Monday, 27 October 2014

DRAFT: Sam Harris vs The Rest of the World

  • The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (Harris)
  • Letter to a Christian Nation (Harris)
  • The God Delusion (Dawkins)
  • Breaking the Spell (Dennett)
  • God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Hitchens)
  • God: The Failed Hypothesis (Stenger)
Does the list of books above look familiar to you? 2004 to 2007 was an intoxicating time to be an atheist, especially a budding one. There was plenty written and said before and after these books (and plenty between as well), but this was the moment and these were the books that transcended small intellectual cliques and delivered atheism in digestible, popular formats that helped a broad spectrum of people articulate what had been so hard to say previously. 

That to me was the important part – we all know there were plenty of de-conversions along the way but not enough to sell so many books. The New Atheists gave voice to a silent, pre-existing minority that turned out to be even bigger than the most optimistic had counted on and they sparked a groundswell that terrified religious establishments everywhere. All of sudden the religions of the world weren't quite getting the respect they had gotten used to and you could see they were put out by it and a little scared.

Amongst the new atheists Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens quickly became the best sellers and poster boys of the movement, not least because they are/were all great communicators. They spoke eloquently when invited to comment and landed knock-out punch after knock-out punch in public debates which the changing media landscape transformed from small ivory tower affairs into youtube videos and playlists watched by millions of people. However in spite of or because of their popularity, these three guys also took the lion's share of the criticism of new atheism from within and without. All three writers were accused racism and islamophobia by both the religious groups and individuals they had so neatly speared and by large swathes of the progressive liberal audience.

Recent events have seen the usual subjects take a chance to jump on board and renew their attacks on Sam Harris.

Sam's first book, The End of Faith actually shows up pretty early on the new atheist horizon in 2004. There had already been some stuff out but this book, to paraphrase the author "Took as hard a swing at religion as anything out there". For me, he was the last of these three guys that I read, having discovered Hitchens in 2007 and working my way back through new atheism. Sam's controversies were a bit more interesting to me and started right there in the first book.

So by now you can expect the racism and islamophobia charges – as above dispelled by the very clear and concise commitment to attack the idea and not the man. In fact the edition I bought in 2007 either included this in the afterword or directed readers to a permanent page on his website, so pervasive were these charges by then.

On top of this, what alarmed a lot of people about Sam Harris is what they perceived as his endorsement of a nuclear first strike policy and a supportive view of torture. In both cases Sam wrote extensively to clarify his position but this did little to satisfy his critics.

From my recollection of reading The End of Faith I thought what he had written about nuclear first strikes was uncontroversial – he seemed to be saying that he could envision a future where the deteriorating relationship between the modern, liberal West and an Islam that remained un-reconstructed, could lead us to consider a nuclear first strike, and that this would be horrible. It didn't seem to me like he was wishing for it, it didn't seem to me like he was endorsing it, but for 10 years, many of Sam's critics have been happy to promote the idea that this is what he supports. Most recently (again) and disingenuously by Reza Aslan, who is definitely too smart to have missed the numerous caveats and clarifications Sam has made and appears to be, as Harris says, deliberately mischaracterising his position. He's not the only one jumping on that bandwagon, but he's probably the most consistent.

The other issue of torture is a bit trickier. Although I think this part of Sam's writing is essentially an ethical thought experiment about torture more than anything else. I think in the case he lays out here, Sam does see an appropriate use of torture and I disagree. His argument is further weakened by the appallingly bad implementation of torture by the United States government before and after The End of Faith was published. For me, I accept Sam's argument that this is in his book as an ethical thought experiment and his quite plain calculus in comparing it to collateral damage works just fine as a numbers game. Nonetheless, in the face of bad torture implementation and reasonable slippery slope arguments, I call this a draw. I think it was a reasonable thing for Sam to raise in the broader context of his book (it's his book) but recent burnt fingers means we need to develop much better fail-safes on the abuse of things like torture before the thought experiment is even useful (no – I am not endorsing torture – I am endorsing thought experiments in a future when we human beings are ethically a little more sound – just don't see the point right now when we can't be trusted to do so without causing more harm than good. We may never be able to torture people responsibly – I'm not even convinced that's a thing).

So, like any author, you can agree or disagree with Sam Harris and any number of his thesis. Now to get to the point of this overlong post, what you can't credibly do is infer that Sam Harris is a genocidal maniac. The list of people who have supported this claim, the racism claim or the islamophobia claim is a little depressing - most of them seeming to not be idiots, but all of them seem to feel extreme claims are more useful than simple disagreement: Resa Aslan, Glenn Greenwald, Ben Affleck!?, Chris Hedges and CJ Werleman have all had a pop (Werleman imploding and being exposed as the least credible person to listen to on any subject).

Ben Affleck's attack on Harris was the strangest thing. I tend to agree with some commentators, that he looked primed for this. He sounded like he was having an internal conversation that did not require Sam Harris or Bill Maher to be there. To be honest since seeing this argument I can't get the idea out of my head of Ben Affleck as a combination of his cut scene for Team America and as Rik from the Young Ones.

With all of this shit slinging going on, I thought it might be useful to review the trajectory of Sam Harris' writing. I have to say that I am of the view that despite the fact that there is much that Sam Harris has written that I remain unconvinced about (and much that I am convinced about), I think that he has done a better job, a broader job and a far more practical job of trying to move us forward towards a more complete, moral and sophisticated secular worldview:
  • He has done plenty of work exposing the fallacies and the harms of religion that still hold us back (End of Faith/Letter to a Christian Nation).
  • He has pushed us to consider ways we might reclaim the morality of humanity from religions, avoiding post-modern notions that many people see as problematic. He doesn't insist that Science will have all the answers but he doesn't see it as such a long shot that it will have some answers (The Moral Landscape).
  • He has written to encourage us to consider what improvements we might make to our lives and society by improving interpersonal dialogues with more honesty. He's said many times that he thinks we're not having honest dialogue about some of our problems and challenges – from his point of view this is a good thing to get people thinking about (Lying)
  • He has written to address an issue that many, many people think impinges on answering some of our greatest intellectual and spiritual questions – hard to move forward without addressing that (Freewill).
  • And he has written about how we can experience the second great pillar that religion likes to hold monopoly on after morality, our spiritual experience – I'm not going to debate choice of words here or subjective experience. He's not the only one who makes an argument that we can have these experiences and I for one am in agreement about taking things back from religions (Waking Up).
I'm going to borrow a phrase of Sam's here and say that these works, whether you agree with any or none of the ideas they contain, constitute a genuine attempt to contribute to building a durable future for our civilisation.

I think it's wrong to conflate Sam Harris with Hitchens or Dawkins. I think it's wrong to conflate any of these men with racists. I like all of these authors and for writing style I probably like Hitchens the best, but for atheism, for movement towards a world with a more secular worldview - Sam Harris has stayed on target better than anyone else. He made heavy criticisms of the world we live in but he didn't just jump on the bandwagon, make some dough and then walk away. He has stayed with it, expanded the problem and is trying to advance our thinking onto the sorts of issues that come next, if we do want to achieve a truly secular future.

Whether you agree with him or not, that's a pretty good effort. Dismiss his ideas if they are not for you, but don't perpetuate the myth that he is a racist or not very nuanced - you will get shown up for this kind of pettiness. Just ask CJ Werleman

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