Gimme That Old Time Religion (Bashing)
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gimme That Old Time Religion (Bashing) | 7 comments (7 topical, 0 hidden)
Gimme That Old Time Religion (Bashing) | 7 comments (7 topical, 0 hidden)