Wednesday, September 13, 2006

An Interview with Sam Harris

A friend sent me a copy of an interview with Sam Harris. Below is my reply.


I've not read the book although I have read a number of articles and/or interviews of Harris.

Harris is a critic of the postmodern multicultural "tolerance" which treats Islam in particular, and religion in general, as above criticism. Something he shares in common with Christopher Hitchens.

It is ironic that so many members of the Far Left turn a blind eye to the threat posed by radical Islam--or even defend it at every turn.

As to the interview itself, I'll venture a few comments:

"But where people think there is a profound difference between being a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew, I think those identities are intrinsically divisive. Devout Muslims generally think that the Christians are all going to hell, and devout Christians return the favor. And the difference between going to hell and going to heaven for eternity really raises the stakes in their disagreements with one another."

"It’s that your neighbor believes something that is so metaphysically incorrect, he’s going to spend eternity in hell for it. And if he convinces your children that his beliefs are valid, your children will spend eternity in hell. Muslim parents are genuinely concerned that their children’s faith is going to be eroded, either by the materialism and secularism of the West, or by Christianity. And, obviously, our own fundamentalist communities in the West are similarly concerned. So if you really believe that it matters what name you call God, religion provides far more significant reasons for you to fear and despise your neighbor."

This is one of those pat sociological theories that is extrinsic to the people-groups it purportedly describes. I don't think that Harris is actually listening to the parties concerned. Instead, he runs the phenomenon through a preconceived grid of his own devising.

Contemporary Catholicism is pretty universalistic. If he read JP2 or B16, he'd know that. The fear of hell is not driving the Catholic conscience, that I can see.

Rather, Vatican II codified the view of Rahner that God's saving grace can be exemplified in non-Christian cultures.

The Eastern Orthodox tradition is also quite sympathetic to universalism.

By contrast, conservative Evangelicalism continues to affirm Christian inclusivism and the doctrine of hell.

But by the same token, conservative Evangelicalism is also opposed to coercive conversion inasmuch as its theology stresses the supreme importance of genuine conviction and personal faith as opposed to nominal adherence and dead formalism.

The paradox, then, is that the religious traditions that are more autocratic (Catholicism, Orthodoxy) are much weaker in their anxiety over the fate of non-Christians, whereas the religious traditions which are much more concerned about the fate of non-Christians are also distinguished by their individualism.

As to Islam, I can only speak as an outsider, but in my reading and observation I think that Harris' analysis is off target with respect to jihadism as well. It seems to be motivated by other factors such as an autocratic cultural mindset, a strong sense of ethnic identity and group loyalty, as well as a triumphalist eschatology which has been frustrated by historical realities.

I don't see that Muslims are as doctrinally oriented as Harris thinks they are. It's a religious shame culture. As long as you go through the motions and don't buck the system, that's fine.

"I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion."

I'm not bothered by his inflammatory rhetoric. This is more likely to offend members of the Religious Left--with its cultural relativism and pluralism--rather than the Religious Right

"I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology."

To say the least, this is a very undiscriminating claim.

"Even Christian fundamentalists have learned, by and large, to ignore the most barbaric passages in the Bible. They’re not, presumably, eager to see people burned alive for heresy. A few centuries of science, modernity, and secular politics have moderated even the religious extremists among us."

This is quite simplistic and fairly ignorant. To begin with, you have Protestant traditions like the Lutherans, Anabaptists, and Baptists who, as a matter of theological principle, draw something of a disjunction between OT ethics and NT ethics.

Moreover, the Baptist and Anabaptist traditions typically favor church/state separation. Once again, that's a point of principle with them, and not an assimilation to modernity.

To some extent there has been a backlash because many otherwise apolitical evangelicals feel that they have been increasingly disenfranchised by the liberal elite establishment. But their default setting is apolitical.

"Not necessarily. Look at what’s going on in Western Europe: some societies there are successfully undoing their commitment to religious identity, and I don’t think it is being replaced by anything. Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Australia, and Japan are all developed societies with a high level of atheism, and the religion they do have is not the populist, fundamentalist, shrill version we have in the U.S."

To my knowledge, the decline of Christian affiliation in Europe has been accompanied by a rising interest in the occult and alternative religions.

"Whereas if you’re going to be a Christian and worship Jesus to the exclusion of every other historical prophet, you have to accept that he was the Son of God, born of a virgin, and so on. And I would argue that those beliefs are unjustifiable, no matter what the results of Christian practice are."

If that's what he would argue, then where's the argument?

"But no culture in human history ever suffered because its people became too reasonable or too desirous of having evidence in defense of their core beliefs."

This is one of those truisms that almost everyone would agree with. The unspoken insinuation is that Christians are irrational--being shackled by their blind faith.

It's clear that Harris has never bothered to interview the people he talks about or read their apologetic literature. There are plenty of Christian intellectuals he could have consulted. But that would get in the way of his stereotype.

"No, I don’t think I’m in the same camp with them at all. They have a great fear that unless we believe the Bible was written by the creator of the universe, we have no real reason to treat one another well, and I think there’s no evidence for that whatsoever. It’s just fundamentally untrue that people who do not believe in God are more prone to violent crime, for instance. The evidence, if anything, runs the other way."

This is a typical caricature of the argument. The argument is not that unbelievers are immoral. Rather, the argument is that secularism lacks a worldview which is sufficiently robust to underwrite personal and social ethics.

Moreover, this is not merely a Christian characterization of the opposing position. For there are secular philosophers who admit that secularism is unable to warrant moral absolutes.

"If you look at where we have the most violent crime and the most theft in the United States, it’s not in the secular-leaning blue states. It’s in the red states, with all their religiosity. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the United States are in Texas. Now, I’m not saying that we can look at this data and say, “Religion causes violence.” But you can look at this data and say that high levels of religious affiliation don’t guarantee that people are going to behave well. Likewise if you look at UN rankings of societies in terms of development — which includes levels of violent crime, infant mortality, and literacy — the most atheistic societies on the planet rank the highest: Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark. So there is no evidence that a strong commitment to the literal truth of one’s religious doctrine is a good indicator of societal health or morality."

Several problems here:

1. It fails to separate out religious profession from religious participation. While there may not be much statistical difference between a mere profession of belief (in answer to a phone survey) and one's behavior, there is a statistical correlation for those who act on their stated faith in terms of church attendance and the like.

2. The comparison selects for the religious demographic while ignoring the racial or economic demographic. There is, for example, a correlation between crime and dropout rates or single motherhood.

And it's absurd to suggest that violent gang-bangers or crackhead moms who prostitute themselves to support their drug habit are acting out their Christian conditioning.

3. There is also a circular quality to what he counts as enlightened or decadent. Obviously, his secularism will, in turn, color his value judgments regarding what constitutes a morally advanced or ethically backward culture.

From a Christian standpoint, a culture which legalizes same-sex marriage, no-fault divorce, child pornography, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, while lowering the age of consent and dispensing free cocaine to drug addicts is not morally advanced, but morally retrograde.

So he's failing to engage the argument. Instead, he assumes what he needs to prove.


  1. Weak.

    Steve says:

    "Instead, he assumes what he needs to prove."

    Pot. Kettle. Black.

  2. In the words of the humble, yet crafty, Paul Manata:

    "So, you're assuming your position is true, and then proclaiming it to be true. How uninteresting. Snicker."

  3. You should Give Harris' book, "The End of Faith," a read. Seriously.

  4. The Red Rocker9/14/2006 8:19 PM

    When Harris' book came out he gave an interview on in which he stated he'd written the book to please his mother -- who is an atheist.

    The fact is: even among atheists Sam Harris is a moron. He only becomes slightly interesting when he begins to get truly satanic in stating he actually wants to disallow faith in Jesus Christ.

    That's interesting because it is the atheist beginning to be real. Now we have something real to respond to: "Ok, atheist, I call your Pol Pot and raise you the Sermon on the Mount...let's get it on..."