the vision of Armageddon appeals to the longing for clarity and certainty at the heart of the positivist sensibility. “All pretensions to theological knowledge should now be seen from the perspective of a man who was just beginning his day on the one hundredth floor of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001,” Harris writes. That is a pretty limited perspective.