Silence resembling stupidity

‘One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.’ Orwell, 1945

Sam Harris, the hero of the New Atheists, suggests that ‘anyone who cares about the fate of civilisation would do well to recognise that the combination of great power and great stupidity is simply terrifying’.

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens are full of praise for Harris’ sanctimonious rhetoric suggesting that ignorance and religious credulity ‘should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency’. These highbrow thinkers pick, however, an easy, perhaps even irrelevant, target, since the real danger to the world arises more from the secular and educated intellectuals like themselves – a proposition for which there is ample evidence, as we will see. Religious belief that is unfounded is less culpable than belief that is refuted by overwhelming evidence known to the believer. We must ask whether the ‘ancient stupidity’ of religion that Hitchens says ‘poisons everything’ can conceivably compare with the moral lapse of apologists for our own vast crimes.

The epigram to Eduardo Galeano’s classic Open Veins of Latin America may serve as an apt rejoinder to Harris: ‘We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity.’ Galeano’s book is about the catastrophe wrought by the West on Latin America but a similar book with the same epigram could be written about Asia or about the Middle East.

In his atheist manifesto, ‘A Free Man’s Worship’, Bertrand Russell wrote about religious faith as the ‘submission of the slave, who dare not, even in his heart, allow the thought that his master deserves no adulation’. Significantly, Russell says, ‘Power may be freely worshipped, and receive an unlimited respect, despite its wanton infliction of pain.’ Such parallels between politics and religion remind us of the charge for which Socrates was executed in 399 BC – corrupting the youth and failing to teach the ‘gods of the state’, understood both in the literal sense as impiety and atheism, but also figuratively referring to official dogmas. The crime of Socrates was dissent.

Russell’s characterisation of the servility of religious thinking applies, ironically, to acclaimed ‘New Atheists’ like Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris, who might otherwise be thought to belong in Russell’s sceptical company. In contrast with Russell’s political radicalism and iconoclasm, our own public intellectuals are conspicuous apologists for the state.

Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett congratulate themselves on their courage for speaking out in the face of the ‘primitive stupidities and cruelties of religion’, as if there were, in our society, some penalty for such acts of ‘dissidence’. They affect a radical intolerance of dogma, recommending that, as Dawkins puts it, we ‘test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief’ and ‘question everything’. In other respects, though, they 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 – a ‘religion of patriotism’.

The militant atheist attacks on the irrationality of religious belief are conspicuous examples of slavish commitment to crude ethnic stereotypes, combined with an almost delusional misrepresentation of the facts of recent history. The New 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 manifestations of what Edward Saïd had characterised in his classic Orientialism as the long tradition of Western representations of Islam.

In his disturbing and prescient book Covering Islam, Saïd 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’. Of particular importance is Saïd’s point that there is no direct correspondence between the standard use of the term ‘Islam’ and the varied reality of nearly a billion people in various societies, states, histories and geographies around the world. Saïd observes that neither Christianity nor Judaism is treated in the same emotional manner, a bias that is evident in the New Atheists’ selective hostility towards Islam. For Hitchens, Islam is primary in explaining ‘the rising tide of fanaticism and the cult of death’. Likewise, Harris says, ‘We are at war with Islam’.

Adopting a pose as secular humanists, atheists and agnostics, these authors take Islam as primary evidence for the thesis that ‘religion kills’. With the catastrophic US invasion under way, Hitchens could still write, ‘Open the newspaper or turn on the television and see what the parties of god are doing to Iraq.’ Even from newspapers and television it should be evident to an unclouded mind that the destruction and immense death toll in Iraq (published estimates now put it at over a million people) might be attributable to US military power and not just to religious fanatics. We would, after all, not take seriously an analogous summary of Vietnamese history of the 1960s that discussed the activism of Buddhist monks but entirely overlooked the US invasion and its victims.

Harris writes of the ‘Ethics of Collateral Damage’ – employing a notorious euphemism for innocent death and destruction. When that 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 many of these might be the inadvertent result of what Harris calls the ‘limitations in the power and precision of our technology’ is more depraved than the ‘dumb and sinister religiosity’ that he claims to be combating.

Saïd noted well before the current military invasion that 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’. 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 from diarrhoea, typhoid and other easily treatable diseases. Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, who administered the UN Oil-for-Food program from 1997 to 2000, both resigned in protest against the sanctions that Halliday described as ‘genocidal’. Halliday said, ‘We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.’

While carefully avoiding any mention of such facts, Harris declares ‘it is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development’. Muslims, he says, are ‘standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century’ because their ‘very intuitions about what constitutes cruelty … lag … behind our own’. Harris thinks that we have attained a higher level of social evolution because ‘what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appals us’. He describes US President Bush as representative of our ‘moral wealth’ since ‘there is no reason to think that he would have sanctioned the injury or death of even a single innocent person’.

We are offered lurid prose about the ‘religious bloodlust’ among Muslims while Dawkins, like Harris, reassures us that the ‘moral Zeitgeist’ has raised us above the barbarities of religious fanaticism. 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. Nonetheless, we are to believe that Muslims are enraged at modernity and have ‘purely theological grievances’. Since, according to Harris, they ‘hate us for what we are and not what we do’, we are to overlook the large-scale atrocities we have inflicted on them throughout the history of depredations by Western imperialism and colonialism, not to mention our recent, unprecedented crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

We see this selective blindness to well-known facts elsewhere, where Hitchens suggests that the cause of the Israel/Palestine conflict is ‘the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides’. Hitchens is evidently unable to understand the conflict’s roots in the colonial project of secular Zionism, supported by secular world powers. While there is no doubt about the extremism of Muslim fanatics or the lunacy of Jewish zealots, Hitchens evidently can’t imagine that the sane, agnostic politicians in Tel-Aviv and Washington may contribute to the problem.

In the same vein, Harris refers sarcastically to bin Laden and ‘what he imagines to be the territorial ambitions of the Zionists’. Harris can assume that his readers will not know better. The evidence of Zionist territorial ambition is, however, transparent from the slightest acquaintance with recent ‘facts on the ground’. 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 such as Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Norman Finkelstein and Ilan Pappé.

Despite the thesis that ‘our problem is with Islam itself,’ it is difficult to nominate even one among the innumerable atrocities and wars in the world that might be attributed to religion. In particular, the usual caricature of Muslims is refuted in the extensive scholarly research reported in Robert Pape’s The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism which documents motivations that are the political grievances we might expect of rational human beings who are victims of brutality.

Harris expresses the usual innocent wonderment, asking, ‘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?’ He eventually concludes that Bin Laden’s motivations are ‘obvious’, since ‘men like bin Laden actually believe what they say they believe’.

Harris conveniently fails to mention that among the things bin Laden said, he recommended that Americans read William Blum’s Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower. Here we find an alternative hypothesis to explain Muslim grievances. A partial indication is the list of around thirty countries that have been bombed by the US since the Second World War. This list does not include hundreds of thousands of victims of US-sponsored death squads in Latin America, nor countries where the US was directly implicated in military coups, torture and mass murder.

Bin Laden in hiding was evidently better informed than our public intellectuals and their audience. Of course, when understood in light of the obliterated record, bin Laden articulates rational, intelligible and even justifiable concerns, expressing solidarity with ‘our brothers in Palestine and Lebanon’ and the half million Iraqi children victims of US-led UN sanctions.1 Measured by what has been omitted, it would be hard to find ‘heroic acts of credulity’ to match the accounts of our own esteemed intellectuals who identify themselves with ‘men of an Enlightenment temper’.

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 riffraff, issue from mosques and from tapes and films sold in their precincts’. It would not do to mention that Islam is not unique in its atavistic, medieval doctrines. In particular, Hitchens evidently forgets his enthusiastic recommendation on the cover of Israel Shahak’s 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 deplorable racist doctrines. 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’. Nor is Shahak included in Hitchens’ atheism anthology with such heroic ‘infidels’ and Islamic dissidents as Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

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’. Of course, Harris avoids mentioning that My Lai was not an isolated case but the norm in Vietnam.2 Thus, we can be reassured about the nobility of our intentions and moral superiority, with our admitted crimes seen as aberrations, 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 is therefore appropriate for public lamentation. Far from being evidence of our higher moral evolution, the very attention to atrocities like My Lai is a misdirection for, as Daniel Ellsberg 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’. Given the sheer quantity of bombing in Vietnam, Chomsky has noted, ‘with no further information than this, a person who has not lost his senses must realise that the war is an overwhelming atrocity.’3

On behalf of fellow atheists and secular humanists, Hitchens writes: ‘Our principles are not faith … what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold convictions dogmatically.’ In the light of the record, we may ask: who is victim of delusional thinking or poisoned ‘faculties of discernment’? In a society where such delusion or deceit can be received with widespread acclaim, it is impossible to avoid Chomsky’s troubling question posed during the Vietnam War. Examples such as those cited, testified, he said, ‘to moral degeneration on such a scale’ that ‘we have to ask ourselves whether what is needed … is dissent – or denazification.’

Chomsky further wrote of ‘the intellectuals who can be counted on, in significant measure, to provide the ideological justification’ for such barbarism as the US assault on the populations of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. He noted 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.’

In the same vein, Orwell wrote of the intelligentsia and their ‘complete disregard to historical truth or intellectual decency,’ becoming voluntary agents of state power. In the suppressed preface to the original edition of Animal Farm, Orwell described:

The servility with which the greater part of the … intelligentsia have swallowed and repeated … propaganda … would be quite astounding if it were not that they have behaved similarly on several earlier occasions.

In The Republic, Socrates appears to speak to Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens when he admonishes the sophist Callicles:

We are both lovers … 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 observe whenever the occasion arises that for all your cleverness you are unable to contradict any assertion made by the object of your love, but shift your ground this way and that.

Callicles is scornful of Socrates’ childish pursuit of philosophy but acknowledges, if Socrates is right, ‘we are doing, apparently, the complete opposite of what we ought.’ Callicles says ominously that despite his insouciance, Socrates is ‘liable to be dragged into court, possibly by some scoundrel of the vilest character.’

The case has reverberated throughout history for reasons that John Stuart Mill eloquently notes in his essay On Liberty, one of the foundational texts of the Western canon. He writes, ‘These are exactly the occasions on which the men of one generation commit those dreadful mistakes, which excite the astonishment and horror of posterity.’ Above all, Mill remarks on the character of those responsible for such dreadful mistakes:

These were, to all appearance, not bad men – not worse than men commonly are, but rather the contrary; men who possessed in a full, or somewhat more than a full measure, the religious, moral, and patriotic feelings of their time and people: the very kind of men who, in all times, our own included, have every chance of passing through life blameless and respected.

1. Cited by Robert Fisk who has interviewed bin Laden on several occasions.
2. Colonel Oran K Henderson, the highest-ranking officer charged for the My Lai massacre, was reported in the New York Times on 15 May 1971 explaining that every large American combat unit in Vietnam had committed similar atrocities. He said ‘every unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden some place’, although they remain unknown because ‘every unit doesn’t have a Ridenhour’, the soldier who reported the atrocities.
3. Ellsberg reports that after Tet in 1968 ‘almost all of Vietnam became a free-fire zone’ and at the time of writing in 1972 he notes: ‘The cumulative total tonnage dropped on Indochina is now three times that dropped in all theatres of World War II’. Ellsberg puts My Lai into its proper perspective by noting that the Vietnamese themselves were not particularly excited by killings committed in that particular way, ‘knowing that nearly all of the enormous number of civilian deaths are caused by high explosives from our planes and artillery … They have come to expect these deaths, the killing of women and children from a distance, as a part of the American way of war.’

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.

More by