I might as well come right out and say it. I’m developing a crush on Sam Harris. In fact, if both of us were single and he was gay, I’d want him as my boyfriend. Though I imagine that one a date with (an imaginary, gay, and single) Sam Harris I’d probably be slightly intimidated by his intelligence, and spend the whole date hoping I didn’t sound like a complete idiot.) It doesn’t hurt that he’s easy on the eyes, but however much I may like his looks, I like his ideas even better.
He had me at page one, when I picked up The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason after the title caught my eye, and my admiration of him grew when I caught his interviews for the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There. I decided I’d definitely read whatever he published next, and was pretty much solidified with Letter to a Christian Nation. So, by the time I saw him profiled in the Post as an “Atheist Evangelist”, was already sold. His “dissent” in the Newsweek cover special “The Politics of Jesus,” is just the icing on the cake. Even though he doesn’t say anything he hasn’t said before, it’s still interesting to hear them at this particular moment in American politics.
You may have said it all before, but say it again, Sam. Say it again.
It is worth noting, therefore, that we have elected a president who seems to imagine that whenever he closes his eyes in the Oval Office—wondering whether to go to war or not to go to war, for instance—his intuitions have been vetted by the Creator of the universe. Speaking to a small group of supporters in 1999, Bush reportedly said, “I believe God wants me to be president.” Believing that God has delivered you unto the presidency really seems to entail the belief that you cannot make any catastrophic mistakes while in office. One question we might want to collectively ponder in the future: do we really want to hand the tiller of civilization to a person who thinks this way? Religion is the one area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give good evidence and valid arguments in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet these beliefs regularly determine what they live for, what they will die for and—all too often—what they will kill for.
And, as I’ve written before, what they will all too willingly allow others to die for.
I’d just extend Sam’s question a bit: do we really want to hand the tiller of civilization to an entire group who thinks this way, and to the leaders they elect? I’m writing this on election night, and carefully avoiding election returns. However, a CNN email alert tells me that the Democrats may have taken the House, and Senator Rick Santorum will soon be private citizen Rick Santorum. So, maybe we’re in the process of un-electing some of the leaders they’d put into office.
That’s a good thing, but it’s also worth stopping for a moment to consider that the folks who will be flying back to D.C. to start packing up their office soon weren’t just elected by our radical religious fellow citizens, but also by middle-of-the-road believers who are belatedly alarmed at the excess and extremism that alarmed the rest of us one election back. You know, when the rest of us were screaming and waving our arms about not giving the inmate the keys to the asylum? Yeah. That. But the problem then was one that Harris pointed a while back about the challenge presented by religious moderates.
Harris is straight out of the stun grenade school of public rhetoric, and his arguments are far more likely to offend the faithful than they are to coax them out of their faith. And he doesn’t target just the devout. Religious moderates, Harris says in his patient and imperturbable style, have immunized religion from rational discussion by nurturing the idea that faith is so personal and private that it is beyond criticism, even when horrific crimes are committed in its name.
“There is this multicultural, apologetic machinery that keeps telling us that we can’t attack people’s religious sensibility,” Harris says in an interview. “That is so wrong and so suicidal.”
OK, maybe it’s Sam’s “stun grenade” approach that makes me swoon just a little. (He claims he comes across angrier in his prose than he really is, and interviews he comes across as calm, rational, and rather charming. This is my favorite one at the moment. Hell, the looks like the kind of guy I’d have coffee with, at the very least. But his forceful writing does make me a little weak in the knees.) The Post article asks whether religious moderates are the enablers of extremists or a bulwark against extremists. Regardless of how you answer that, it’s reasonable to think that the same religious moderates who just un-elected some of the religious right-wingers from office (Sam says that these people don’t just elect our political leaders, but get elected) also helped elect them just one election cycle ago.
How’s that? Well, you have religious moderates like author David Kuo, who writes in Tempting Faith of how he and others like him gave the Bush administration, and the president himself as a “brother in Christ,” the benefit of the doubt only to find out now what the rest of us knew at the time: that their confidence was misplaced from the beginning. But it was as hard to say that then as it is now, because (as Sam has said before) it’s almost impossible to safely criticize anyone’s religious beliefs, and in this country also the public policy based on those beliefs. If it’s based on faith, you cannot call it idiocy even if it is, because faith is the great conversation-stopper.
Religious faith is a conversation-stopper. Religion is only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet these beliefs often determine what they live for, what they will die for, and–all too often–what they will kill for. This is a problem, because when the stakes are high, human beings have a simple choice between conversation and violence. Only a fundamental willingness to be reasonable–to have our beliefs about the world revised by new evidence and new arguments–can guarantee that we will keep talking to one another. Certainty without evidence is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing. While there is no guarantee that rational people will always agree, the irrational are certain to be divided by their dogmas.
Or maybe it’s better articulated in this passage from a Wired article about “The New Atheism.”
I return from Oxford enthusiastic for argument. I immediately begin trying out Dawkins’ appeal in polite company. At dinner parties or over drinks, I ask people to declare themselves. “Who here is an atheist?” I ask.
Usually, the first response is silence, accompanied by glances all around in the hope that somebody else will speak first. Then, after a moment, somebody does, almost always a man, almost always with a defiant smile and a tone of enthusiasm. He says happily, “I am!”
But it is the next comment that is telling. Somebody turns to him and says: “You would be.”
“Because you enjoy pissing people off.”
“Well, that’s true.”
This type of conversation takes place not in central Ohio, where I was born, or in Utah, where I was a teenager, but on the West Coast, among technical and scientific people, possibly the social group that is least likely among all Americans to be religious. Most of these people call themselves agnostic, but they don’t harbor much suspicion that God is real. They tell me they reject atheism not out of piety but out of politeness. As one said, “Atheism is like telling somebody, ‘The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.'” This is the type of statement she would never want to make.
Few people ever die from impoliteness, though when it comes to faith it’s enough a career killer that the advance praise for Letter to a Christian Nation includes a anonymous blurb from a best-selling author who says “I can’t sign my name to this blurb. As a New York Times best selling author of books about business, my career will evaporate if I endorse a book that challenges the deeply held superstitions and bigotry of the masses.” And in the Washington Post article, Richard Dawkins is cited as saying that “atheists are the new gays — in the closet and pretty much disqualified from public office.”
And Dawkins has a point. Much news is being made about Democrats “getting religion” and courting religious voters in this election, as though it was something new. But the truth is that, since Jimmy Carter, you can’t get elected president without declaring your Christian faith, and one better if you can declare Jesus as your “personal Lord and Savior.” Our last two Democratic presidents have not only been religious persons, but “born again Christians.” If you can’t get those “Lord and Savior” words out of your mouth, you can almost forget about even getting the nomination. At the congressional level, it’s pretty much the same thing. At the very least, you’ve got to declare a Judeo-Christian religious affiliation. You’d be hard pressed to find a Member of Congress who doesn’t.
For all the talk of religion being “pushed out of the public square” we seem to have reached a point at which it actually the critique of religion that’s being pushed from the public square, and completely shut out of any national discourse on policy. Non-believers are running behind, far behind, in terms of having any kind of representation proportionate to their numbers. On the national level, when it comes to policy, the discussion is taking place between people who almost never question their shared core assumptions, and who are unlikely to amend their outlook when evidence or reality doesn’t support it. At great cost, as Harris writes in his Newsweek piece.
It is, of course, taboo to criticize a person’s religious beliefs. The problem, however, is that much of what people believe in the name of religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable and incompatible with genuine morality. One of the worst things about religion is that it tends to separate questions of right and wrong from the living reality of human and animal suffering. Consequently, religious people will devote immense energy to so-called moral problems—such as gay marriage—where no real suffering is at issue, and they will happily contribute to the surplus of human misery if it serves their religious beliefs.
It helps construct the kind of faith-based blinders Kuo wears throughout his sojourn in the White House faith-based initiatives office, and it leads to a kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” type situation in which many people can see the faith-based politicos are walking around — and leading the nation —with blinders on, but almost no one is willing to be so “impolite” or “anti-religious” or “unpatriotic” as to say so. In that sense, it leads to the kind of human misery churned out every day in the Iraq war, which God obviously wanted because God wanted Bush in office and Bush wanted the war and if God can’t be wrong then Bush can’t be wrong and neither can the people who elected him.
Speaking to a small group of supporters in 1999, Bush reportedly said, “I believe God wants me to be president.” Believing that God has delivered you unto the presidency really seems to entail the belief that you cannot make any catastrophic mistakes while in office.
It causes plenty of human misery when it promotes abstinence-only education, despite evidence that it doesn’t prevent teenage sexual activity so much as it lowers the rate of condom use, and when those programs are run by people who claim (when safely among the faithful) that prevention is not the point (but saving souls and punishing sin on the taxpayers’ dime is the point).
It causes plenty of human misery when faith-based objections are the main reason for defunding a program that helped women in developing countries (often destabilized by western colonialism and imperialism) who suffered fistulas as a result of gang-rape.
It causes plenty of human misery when it becomes a reason to deny funding to suicide prevention for gay teens.
It causes plenty of human misery when it becomes a reason to preach abstinence-only prevention and discourage condom in Africa, whittling away what progress had previously been made in prevention, even as infection rates continue to rise.
It does so in the name of God, and is nothing less than outright murder and — when it comes to HIV/AIDS in Africa — genocide?
Why, “in the name of God,” no one can stand up and publicly say so? And how on earth can we stop it without saying all of the above?
Oh, that’s right. Sam is saying it, again.
Well, thank … uh … Sam, for that.