“This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas.” — Sam Harris
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?
But this is all going too far, because now I am talking about these people far too much as if they were actual human beings – but as all of us tutored by Sam Harris know, they are much better understood as “barbarians at the gates.” And it is exactly fitting that this is where the black and white world of Sam Harris has led us to. Because if the ideas in the Koran are evil, then the people who believe it to be true and become very agitated when someone or something says otherwise must be evil too. And indeed, radical Islamists have committed unspeakably immoral acts – there isn’t even a need to list them, we are all so familiar. It is clearly wrong to murder people in the name of anything, imaginary God or no. It is clearly wrong to become violent because someone has offended you, even if they have done so on what you consider to be the most profound level.
But what Sam Harris does not help us understand very much is how we got here – why these dynamics keep playing out as they do. Instead, he engages in a textbook case of otherizing, subtle only to people not trained to spot it. (Which is, unfortunately, most of us.) He paints a picture of Good People versus Bad People – the Bad, Crazy, Pre-Modern people want to enforce their world view on the rest of us, and, apparently, are winning. Harris does not attempt to be very specific about who these people are; indeed, they could be everywhere, for all we know. “Some percentage of the world’s Muslims – ” he writes, “Five percent? Fifteen? Fifty? It’s not yet clear – is demanding that all non-Muslims conform to the strictures of Islamic law.” Therefore, really most Muslims are in some sense suspect – you just can’t trust those people, you know. (Just like you can’t trust a pinko; any shade of Red is the same as a Stalinist commie, after all.) Meanwhile, the Good, Secular, Rational people of the world have played no historical role in any of this – they have no idea how those Bad, Crazy people got so bad and crazy – after all, we’ve just been minding our own business running our countries full of secular bliss, right? It’s not as if US policy itself for the past 70 years or so has anything to do with any of the frustration or instability that has been plaguing the Middle East. It is not as if our intelligence agency helped to install, for example, a dictator in Iran after a democratically elected leader we didn’t like had come to power. So we are all innocents here, and those people – those others – their response is beyond the pale of predictable human fallibility when placed in a pressure cooker.
Let’s be clear – I am not blaming the United States for all and any of the problems in “the Muslim world” – itself a problematic phrase because nothing so monolithic or simplistic exists. We are partly responsible, yes, but the situation is even more complex than that – and complexity is really the theme I am arguing for here. There has been tremendous domestic oppression, as well, and a host of historical dynamics with deep roots in many different directions which had led to the situation we see today. The content of the ideas of Islam is one of those – I am not arguing the flip side of Harris’s position and claiming that Islam plays no role at all. But the analysis of Sam Harris acknowledges nothing but the role of Islam; and because of this, he talks with the simplistic moralism of the crusader – the kind of short-sighted conviction that could lead one, perhaps, to argue that discriminating against Muslims in airport security is a-okay.
And that previous manifestation of the World as Discerned by Sam Harris is a good example of what has, very unfortunately, become a common approach for him – making confident analyses of dynamics which in fact he does not understand very well. Even when, for example, Bruce Schneier explained to him, extensively and exhaustively, why his instincts about how security screening works are wrong – that aside from any ethical question, targeting Muslims would not actually make us safer – Harris incredulously replied that surely his common sense couldn’t be that far off the mark. So here we have the spectacle of an atheist – one who prides himself on tirelessly pointing out to religious believers that what seems self-evident to them isn’t necessarily so – refusing to digest the evidence of an expert on a certain question and just insisting that this seems quite self-evidently correct to him. And for some reason, I think his response to an expert on the Middle East and radical Muslim groups would be much the same – they could lecture him all day about the complexities of the matter, they could patiently explain that actually, most people do not understand fully their own motives, or how all human beings are at least partially products of the structural realities of their society — but at the end of the lesson, he would stare back, blink, and say, “No but really, have you actually read the Koran?”