Gimme That Old Time Religion (Bashing)
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Mar 22, 2007 at 01:42:16 PM EST
I love a good rant of rationalistic fervor. But don't get me wrong. I also appreciate a fervent, well-delivered sermon and have heard my share from quite a range of styles and theological perspectives. Strong arguments, well-made -- are always worth a listen and are a great experience in a constitutional democracy founded on freedom of conscience and speech. But forgive me if I have no use for the views of Sam Harris, the author of the best-selling book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. I think he is one of the best friends the religious right has in American public life. If Sam Harris did not exist, Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson (or Jim Wallis, for that matter), would have to invent him -- and indeed, in their fevered imaginations, they already have -- and convinced millions of Americans that such people exist and are terribly influential in public life. He is the personification of the almost entirely imaginary campaign against religion itself.

This is bad enough, but his ideas are actually more concerning.

I would not ordinarily take the time to talk about Harris. His argument is, frankly, stupefyingly simplistic, (which I know will be shocking statement to some, but bear with me.) What's more, this would ordinarily be off topic on this site because we are not interested in debates between theism and atheism. We are interested in the religious right and what to do about it. But Harris's argument does end up having something to do with that for a number of reasons, as I will discuss. Indeed, he and those who follow his argument believe that antireligionism is the response to the religious right because religion itself in all of its forms is responsible for it. No religion; no religious right. Simple, right? It gets a little more detailed, but not much.

Nevertheless, many people are very taken with his argument, which is essentially this: "Extreme" religion is the fault of moderate, even progressive religion and; the most "extreme," of those speaking in the name of Christianity, Islam or Judaism, adhere to most strongly, and best represent the central tenets of their respective faiths. These foundational notions of the Essential Harris, are cast in sharp relief in his recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, titled: "God's dupes: Moderate believers give cover to religious fanatics -- and are every bit as delusional."

He explains:

Within every faith one can see people arranged along a spectrum of belief. Picture concentric circles of diminishing reasonableness: At the center, one finds the truest of true believers-the Muslim jihadis, for instance, who not only support suicidal terrorism but who are the first to turn themselves into bombs; or the Dominionist Christians, who openly call for homosexuals and blasphemers to be put to death.

In taking this view, Harris adopts as legitimate, the claim of jihadists and dominionists that they embody the True Religion. There is no basis for his claim. Islam and Christianity are quite diverse, historically rich and there are few theologians who are not jihadists or dominionists themselves who would place such controversial groups at the center of their traditions. And certainly no independent scholars would agree with Harris that dominionists and jihadists represent the core of their respective faiths. That Harris's argument rests on the presuppositions of the jihadists and dominionists themselves -- is the desperate assertion of a crackpot or a ruthless propagandist. (I appreciate that this may make some fans of Harris uncomfortable, but I am certain that they can handle it since, after all, they are undoubtedly open to reason.)

I am not a scholar of Islam, but I have written a thing or two or three about dominionism. It is indeed, an influential movement within conservative evangelical Christianity, but it is by no means at the center of modern Christianity; Harris's crackpot geometry of concentric circles not withstanding. He goes on to describe the outer rings of the circles, except that the geometry gets kinda hazy out there.

Outside this sphere of maniacs, one finds millions more who share their views but lack their zeal. Beyond them, one encounters pious multitudes who respect the beliefs of their more deranged brethren but who disagree with them on small points of doctrine-of course the world is going to end in glory and Jesus will appear in the sky like a superhero, but we can't be sure it will happen in our lifetime.

Out further still, one meets religious moderates and liberals of diverse hues-people who remain supportive of the basic scheme that has balkanized our world into Christians, Muslims and Jews, but who are less willing to profess certainty about any article of faith. Is Jesus really the son of God? Will we all meet our grannies again in heaven? Moderates and liberals are none too sure.

Those on this spectrum view the people further toward the center as too rigid, dogmatic and hostile to doubt, and they generally view those outside as corrupted by sin, weak-willed or unchurched.

And Harris shares the same sneering view of liberal Christians, Jews and Muslims as the most fanatical of jihadists and dominionists. He adopts their terms and presents them as epitomizing the faith, and then adopts their method of invective, calling others weak, heretical, apostate, zeal-less. Elsewhere in his writings he calls the people he considers extremists, more "honest" and in their way, even more "rational" than liberals.

But Harris himself is not a rationalist so much as a demagogue and a provocateur. He divides people who ought to be allies against one another. Listen to this as he goes on:

The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism. Ordinary fundamentalist Christians, by maintaining that the Bible is the perfect word of God, inadvertently support the Dominionists-men and women who, by the millions, are quietly working to turn our country into a totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of John Calvin's Geneva. Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn.

Of course, this is preposterous on it face. The mere shared belief in the divinity of Jesus does not prevent Christians of all stripes from disagreeing, scornfully or otherwise, on everything from minor matters of doctrine and ritual to the most profound issues of war and peace. Similarly, being American and believing in common in our system of government does not mean that we all agree on many important matters, or refrain from disagreeing on matters large and small. Same goes for members of any of the political parties. Inhibitions on the ways we disagree can be differently sourced. Now one can say: "Wait a minute, Clarkson! Religion is different than politics!" To which I would say yes, but the burden is on Harris to make his case that liberal Christians are directly or indirectly soft on dominionism. But he does not do that. I might add, that in my experience, there there is no more, or necessarily clearer responses to dominionism in particular, or to the religious right in general, from atheists and humanists than from mainstream Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Harris could make the argument that coreligionists ought to stand-up more effectively to fundamentalists and theocrats of all sorts; and that they, arguably, have a special standing and responsibility to do so. Such an effort would get my full support. Indeed, milquetoastery runs deep among many; but I think it has little or nothing to do with being blinded by religion. I suspect that is mostly because people are a little too-comfortable in their lives and not looking for a fight. I think the same is true of many non-believers.  
In an interview last year, with TruthDig, Harris was asked how he came to write The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason.

It was my immediate reaction to Sept. 11-the moment it became clear that we were meandering into a global, theologically-inspired conflict with the Muslim world, and were going to tell ourselves otherwise, based on the respect we pay to faith.

The last thing we were going to admit was that people were flying planes into our buildings because of what they believed about God. We came up with euphemisms about this being a war on terror, and Islam being a religion of peace, and we were pushed even further into our own religiosity as a nation. At the moment that this dynamic became clear-and it became clear within about 24 hours-I started writing the book.

And so it came to pass that Harris was moved to his grand theory that all religious people are responsible for the 9/11 hijackers and anyone remotely like them. He  explained:

Leftists, secularists, religious moderates, and religious liberals tend to be very poorly placed to recognize that when somebody looks into a video camera and says, "I love death more than the infidel loves life," and then blows himself up, he's actually being honest about his state of mind.... Religious moderates and secularists don't understand that because they don't really know what it's like to believe in God.

Hear that? Religious moderates don't really know what it is like to believe in God. (But Sam Harris does!) I would say that is a breath-taking assertion -- except that it isn't. It is just stupidly arrogant. But that is not the main problem; people say stupid and arrogant things all the time. What is signficant about this is that this statement is integral to the views of someone who is prominent and perhaps even influential in the current discourse about religion in public life.

There are of course political consequences if otherwise sensible people join Harris in putting on the blinders to go out and fight the Muslim hordes. Harris is seeking to neutralize religious people who don't hold to his peculiar variety of militant manicheanism -- for the sole reason that they are "delusional" religious believers. This antireligious bigotry and the fanning of it in others, is a fundamental roadblock to any kind of meaningful or politically productive conversation. Most of the Americans he would hope to mobilize to deal with terror abroad and theocratic politics at home are, in fact, religious, making his insulting invective a political non-starter.

Indeed, Harris speaks about "religious moderates" in much the same way that Jim Wallis writes about unnamed "secular fundamentalists" and their supposed nefarious deeds against people of faith in the public square.  They both write in the abstract, offer no specifics, and do so with such vitriol that many depending on which side of the faith/secular divide they sit, cannot not find in them, someone who looks like a legitimate, respectful and trustworthy political partner.

"We should be fundamentally hostile to claims to certainty," Harris declared in his Truthdig interview, "that are not backed up by evidence and argument."  OK. By that standard we would have to say that the problem with Harris is that on his key points, he is all argument and no evidence. Indeed, his claim that moderate religion is responsible for the extreme views and activities of others smacks of the kind of out-of-context-of-life abstraction one sometimes gets from arm chair generals and people whose experience of the political world is limited to grad school. Where the rubber meets the road of political life is people working with one another towards common goals and preferably with some sense of what has gone before, and how politics actually works so they can steer events toward the best possible outcomes -- even when trying something new.

Finding ways to better contend with the religious right in America; finding ways for wide swaths of people, religious and non-religious, Christian and non-Christian to be able to communicate with one another, learn with one another, and finding sufficient intellectual and political common ground -- is a rational and common sense way to go. Here at Talk to Action, religion-bashing and secular-baiting are banned, in part because they are significant obstacles to broadening and deepening our capacity to find and work that intellectual and political common ground.

I believe that the divisive rhetoric and antireligious bigotry of Sam Harris plays directly into the hands of the religious right, turning people who follow his lead into caricatures of the the very sort of sneering characters that religious right preachers and ideologues warn their followers about. Harris's antireligionism is not merely a philosophically rationalist case against religion; a venerable take on life. Rather, Harris's argument is political, and framed in the context of the war on terror. He wants to blame the extreme views and activities of some, on the many -- the many who have nothing to do with it.  His method is glib demagoguery and argument by assertion. His core premise is dead wrong, and his political reasoning is as flawed.

Harris's ideas run profoundly against a central constitutional idea in America, and a central ethos of our culture. It is the glue that holds together a society based on religious pluralism: in our country, we seek to treat as equal citizens, the theist and the atheist; the Christian and the non-Christian. This is one of the strongest arguments we have in contending with the religious right. If we, as citizens, embrace the ethos of religious equality and respect, and the constitutional doctrine of religious equality and separation of church and state, we can address the religious supremecism of the religious right, as well as the bogus narrative of Christian nationalism.  

Conversely, Harris's souped-up, uber-rationalism is a supremecism of viewpoint that seeks to justify all manner of unjustified and I would say, unjustifiable attacks on the views and traditions of others, and is an outright attack on religious pluralism -- thereby strengthening the hand of the religious right, which also seeks to overcome pluralism.

In contrast, Don Byrd, writing here at Talk to Action last week gave a succinct summary of the historic, mainstream Baptist view rooted in the origins of American political and constitutional theory.

As a matter of law, our Constitution explicitly forbids religious tests for office, without exception. As a matter of faith, religion is not served by de facto tests either, those that in reality leave non-theism out of bounds.

If religious freedom is truly free--if the freedom to believe is honestly one of conscience--then the freedom not to believe must be protected alongside it, not just in the law but in practice; not just in theory but in reality. As a Baptist who embraces the priesthood-of-the-believer principle, soul freedom, and the notion that we come to our religious views through free will and earnest personal decision, I honor the freedom that allows others a true choice to make different decisions - to hold different religious beliefs, or to choose no faith. In short, it's only the freedom not to believe in God that gives religious liberty any real significant meaning.

Don Byrd is also the official blogger of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, representing a number of mainstream Baptist groups in Washington. Baptist and atheists ought to be the firmest of allies -- but not in the world view of Sam Harris whose ill considered politics create weakening fissures, not unifying strengths.

A better framework for addressing these matters is rooted in our history, and embraces the Christian rationalism of Locke, Madison and Jefferson; the humanism of Franklin; and the Baptist orthodoxy of John Leland and Rev. Isaac Bachus. We can build on the work of the past 300 years to meet the needs of our time.We can live with one another and engage one another peacefully and reasonably in public life, as long as we are not seeking to hijack public resources to promote our religious views or institutions or pet projects; or even religion in general. Government exists to carry out other functions. We call this separation of church and state. At the same time, people have the right to make up their own minds about God and choice of religious community -- or not. We call this religious freedom or freedom of conscience.

My point here is not to carry a brief for liberal Christianity or any other religion, moderate or immoderate. Nor do I want to step into the age-old argument between atheism and theism. My interest is different and goes to the point of this group blog:  If we are interested in getting ourselves better together to contend with the theocratic elements of our time, I submit that Harris offers a false and counterproductive path. Religious and non-religious Americans must be able to speak coherently with one another about the society in which we live, and how to contend with theocratic interests that affect us all. Are liberal theists really responsible for 9/11 and the theocratic views and aspirations of the religious right as Harris alleges? Or is that demagogic nonsense that does not stand-up under scrutiny? I think it is the latter.

the laziness of the pundit class.

Interviewing people is hard work. I'd go to any campus newspaper and swap them a Sam Harris and a David Brooks for any two student staffers, and feel like I got a great deal. At least the students work.

by NancyP on Thu Mar 22, 2007 at 03:51:49 PM EST

for the debates between theism an atheism to go forward, just as other kinds of scientific and theological discussions continue and evolve over time.

But as these matters seep over into politics, the stakes change. We need to use great care in thinking through the implications of what is being said.

Of course, it becomes all the more urgent that we take a closer look when a popular and arguably influential figure's main premise is bogus.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Mar 22, 2007 at 01:49:33 PM EST

Fred, thanks for this; I think you have kept well within your own guidelines in bringing these issues to the blog.
you wrote:
I believe that the divisive rhetoric and antireligious bigotry of Sam Harris plays directly into the hands of the religious right, turning people who follow his lead into caricatures of the very sort of sneering characters that religious right preachers and ideologues warn their followers about. ... Harris's argument is political, and framed in the context of the war on terror. He wants to blame the extreme views and activities of some, on the many -- the many who have nothing to do with it.

I agree that the Sam Harris phenomenon is playing into the hands of the religious right, for these reasons you mention - and also because it gives preachers and ideologues more than just added anti-social grist for grinding in the presence of their followers.  I think it actually gives them common cause with a segment of the mainstream who will not be able to forgo their contempt of "the secularists" who buy or publish his books (or who publish his unworthy Op Eds).  So it weakens the religious mainstream's solidarity, and its important connection and support of free institutions such as the press.

The right will also discount (no less readily than will the rest of the religious spectrum) Harris' bombast regarding their own dependence upon the continued presence of the religious mainstream for their very existence.  An absurdity which only confuses the issue of our obligation to truth - the confrontation of the right's Chiliastic distortions of Christianity.

In addition, I have no doubt that some ignoramus will be seen spinning such talk into the orbit of the right's best-loved role as "most persecuted" Christians.  "Are we not," they will say, "to understand by this that the secularists are now calling upon lukewarm and heretic Christians to turn upon us and do away with us?"  All this, notwithstanding the fact that Harris is actually demanding that we simply stop regarding what must amount to at least half the total universe (that being the spiritual half).

God bless the whole world - - No Exceptions
by John Anngeister on Thu Mar 22, 2007 at 08:04:53 PM EST

Apparently Harris' books are being sold, with Amazon rankings of #304 (End of Faith) and #152 (Letters to a Christian Nation). Dawkins' latest is blowing the older books out of the water at Amazon rank #18, adn a spot on the NYT Book Review top sellers list in hardcover nonfiction.

Are these "coffeetable" books, or are they being read? If so, are "real people" (not paid reviewers or pundits) discussing the books openly?

I agree that the above questions may not matter a whit, since the mere existence fo the books gives ammunition to the hysterical Right, and more documentable ammunition than their usual panicky confabulations.

by NancyP on Fri Mar 23, 2007 at 11:51:10 AM EST

Harris's first book was on the NYT best seller list. Not sure about his second, but given the popularity of the first, and the rather uncritical reception his work has received, and from the buzz I get, I think his work is being widely read. Whats more, it is treated seriously enough that the LA Times puts him on the op-ed page.

So, yes. I think it is important for us to recognize that the forces that can come together to oppose the religious right in effective ways are being divided in a number of ways by the sneeringly demagogic works of Mr. Harris.

Interestingly, when I crossposted a version of this piece at Daily Kos, not a single Harris fan was able to defend him on a single one of my points. Nor did they even try.  It could be that they are just so used to being on the anti-religion attack, that they have no framework to even articulate a defense of Mr. Harris, who is evidently something of a sacred cow to some.

But I think it is more likely that on the points I raised, Harris does not know what he is talking about, and his fans just don't know what to say; either because they see that I have a point, or that they are no better informed than Harris, or simply have a circle the wagons mindset.

This is a situation not unlike when we have pointed out the transparent shortcomings in the work of Jim Wallis. Wallis has no facts to back up major assertions; his fans give him a pass and get angry when we point out the emperor's new clothes. The only defense offered of Wallis is that there are also good things in his book and in his general political work. No disagreement. But that is not a defense or a justification for the enormity of the problems with his book and other of his writings.

The problem here is that the worst and arguably dangerous ideas in their work is internalized along with the best of their ideas -- because they are going largely unchallenged.

But amidst all of the things that demand our attention, the question is necessarily: Are these things sufficiently important?  

I think they are.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Mar 23, 2007 at 02:37:09 PM EST

He makes some valid points, but has probably done more harm than good. However, one thing you said about dominionism puzzled me. It is indeed, an influential movement within conservative evangelical Christianity, but it is by no means at the center of modern
Christianity." I'm curious as to how you arrived at this conclusion. Personally, I use Jesus's criterion; "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Or in modern terms, "follow the money." So to determine the center of Christianity, all you have to do is determine the richest religious leaders and organizations, provided their wealth comes from lots of smaller amounts and not from just a few affluent patrons. Such an investigation shows me that the dominionists are indeed at the center of modern Christianity, at least in America. What moderate Christian author can compete with Lahaye? What moderate Christian broadcaster can compete with Dobson etc? I consider these to be the center because they have the most people listening to them and giving them money.

by Dave on Sat Mar 24, 2007 at 05:26:08 PM EST
Christianity is vast and varied, as are the people in it. The major theological streams in Protestantism and Catholicism are not dominionist in orientation, nor are the the vast majority of institutions that are affiliated with them.  

Robertson and other of the religious broadcasters to have large audiences to whom they propound dominionist ideas,  but that does not mean that that they are at the center of Christianity in terms of numbers or influence or carry the momentum of tradition, ideological and institutional that so many other sectors do.  This is not to say that they are not contending for power and influence. We would not bother with this web site if that were not the case.

Harris's method is transparent. Smear everyone who is not Osama bin Laden or Pat Robertson with them. Its cheap demagoguery, but it sells.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Mar 24, 2007 at 06:51:55 PM EST

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