Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (2004) has spawned a viral strain of books viscerally denigrating religion. Everything from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006) to Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) argue that religious claims—and those who make them—are unreasonable and can therefore be discounted or ignored. The publication of a spate of books that share such similar points of view raises obvious questions such as “why now?” and “why are these arguments receiving such a positive reception?” I believe it is because the Gospel message of love, forgiveness and reconciliation contradicts the reigning ideology of our “war on terrorism.” Let me share a few criticisms of Sam Harris’s thought, and then tease out the underlying message in his muddled jeremiad against faith.
In The End of Faith, Sam Harris argues we live in a universe hell bent on devouring us, and that “religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse.” I wonder if Harris’s belief that we live in a world set up to destroy us is open to rational discussion. I do not believe we are set up to be blipped out of existence at some point after our births as human beings. I believe we are destined to live forever, and that we ought to choose life, not death, as Moses taught in Deuteronomy “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.” That decision means choosing life both for ourselves and all other persons, both now and in the life to come.
Harris argues that religion causes people to mistreat one another, sometimes in horrific manners. He argues we do not need religion to urge us to treat our fellow human beings as we would want to be treated. “Our common humanity is reason enough to protect our fellow human beings from coming to harm.” Harris asserts that, in war, whenever non-combatants are killed “intentionally and indiscriminately” you will find a “dogma” bolstering the killers’ murdering rampages, and that the killers’ beliefs will “always—always—be preposterous.”
Harris excoriates those who kill in the name of God, especially the Inquisition’s torturers. In juxtaposition to his caricature of Islam and Islamic cultures, he asserts, “As a culture, we [i.e., the West] have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents.” But Harris then goes on to champion the use of torture on supposed terrorists justifying it based on “our willingness to wage war in the first place. What after all is ‘collateral damage’ but the inadvertent torture of innocent men, women and children.”
So Harris argues that those who justify torture in the name of religion are wrong, but it is OK for Bush and his minions to torture supposed terrorists? If this is Harris’s notion of “our common humanity,” leave me out of his “preposterous” philosophical universe.
His self serving “dogmas” based on his notion of love as happiness, his murky ideas about morality being based on “intuition,” and his “new agey,” quasi-Hegelian, assertion that we can all meditate and achieve the merging of our consciousness with consciousness itself are as inadequate a basis on which to build a just and loving society as the deranged rantings of the jihadists and other mindless fundamentalists he skewers with his untrue and illegitimate assault on faith and believers.
What’s really going on here is not an argument against irrational and illegitimate practitioners of various faith traditions. What Harris and his ilk want to de-legitimize are those who teach “Blessed are the Peacemakers” and “God is Love.” If those of us who follow the Christian faith assert what our God teaches, Harris and his gang have no justification for this ongoing war in Iraq. The whole war on terrorism crumbles in the face of religious traditions that call on us to “love our enemies” and “forgive those who trespass against us.”
The war on terrorism needs apologists like Harris who attack our deepest cultural traditions and pave the way for the supposedly enlightened Western governments to ignore the Christian beliefs that have influenced their establishment. Freed from Christian dogma, they can act as imperial powers hell bent on wiping Islamic states out of existence (and as a side benefit, get all the oil).
A Cherished Illusion
On September 11, 2001 a crucial ideological assertion was crafted. We were told we were now in a war on terrorism (note, not “on terrorists”). That cherished belief has cost the U.S. taxpayers somewhere between $1.0 and $2.0 trillion, depending on who you believe, the American Enterprise Institute ($1.0 trillion) or the Nobel prize winning economist at Columbia ($2.0 trillion). Some in the Bush administration believe we are in a two generation conflict like the Cold War. The central belief that we are doomed to destruction and destroying because of Al Queda, must be challenged and exposed for the irrational creed it is.
First, critique the underlying premise of the “war on terrorism.” The men who hijacked the planes on 9/11 were insane self-justifying killers, acting in the name of their warped ideology, which they cloak in the images and meanings of Islam. Treat them and their supporters as criminals. This was a murder investigation and we should have gone and gotten Osama Bin Laden. Instead Bush went after Saddam, and now the U.S. troops cannot handle the situation in Iraq. And please stop saying, “We are at war.” Only the honorable and self sacrificing families of our military are at war. If we are at war, draft us all to fight it, and tax us all to pay for it. Yes, tax even the rich, those top 300,000 Americans who make almost as much as the bottom half of the nation. Remember, those 150 million people in the lower half of the income bracket provide almost 100% of the soldiers. The rich, Bush’s buddies, haven’t lined up to give back any of the billions they got in tax cuts to pay for this war. As Bill Moyers recently noted “Bush’s 2001 tax cut alone gave the richest 1 percent of Americans $479 billion over ten years.”
Make Some Noise
Secondly, ask if the Christian nations have responded in a Christian manner to the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Have we loved our enemies? Have we attempted to dialogue and come to some peaceful resolution of the conflict? No, we have abdicated our reason and allowed apologists like Harris to demonize Islam and those who follow that religious tradition, thus justifying sending more and more U.S. troops to participate in what is euphemistically referred to as the “collateral damage of war” but in reality is nothing more than the wanton death and destruction of innocent children, women and men. Sam Harris blithely accepts the insanity of war as reasonable and normal, and even upholds war’s inevitable collateral damage as justification for torture.
Thirdly, make some noise. For God’s sake, and the sake of all who are suffering and dying, speak out against this war! The only Christian dogma for which we have empirical evidence is Original Sin, and this war certainly exemplifies that teaching. Faith hopes there is a loving solution to the situation. Harris and his chorus just justify war and more war. They want to shut up and marginalize those of us who, along with the late Paul VI preach “War no more. War never again,” and silence those who agree with John Paul II and the American Catholic Bishops who have opposed this war from the beginning. We will not remain silent.
Finally, pray. Pray to someone greater than ourselves. Pray to God, who can get us out of the mess we have gotten ourselves and the rest of the world into since 9/11.