Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sam Harris, 9/11, and the Dishonesty of Contemporary Unbelief

A few days ago, the United States of America, and indeed the world, recalled that day ten years ago, the eleventh of September, 2011, on which the acts of a few determined, wicked men caused the death of nearly three thousand persons to the broadcast and televised horror of the global public. Such large-scale terrors often have a way of capturing the imagination, even if darkly, and become for many a kind of sounding board for their own understanding of the world. This is, perhaps, to be expected, and it may well be necessary.

All the same, the events of 9/11 have become, in the minds, speeches, and writing of the contemporary purveyors of unbelief, yet another occasion to launch an assault on faith. In a free society, such views are to be tolerated. Indeed, it is helpful for the faithful to attend to what they say, if only to discover how much the world needs to hear the Good News through the din of earnest but deadly falsehood.

However, it is at least as important that the claims made by these so-called "New Atheists" not go unchallenged. This is not because what they have to say is especially insightful or compelling. Rather, what one finds in their words is a casual and I fear calculated disregard for honesty about what the faithful actually think and believe, how they actually understand God. One need look no further for an example of this kind of misrepresentation, posing as an appeal for reason and common sense, than a recent blog posting by Sam Harris.

As a matter of fairness, in what follows, I have included Harris' words in their entirety as they appear on his blog, and I will provide my comments along the way.

Yesterday my daughter asked, “Where does gravity come from?” She is two and a half years old. I could say many things on this subject—most of which she could not possibly understand—but the deep and honest answer is “I don’t know.”
This is certainly fair enough. We want to attend to questions our children ask of us, and we want to answer them honestly, but all the same we want and need to provide answers in an age-appropriate way. More than that, we need to answer the question we are actually being asked. For a physics professor to ask an undergraduate where gravity comes from is likely a very different question altogether from what Harris' daughter wanted to know.

More than that, however, we begin here, innocently enough, with one of the sustained conceits of Harris' piece, viz. "What have we done to our children?" As it will turn out, none of this is actually about children. Or, better said, the emotionally-charged claims Harris wants to make as regards how religious formation is wickedly injurious to children is a red herring. Harris really simply dismisses the claims of religion, but he makes it all about the children to distract the reader, as we shall see.

What if I had said, “Gravity comes from God”? That would be merely to stifle her intelligence—and to teach her to stifle it. What if I told her, “Gravity is God’s way of dragging people to hell, where they burn in fire. And you will burn there forever if you doubt that God exists”? No Christian or Muslim can offer a compelling reason why I shouldn’t say such a thing—or something morally equivalent—and yet this would be nothing less than the emotional and intellectual abuse of a child. In fact, I have heard from thousands of people who were oppressed this way, from the moment they could speak, by the terrifying ignorance and fanaticism of their parents.
Let's take his first claim, that claiming that gravity comes from God will stifle a child's intelligence and teach her to stifle it. Why should we think this is so? It is clearly factually false, since any number of scientists and great thinkers were and are formed in faith as children and come in time to ask terribly important and insightful questions about the world. In order for Harris' worry to be right, it would have to be the case that the child had already, on other grounds, been told that ascribing something to God is a question-stopper, that the claim "X comes from God" is convertible with "Stop wondering." Even so, there is every reason to claim the contrary, namely that in religious households where God is believed in a robust way, the child will be inclined to wonder why God made gravity or what gravity is for. Minimally, she is likely at an early stage to ask where God comes from, and then to ask how it is we know that. In short, to ascribe something to God is not, among actual men and women of faith, the end of discussion, but the beginning of another one.

His next claim would be risible if he were not so deadly earnest. Harris asserts that "no Christian or Muslim can offer a compelling reason why" he ought not to tell his child that gravity is "God's way of dragging people to hell, where they burn in fire" and that she "will burn there forever if [she] doubt[s] that God exists," or, he adds to cover his bases and forestall any objections, "something morally equivalent." The reason this assertion is either incredible or wicked is that I am altogether certain that Christians and Muslims would be unquestionably capable to providing a compelling reason to object to this sort of claim. First of all, the connection between gravity and being dragged to Hell is simply a perverse fantasy of Harris'. No Muslim or Christian explains the existence of gravity this way. So, since this is his fantasy and not one of produced by the faithful, we can happily toss it out.

This brings us to the next claim. While it may well be that doubt in the existence of God is understood by some of the faithful to be a moral fault for which one would be held eternally accountable, this view is by no means universal. Indeed, most of the faithful, and not merely theologians, are perfectly capable of parsing out, and with nuance, different kinds of doubt and disbelief and hold to differing understandings of the likelihood of spending an eternity in God's presence.

Moreover, and more to the point, even among those faithful who hold that the number of God's elect will be few, these faithful are not likely to present this claim simply and baldly to their children outside of any other context, any more than Harris will tell his daughter that he, she, and everyone she knows may even right now die suddenly, and when they die it will likely be in a horrible and painful way. Harris will not say to his daughter that gravity is the impersonal dynamics of the physical world working even now against her own bodily integrity and that, in time, these same forces will ravage her and everything she cares about to thoughtless, careless, soulless oblivion. He won't do so not because this claim is, on his view, false. Rather, it will be because no one would possibly imagine that a two-year-old child has the capacity, intellectual, moral, or affective, to understand anything from such a claim except terror. It is the telling of terrible things to children in a way that they learn only terror and fear that is the "emotional and intellectual abuse of a child." So far as Harris' argument goes, what the faithful are doing or not doing to children is entirely irrelevant.

Ten years have now passed since many of us first felt the jolt of history—when the second plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We knew from that moment that things can go terribly wrong in our world—not because life is unfair, or moral progress impossible, but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions of our ignorant ancestors. The worst of these ideas continue to thrive—and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children.
At best, Harris' argument goes as follows: (a) Religious faith is false, indeed, the "worst of [our ignorant ancestors'] ideas." (b) It is false in just such a way as to produce in anyone who would willingly submit his reason to it the capacity for the worst kinds of moral evil. (c) Most people come to be religious in childhood. (d) Therefore, to teach a child to be religious is to aid and abet the creation of a world in which the destruction of the towers of the WTC is possible.

Gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.

What is the meaning of life? What is our purpose on earth? These are some of the great, false questions of religion. We need not answer them—for they are badly posed—but we can live our answers all the same. At a minimum, we must create the conditions for human flourishing in this life—the only life of which we can be certain. That means we should not terrify our children with thoughts of hell, or poison them with hatred for infidels. We should not teach our sons to consider women their future property, or convince our daughters that they are property even now. And we must decline to tell our children that human history began with magic and will end with bloody magic—perhaps soon, in a glorious war between the righteous and the rest. One must be religious to fail the young so abysmally—to derange them with fear, bigotry, and superstition even as their minds are forming—and one cannot be a serious Christian, Muslim, or Jew without doing so in some measure.
As to his first point, I am not sure that there is much meaningfully different between seeking out how to live a meaningful life or to live life purposefully and asking what the meaning of life is or what is our purpose. Surely Harris, of all people, thinks that a crucial part of our "living our answers" lies in our being reasonable and rational. Yet, that involves not merely living, but living consciously, seeking out what it means for human life to flourish, asking these questions. He has concluded that this is the "only life of which he can be certain," and on the basis of that answer, sets out a certain array of questions. I even suspect he is teaching his daughter to do so! How this is unlike what religious parents do escapes me.

More on point, Harris declares that "we should not terrify our children with thoughts of hell." Nolo contendere. However, we shouldn't terrify our children in any event! We should not terrify our children with thoughts of AIDS, the Ebola virus, tsunamis, serial rapists, being mauled by rabid dogs or angry chimpanzees, or being the victim of terrorist attacks. So, what does terrifying children have to do with any of this? Likewise, he insists that we do not "poison them with hatred for infidels." Is there someone Harris imagines it helpful or morally neutral against whom we can licitly poison our children with hatred? Why not simply say that we should not poison our children with hatred? However, he will not on this score find his approach to raising children any different from that of the faithful. The same, of course, can be said of viewing women as property. Religious people, as such, have no quarrel with him on this regard, and indeed the motivation on behalf of women's liberation came historically as a result of religious upbringing, not the converse.

His next claim, however, is more revealing of the dishonesty in Harris' posting. He writes, "And we must decline to tell our children that human history began with magic and will end with bloody magic—perhaps soon, in a glorious war between the righteous and the rest." Now, I don't imagine most religious believers would put it this way, but let's not quibble. He clearly regards the notion of the creation of man involving any deliberate work on God's part to be "magic," and any belief that the world will end by a dramatic and terrible revelation (i.e. apocalypse) by God to be "bloody magic," so let us leave the words as they stand. The question is simply this: Why should we decline to tell this to our children? Harris does not say. He thinks it obvious, but in so doing he displays his dishonesty here. The reason Harris does not want us to tell this to our children has nothing to do with children at all. He does not want us to say this because he does not think it to be true. Surely, if it were true, there would be a right way to introduce such a truth to children, at appropriate times in the right kinds of context, as we do with any number of things we want to teach our children. Suppose we replaced the magic beginning and ending the human race with claims about the stars burning cold or about asteroids and global extinctions. Should we tell about these to our children? Sure, at the right time, of course. So, Harris' worry here is not that religious people tell their children things that they hold to be true, as he would surely want them to do so. What he objects to is that what they teach he does not believe, but again, this is not about children, but about his unbelief.

Such sins against reason and compassion do not represent the totality of religion, of course—but they lie at its core. As for the rest—charity, community, ritual, and the contemplative life—we need not take anything on faith to embrace these goods. And it is one of the most damaging canards of religion to insist that we must.
Oddly enough, this is one of the few places Harris gets it right. If one were to justify religion on the basis of charity (understood here not as the theological virtue, but as love, kindness, compassion, etc. on the natural plane), community, ritual, contemplation, etc., then Harris is altogether right that "we need not take anything on faith to embrace these goods." (Whether we could successfully live by them without God's help is a different, and in this context distracting, question.) Thomas Aquinas would agree that these goods are able to be known and pursued as goods apart from any special revelation. So, he is right that the faithful, in their defense of religion, must be willing to defend, along with these other goods, those goods which could neither be known nor achieved apart from God's making them available to us, i.e. by revelation. Of course, this is also why a religious parent must impart knowledge of these to children, since, as Harris indirectly admits, such goods could not be known by the child's own efforts.

People of faith recoil from observations like these. They reflexively point to all the good that has been done in the name of God and to the millions of devout men and women, even within conservative Muslim societies, who do no harm to anyone. And they insist that people at every point on the spectrum of belief and unbelief commit atrocities from time to time. This is all true, of course, and truly irrelevant. The groves of faith are now ringed by a forest of non sequiturs.
As I have shown above, the truer claim is that people of faith recoil from these claims because they also see (a) that they are objectionable (e.g. terrifying children, teaching hatred, etc.) and (b) understand that this kind of wickedness is precisely opposed to faith. In other words, it is Harris, not the people of faith, who is lost in the forest of his own non sequiturs.

Whatever else may be wrong with our world, it remains a fact that some of the most terrifying instances of human conflict and stupidity would be unthinkable without religion. And the other ideologies that inspire people to behave like monsters—Stalinism, fascism, etc.—are dangerous precisely because they so resemble religions. Sacrifice for the Dear Leader, however secular, is an act of cultic conformity and worship. Whenever human obsession is channeled in these ways, we can see the ancient framework upon which every religion was built. In our ignorance, fear, and craving for order, we created the gods. And ignorance, fear, and craving keep them with us.
Here is where Harris, along with the so-called "New Atheists" are at their most dishonest. The first claim is simply gratuitous and is no more true merely because it is oft repeated. The dishonesty comes in the second claim, viz. that explicitly and self-admittedly rationalist and "superstition-free" ideologies that have been manifestly destructive of human life and flourishing on massive scales unknown and unmatched by any evils committed in the name of faith "are dangerous precisely because they so resemble religions." What Harris, et al. know they cannot deny is that the worst evils we know historically were not committed in the name of faith, and that they were indeed hostile to religious faith, seeking either to eradicate it or to co-opt and demoralize its members, generally by widespread use of violence and ideological indoctrination, especially of the young. Indeed, they cannot deny that removal of children from any religious catechesis was a principal strategy of such regimes, putting them in less "superstitious" and more "rational" programs of indoctrination.

His only way out of this obvious dilemma is to assert that such things were capable of wickedness because they resembled religion. However, I cannot believe he actually thinks this to be so. Surely such ideologies are dangerous because they have such loathsome and destructive views of the human person which, when accepted, permit someone with a perverse moral fervor to commit the worst kinds of atrocities. That they are able to produce structures so destructive and terrible in the cause of pure reason more obviously shows not that these are ersatz but functional religions, but rather the problems of any ideology that diminishes the worth and right understanding of the human person. To call atheistic regimes "religious" in their wickedness is simply dishonest.

What defenders of religion cannot say is that anyone has ever gone berserk, or that a society ever failed, because people became too reasonable, intellectually honest, or unwilling to be duped by the dogmatism of their neighbors. This skeptical attitude, born of equal parts care and curiosity, is all that “atheists” recommend—and it is typical of nearly every intellectual pursuit apart from theology. Only on the subject of God can smart people still imagine that they reap the fruits of human intelligence even as they plow them under.
Indeed, and why would we? Harris ought to know better, since his first sentence, with minor editing, expresses the view that the Byzantine Emperor Michael II Palaiologos expressed to his Muslim interlocutors that, when quoted by Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg on September 12, 2006, caused such an international controversy! The fact is that, by definition, there is no excess of virtue, and so one cannot be wicked by being too reasonable, intellectually honest, or unwilling to be duped by dogmatism. Harris displays either a culpable lack of curiosity about what the faithful actually think or his dishonesty about what he does know them to believe shines through here. The whole history of theology, and certainly of Christian theology, has been an upholding of reason, the Logos, as part of what Jesus set right in his coming as man, his death, resurrection, and return to the Father. To assert that attending to care and curiosity is the unique reserve of unbelief is hubris and ignorance. No one who has attended in the slightest way to the history of theology would think that serious belief in God is coincident with plowing the fruits of human intelligence under while imagining to reap them.

Ten years have passed since a group of mostly educated and middle-class men decided to obliterate themselves, along with three thousand innocents, to gain entrance to an imaginary Paradise. This problem was always deeper than the threat of terrorism—and our waging an interminable “war on terror” is no answer to it. Yes, we must destroy al Qaeda. But humanity has a larger project—to become sane. If September 11, 2001, should have taught us anything, it is that we must find honest consolation in our capacity for love, creativity, and understanding. This remains possible. It is also necessary. And the alternatives are bleak.
There is little else to say, save to invite Harris to take his own advice. If he showed some of the love, creativity, and understanding he exhorts toward the very faith he condemns as offering a bleak alternative, he may see that he has, in persons of faith, fellow men and women committed to the very project of sanity and reason to which he has committed himself. Is he honest enough to set rhetorical worries about children aside and find out what we really have to say?

1 comment:

Fr. Andrew McAlpin, O.P. said...

Brilliant response. Harris continues to provide rich nonsense in the God/atheist debate. His apparent inability to actually engage in thoughtful debate is annoying at best and wicked at worst. When you get to create the red herrings, you would think addressing the contrary opinions would be a scholarly thing to do. He doesn't, and he proves the point that he is on the lowest intellectual level of the New Atheists.