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the end of faith, the beginning of bigotry

In Australia, Sam Harris doesn’t seem to be terribly well known. In the USA, however, he’s one of the big names of the New Atheism. Which is a pity, since his book The End of Faith is something of a shocker.

Like the other New Atheists, Harris is good at exposing the contradictions and cruelties contained in the sacred texts of different religions traditions. Here’s Deuteronomy, for instance, on what believers should do if one of their family suggests worshipping a different god.

Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. 9 You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10 Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

But a little of this goes a long way. There’s a long tradition of exposure of Biblical craziness in the Freethought movement, and, in any case, it’s easy enough to do on your own. At school, when we were allowed to nominate the reading for the compulsory services, it was not uncommon for kids to pick a particularly demented passage from Leviticus, just to annoy the teachers. Still, as someone once said: ‘When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.’

In response to those who protest that only fundamentalists bother themselves with the wilder reaches of the Bible, Harris argues that religious moderation is scarcely less dangerous than fundamentalism, since the religious moderate retains, by definition, at least part of the anti-rational methodology of the literalist.

The benignity of most religious moderates does not suggest that religious faith is anything more sublime than a desperate marriage of hope and ignorance, nor does it guarantee that there is not a terrible price to be paid for limiting the scope of reason in our dealings with other human beings.

Because the religious moderate rejects rationality he or she is, Harris says, incapable of staring down fundamentalists.

While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence [...] The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unvrivaled.

And that’s a big problem for Harris, because he sees religious belief as at the root of a great proportion of the violence and misery taking place around the world. He lists, as religious conflicts, the crises in Palestine, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Caucasus.

Now, Dawkins makes, in places, a similar argument, describing for instance the Troubles in Ireland as religiously motivated. It’s an ignorant claim but Dawkins doesn’t pursue it at length and, besides, his narrative persona with its flashes of donnish humour comes across as much more likeable than Harris’ and so you’re more willing to cut him some slack. The difference between The God Delusion and the End of Faith like thatbetween listening to an erudite but slightly eccentric prof, and being cornered in the kitchen by an opinionated bore during a party.

Because most societies have some religious affiliation, almost any human activity involves some religious rhetoric (in the recent Australian bushfires, there’s been, for instance, much talk of ‘prayers’ going out to the victims. In that banal sense you can find religion in every conflict. But you don’t have to know much about the Middle East to recognise that the argument that the Palestinians (at one time, the most secular people in the world) are fighting for religion is foolish at best and dishonest at worst.

But, while Harris thinks all religions are bad, some, he says, are much worse than others. There’s no prizes for guessing which he judges the worstest. ‘We are,’ he says, ‘at war with Islam’ since ‘Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.’

Here, we’re travelling deep into wingnut teritory, where, not suprisingly, most of the inhabitants turn out to be pretty familiar. Why, there’s Samuel Huntington on the Clash of Civilisation; here’s Bernard Lewis on jihad. Paul Berman, the doyen of muscular liberals, explains that ‘in all of recent history, no country on earth has fought so hard and consistently as the United States on behalf of Muslim populations’ while Alan Dershowitz tells us that ‘no other nation in history faced with comparable challenges has ever adhered to a higher standard of human rights [than Israel], been more sensitive to the safety of innocent civilians, tried harder to operate under the rule of law, or been willing to take more risks for peace.’ Thus if the Iraqis aren’t grateful to George W. Bush and the Palestinians feel upset about Gaza, it must be because they’re gripped by their oogety-boogety religion of death.

That’s pretty much how the argument goes, actually. For Harris, any attempt to explain the puzzling hostility of Muslims to the Great White Father in Washington fails unless it begins by delving into the more blood-thirsty passages in the Koran.

In our dialogue with the Muslim world, we are confronted by people who hold beliefs for which there is no rational justification and which therefore cannot be discussed, and yet these are the very beliefs that underlie many of the demands they are likely to make upon us.

But hang on – haven’t we just heard that the Bible of the Christians and the Jews is also awash with blood? What makes Islam worse?

Although we have seen that the Bible is a great reservoir of intolerance, for Christians and Jews alike — as everything from the writings of Augustine to the present actions of Israeli settlers demonstrates — it is not difficult to find great swaths of the Good Book, as well as Christian and Jewish exegesis, that offer counterarguments. The Christian who wants to live in the full presence of rationality and modernity can keep the Jesus of Matthew sermonising upon the mount and simply ignore the world-consuming rigmarole of Revelation.

You might think that flatly contradicts his earlier argument about religious moderation — and, of course, you would be right. For if one can compartmentalise scriptural passages in such a way, the obvious question becomes in what circumstances do particular texts take on a social urgency. There are far fewer verses in the Bible condemning homosexuality then there are urging weird dietary practices. Why then does an opposition to gay marriage become more important for American Christians than, say, campaigning against shellfish? The obvious answer is that particular religious beliefs get activated in particular social and political contexts. Which is why, with the secular Left seen to have catastrophically failed in the Middle East, those tenets of Islam which seem to offer an alternative to corrupt local regimes and the predations of Western imperialism come to the fore.

All of which is obvious to the point of banality. But naturally it’s more comforting to dismiss Islamic radicalism as a form of ignorance and stupidity — which is what Harris does, at tedious length.

Yet there’s a weird coda to his book, in which he bigs up the traditions of the East as compatible with what he describes as ‘a truly empirical approach to spiritual experience’. He likes Buddhist mysticism, for instance, as a way of revealing ‘deeper connections between ourselves and the rest of the universe than is suggested by the ordinary confines of our subjectivity’. Well, whatever floats your boat, I guess, but if you lived in Sri Lanka, where Buddhist fundamentalists regularly engage in atrocities, you might equally make out a case for Buddhism as a cult of death. Again, these things all depend on the circumstances.

Oddest of all, The End of Faith — this supposed atheist polemic – contains a peculiar passage arguing that ‘there also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science.’  If you follow the footnote, you arrive at this: ‘There may even be some credible evidence for reincarnation’. The quoted sources are the books by a certain Ian Stevenson, who seems to be a Grade A crank.

Contrary to what many of the cruise missile liberals would have you believe, in most industrialised countries today, it doesn’t take much courage to say you don’t believe in God. Even in the nineteenth century, Marx could talk about the cheapness of the label ‘atheism’ — those who bray about their atheism remind one, he said, ‘of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogey man’. But Harris doesn’t even rise to that level.  Maybe the bogeyman is getting reincarnated even as we speak.

Naturally, Marx wasn’t religious. But the point of his materialism was simple. You don’t end religion simply by denouncing believers as fools and dupes. You end it by changing a world that makes religious belief attractive. If you accept (as seems self-evidently true) that US adventures in the Middle East are largely responsible for the increasing numbers of  people in the area embracing Islamism, then the apologetics for American foreign policy contained in Harris’ so-called atheism only make religion stronger.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. The prevailing attitude to Buddhism is an interesting comparison control for measuring the extent of pseudo-rationalist Islamophobia. If the new athiests were inhabitants of Beijing rather than London, New York etc one can only wonder at the horror with which they would excoriate the deeper and darker reaches of \backward\ Tibetan Buddhism.

  2. I think your comment that it doesn’t take much courage to declare your atheism is interesting. Maybe in the case of writing a book about it this is true. But try, for example, standing at Central Station in Sydney handing out pamphlets to passers by which say all religion is a joke and a nasty end will come to all believers, whist yelling out “Allah is only an invention, Jesus never existed, believers are deluded, get your heads examined.” It’s an interesting experiment in religious tolerance…

    I also think your comment about ending the appeal of religion is very insightful, even outside of the Islam vs West fundamentalist thing. In writing my thesis I found shelves full of legislation and policy existing in Australia which both blatantly and inadvertantly discriminates against Atheists, including obvious areas like tax and property laws (why shouldn’t a group of Atheists or Humanists who meet regularly get the same tax exempt status as a Church? etc) and not so obvious areas such as anti-discrimination law, which often protects on the basis of ‘belief’ but not on the basis of ‘non-belief’…

    Interestingly enough, I believe the ‘New Atheism’ is actually turning into a dogma itself, even without that key defining element of religion (‘belief in a supernatural’) …a turn which Humanists everywhere are finding fascinating.

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