Gods of the state: atheism and barbarity

[N]ot to have tried to see through the whole apparatus of mystification – was already criminal. … For being in a position to know and nevertheless shunning knowledge creates direct responsibility for the consequences – from the very beginning.
Albert Speer quoted in Ellsberg (1972: 275)

Intellectual and political emancipation

Peter Gay (1966: 33) notes that the French philosophes ‘liked to visualize themselves reenacting historic battles, to denounce religious fanaticism’ and the ‘barbarism and religion’ that had dominated the past. They stood for the possibility that reason might be ‘the master of civilization.’ From the same Enlightenment point of view, the topic of barbarism and religious fanaticism has recently become an obsessive, burgeoning subject of scholarly and media commentators. In this intellectual environment, my concern is the extent to which the champions of reason are, indeed, in practice, on the side of civilisation as they proclaim.

The philosophes sought to ‘dramatize their age as an age of unremitting warfare between the forces of unbelief and forces of credulity’ and their mission was ‘to eradicate bigotry and superstition’ (Gay 1966: 23; 31), but the age of the Enlightenment was also the age of Jacobin Terror in which the call was made to replace Catholicism with the ‘religion of patriotism’ (Andress 2005: 240). This conception of a political, secular faith and especially the religion of patriotism is my topic in this essay. Then, as now, unbelief and the war against credulity was remarkably circumscribed, the light of reason in these siècles des lumières selectively leaving some things in the dark.

Thus, we will consider those atheists who campaign stridently against religious belief today in a self-conscious Enlightenment pose to give ‘their polemics the dignity of an age-old struggle between reason and unreason’ (Gay 1966: 32). These intellectuals are of interest because they affect a radical intolerance of dogma, recommending that we ‘Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief’ and ‘Question everything’ (Dawkins 2006: 263-4). At the same time, however, these ultra-rational scientific scholars show a catastrophic failure of scepticism, a credulity of a kind that is intellectually and morally more culpable than mere ignorant superstition or innocent religious faith. These thinkers, too, espouse a ‘religion of patriotism’ which is part rationalisation, and part cause, of a modern reign of terror unmatched in history.

In a discussion of politics and religion, it is irresistible to mention the charge for which Socrates was executed in 399 BC – corrupting the youth and failing to teach the gods of the state. Of course, ‘gods of the state’ may be taken both in the literal sense as impiety and atheism, but also figuratively referring to official dogmas of the prevailing authority.

The term ‘political religion’ became widely used after the First World War to refer to the regimes of Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin (Burleigh 2005: 3). Burleigh is disdainful of those ‘secular minded academics’ and ‘academic liberal left’ who ‘wish to evaporate the messianic features of early socialism and Marxism, roots they do not care to be reminded of’ (2005: 2). However, just as there is no need to minimise the religious features of these political movements, we may recognise a comparable zealotry on the other side among Right intellectuals who risk being apologists for their own brand of political, secular religion.

My suggestion is that, even if the categories of religion and politics are ill-defined in each case, there is a unity when seen from a psychological point of view, for the two may be indistinguishable in fundamental respects.

Whether historically accurate or not, Bertrand Russell asserts the identity of religious and political sentiments in his remark that ‘The whole conception of God is derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms’ which he adds is quite unworthy of free men. Russell captures an aspect of religious commitment that is evidently apt for political commitment too:

There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. … Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious then they are disputed (Russell 1954: 219).

Religion conceived in terms of ‘the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men’ (James 1902/1961: 42) should include among its objects Earthly Powers, to use Burleigh’s (2005) title, as much as divine powers. Russell’s famous articulation of ‘A Free Man’s Worship’ captures these common features of religious and political devotion considered from a psychological point of view:

The savage, like ourselves, … having in himself nothing that he respects more than Power, he is willing to prostrate himself before his gods, without inquiring whether they are worthy of his worship. … The religion of Moloch – as such creeds may be generically called – is in essence the cringing submission of the slave, who dare not, even in his heart, allow the thought that his master deserves no adulation (Russell 1963: 41).

Russell adds a remark that bears on the psychology of political allegiance too: ‘Power may be freely worshipped, and receive an unlimited respect, despite its wanton infliction of pain.’ In this regard, Russell’s irreverent writings appear to place him among contemporary atheists such as Dawkins (2006), Dennett (2006), Hitchens (2007a,b) and Harris (2004), but it is important to recognise his profoundly different stance. As we will see, these public intellectuals are conspicuous apologists for state power.

Russell’s disdain for such servility immediately recalls Chomsky’s scathing critiques of our culture of conformity and complicity. In the tradition of Benda’s (1928) classic La Trahison des Clercs, Chomsky identifies those most cowardly to be not ordinary credulous people but the intellectuals and educated elite. In the same vein, writing on nationalism Orwell remarked, ‘One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool’ (1984: 322). In particular, we will have occasion to ask whether the ‘ancient stupidity’ of religion that Hitchens says ‘poisons everything’ can conceivably compare with the ‘foolishness’ of certain intellectuals – a euphemism for the moral lapse of apologists for our own vast crimes. Current events make Orwell’s reflections of 1945 sobering as he speaks of ‘the astonishing failure of military prediction in the present war.’ Specifically, he says ‘the intelligentsia have been more wrong about the progress of the war than the common people, and that they were more swayed by partisan feelings.’ Elsewhere too, Orwell wrote of the English intelligentsia and their ‘complete disregard to historical truth or intellectual decency’; becoming voluntary agents of state power. Orwell (1947) explains his fundamentally oppositional attitude: ‘I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.’

The will to believe

A characteristic feature of ‘religions’ thus broadly understood is the familiar dogmatism of the faithful. With religious as with political partisanship, committed believers see the warrant of atheism in regard to all other faiths but their own. For such reasons, religious, like political, conviction exhibits a geographical distribution that makes no sense if it were based on rational reflection. The preponderance of a particular belief in a particular locality suggests that religious and political commitment are akin to allegiance to football teams – their determinants not being reason based on evidence. As Hume says, ‘they are never led into that opinion by any process of argument’ (1757/1963: 57). The same point was made in Arthur Koestler’s famous apostasy in the significantly titled The God That Failed – his account of abandoning Communism. Koestler writes:

A faith is not acquired by reasoning. One does not fall in love with a woman, or enter the womb of a church, as a result of logical persuasion (Koestler 1950: 11; 12).

Indeed, we will see presently that the metaphor of political or secular religion is, after all, more than a suggestive figure of speech.

Burleigh writes of secular and conventional religions that, ‘They are not opposites, but are fundamentally akin’ (Burleigh 2005: 10). From this perspective, the salient feature is not what is believed but how or perhaps why it is believed. The question is as much ethical as intellectual or psychological, as W.K. Clifford’s (1877/1999) essay argues in support of his famous principle ‘it is wrong always, and everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’ This might be enough of a truism to not merit discussion if it were not for its widespread violation and even explicit denial. Particularly culpable, says Clifford, are those who acquire belief by stifling doubt and neglecting to make a fair inquiry through listening to the voice of prejudice and passion (1877/1999: 72). Koestler’s reports his belated recognition of ‘the absurdity of a propaganda-chief who only reads his own paper’ (Koestler 1950: 22).

The psychology in these cases is misconceived by those who attribute committed, erroneous belief to ignorance or stupidity. In the most interesting and perhaps most important cases, pernicious dogmas are held by the intelligent and well-informed. Thus, Sam Harris (2007) conveniently ascribes the ills of the world to benighted religious believers:

Anyone who cares about the fate of civilization would do well to recognize that the combination of great power and great stupidity is simply terrifying, even to one’s friends (2007: xv).

Atheists Dawkins (2006) and Dennett (2006) are full of admiration for such sanctimonious rhetoric suggesting that ignorance and religious credulity ‘should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency’ (Harris 2007: xvi). However, these popular highbrow skeptics pick an easy, perhaps even irrelevant target, since the danger to the world surely arises more from the sophisticated, secular and educated like themselves – a proposition for which there is ample evidence, as we will note presently. The myths of superstitious or religious faith do not deserve as much condemnation just because we know better. There are other forms of credulity such as the secular faith of state worship that are neither as epistemologically, nor morally, innocent. Belief that is merely ill-informed or unfounded through lack of evidence is in an entirely different category from belief that is amply refuted by evidence known to the believer. Clifford’s essay shows that in practical affairs this stance is a not simply a cognitive but a moral lapse.

Gods of the state
In the suppressed preface to the original edition of Animal Farm, Orwell (1944) wrote of such moral lapse:

The servility with which the greater part of the British intelligentsia have swallowed and repeated Russian propaganda … would be quite astounding if it were not that they have behaved similarly on several earlier occasions. On one controversial issue after another the Russian viewpoint has been accepted without examination and then publicized with complete disregard to historical truth or intellectual decency.

Reading ‘American’ for ‘Russian,’ the contemporary parallels are striking. During the Vietnam War, Chomsky (1969) wrote of ‘the intellectuals who can be counted on, in significant measure, to provide the ideological justification’ (1969: 247) for such barbarism as the US assault on the rural populations of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and again later throughout Latin America and East Timor. He wrote of the ‘natural tendency of significant segments of the American intellectual community to offer their allegiance, not to truth and justice, but to power and the effective exercise of power’ (1969: 249). Chomsky warns:

It is frightening to observe the comparative indifference of American intellectuals to the immediate actions of their government and its long-range policies, and their frequent willingness – often eagerness – to play a role in implementing these policies (Chomsky 1969: 249).

Today, atheism, as an anti-religious creed, is being pressed into ideological, political service in this way. However, religious believers are an easy target. By contrast, the intellectual corruption of scientific rationalists is more interesting because it reveals deep psychological forces at work defending the indefensible rather than the merely implausible. There is, therefore, a particular irony in the most recent spate of militant atheist attacks on the irrationality of religious belief (Dennett 2006; Dawkins 2006; Hitchens 2007; Harris 2004; 2007) which are, at the same time, the most conspicuous examples of slavish commitment to crude, popular ethnic stereotypes, combined with an almost delusional misrepresentation of the facts of recent history. These militant atheists use the rhetoric of critical rationality to wage ideological warfare, not just against religion, but against Muslims. Their ostensibly philosophical, (anti-)theological works are the most recent manifestations of what Edward Saïd (1978/1995) had characterised in his classic Orientialism as the long tradition of Western interpretations and representations of Islam. In his subsequent disturbing and prescient book Covering Islam, Saïd (1981) already saw the makings of the contemporary, fevered intellectual exertions in which ‘Islam’ ‘has licensed not only patent inaccuracy but also expressions of unrestrained ethnocentrism, cultural and even racial hatred’ (Saïd 1981: xi). Saïd observes that neither Christianity nor Judaism is treated in the same emotional manner. Of particular importance in relation to the outpouring of commentary is Saïd’s point, developed also by Bilgrami (1992: 2007) that the term ‘Islam’ is used as if it means one simple, identifiable thing whereas in fact it is ‘part fiction, part ideological label, part minimal designation of a religion’ (Saïd 1981: x). There is no direct correspondence between the standard use of the term and the varied reality of nearly a billion people in various societies, states, histories and geographies around the world.

Purely theological grievances?

Ignoring such subtleties, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett congratulate themselves on their courage for speaking out in the face of the ‘primitive stupidities and cruelties of religion’ (Dennett 2006: 299; Hitchens 2007: xi; xiii), as if there were some penalty for such acts of defiance and dissidence against the crimes of others. Their celebrity and royalties are undoubtedly evidence of their fearless sacrifice for the Enlightenment. Of course, the primitive stupidities of their own patriotic faith and the cruelties of their own secular state are unnoticed – meaning, by any objective standard, most of the horrors in the world and those for which they share responsibility.

Orwell wrote of the cowardice of such writers who are incapable of looking honestly in the mirror. He was too lenient. Rather, we see something more like the clinical syndrome of unilateral neglect in which patients will ignore one half of the world including half of their own bodies. Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Dennett Enlightenment values while displaying astonishing blindness to the most salient facts of world affairs bearing on their doctrines. Chomsky has written that ‘The sign of a truly totalitarian culture is that important truths simply lack cognitive meaning’ and criticisms on this score are interpretable only at the level of personal abuse (quoted in Nichols 2004: 61).

Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris confirm Saïd’s thesis concerning the stereotypes and caricatures that pass as scholarship and intellectual commentary on Islam. Adopting a pose as secular humanists, atheists and agnostics (Hitchens 2007a: 8), these authors take Islam as primary evidence for the thesis that ‘Religion Kills.’ With the catastrophic US invasion still under way, Hitchens can write in all seriousness ‘Open the newspaper or turn on the television and see what the parties of god are doing to Iraq’ (2007b: xxvi). Apart from the fact that Hitchens (1988) once co-edited a book with Saïd titled Blaming the Victims and might be expected to have a more subtle, balanced view, it hardly requires systematic media analysis to judge even from newspapers that the immense death toll in Iraq might be attributable to overwhelming US military power and not just religious fanatics. Writing at a moment when published estimates of the death toll exceed one million and refugees number up to four million, Hitchens’ book is astonishing for failing to mention these facts, even to challenge them. Imagine an analogous summary of Vietnamese history for the decades of the nineteen sixties and seventies that cited the activism of Buddhist monks but entirely overlooked the US invasion and its two million victims. Likewise, it is delusory to suggest that the cause of the Israel/Palestine conflict is ‘the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides’ (Hitchens 2007a). The scrupulous even-handedness hardly mitigates the fraudulence of this analysis that could not pass muster in an elementary high school course. While it is hard to doubt the lunacy of Lubavitcher zealots who think that a bearded Brooklyn rabbi is the creator of the universe, perhaps the sane, agnostic politicians in Tel-Aviv and Washington have something to do with the problem and its ‘menace to civilization.’

The pernicious seepage of academic discourse into political demagoguery may be seen in Tony Blair’s remark when he was British Prime Minister. He said that we are fighting a war against enemies who are somehow unable to cope with ‘modernity.’ This is, in fact, Bernard Lewis’ formula that Muslims are enraged at modernity – a meaningless pseudo-profundity that gives a vacant illusion of explanation but serves, in Orwell’s phrase, to defend the indefensible. In this case, we are to believe that Muslims ‘hate us for what we are and not what we do’ and that they have ‘purely theological grievances’ (Harris 2004: 30). We are to overlook the possibility that they might hate us for the large scale atrocities we have inflicted on them.

Behaviour fully and satisfactorily explained?

Nevertheless, Windschuttle (2001) is scornful of Saïd for his ‘wallowing in victimhood’ and for laying the Islamic world’s problems at the feet of others. Hitchens, too, claims that Islam is primary in explaining ‘the rising tide of fanaticism and the cult of death’ (Hitchens 2006: 27). This notion requires an unlikely ignorance or averting our gaze from the real world. Leaving aside places such as Latin America, where the same pattern is undeniable, it is indefensible to pretend that the Islamic world is somehow to blame for its own suffering. Perhaps the French had nothing to do with the problems in Algeria. Perhaps the 300,000 Iraqis who died at our hands in 1991 and the million since 2003 perished from their religion and not unprecedented levels of US bombing; not to mention the 500,000 victims of near-genocidal sanctions. And, while Iran has long been the focus of perfervid anti-Islam hysteria, perhaps the thousands of victims of the former Shah were also victims of their religion and not CIA-trained secret police SAVAK.

Hitchens is unimpressed by any instance of charitable or humanitarian work undertaken by a religious person, for he issues the challenge: ‘name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer’ (2007b: xiv). Of course, this undoubtedly proves that religious belief is not necessary for virtue. However, it is far from exculpating non-believers for most of the barbarity in the world. We might ask Hitchens, in turn, the more pertinent question: name me a crime committed by believers that has not been surpassed by non-believers. It is no defence of Hitchens, Dawkins and others that they are equally scathing in their condemnation of all religious belief. For example, Hitchens says ‘religion poisons everything’ (2007a: 13) and might point to the following passage in which he even-handedly denounces ‘the rising tide of fanaticism and the cult of death’ (2007a: 27):

I leave it to the faithful to burn each other’s churches and mosques and synagogues, which they can always be relied upon to do (2007a: 11).

However, Harris (2005: 109) is more blunt: ‘We are at war with Islam.’ But even among Muslims, it is not religion that is responsible for the innumerable atrocities in the world today. The caricatures of suicide-terrorism, for example, are refuted in exhaustive scholarly research such as Pape’s (2005) book on The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Nevertheless, Harris (2004) is profusely congratulated for his courage by Hitchens (2007b: 454) and for his ‘brave book’ by renowned philosopher Dennett (2006: 299). Harris retails gross slanders of Muslims who, we are told, ‘trade their lives in this world for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbours’ because ‘they believed that they would go straight to paradise for doing so.’ As a purported explanation for acts of suicide terror, this flies in the face of the most significant studies (Pape 2005). Overwhelming evidence we have of their own motivations show that these are just the political grievances we might expect of rational human beings in the wretched plight of the Palestinian or Iraqi victims of our brutality. In a staggering misrepresentation of the undisputed facts, Harris feigns the usual innocent wonderment:

To see that our problem is with Islam itself … we need only ask ourselves why Muslim terrorists do what they do. Why would someone as conspicuously devoid of personal grievances or psychological dysfunction as Osama bin Laden … devote himself to cave-dwelling machinations with the intention of killing innumerable men, women, and children he has never met (2004: 28)?

Harris’ answer to the puzzling questions is ‘obvious’ since, he says, ‘it has been articulated ad nauseam’ and ‘men like bin Laden actually believe what they say they believe’ (2004: 29). However, if we are to pay serious attention to what they actually say, we might refer to Robert Fisk (2005b: 25) who has interviewed bin Laden on several occasions. Far from the enigmatic irrationality of Harris’s stereotype, bin Laden expresses rational, intelligible and even justifiable concerns such as solidarity with ‘our brothers in Palestine and Lebanon’ and the half million Iraqi children victims of US-led UN sanctions. Preferring to ‘see that our problem is with Islam itself’ Harris conveniently neglects to report that bin Laden has also famously issued a public statement in which he recommended that all Americans read William Blum’s (2005) Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower. Bin Laden suggested that the US president should ‘announce that American interference in the nations of the world has ended once and for all.’ Indeed, Blum’s book is an inventory of US crimes around the world that provides an alternative hypothesis to explain Muslim grievances, and for that reason best left unmentioned by Harris. A rough indication is Blum’s list of countries that have been bombed by the US since World War Two. This list does not include hundreds of thousands of victims of US-sponsored death squads in Latin America, or countries like Chile or Iran where the US was directly implicated in a military coup and torture, or the near-genocide in East Timor for which the US supplied armaments and decisive diplomatic cover. The list also does not indicate the tonnage of ordnance expended in each case mentioned, though the Iraqi devastation in 1991 exceeded the entire amount dropped in all theatres of World War Two, according for former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark (1992). Significantly, the list also does not indicate the toll of death, injury and disruption caused in each case. Despite these omissions, one must ask what it reveals about Harris and, above all about our culture, that these facts can be somehow overlooked and Harris’ claims can be received with seriousness, indeed admiration. What crimes attributable to religious fanaticism can even approximate this sordid litany of mass murder? Of course, we are discouraged from asking Harris’ question about our own secular leaders: Why do they devote themselves to machinations with the intention of killing vastly greater numbers of men, women and children they have never met? It is only if readers can overlook our own ‘cult of death’ that they can accept Harris’ suggestion that bin Laden and other Muslims have absurd ‘purely theological grievances’ against us and that ‘It is rare to find the behavior of human beings so fully and satisfactorily explained’ in terms of Muslim irrationality and ‘heroic acts of credulity.’’

Saïd (1981) explicitly warned of these trends and anticipated the formula that is so faithfully followed by Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris. Dawkins explains his deep misgivings about the irrationalities of religious belief by recounting his pleasure at the newspaper advertisement for his television documentary ‘Root of All Evil?’

It was a picture of the Manhattan skyline with the caption ‘Imagine a world without religion.’ What was the connection? The twin towers of the World Trade Center were conspicuously present. (Dawkins 2006: 1)

It is no accident, then, that Hitchens’ anthology The Portable Atheist, too, begins with the usual, selective denunciation of Islamic terror. Although the collected papers themselves are for the most part properly concerned with questions of theology, philosophy and metaphysics that are neutral among political creeds, nevertheless, Hitchens singles out Louis Farrakhan’s ‘Nation of Islam and Hamas’ for selective condemnation among those whose ‘Blood-curdling yells, thirsty for the murder of Jews, Indians, and other riff-raff, issue from mosques and from tapes and films sold in their precincts’ (2007b: xiv). We may assume that Hitchens does not base his generalisation on comparison with what issues from synagogues or Western media where similar sentiments directed towards Muslims are entirely acceptable. Thus, it is salutary to read Robert Fisk’s (2005a) recounting of the words of a ‘normal’ well-to-do, well-educated rabbi who describes Palestinians as ‘vermin’ and ‘animals’ who deserve collective punishment and to be shot for throwing stones. A revealing asymmetry in the Harris-Hitchens treatment of religious absurdities is their failure to mention the insane messianic fantasies of the orthodox Jews who populate ‘Judea and Samaria.’ Hitchens (2007: 32) writes of the ‘jubilation and the ecstatic propaganda with which this great feat of fidelity [of 9/11] has been greeted in the Islamic world,’ but he must know of analogous cases, such as the jubilation and ecstatic praise by Jews at the murder by Baruch Goldstein of twenty nine Muslims at prayer in a mosque in 1994. There is no monopoly on such vileness. A plaque at the gravesite reads ‘To the holy Baruch Goldstein’ and has become a site of pilgrimage for his admirers. It would not do to mention that Islam is not unique in its atavistic, medieval doctrines. In particular, Hitchens evidently forgot his enthusiastic recommendation quoted on the cover of Israel Shahak’s (2002) book Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years which is a critique of traditional rabbinical Judaism. It would be impolite and inconvenient today to remind readers that the Talmud is full of thoroughly deplorable doctrines and precepts. As the introduction by Mezvinsky notes, Shahak’s book is not only an exposé of the ugly features of a religious tradition, but ‘deserves a careful reading by people interested in Judaism, Zionism, Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict’ (2002: xvi). Nor is Shahak included in Hitchens’ (2007b) atheism anthology with such heroic ‘infidels’ and Islamic dissidents as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Without denying culpability among Muslims for their crimes, at a time when Palestinians and Iraqis are enduring terror on a vast scale at our hands, Hitchens’ failure to hint at these irrefutable facts and his self-identification with ‘men of an Enlightenment temper’ (2007b: xiv) is an impressive achievement of self-deception.

Eye deep in red barbarity

Dawkins and Dennett lavish generous praise on Harris. Hitchens (2007b: 454) pays tribute to his ‘extraordinary revival of courage, humor and intelligence.’ When we see what provokes such heights of ravished admiration, these encomiums reveal much about these authors and the culture in which their ideas are so welcome. An illustration will convey the grotesquery of Harris’ much-admired tract. Harris writes of the ‘Ethics of Collateral Damage’ – in that notorious euphemism for innocent death and destruction. When the Orwellian term came into use during the 1991 Gulf War, the victims of US bombardment numbered around 300,000 of whom about half were civilians. The idea that most or many of these might be the inadvertent result of ‘limitations in the power and precision of our technology’ is depraved beyond anything in the ‘dumb and sinister religiosity’ that Harris is supposed to have revealed. Saïd noted well before the current military invasion, we had already ‘destroyed Iraq as a modern state, decimated its people, and ruined its agriculture, its educational and health care systems, as well as its entire infrastructure’ (in Arnove 2000). Bombardment had deliberately targeted water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants, electrical generating plants, communication centres and oil refineries – all violations of international law and the direct cause of vast numbers of children dying in Iraq from diarrhoea, typhoid and other easily treatable diseases. While carefully avoiding any mention of such facts or numbers of our victims that might suggest a different conclusion, Harris explains that ‘It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development’ (2004: 143) and is capable of portraying US President Bush, as representative of our own ‘moral wealth’ since, he says, ‘there is no reason to think that he would have sanctioned the injury or death of even a single innocent person’ (2004: 143). Another case illustrates the characteristic US care to avoid injury or death to even a single innocent person, limited only by the regrettable limitations of technology. In 2000, then President Clinton released extensive Air Force data on US bombings in Cambodia that reveal staggering additional information on the Nixon-Kissinger policy to carpet bomb ‘Anything that flies, on anything that moves.’ Owen and Kiernan (2008) report that the total payload dropped during these years was nearly five times greater than the generally accepted figure which exceeds the total tonnage of bombs dropped during all of World War Two, including the atom bombs on Japan.

Harris is not alone in the kind of moral reversal in which these events are construed as evidence of our own higher ‘stage of moral development.’ In 1991, as the United States was making up to 2,000 bombing sorties into Iraq every day, it was Israel’s minor damage from scuds which was selectively described as ‘a poignant climax to a week of death, destruction and trauma,’ ‘horror,’ ‘nightmarish drama’ and ‘what could yet become the most historically significant acts of aggression in our lifetime’ (The Australian, Jan 26 1991). The lesson to be learned from over a quarter million Iraqi civilian casualties according to White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater (Feb 16, 1991) was that it is the Iraqis who do not value the sanctity of human life as the Americans do! To prove the point, with the Iraqi military already destroyed and following several Iraqi attempts to negotiate, the US demonstrated its value for the sanctity of human life by the final carnage of thousands of fleeing Iraqi soldiers and civilians on the road to Basra (see Clark 1992). The deaths from subsequent sanctions were described in Foreign Affairs as exceeding the number ‘slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history’ (Pellett in Arnove ed.: 163): Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck who served as UN humanitarian coordinators in Iraq from 1997 to 2000 and administered the ‘oil for food’ program, both resigned in protest against the sanctions which Halliday described as ‘genocidal.’ He said ‘We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.’ On March 29, 1999, a statement in The New York Times with over one thousand signatories described the sanctions as ‘a mass slaughter that is being perpetrated in our name.’ They wrote, ‘This is not foreign policy – it is state sanctioned mass murder.’ On July 29, 2003, The New York Times magazine reported that when asked during a television interview about the 500,000 deaths of Iraqi children caused by sanctions, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, had notoriously said ‘we think the price is worth it.’ The recent war on Iraq from 2003 is estimated to have cost an additional million Iraqi lives around the time of Harris’ writing. Yet, he concludes that it is Muslims who are ‘standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century’ (2004: 145) because their ‘very intuitions about what constitutes cruelty – lags behind our own’ (2004: 145).

It is revealing that Harris presents our condemnation of the My Lai massacre of 1968 in Vietnam as evidence of our great virtue, for he says ‘what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appals us’ (2004: 144). Of course, Harris avoids mentioning that My Lai was not an isolated case but the norm in Vietnam. Thus, we can be reassured about the nobility of our intentions and moral superiority despite admitted crimes that are seen as aberrations and a deplorable deviation from our overall decency. Of course, the hand-wringing over My Lai, like widespread bemoaning of recent crimes at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, is a convenient diversion from the vastly greater atrocity of which such incidents are a minor part and, therefore, appropriate for public lamentation. Thus, far from being evidence of our higher moral evolution, the very attention to atrocities like My Lai is a misdirection for, as Daniel Ellsberg (1972: 246) observed, ‘it would be shocking and perverse to condemn only rape and murder in wartime while continuing to tolerate the strategic bombing of non-combatants’ (1972: 246). Given the sheer quantity of bombing, Chomsky (1971: 227) has noted ‘With no further information than this, a person who has not lost his senses must realize that the war is an overwhelming atrocity.’

Facts about ‘the American way of war’ are neither disputed nor explained in some way but rather they are not mentioned for obvious reasons. Instead, the intellectuals we are considering write purple prose about the ‘religious bloodlust’ and ‘rising tide of fanaticism and the cult of death’ among Muslims. Cognitive dissonance in their readers and themselves is avoided by simply neglecting to mention the inconvenient, undisputed empirical evidence. It is in the light of such facts that we must appreciate Hitchens’ professions on behalf of fellow atheists and secular humanists when he writes: ‘Our principles are not faith … what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold convictions dogmatically’ (2007: 5). In a society where such venality can be received with seriousness, indeed rapturous acclaim it is impossible to avoid asking Chomsky’s troubling question posed during the Vietnam War:

These and a thousand other examples testify to moral degeneration on such a scale that talk about the ‘normal channels’ of political action and protest becomes meaningless or hypocritical. We have to ask ourselves whether what is needed in the United States is dissent – or denazification. The question is a debatable one. Reasonable people may differ. The fact that the question is even debatable is a terrifying thing. To me it seems that what is needed is a kind of denazification. What is more, there is no powerful outside force that can call us to account – the change will have to come from within (1969: 17).

Dumb religiosity and heroic acts of credulity

Unfalsifiable belief in the supernatural has the advantage of being ipso facto unfalsified. What excuse, then, for faith in doctrines that are actually falsified by abundant, readily available evidence? Who is victim of delusional thinking or poisoned ‘faculties of discernment’ (Hitchens 2007a: 22)?

I have only been able to hint at the overwhelming evidence that reveals Harris and Hitchens themselves to be guilty of ‘heroic acts of credulity’ and in the thrall of a faith that is worse than mere unfounded superstition. For example, Harris refers en passant to bin Laden and ‘what he imagines to be the territorial ambitions of the Zionists’ (2004: 30). Thrown off in this cavalier way as if the claim needs no defence, Harris can assume that his readers will not know better. However, the evidence of Zionist territorial ambition is not only transparent from the slightest acquaintance with recent ‘facts on the ground’ (Reinhart 2002). The systematic, planned dispossession of Palestinians since Hagana’s ‘Plan D’ of 1948 amid gruesome atrocities is extensively documented in the most reliable histories by Israeli Jewish scholars (Morris 2001; Shlaim 2001; Finkelstein 2003; Pappe 2006).

The changing moral zeitgeist

Eagleton (2007) perceptively observes that for evangelical atheists such as Dawkins ‘The debate over God – Muslim or Christian – is for them increasingly becoming code for a debate on civilisation versus barbarism’ (Eagleton 2007), but the thesis that civilisation and atheist rationalism go together is ‘a very dangerous argument to make.’ It is crucial to see that if Eagleton is right, that Dawkins is not ‘admirably cleansed of prejudice,’ it is not for the reasons he offers. However, arguments from Foucault, feminism or faith cannot show that the doctrinaire atheists are most vulnerable on their own ground where they may be more convincingly refuted by the uncontroversial evidence they neglect. That is, it is important to recognise where Dawkins’ work fails by its own standards.

Moral outrage at the insanity of Taliban or Lubavitchers prevents us from feeling the same outrage toward presidents and prime ministers who are recognisably just like us. We identify ourselves with the eloquent, genteel Oxford don, the very model of mild-mannered reasonableness and decency. Dawkins, like Harris, reassures us that the ‘moral Zeitgeist’ has raised us above the barbarities of religious fanaticism, while hundreds of thousands of our victims in the devastated societies of Latin America, South East Asia and the Middle East somehow fail to be counted in this moral reckoning.

Human life turned upside down

In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates defends the view that ‘we should not use rhetorical techniques to defend wrongdoing – whether those of our parents, friends, children – or our country.’ Above all, a person’s duty is to ‘denounce himself first of all and his family or friends who may do wrong, bringing the crime out of concealment into the open.’ Socrates takes this injunction as the very mark of piety and true moral conduct. However, he recognises the inherent difficulty of practicing the precept, for he says ‘From this point of view, a person must force himself and others not to be cowardly.’ The radical consequences of Socrates’ ‘dissident practice of citizenship’ (Villa 2001: 26) were clear. Callicles says ‘Tell me, Socrates, are we to suppose that you are joking or in earnest? If you are serious and what you say is true, we shall have human life turned completely upside down.’ Of course, the moral imperative to criticize one’s self or one’s own group is only the familiar injunction of the New Testament at Matthew 7:5, ‘first cast out the beam out of thine own eye,’ though it is evidently contrary to the most widespread moralising among public intellectuals who focus their outrage on the crimes of others. The voluminous political writings of Chomsky have been centrally concerned with this question of the ‘responsibility of intellectuals.’

It is particularly striking that Chomsky’s moral pleas have been met with contemptuous dismissal that precisely echoes Callicles’ put-down of Socrates and his protest that if Socrates is right, then ‘We are apparently doing the exact opposite of what we should be doing.’ Indeed, Chomsky documents the pattern of nearly total silence among commentators at the height of atrocities for which the US and its client states were responsible. In this regard, Socrates’ reproach to Callicles has not lost any of its relevance:

I have noticed that we have something in common. We are both lovers, and for each of us our passion has a double object. Besides the person I love, I am also in love with philosophy, while besides your lover, you are also in love with the state of Athens. Now, I have noticed that, despite all your cleverness, you are unable to contradict any assertion made by your beloved, and so you shift your ground back and forth. …if the Athenian state denies anything you have said in a speech, you change your position to conform … (Plato 1960: 481)

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Peter Slezak is associate professor in philosophy at the University of New South Wales. He is the co-author of Representations in Mind: New Approaches to Mental Representation (with H Clapin and P Staines) and a regular commentator on political and social questions.

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