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A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece critiquing the tendency of the atheist community to analyze the nature and impact of religion through the exceptionally narrow lense of truth claims and discreet ideas. I summarized my position at one point by arguing that ideas, in and of themselves, have far less agency than atheists usually assume they do. Just as important as the contents of a certain idea is the social, economic and political context which gives rise to it. Atheists tend to ignore these, instead preferring to compose arguments which presume the dominance of ideas, and consequently often end up producing analyses of situations that they have less than stellar understandings of.
And then last week, along came Sam Harris, with this gem of an example of just what I was trying to argue against. Energized by the recent attacks and murders at US Embassies, Harris composed a stirring call for moral clarity – of the sort that comes only in shades of black and white.
Before I get going with what is wrong with Harris’s rhetoric and assumptions, let me state unequivocally that I agree with him completely on the issue of free speech – all nations which claim to value freedom of speech should not engage in any kind of censorship to appease anyone, be they Islamic radicalists or outraged conservative evangelicals or overly sensitive identity-politics laden liberals. Insofar as the liberals Harris criticizes really were recommending restriction of freedom of speech (enforced either through the government or social pressure), to address the problem of radical Islamic terrorism and, more broadly, Muslim alienation, they are wrong. First, it is unethical. Second, it would not work anyway. So let’s make it clear that we agree on that and move on from there.
However, I take serious issue with almost everything else about Harris’s approach to this question.
In a very long post on the threat the radical Islamic world poses to the the secular (mostly Western) world, Sam Harris gives no credit to any political, social or economic issue in the regions where radical Islam is a problem. He does not mention Arab spring, he only mentions the legacy of imperialism to dismiss the idea that it matters, he does not mention constant social strife and conflict, he does not mention economic exploitation. The radical Muslims of Sam Harris’s imagination exist in a vacuum, serving only as vectors for ideas – horrible, corrupt ideas which have filled them with pre-modern superstition and primitive ferocity. If you ask him how they got that way, he would point a finger only at the Koran, and especially particular passages in the Koran. There you go!, he says, throwing his hands up. What more do you need? Barbaric ideas lead to barbarians. D-Huh.
His position is summed up clearly: “Religion only works as a pretext for political violence because many millions of people actually believe what they say they believe: that imaginary crimes like blasphemy and apostasy are killing offenses.” It is unfortunate for Sam Harris that almost every single scholar informed about social dynamics anywhere, not only the Middle East, would disagree with Harris’s assessment of this chicken and egg question. Historians, sociologists, political scientists, and anthropologists alike – none of them proscribe the overwhelming power to ideas that Harris does. Ideas – good and bad, true and false – are made thinkable and believable by the surrounding social reality, and although once given life, they are flexible and durable, they cannot fully infect people unless they are already vulnerable for a host of other reasons.
But try to intervene in Harris’s logic – start to say something like, “Well it’s really more complex than that,” or “Why is it that so many other of the world’s millions of Muslims are not violent?” and the response, more or less, will be “Well!, do you really think they would be doing this if it were not for Islam? Ask them why they say they are doing it, they say it’s all for the glory of Allah!” or “All those seemingly-peaceful Muslims still swear they believe the Koran is the literal word of God; so really, how can we really rest easy knowing all those crazy people are out there?” In Harris’s world, historical evidence counts for little; cultural analyses almost nothing. He appears to believe that people do things exactly for the reasons they say they do things, understand perfectly their own motivations, and were led to their path by nothing other than bad ideas poured into their heads at one point or another. They are not products of their particular place in historical time and space; they do not feel the pressures, consciously and subconsciously, of the social, political and economic struggles which surround them. That couldn’t possibly feed into interpreting a Koran passage this way or that way, right? It couldn’t possibly suggest that we should reconsider, as I originally suggested, whether or not this belief in the literal truth of things is as important to most religious believers as Harris declares it is. And really, why ask these questions, when what the Koran says is so obviously bad that anyone desiring to have a more complex understanding of how those ideas work in a complex world can be written off as moral cowardly, or compromising, or deluded by political correctness or even worse, post-modernism?
Again, Harris has acknowledged time to time that these other factors may be important – but not as important as the ideas, he insists. Which is odd, since those ideas – at least Islam itself, and all its diverse variations – is a factor spread out all over the globe. And yet we don’t see this kind of violence occurring at equal rates all over the globe – radical Islam, and radical Islam that becomes violent, is weirdly prevalent or originating in certain places and pockets in particular. Well, I wonder why that could be! Odd, isn’t it, that the dynamics of whence it came usually always trace back to places plagued by social conflict and inequality? Could it possibly be that Islamic terrorism has less to do with a pre-modern people ruining the party for the rest of us awesomely rational people and more to do with the history of social conflict and oppression in the Middle East? And then do you think it possible that when you take populations vulnerable in such a manner, they could possibly gravitate towards absolutist interpretations of religion as a way to feel empowered and cope with the chaos and alienation around them? Perhaps?
Continue to read this article HERE - An American Atheist
I agree, actually. I often have misgivings about Harris and his stance on Islam.