Religious moderation, Islam, and a science of morality: Sam Harris stirs the intellectual pot


In February, Sam Harris  gave a TED lecture discussing science, relativism, and values. It is his opening salvo in the project of putting morality talk on a more objective basis, in anticipation of his soon-to-be-released book, The Moral Landscape, an ambitious task indeed.  The thrust of his argument is that we can say sensible, objective things about value, or human well-being, without recourse to absolutist religious claims, and that we should advocate conditions, policies, and practices that lend themselves to advancing those sensible, objective things. Like previous efforts in this sphere (e.g., Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil), Harris wants to corral morality into the territory of scientific inquiry; just as previous domains of religion have had to cede authority, so too now the domain of value must yield.

A corollary of this is that the moral and cultural relativism as it has been articulated and played out over the last few decades has often been wrong-headed and sometimes has justified unconscionable practices.  One example given is turning a non-judging eye on practices like the throwing of battery acid is at girls for dressing “improperly” or attempting to get an education in Afghanistan and Bangladesh.  Some relativists, who don’t believe there is any objective space from which to cast judgment, say, “Who are we to judge? This is our culture, that is theirs.”  Harris replies, “Who are we to not judge?” Who are we to have convinced ourselves that such a horror can be dismissed as merely part of “their”culture” and thereby no better or no worse than, let’s say, not throwing battery acid in girls’ faces? He sees this type of moral relativism as “an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism.”

Part of Harris’ argument is grounded in common human decency and the recognition that some people don’t have the choice to be victims or not of such kinds of violence. Another part of it is grounded in the claim that advances in our understanding of ourselves in the realm of genetics, neuroscience, medicine, etc. have made it possible to to say meaningful, scientific, things about what constitutes flourishing.  In the same way that not all opinions about matters-of-fact need be taken seriously, so too, not all matters of value/morality be treated equally.  Some are actually (gasp!) better than others.

Now this sort of statement seems to be taboo in many intellectual circles and strikes some post-colonial and post-modern ears the wrong way because it smacks as judgmental, ethnocentric, and possibly hegemonic.  Whatever your initial reaction to such a project (I’m at least willing to not dismiss it a priori), I recommend reading and viewing Harris’ other work because he is an important voice in the contemporary war of ideas for many reasons, not-the-least of which is that he is catalyzing interesting fault-lines among the diverse communities of atheists, scientists, philosophers, and the religious.

For example, on the one hand–and like the other so-called “new atheists”–he calmly and articulately demolishes religion and religious truth claims, typically (and regrettably) viewed as an authority on morality; yet on the other hand he parts company with many (most?) scientists and many philosophers who believe that value is not something about which science has anything to say. Science is the ‘what’ and ‘how’, not the ‘if’ and ‘why’.  Harris has an uphill intellectual battle to fight, not least because it contravenes a common assumption in moral philosophy (almost a dogma in some circles) since at least the time of David Hume, namely that “you can’t derive an ought from is.”  That is to say, no description of how things are entails any judgment about how things should be or how one should act.  Harris is attempting to re-attach the head severed by Hume’s Guillotine.

At the same time he is helping to bring strange bedfellows together in this inquiry into the science of value/morality, his critique of moderate religion, and his critique of Islam. It is rare to find atheists and evangelicals breaking bread at the same table, but the scathing critiques of Islamic ideas and values proffered by the likes of Harris and fellow “Horseman” Christopher Hitchens (notwithstanding their different politics) have managed to set out the table-cloth.   This has ruffled the feathers of many liberals, who like to think of themselves as tolerant, and who make a virtue of almost unbounded moral and cultural toleration. The old phrase, “Be open-minded, but not so much that your brains fall out” applies as much to truth-claims as to moral claims and practices.  Some, like Chris Hedges, even wrote a harshly toned book (I love Hedges, but what by Hedges recently isn’t harshly intoned?) inveighing against the new atheists, in which he sees a dangerous form of secular fundamentalism. I agree with Hedges on a lot of things.  But his arguments here, while perhaps applying to a handful of secularists (in particular he must have in mind Hitchens as some sort of representative), I think he is way off base in his charges of racism, neo-conservativism, fundamentalism, utopianism, etc.  Has he been hanging out with John Gray too much? Indeed, I think that the energy he expends burning down a dangerous atheist straw man could be much more effectively used to engage with the growing secularist and atheist movement, with which he may more in common with than it seems.

Liberals also tend to have a predictable reaction to criticism of Muslims by Christians on the right. They respond with almost a knee-jerk defense of Muslims, if not Islam, seemingly because it is a thorn in the side of any self-respecting conservative Christian evangelical and because Muslim countries have been on the receiving end of colonial and imperial ambitions.  This is perhaps understandable give that the Christian Right is wrong about most other issues and their criticism of Islam seems to have more to do with their own absolutist truth claims and bigotry than anything resembling a sustained intellectual criticism. Part of this reaction from the secular Left comes from a deep sympathy with the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, murder, and racist apartheid. Rightly so. But it is possible to challenge oppressive structures and imperialism without giving credence to other forms of oppression, which is also manifest in every Muslim country. How does one remain in solidarity with Palestinians while at the same time maintaining a strident critique of Islamic ideas and practices? Afterall, Hamas (or parts thereof) are itching to impose sharia law and the morality police are already active.  Does that not even register? Does it just take a back seat to the overriding concern of the blockade? I know this will sting, but the charges by the right that the Left is in cahoots with Islamic radicals in Gaza is not without merit.  This is subject of a different post perhaps, but this is a balancing act I think the Left hasn’t yet learned how to do very well.

Harris might say the critique on the part of thy enemy does not thereby entail there is nothing worth critiquing and I think those on the Left may do well to start re-examining some ill-begotten alliances. Just because, say, Christian evangelicals despise the Quran doesn’t mean that the secular Left and indeed thinking adults of all stripes shouldn’t find it equally disturbing and its truth claims beyond the pale (that is, on equal footing with the Hebrew Bible and New Testament in that regard).  This is something of great importance I believe and will be coming back to the topic soon. The verdict isn’t in yet on how that will play out politically and culturally, but suffice it to say that Christian evangelicals aren’t running to promote Harris, even if their hatred of Islam overlaps with Harris’ deeper critique.

Finally, Harris creates another fault-line by taking issue with the argument that since liberal or moderate religion is much better than fundamentalist religion, it is somehow immune to the same criticisms.  Harris has been a consistent critic of not just fundamentalist religion, but “moderate” religion, throughout his oevre.  Essentially, religion is at root based on non-evidential faith and is thereby in a basic antagonism with reason and science and its methods. (For a vivid demo, see the edifying and fascinating online debate between Harris and Andrew Sullivan). Harris does not deny that there are many differences between fundy and moderate versions of any particular religion, but he argues that where there has been “progress” it is precisely where moderate forms have incorporated doubt and values of critical inquiry.  They have ceased to take their own scriptures seriously (literally), and rightly so, not-the-least because they have recognized that the deity as portrayed in the three Western monotheisms is thuggish par excellence and despicable by most modern standards of decency. So they have formed a more sanitary deity to their liking, in spite of their sacred texts.

Moderate forms of religion, despite being preferable in terms of their avowed advocacy of fairness, equality, social justice, etc., has a number of features and consequences that make them fair targets for Harris.  Namely, they offer a cover to fundamentalist forms of religion, they tend to be blind to what unabashed faith (with attendant literalism) looks like and how prevalent it is, they perpetuate religious division by raising offspring that belong to particular mutually exclusive religious identities, and finally and perhaps most importantly, they ultimately devalue reason and evidential inquiry by giving credence to lies.  I am completely aligned with Harris here, despite the fact that I am curious about issues like the short-term vs. long-term strategies for challenging irrationality and my concerns about potentially losing important allies within some of those camps in social justice struggles. Like many, I too have often been extremely curious about how some of my surpassingly intelligent, extremely skeptically (about other things), and liberal acquaintances have somehow still found it possible to be part of a moderate or liberal church, mosque, or synagogue.

Yet, these kind of positions have generated the charge of atheist or scientific “fundamentalism” or “militancy” that is bandied about by both fundys, moderates, and even non-believers (like Julian Baggini, himself is an author of an introduction to atheism, calling the rhetoric of the new atheism counterproductive and even destructive). A more frequent charge is that they are being rude or disrespectful or intolerant.  Whether you understand these charges as defense mechanisms, projections, subtle manipulations, or simply misunderstandings of what either atheism or the scientific method entails (I think they are all of the above), it is worth being hyper-aware of these charges as they arise.  Isn’t there a difference between being assertive in one’s demand for rational argument/evidence for claims and religious fundamentalism?  Isn’t there a difference between challenging untenable positions and being disrespectful?  Exposing this ruse of immunity has been one of the most valuable contributions of the spate of new atheist and skepticism books.  That being said, I think the issue of strategy is one that deserves more discussion.  Perhaps we should lean towards the “skillful means” method, adopting various strategies depending on context and audience.

Sam Harris is evoking some of the most interesting discussions in the world of ideas right now and it is well worth paying attention to.  In addition to this TED talk and some of Harris’ other talks, check out The Four Horsemen, with never a dull moment conversation with Harris, Daniel Dennett (a must read philosopher), Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.

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