Reject Arguments For Intolerance - Even From Atheists

Sam Harris has brought his brand of evangelical atheism back to the HuffPo with his aggressively named post, "Science Must Destroy Religion." It's filled with the language of intolerance, rife with logical flaws, and it fails to meet the standard of the great atheist Bertrand Russell, who said "I shouldn't wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine." Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "If you want to lift me up you must be on higher ground." Contempt and arrogance have no place on that ground.

Is it harsh to describe Harris's creed as 'intolerance'? Here's what he says in his HuffPo piece: ... most sensible people advocate something called "religious tolerance." While ... better than religious war, tolerance is not without its liabilities. Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us incapable of criticizing ideas that are now patently absurd and increasingly maladaptive. It has also obliged us to lie to ourselves -- repeatedly and at the highest levels -- about the compatibility between religious faith and scientific rationality.

So if you're tolerant of other religious beliefs, you're "incapable of criticizing absurd ideas," and you lie to yourself repeatedly and at the highest levels. He is even harder on tolerance in his piece for Truthdig, Robert Scheer's new (and extremely interesting) new online magazine. "Liberal piety is apt to produce the most unctuous and stupefying nonsense imaginable," he writes.

As an Editor's Note for the piece states, "Sam Harris argues that progressive tolerance of faith-based unreason is as great a menace as religion itself." I agree with that interpretation, and would argue that his thinking is wrong for progressives: ethically, politically, and even logically. Tolerance and moderation are still good for society, and for the individuals within it.

Regarding moderates' "inability to criticize absurd ideas," Harris' argument is flatly wrong. Islamic moderates have issued fatwas condemning terrorism. Christian moderates have been in the forefront of the battle against American fundamentalism. Jimmy Carter is one of our most effective spokesmen against intelligent design. And Harris offers no arguments or evidence to the contrary. He simply moves on to say:

"Although it is easy enough for smart people to criticize religious fundamentalism, something called "religious moderation" still enjoys immense prestige in our society, even in the ivory tower. This is ironic, as fundamentalists tend to make a more principled use of their brains than 'moderates' do."

Clearly, religious moderation is the gravest offense of all in Harris' book.

"It is perfectly absurd for religious moderates to suggest that a rational human being can believe in God simply because this belief makes him happy, relieves his fear of death or gives his life meaning," Harris continues. Why? Harris' explanation takes the form of a flawed metaphor for religious belief - a man who believes there is a buried diamond "the size of a refrigerator" in his backyard.

The metaphor is a clumsy one on a number of levels. First, belief in a Supreme Being usually implies the existence of an overarching Consciousness (the Deity), and often suggests life after death and the existence of a soul. This not only provides comfort, but in most religions dictates a code of behavior as well. Would a giant diamond dictate behavior, or reassure the dying about an afterlife? Would such a man believe that "Diamond is Love"?

Of course not, because it's a poorly chosen analogy. And even if it were not, Harris fails to make the case that permitting "the diamond man" his belief would cause harm to anyone. He labels it - as psychotic behavior - but only after creating an analogy that might appear that way. If one is going to argue for logic over faith, it's a good idea to make your logical arguments a little stronger than this.

But logic isn't Harris' strong suit - proclamations are. "Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us incapable of criticizing ideas that are maladaptive ..." Says who? I and many other commentators comment frequently on maladaptive religious ideas, like Intelligent Design, without rejecting all religion - and without communicating contempt for the beliefs of others.

Here's another proclamation: "The difference between science and religion is the difference between a genuine openness to fruits of human inquiry in the 21st century, and a premature closure to such inquiry as a matter of principle." Says who? Certainly not the National Council of Churches or American Jewish leaders, who actively support scientific inquiry in all fields of endeavor.

Here's another: "Religion is fast growing incompatible with the emergence of a global civil society." It's hard to say whether Harris has a valid point here. Why? For one thing, because for all his vituperation about religion (he leans heavily on words like "destroy," "unctuous," "grotesque," etc.) he never defines the term. Is Buddhism a religion? Most scholars think so, but apparently not Harris.

Says Harris in an interview, "... it is simply a fact that a tradition like Buddhism has developed far more sophisticated methods of introspection than we have in the West." So, let's see - if Harris finds something commendable about it, it's a "tradition." If not, it's a "religion."

And what about those other "religions"? When Harris isn't condemning religious moderates - those who believe in science - he's condemning religion for not believing in science. The non-theistic meditations in Buddhism - contemplating the Unknowable, for example - are presumably an acceptable 'tradition,' while the non-theistic meditations of Islamic Sufism (contemplating Allah as the Unknowable) are not.

Confused? That's understandable. It takes faith to accept these arguments at face value. That's especially true when Harris, who argues that religions are the cause for the world's political conflicts, addresses those who point out that Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot were all non-believers.

His response? Among other things, he says their political beliefs qualified as "blind dogma," and dogma's just as bad as religion. The question he ignores is an obvious one: Why isn't the enemy blind dogma, then, rather than religion? He's the one asserting that removing religion will end these atrocities - yet when confronted with contrary evidence, his argument is convoluted at best.

I addressed this issue once before, and some suggested I was arguing that atheism caused these men to commit atrocities. Not so, nor is that central to my argument. Simply put, atheism didn't prevent the atrocities. Doesn't that disprove the Harris argument?

As I've argued elsewhere, other forces usually provide better explanations for history's tragic events - nationalism, tribalism, economics. Those forces often go hand-in-hand with religious differences. A case in point is the evangelical atheist's favorite talking point, the Middle East. David Ben-Gurion, founder of Israel, and his arch-enemy Nasser of Egypt, were both non-believers. So were both Nehru of India and his arch-rival, Jinnah of Pakistan. These four leaders supported their own countries for reasons better described as nationalistic and cultural. They were not motivated by supernatural beliefs.

Do I think that religion has never caused atrocity, or war, or murder? Of course not. Fundamentalism has been the root cause of many such tragedies, which is why I oppose it and other forms of "tyranny of the minds of men" (and women). I would argue that rejection of tolerance and moderation is simply another such tyranny.

In the real world religion is not a fixed point, but a spectrum of beliefs. Many spiritual Christians meditate, revere science and rationality, and believe that Jesus was a man and not a God. Emerson did, and in his classic Harvard Divinity School speech rejected the very notion of supernatural miracles as "monster," in its original meaning of "against nature": he said such beliefs are "not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain."

But Harris and his ilk make no distinction between these profound and subtle thoughts and those of Randall Terry as he mailed a dead fetus to President Bill Clinton - except when they're condemning 'religious moderates' (presumably including Emerson) as the worst of the lot.

American Jews also reject the extremist model of religion, in substantial numbers. Although I reported recently on Orthodox rabbis who support intelligent design, they represent a small minority of American Jewry - meaning, I suppose, that most Jews are also to be despised as "moderates."

Writes Harris, "The maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science." He should read up on his Islamic history. Muslim belief in the days of the Caliphate (before the rise of fundamentalist Wahhabism, when "moderates" still ruled) said that scientific research was a form of worship, by studying Allah's creation. That gave rise to a new flowering of scientific discovery.

Speaking of Islam, Harris' Truthdig piece contains a pop-up window with a highly selective set of Q'uran quotes. He picks the militant, bloodthirsty-sounding lines (taken out of context), but overlooks repeated statements of peace - or of religious tolerance, i.e. "We believe in ... the revelation given to us and to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) Prophets ... We make no distinction between any of them ..." As a defender of Islam against its many haters, I feel no qualms about sharing my impression that the Q'uran is two sided: filled with love, beauty and tolerance on one hand, and anger and fear on the other. It's sad that Harris, too, won't present the full picture when it contradicts or muddies his argument.

The toughest part of reviewing this material for me is the utter lack of compassion it conveys, the tone and vocabulary of contempt for others that permeates it. Take this paragraph from Truthdig:

Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind is not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of 6 billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl's parents believe at this very moment that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?


No justification, explanation, or explication. Just "no." And what happens when the parents learn that their girl has been murdered, and cling in their grief to the comforting belief that she's with a loving God? Is that good, in Sam Harris' world? "No." I'm sure if he were with them he'd be eager to share the truth as he sees it. That's not wisdom - it's arrogance and insensitivity.

It's been said often enough that the Left will never make political gains in this country without at least co-existing peacefully with religion. Is that good? I don't think so. I was struck by Ron Reagan Jr's response when an interviewer asked him if he planned to run for office. "I can't get elected in this country," he said matter-of-factly. "I'm an atheist."

That kind of blind prejudice is a tragic flaw in our country, and it should be fought. But it should be fought with wisdom, with sound logic, with compassion - and, for those who believe that way, with faith. There are many forms of faith that are beautiful and meaningful, and that nurture love, understanding, and compassion - just the characteristics that are absent from Sam Harris' writings. I believe that progressives can speak to heartland America - as long as they don't talk down to them. I don't understand how someone can study Buddhist meditation without learning the compassionate acceptance that is central to its practice.

Said Harris in an interview: "I have been quite surprised to find some Christians celebrating my argument against moderate religion. One Baptist minister more or less endorsed my book as the final nail in the coffin of religious moderation, claiming that I have proven that there are only two viable choices, secularism or fundamentalism."

Actually, it's no surprise at all. They're two sides of the same coin. That's why Albert Einstein - a confirmed atheist - once said: "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind." Einstein was, in all probability, speaking of an open, tolerant - that is to say, moderate - religion. He was speaking for the religion of contemplation, of open-mindedness, of compassion. Progressives and religion can walk hand in hand. As for atheists, they deserve more leaders like Russell and Einstein. Those in the Harris mold should listen to their forebears, and learn.

UPDATE: I've read many of the comments. Let's see: Although Harris specifically condemns "religious tolerance" by name, characterizing his position as "intolerance" (the opposite of tolerance) is "intolerant" of me. And I'm to be condemned for not explaining my own religious views in greater detail. Why? Would my arguments be more or less valid if I were an atheist? Many assume I believe in an organized religion. That's called "prejudice," or "pre-judging."

And to the commenter who credits Harris' piece with drawing "moderates like me" into fighting "bad religion," I - and many others, including a friend who is an Episcopalian priest - were battling the Religious Right for many years before he came along. I consider my argument with Harris and his followers to bea continuation of the same struggle.

I have no problem with atheism, just intolerance. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is a great evil - which I fight to the best of my ability. In fact, I don't really like any organized religion, although I embrace spirituality. But condemn the viewpoints of one atheist, and I'm a God-intoxicated, Resurrection-believing, Jesus-blood-drinking bigot. Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, John Lennon - where are the enlightened atheists when we need them?

A Night Light