By Robin Marie on September 26, 2012 | Discuss
“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.