Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris
Harris is as narrow in his views as the believers he condemns. Consider his assault on “the demon of relativism,” which, he declares, leaves us unprepared to face our ignorant tribal adversaries and robs us of the moral resources needed to prevail in the Armageddon against unreason. This conviction stems from a profound ignorance of philosophy. Harris finds it “interesting” that Sayyid Qutb, Osama bin Laden’s favorite thinker, felt that philosophical pragmatism “would spell the death of American civilization.” Pragmatism causes its devotees “to lose the conviction that you can actually be right—about anything,” Harris announces. One can only imagine the astonishment of pragmatists such as William James, who opposed America’s imperial adventures in Cuba and the Philippines, or John Dewey, a staunch defender of progressive education, if told that their inclination to evaluate ideas with respect to their consequences somehow prevented them from holding convictions. For Harris, pragmatism and relativism undermine the capacity “to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development,” and to acknowledge our moral superiority to most of the rest of the world. By preventing us from passing judgment on others’ beliefs, no matter how irrational, “religious tolerance” has become “one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” Harris treats the recognition of legitimate moral differences as a sign of moral incompetence, and it is this sort of posturing that has cemented the New Atheists’ reputation for bold iconoclasm.
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Harris’s argument against relativism is muddled and inconsistent on its own terms, but it is perfectly consistent with the aims of the national security state. It depends on the assumption that Americans (and “the West”) exist on a higher moral plane than just about anyone else. “As a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents,” Harris writes in The End of Faith. “We would do well to realize that much of the world has not.” He dismisses equations of state-sponsored violence (which creates collateral damage) and terrorist violence (which deliberately targets civilians): “Any honest witness to current events will realize that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.” He asks critics of civilian casualties in the Iraq War to imagine if the situation were reversed, and the Iraqi Republican Guard had invaded Washington. Do they think Iraqis would have taken as great care to spare civilians as the Americans did? “We cannot ignore human intentions. Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.”
One would think that Harris’s intentionalism would have him distinguish between the regrettable accidents of collateral damage and the deliberate cruelty of torture. But after invoking a series of fantastic scenarios ranging from the familiar ticking time bomb to demonic killers preparing to asphyxiate 7-year-old American girls, Harris concludes that the larger intentions animating torture can be as noble as those that cause collateral damage: there is “no ethical difference” between them, he says. Torture, from this bizarrely intentionalist view, is somehow now a form of collateral damage. Both are necessary tactics in a fight to the death against Islamic unreason. “When your enemy has no scruples, your own scruples become another weapon in his hand,” Harris writes. “We cannot let our qualms over collateral damage paralyze us because our enemies know no such qualms.” Most treacherous are the qualms of pacifists, whose refusal to fight is really “nothing more than a willingness to die, and to let others die, at the pleasure of the world’s thugs.” (Reading this passage, one can’t help wondering why in 2005 PEN bestowed its Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction upon The End of Faith.) Given the implacable opposition between Islam and Western modernity, “it seems certain that collateral damage, of various sorts, will be a part of our future for many years to come.” It is the endless war against evil, the wet dream of every armchair combatant from Dick Cheney to Norman Podhoretz.
The only difference is that, unlike those pious gents, Harris dismisses not only Islam but also all the Western monotheisms as “dangerously retrograde” obstacles to the “global civilization” we must create if we are to survive. His critique of religion is a stew of sophomoric simplifications: he reduces all belief to a fundamentalist interpretation of sacred texts, projecting his literalism and simple-mindedness onto believers whose faith may foster an epistemology far more subtle than his positivist convictions. Belief in scriptural inerrancy is Harris’s only criterion for true religious faith. This eliminates a wide range of religious experience, from pain and guilt to the exaltation of communal worship, the ecstasy of mystical union with the cosmos and the ambivalent coexistence of faith and doubt.
But Harris is not interested in religious experience. He displays an astonishing lack of knowledge or even curiosity about the actual content of religious belief or practice, announcing that “most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths.” Unlike medicine, engineering or even politics, religion is “the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress.” Religion keeps us anchored in “a dark and barbarous past,” and what is generally called sacred “is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday.” Harris espouses the Enlightenment master narrative of progress, celebrating humans’ steady ascent from superstition to science; no other sort of knowledge, still less wisdom, will do.
There is one religious practice Harris does admit to tolerating: Buddhist meditation, which allows one to transcend mind-body dualism and view the self as process. Only the wisdom of the East offers any access to this experience of self, Harris insists, as he tosses off phrases plucked at random from a Zen handbook. Given the persistent popularity of the wisdom of the East among the existential homeless of the West, the exemption Harris grants Buddhism is perfectly predictable, as is his thoroughgoing ignorance of Western intellectual tradition. “Thousands of years have passed since any Western philosopher imagined that a person should be made happy, peaceful, or even wise, in the ordinary sense, by his search for truth,” Harris proclaims, ignoring Montaigne, Erasmus, Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas Merton, Martin Buber, Meister Eckhart and a host of other Protestants, Catholics, Jews and humanists. Harris’s lack of curiosity complements his subservience to cultural fashion.
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Similar weaknesses abound in Letter to a Christian Nation, in which Harris taunts the many Christians infuriated by his first book. Harris admits up front that “the ‘Christian’ I address throughout is a Christian in a narrow sense of the term.” Aiming comfortably at this caricature, he repeats his insistence that there is a fatal clash of civilizations afoot, between Islam and the West but also between science and religion. Armageddon still looms.
This screed is striking only because it affirms Harris’s positivistic fundamentalism with exceptional clarity. “When considering the truth of a proposition,” he writes, “one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t.” But consider the ambiguities of statistical research in Harris’s field of brain science, in particular the difficulty psychologists and neuroscientists have had in replicating results over time—a development recently surveyed by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker. Lehrer discusses the research of the psychologist Jonathan Schooler, who revealed that describing a face makes recognizing it more difficult rather than easier. This phenomenon is called the “verbal overshadowing” effect, which became big news in the scientific study of memory, and made Schooler’s career. But over time, and despite scrupulous attention to detail and careful design of his experiments, Schooler found it increasingly difficult to replicate his earlier findings. His research had been run aground by the baffling “decline effect” that scientists have struggled with for decades, a result (or nonresult) that suggests that there may be disturbing limitations to the scientific method, at least in the statistically based behavioral sciences.
Some decline effects can arise from less mysterious sources, beginning with the vagaries of chance and the statistical drift toward the mean. But in other cases, Lehrer explains, statistical samples can change over time. Drugs that have passed clinical trials—such as the “second-generation antipsychotics” Abilify, Seroquel and Zyprexa—can be initially tested on schizophrenics, then prescribed to people with milder symptoms for whom they are less effective. Conceptual foundations for research can also be shaky, such as the notion that female swallows choose male mates on the basis of their “symmetry.” The questions arise: How does one precisely measure a symmetrical arrangement of feathers? At what point does symmetry end and asymmetry begin? These sorts of problems make replicating results more difficult, and the difficulties are compounded by the standard practices of professional science. Initial research success is written up for scientific journals, rewarded with grants and promotions, and reported to credulous nonscientists; subsequent failures to replicate results remain largely invisible—except to the researchers, who, if they are honest in their appraisal of the evidence, find it hard to accept simple-minded notions of statistically based certainty. The search for scientific truth is not as straightforward as Harris would like to believe.
Methodological and professional difficulties of this sort do not clutter The Moral Landscape, Harris’s recent effort to fashion a science of ethics. Incredibly, nearly a decade after 9/11, Harris continues to dwell on the fear of Muslim extremists establishing a new caliphate across Europe, making unreason the law of the land and forcing Parisian shopgirls to wear burqas. In looking for examples of religious barbarism, Harris always turns first to what he calls “the especially low-hanging fruit of conservative Islam.” But his main target in this book is the “multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance” that hobbles “the West” in its war against radical Islam.