Ever played the parlour game in which one person whispers something to another, who then whispers it on to the next player and so on? You have? Then you know the end message is usually much different from the original. This happens because “interpretation” by each player colours the essence of the message. This column is a response to fellow opinionista Mandy de Waal’s interpretation of Sam Harris.
André Gide remarked that “everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again”. So it is with the recent article by Mandy de Waal, who took Sam Harris (and the “new atheists” in general) to task for “hate speech”, “bigotry” and encouraging so-called Islamophobia. It’s difficult to know just where to begin in responding, as I find the content of De Waal’s piece disagreeable in almost every aspect.
Perhaps I could start with concessions to some legitimate charges against Harris that can be detected beneath the emotive rhetoric of De Waal’s article. It is true Harris has a strongly antagonistic stance toward religion and to Islam in particular. It is also true he expresses his antagonism in strong and often dismissive language.
He is undoubtedly one of the most prominent public atheists, and is making good money in this role – fortunately so, in that the phalanx of bodyguards I had to get through to talk to him at a conference last year must cost a fair amount. Richard Dawkins, by contrast, was easily collared at the buffet table. But making money from expressing a point of view is irrelevant to the quality of that viewpoint.
Everything else in the article is a matter of interpretation, and De Waal’s interpretation lacks balance and casts Harris in the worst possible light. He is certainly not leading an army of new atheist Islamophobes. In fact, this very suggestion presents atheism as a religion, where those who buy Harris’s books obey his commands and adopt his views in the manner of some of the faithfully religious.
The actual situation is far more fraught. Many atheists dismiss the entire concept of new atheism as a fiction concocted by the religious right for the purpose of presenting atheism as simply another kind of faith. Still other atheists believe Harris is a fool for being sympathetic to transcendental meditation, while others think his attempts at moral philosophy laughable. The point is that he is a person who expresses ideas on various themes and critical readers interrogate those ideas in isolation rather than simply mimic the views of Harris in a wholesale fashion.
Just as the religious say “not all Christians (or Muslims) are like that”, a balanced critique of atheists would recognise that some atheists have an uncritical relationship to the ideas expressed by self-identified atheists, while others try to examine each argument on its merits. Where Harris (allegedly) conflates Islam and fundamentalism, De Waal suggests new atheists are tending towards Islamophobia – and both of these suggestions are misleading and probably untrue.
As Harris himself has said: “There is no such thing as Islamophobia. Bigotry and racism exist, of course—and they are evils that all well-intentioned people must oppose. And prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, purely because of the accident of their birth, is despicable. But like all religions, Islam is a system of ideas and practices. And it is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.”
So here is the distinction, again, and no doubt not for the last time. Atheists are those who don’t believe in god(s). That is all that defines their commonality, and what they don’t have in common are various less or more rational attitudes to diverse other propositions. To focus specifically on religion and fundamentalism of the sort that conduces to terror, the atheist response is on two fronts: The general fight against social tolerance and adoption of faith-based worldviews, and the specific threat of extremist versions of those.
Harris, and atheists in general, do have a problem with Islam, just as they have a problem with Christianity. If Zoroastrianism was still popular, we’d have a problem with that too. But this generalised antipathy stems from the fact that religion encourages people to believe things on the basis of poor or nonexistent evidence. If we think it a good thing that people tend to believe what is true and disbelieve what is false, believing things in this way would be a harmful trait that merits discouragement.
This critique of religion has no incompatibility with recognising that religion can bring people comfort, strengthen communities and so forth. The relevant question here would simply be whether we can achieve those social goods in a way that isn’t accompanied by irrational beliefs. Furthermore, I haven’t come across a single atheist – including Harris – who denies that most religious people are just like (most) other people, in that they can be caring and kind assets to the communities they inhabit.
What I’ve sketched above is an empirical question, and it’s certainly possible that religion does the job of building and strengthening these social ties better than anything else does. But finding out whether this is the case or not requires us to regard religion as having no privileged status – it must contest this space of reasons on equal footing with alternative worldviews and allow for frank discussion on its merits and demerits.
It is however difficult, if not impossible, to deny that various societies achieve social harmony without religion, making religious motivations at best a preference rather than a necessity. And here is where the second type of critique or fight – against extremist forms of religion – emerges.
Where moderate religious folk refrain from taking the bloodthirsty injunctions in their scriptures literally, it is because of secular morality. They recognise that they live in a new world in which the stoning of unbelievers or non-virgin brides, intolerance of homosexuality and genocide are wrong.
This doesn’t alter the fact that their scriptures can be read to licence such actions – and that some people read those scriptures literally. The existence of those scriptures, and the fact that they are taken seriously (even if interpreted differently) by a majority of the world’s population allows for extremists to make what the moderates might think are mistakes.
Specific religions involve more than simply a generalised belief in a divine presence. If that was the limit of their content, atheists would be left with only one (the first) critique. But there is no agreement on how to interpret whatever religious text we choose as an example. Some people choose benign or peaceful interpretations because they are peaceful folk – others choose intolerant or violent interpretations because they are not. But the fact remains that there is no plausible violent or intolerant interpretation of (for example) the Bill of Rights.
If there was agreement on how to interpret scripture, we wouldn’t have as many sects, denominations, flavours of Christianity, Islam, or any other religion you care to mention. The point is simply that it’s an interpretively messy space, where no authority exists to arbitrate between differing interpretations. And what De Waal interprets as Islamophobia is a reaction to certain Muslims who happen to choose various unpleasant interpretations of their scriptures – it’s a separate issue to the atheist critique of religion in general. As Harris has observed, if he were writing at a different time, the Catholic Church would be the focus of his attention, not Islam.
When a fear is grounded in genuine threat, the word “phobia” is an inaccurate descriptor. And there is something to fear in radical factions of any religious group, just as there are legitimate fears with regard to extremists such as Anders Behring Breivik. Where religion becomes relevant to these fears is that people who commit acts of terror get their mandate from something or other – and if a religion can be interpreted to provide that mandate, this is a reality (and a problem) to which that religion has to own up, and to which it must generate internal responses. It is a failing on their part that the public criticism has to come from atheists.
The fact that some Muslims will say that Muslim terrorists are “not real Muslims”, and that Christians can say that Breivik is not a “real Christian” is somewhat irrelevant. For Islam in particular, the secularisation of interpretations of its scriptures has lagged behind that of Christianity, which leads to the unfortunate reality of certain varieties of Islam being correlated with a disproportionately large amount of oppression and intolerance of competing world-views.
Religion creates the epistemic space in which harmful interpretations are possible, and we are fortunate that relatively few people come to these interpretations, compared to ones which conduce to human flourishing. But any of us – and any religions – that encourage belief on the basis of faith rather than evidence are at least partly culpable for horrors committed in their name.
I agree and sympathise with those who decry and abhor violent interpretations of religious texts, but the fact remains that the texts are open to those interpretations. This remains true, no matter how many Muslims or Christians are appalled by the actions taken in the name of their chosen fictions. And reaching these unfortunate interpretations is aided by the belief in being accountable to the divine, rather than to the reality of bruises and bodies.
So yes, of course Harris is fearful – as should we all be in light of justified anger at the dismally slow pace of bringing equal rights and economic sustainability to all who live on this planet. And perhaps people like Harris could make his arguments in more sympathetic language. But he’s not the real enemy here. Instead, he serves as a handy scapegoat for moderate religion to use in denying the fact that if you give the immoral a plausible excuse to be wicked, they’ll find a way to use it. DM
Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy. When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.
The air quality from pollution on a cruise ship can at times be worse than the world's worst cities.