[Paleopsych] Reason: Among the Non-Believers: The tedium of dogmatic atheism.

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Among the Non-Believers: The tedium of dogmatic atheism. 
by Chris Lehmann

    [7]The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by
    Sam Harris, New York: Norton, 336 pages, $24.95

    For nearly as long as there have been villages, there have been
    village atheists, the hypervigilant debunkers who lovingly detail the
    many contradictions, fallacies, and absurdities that flow from belief
    in holy writ. As a strictly intellectual proposition, atheism would
    seem, on the face of things, to have wiped the floor with the
    believing opposition.

    Still, village atheists are as numerous, and as shrill, as theyve ever
    been, for the simple reason that the successive revolutions in thought
    that have furthered their causethe Enlightenment and Darwinismhave
    been popular busts. As the secular mind loses mass allegiance, it
    becomes skittish and reclusive, succumbing to the seductive fancy that
    its special brand of wisdom is too nuanced, too unblinkingly harsh for
    the weak-minded Christer, ultraorthodox scold, or wooly pagan.

    The faithful, meanwhile, take some understandable offense at this
    broad caricature of their mental capacity and ability to face lifes
    harder truths. So each side retreats to its corner, more convinced
    than ever that the other is trafficking in pure, self-infatuated
    delusion for the basest of reasons: Believers accuse skeptics and
    unbelievers of thoughtless hedonism and nihilism; the secular set
    accuses the believoisie of superstition and antiscientific

    Still, the vast majority of people comfortably tolerate the huge
    paradoxes that so exercise the super-faithful and their
    no-less-righteous secular pursuers. Americans are, after all, heir to
    the greatest Enlightenment traditions in self-government and
    tolerance, while also forming one of the most religion-mad polities in
    the industrialized West.

    Polls regularly show that at least 90 percent of Americans believe in
    God; more than 80 percent agree that the deity is regularly performing
    miracles in todays world; more than 80 percent also believe in an
    afterlife and Heaven as an actual physical site for same. Even Jews,
    who traditionally have not had any scriptural basis for believing in
    an afterlife, have begun acquiring it as a sort of contact high. The
    General Social Survey conducted annually by the National Opinion
    Research Center at the University of Chicago found in the 1970s that a
    mere 19 percent of American Jews confessed a belief in the afterlife;
    in the 1990s, that proportion rose to an astonishing 56 percent.

    In The End of Faith, Sam Harris, a UCLA philosophy grad student, has
    seized on the all-too-real specter of Islamist terror as the occasion
    to revisit the village atheist waterfront, compulsively itemizing all
    the irrational, surly, atavistic features of faith. Never mind that,
    among the worlds one billion Islamic believers, the vast majority of
    clerics and lay Muslims renounce the politicized brand of Islamist
    dogma that extremists seek to inflict on Muslim and non-Muslim
    populations alike. Identifying all Islamic beliefs with extreme
    Islamist terror, as Harris does throughout the book, is a little like
    saying that the Maoist guerrillas of Perus Shining Path are cognate
    with the Democratic Leadership Council.

    Never mind, as well, that militantly atheist movements like Soviet and
    Khmer Rouge communismas well as volkish pagan ones like Nazism and
    Tutsi supremacystand behind some of the worst mass violence of the
    past century. Harris believes religious belief is the single greatest
    threat to the survival of the human species. Religious faith is not
    merely a maladaptive superstition, Harris writes; it is the common
    enemy for all reasonable people concerned with the preservation of the
    world as we know it. All extant religious traditions, to him, are
    without exception intellectually defunct and politically ruinous.

    Harris stoliddare one say dogmatic?failure to see anything in
    contemporary religion other than the exclusive, world-conquering
    fantasizing of monotheism at its worst keeps his book mired squarely
    in a painfully anachronistic atheists bill of indictments, cribbed in
    most particulars from the heyday of Enlightenment skepticism. Like
    Voltaire, Harris marvels that ardent believers actually worship words
    when they think they profess fealty to God: How can any person presume
    that [theism] is the way the universe works? Harris writes in typical
    sputtering indignation. Because it says so in our holy books. Then,
    zeroing in for the kill, he asks, How do we know our holy books are
    free from error? Because the books themselves say so.

    And even though the language from those books sounds occasionally
    sonorous or beguiling, fueling that oceanic longing for repose within
    the universe that religion is supposed to fulfill, we should not
    forget for an instant that these words have been used to justify mass
    murder: Words of wisdom and consolation and beauty abound in the pages
    of Shakespeare, Virgil, and Homer as well, and no one ever murdered
    strangers by the thousands because of the inspiration he found there.

    Actually, all three of those authors routinely celebrated all manner
    of grisly nonreligious state violence. And determined mass murderers
    can find a rationale for killing in any handy text that comes
    alongsay, The Rights of Man or Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.
    But the larger, painfully obvious objection to this argument is a
    structural one: Reasoning backward under the impression that the
    destructive results of this or that piece of writing invalidates its
    purchase on our serious attention could make E=mc squared the most
    taboo phrase in the language.

    But Harris central message is the peril inherent in faith, especially
    in todays world. As he is fond of reiterating, Islamist terror means
    religious faith has crossed the line, become simply too dangerous to
    dally with. The September 11 attacks, for Harris, effectively refute
    all religious schemes of knowledge. Indeed, he launches The End of
    Faith with a sensational account of a hypothetical suicide bombing and
    segues promptly to the key object lesson: Why is it so
    easyyou-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easyto guess the [attackers]

    And should this be too subtle an exercise, Harris concludes his litany
    of Enlightenment-era objections to medieval models of piety with this
    rhetorical wallop: All pretensions to theological knowledge should now
    be seen from the perspective of a man just beginning his day on the
    one hundredth floor of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001,
    only to find his meandering thoughtsof family and friends, of errands
    run and unrun, of coffee in need of sweetenerinexplicably interrupted
    by a choice of terrible starkness and simplicity: between being burned
    alive by jet fuel or leaping one thousand feet to the concrete below.
    Thus again are we instructed that the perpetrators of this most
    heinous act were men of faithperfect faith, as it turns outand this,
    it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.

    Yet Harris, who is otherwise so singularly obsessed with the
    single-bullet religious origins of every sort of human infamy, from
    forced castration to child labor, makes no mention here that suicide
    bombings were in fact originally the handiwork not of the Islamist
    faithful but of the Sri Lankan communist guerillas known as the Tamil
    Tigers. None of this, of course, is to downplay the grave and horrific
    nature of the Islamist terror threat; it is, however, to suggest that
    if this sort of historical causation is more complicated than Harris
    asserts it to be, so it might just be the case that faith is not
    always and everywhere so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our
    minds that it forms a perverse, cultural singularitya vanishing point
    beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.

    Nor is it the case, to take Harris emotional (and rather crassly
    manipulative) example of the hideously sacrificed World Trade Center
    worker, that 9/11 unambiguously demonstrates the pure irreducible
    lethality of religious belief. If those opinion polls are any reliable
    indication, most of the victims of the terrors that day proclaimed
    faith in warlike, atavistic deities too. As many as 800 of them were
    adherents of Islam, a religion that Harris flatly asserts is not
    compatible with civil society (rather a cold comfort, one supposes, as
    they too laid aside their early morning coffee to ponder their sudden
    mortal doom).

    How can it be that the 9/11 suicide bomber, whose spiritual principles
    and hateful political practices are denounced in the highest reaches
    of mainstream Islamic observance, is a man of perfect faith, and that
    the innocent victims of those attacks, Muslim, Jew, Christian, Jain,
    or Hindu, are automatically symbols of defiled secularism? Harris
    protracted 9/11 set piece isnt even a credible account of how the
    religious world was affected by the terror attacks (let alone
    responded to them); so much the less is it the hard and fast measure
    of all pretensions to theological knowledge.

    Its obvious, of course, that a certain derangement of Muslim dogma
    prompted these men into terrible action, but there are also, again,
    more complicated forces in play, involving (just for starters) the
    ruinous course of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the deeply
    antidemocratic and dissent-resistant political traditions of the
    Middle East, and a Saudi monarchy and gerontocracy propelling many
    middle-class young men to the religious fringe. None of these by
    itself is an explanation of any of the hijackers behavior, but neither
    is something that isin the actually existing real world, if not in
    Harris imaginationas broad and variegated as faith.

    Its necessary to insist upon this point in some detail because Harris,
    as it happens, is only getting warmed up with the 9/11 scaremongering.
    Hes ready to roll up his sleeves and endorse pre-emptive assaults on
    both individual bad believers and dangerous Islamist regimes by any
    means necessary. In a world-class show of this hurts me more than it
    hurts you disingenuousness, Harris makes it clear that the fault for
    this state of affairs resides entirely with the believers he thinks we
    may have to kill. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even
    be ethical to kill people for believing them.

    This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an
    ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place
    their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of
    persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary
    violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people.

    If we must, more in sorrow than in anger, expunge Islamist thought by
    offing its adherents one by one, so we must also gird ourselves for
    the big coming conflict with a nuclear-armed Islamic power, which
    prompts Harris to flights of hypothetical fancy worthy of Herman Kahn
    (if not Dr. Strangeloves Gen. Buck Turgidson). After all, Harris
    reasons, There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an
    Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons.Notions of
    martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the
    United States to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on
    the brink of Armageddon.

    Cautioning further that we would never know the actual whereabouts of
    such lethal weaponry in the hands of a Paradise-addled Islamist power,
    Harris presses blithely on to the unthinkable: In such a situation,
    the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first
    strike of our own. He of course allows that this opening feint of
    pre-emptive war could trigger a genocidal crusade among the Islamic
    worlds nuke-wielding imams, but to paraphrase our Vietnam strategists,
    sometimes you have to destroy a planet in order to save it.

    In any event, it was the believers who started it. Calling this course
    of events perfectly insane, Harris once again didactically marvels at
    how our own pie-eyed tolerance of faith has brought us to this
    grimmest of all passes: I have just described a plausible scenario in
    which much of the worlds population could be annihilated on account of
    religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the
    philosophers stone, and unicorns.

    Here again, Harris glides right by historical precedenta well-advised
    move for his argument, since the only power that has used nuclear
    weapons on civilian populations (up to and including the zealots in
    Pakistan and India who now belong to the nuclear club) is our own
    secular, Enlightenment-bred American republic, steeped in pragmatic
    self-regard far afield from faith-induced deliriums of jihad and
    martyrdom. And its war-ending rationale in 1945 was very much of a
    piece with the shoot-first reasoning of Harris current doomsday
    scenario. Presumably, it meant a great deal to the dignity of
    Hiroshima and Nagasakis incinerated citizens to reflect that they were
    being sacrificed not to mad faith, but to the prerogatives of a
    properly calculated nuclear assault, on the part of a Western power
    that was only rationally pursuing a marginal military advantage.

    It is a notorious hazard of the village atheists vocation to mimic
    many of the worst features of the dogma he obsessively denounces. That
    certainly is the case with The End of Faith. Harris wishes to convict
    religious belief of mulish literalism, while attacking its tenets in
    the most bluntly prosaic and anachronistic terms he can muster. Harris
    attacks the believing worlds maudlin wish fulfillments and faulty
    logicand winds up exploiting lurid imagined scenarios of the final
    moments of 9/11 victims as an argument-stilling tactic. Harris
    excoriates the religious worldviews foreshortened use of fact and
    evidence, and produces ahistorical, misleading summaries of the most
    basic features of Muslim belief, geopolitical conflict, and religious
    thinking generally.

    Most tellingly, The End of Faith derides the callow apocalyptic temper
    of the monotheistic traditions, while effectively seeking to bully
    readers into accepting nuclear Armageddon as a justified response to
    rampant fundamentalism. Lord knows theres plenty to criticize, and be
    alarmed by, in todays religious scene. But even if we posit with
    Harris that faith is itself the enemy, then it behooves any
    tough-minded strategist to know the enemy. And while Im far from a
    believer myself, Id also suggest that it behooves any village-atheist
    counselor of high-stakes nuclear conflict to ponder the Psalms of
    Pogo, in which it is written that we have met the enemy, and he is

    Chris Lehmann is features editor for New York magazine and author of
    Revolt of the Masscult (Prickly Paradigm Press).


    6. mailto:Chris_Lehmann at newyorkmag.com
    7. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0393035158/ref=nosim/reasonmagazineA/

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