Sunday, December 24, 2006

Discovering Sam Harris

Sam Harris has become one of my favorite authors. Although my personal views are somewhat at variance from his, I fundamentally agree with his thesis that faith (in particular, faith that is publicly acknowledged and governmentally sanctioned) poses a serious and significant threat to the future existence of world civilization, especially the current iteration of it in this corner of the plant that we call "American". In this sense, I think Harris has something much different to offer than Dawkins' mere atheism. Don't get me wrong, I still adore Dawkins as a writer and a scientist. However, he was recently described as an "evangelistic atheist", in the sense that he has a point of view he wishes to spread to others, and I believe this particular moniker fits quite well. Harris, on the other hand, suggests that faith in omnipotent beings is not just foolish - it is downright dangerous. And he does not single out Christianity as the pivotal culprit in all this. On the contrary, he is very hard (and in my opinion, correctly so) on other faiths. Of the Islamic "faith" he writes the following in a fascinating exchange with conservative talk show host Dennis Prager:

And yet, while the religious divisions in our world are self-evident, many people still imagine that religious conflict is always caused by a lack of education, by poverty, or by politics. Yet the September 11th hijackers were college-educated, middle-class, and had no discernible experience of political oppression. They did, however, spend a remarkable amount of time at their local mosques talking about the depravity of infidels and about the pleasures that await martyrs in Paradise.

How many more architects and mechanical engineers must hit the wall at 400 miles an hour before we admit to ourselves that jihadist violence is not merely a matter of education, poverty, or politics? The truth, astonishingly enough, is that in the year 2006 a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get 72 virgins in Paradise. Western secularists, liberals, and moderates have been very slow to understand this. The cause of their confusion is simple: They don’t know what it is like to really believe in God.

There is another problem here, of a particularly American nature, that I believe largely hamstrings our efforts to "defeat" Islamic fundamentalism. We are not willing to go the distance and realistically discuss world terrorism as a consequence of religious faith, focusing instead on the particular Islamist variety that currently plagues us. Ultimately we simply seek to replace one religious dogma with another. Both, however, are the current extensions of Iron Age mythology and both ultimately will result in fanciful excuses to first, limit people's rights to make their own choices; second, begin to require allegience to a particular god and its spokesmen; and eventually begin to demand the death of those who do not believe appropriately. The processes are the same and have been repeated throughout history ad nauseum. Only the name of the religion changes.

Harris' broader message I think is clear: society's best hope lies with secularism, not religious fundamentalism.

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