In an op-ed written for the Los Angeles Times, (“God’s Dupes” ) Sam Harris again accused anybody even slightly soft on religion of being a terrorist sympathizer.
The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism. Ordinary fundamentalist Christians, by maintaining that the Bible is the perfect word of God, inadvertently support the Dominionists — men and women who, by the millions, are quietly working to turn our country into a totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of John Calvin’s Geneva. Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals — who aren’t sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally — deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality. And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society.
I am not here to repeat arguments I have given before. I want to bring up a couple of new points.
Attributing the view that we ought not to criticize another person’s beliefs to religious moderates – or to theists in general – is revisionist history. That doctrine actually gained a lot of its strength in the last 30 to 40 years from a non-theist European philosophy called ‘post-modernism’.
Though this is a gross oversimplification of the theory, post-modernists hold that there is no external, objective truth. Instead, each of us creates our own reality and imposes it on the world. As such, none of us has any absolute, objective foundation on which to build an objection to somebody else’s constructed reality. The only thing we can do is say that our constructed reality is different from their constructed reality; but neither of us has access to an external world of ‘truth’ that we can use to find out which is right.
On this theory, if you construct a theory in which there is a God, then the proposition “God exists” is true for you. The proposition, “No gods exist” is true for me. None of us have the ability to escape our own minds to discover if there really is or is not a god.
This is the model that tells us that we cannot criticize other cultures. Notice that it makes no reference to scripture or to religion. In fact, over the past 30 years, the biggest opponents of this philosophy have been the religious fundamentalists who insist that an objective reality does exist and arguing against it is just another piece of liberal nonsense.
On this issue, I side with the theorist. Whenever I confronted a post-modernist when I was in college, I as always very strong tempted to simply tell him, “Well, I have constructed a reality in which post-modernism is nonsense and noise. Which makes the proposition that post-modernism is nonsense ‘true for me’ – and, by your theory and mine, you have no basis on which to criticize me for that. So, since we both agree that you have nothing important or meaningful to say – since we both agree that you have no objective truth to convince me of, there is no reason for this conversation to continue.”
This response ties in with another of Harris’ criticism of religion – that it ends conversation. If a person believes that everything in their scripture is literally true, then there is no room for debate or discussion. The same applies to post-modernism. If there is no reality other than the reality each of us invents – what is ‘true for me’ – then there is no room for discussion. It represents a blanket permission for everybody to ignore anything that counts as evidence – because, what matters is whether it is ‘evidence for me’.
The one point that I want to make absolutely clear is that post-modernism is not and was not a ‘religion’ and has no ‘scripture’. You cannot attack this theory under the same umbrella as “religion is irrational an does horrible things to people’s way of thinking.” Non-religion can do the same thing. So, “The End of Faith” is not necessarily “The Beginning of Enlightenment.”
Harris also describes a ‘continuum’ of beliefs. He puts violent religious extremism in the center of a circle, and draws concentric circles of belief around it. Each circle ‘shields’ everybody in the circles that are smaller than itself. So, the religious conservative shields the religious extremist, the religious moderate shields both the extremist and the conservative. Even the religious liberal is guilty of sheltering the moderate, conservative, and extremist.
This ‘target’ analogy is not actually the more accurate. Instead, Harris is drawing a line – with his own views on one end, and religious extremism on the other. What he is saying is, “Anybody who stands on this line, closer to my opponent’s beliefs than I am, shall be regarded as ‘shielding’ my opponent from criticism. You are either with me – which means that you are standing with me on my end of the line, or you are with the terrorists. If you oppose me any way, then you are in bed with the terrorists.”
We have heard this rhetoric before – from President Bush. We still hear it from the Bush Administration, who tell us on a regular basis that anybody who does not give unquestioned support to the Bush Administration in this war on terror is giving aid and comfort to the terrorists.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, many people who condemn Bush for his ‘you are either with us or you are against us’ mentality– calling it simple-minded and politically naive, find themselves in enthusiastic agreement when it comes from Sam Harris against all theists.
Yet, those problems do go away. It remains.
Besides, when you stand on a point in a continuum, and you shout, “Either you are with me (on this end-point), or you are against me,” you are saying that everybody who insists on standing on the line is against you. That includes me. Sam Harris is saying that an awfully large percentage of the population of the planet is against him. One has to ask, can he truly afford to have that many enemies? Would it not be useful to have at least a few friends, even if they are not ‘with you’ 100%?”
My third point is that there is a lot of valid and honest criticism of this blog. I have been accused of asserting false premises, and of invalid arguments. Sometimes, my critics are right, and I am wrong. When that happens, I attempt to make adjustments, as I wrote about last week in “Desires and Ought“ and “Hate“.
However, it will never be a legitimate criticism for anybody to come to me and say, “Somebody has taken something that you have said and defended and used it as a justification for doing evil.” Their actions are their responsibility, not mine. Unless I actually wrote something that said that his ‘evil’ was not evil, or after the fact I write something that endorses his actions, I have no moral responsibility for some item that somebody may take out of my writing and use out of context.
If something that I wrote entails some evil, that would be a different story. In this case, I would be a problem regardless of whether there really was somebody out there drawing those implications. The mere fact that it supported those conclusions would be sufficient criticism. However, the fact that there were people drawing conclusions that my writings do not entail is not a problem with anything that I write.
Hitler and the Nazis used ‘2 + 2 = 4’ to help in its holocaust. Yet, it is hardly sound criticism of ‘2 + 2 = 4’ that it was used that way.
Harris has a habit of talking about ‘them’ who shield the terrorists from criticism. Let us be honest about who ‘them’ are. Harris says that anybody who stands on a continuum between him and the targets of his criticism are ‘shielding’ those targets and there thereby morally responsible for the harms those people inflict.
Well, it seems that I am one of ‘them’.
I am standing on the line between Harris and the targets of his criticism – shielding them if we take Harris at his word. I am a friend of terrorism, morally responsible for every bomb that goes off and every airplane that crashes into a sky scraper – because I dare to stand somewhere on the line between Harris and the targets of his criticism.
Unfortunately for Harris, I have no intention of getting off. I hold that the right place to be is somewhere on the line between Harris and his targets.
I guess that makes me a terrorist sympthizer.