Sam Harris, the End of Faith, and “The Myth of Religious Violence”

I’ve begun reading Sam Harris’ breakout work on religion and violence The End of Faith that gained him notoriety as one of the “4 Horsemen” of the New Atheism. In prepping for a teaching series on the intellectual objections to Christianity in the fall, I thought it appropriate to read some of the popular literature on the subject.

To be honest, before beginning to read it I was scared…of facepalming the whole way through.

My only acquaintance with Harris’ work was his debate with William Lane Craig at Notre Dame last year. In my opinion Craig thoroughly trounced him, but I was struck by Harris’ cool, composed, unflappably secure attitude that all religious belief was basically nonsense, and demonstrably so. He was a great communicator, if not always the clearest-thinking philosopher. (In point of fact, he is not a philosopher, but rather has his Ph.D. in neuroscience.)

Nothing about that judgment has changed since reading the majority of his manuscript. He writes marvelously clear prose and has a peculiar gift for asking questions with an incredulous tone–in print. He also excels in finding particularly horrifying stories of violence associated or motivated by religious belief, and purposefully picking the least charitable reading of any given text of scripture he can. That being said, my faith is in no danger from his philosophical arguments against Christianity, simply because there aren’t many to speak of. Or, if they’re there, they’ve been answered over and over again.

The one truly positive thing I can say that I appreciate about Harris’ work is that he is refreshingly free of postmodern squishiness when it comes to moral relativism, or even metaphysical relativism. He is a realist and understands that beliefs link up to actions in important ways. He also understands Christian theological claims about the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, etc. are claims about reality, not just subjective statements about my consciousness, (unlike so many postmodern theologians.) This, in fact, is a crucial portion of his argument; it is precisely the absurd beliefs of the religious that lead to insane, unjustifiably horrible violence.

I am not interested in giving a full review and critique here. That has been many times over and would be rather pointless. What I want to do is draw attention to the fact that this work is basically a popular example of the conventional wisdom on the subject of religion and violence that William T. Cavanaugh writes about in The Myth of Religious Violence

In a short lecture entitled “Does Religion Cause Violence?” he outlines his argument deconstructing the “conventional wisdom” like this:

But what is implied in the conventional wisdom that religion is prone to violence is that Christianity, Islam, and other faiths are more inclined toward violence than ideologies and institutions that are identified as “secular.” It is this story that I will challenge here. I will do so in two steps. First, I will show that the division of ideologies and institutions into the categories “religious” and “secular” is an arbitrary and incoherent division. When we examine academic arguments that religion causes violence, we find that what does or does not count as religion is based on subjective and indefensible assumptions. As a result certain kinds of violence are condemned, and others are ignored. Second, I ask, “If the idea that there is something called ‘religion’ that is more violent than so-called ‘secular’ phenomena is so incoherent, why is the idea so pervasive?” The answer, I think, is that we in the West find it comforting and ideologically useful. The myth of religious violence helps create a blind spot about the violence of the putatively secular nation-state. We like to believe that the liberal state arose to make peace between warring religious factions. Today, the Western liberal state is charged with the burden of creating peace in the face of the cruel religious fanaticism of the Muslim world. The myth of religious violence promotes a dichotomy between us in the secular West who are rational and peacemaking, and them, the hordes of violent religious fanatics in the Muslim world. Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peacemaking, and necessary. Regrettably, we find ourselves forced to bomb them into the higher rationality. 

Cavanaugh does this and more in his book, and delivers on his promises in the lecture as well. I highly recommend both.

Now, I read this a while back, but when I was reading Harris’ work, I ran across a passage that sounded remarkably familiar. I returned to this lecture and I found that Cavanaugh had addressed Harris’ work specifically. If you’ll pardon me, I’ll quote him at length again:

Sam Harris’s book about the violence of religion, The End of Faith, dramatically illustrates this double standard [Secular violence is rational, but religious violence is irrational and unjustified]. Harris condemns the irrational religious torture of witches, but provides his own argument for torturing terrorists. Harris’s book is charged with the conviction that the secular West cannot reason with Muslims, but must deal with them by force. In a chapter entitled “The Problem with Islam,” Harris writes: “In our dialogue with the Muslim world, we are confronted by people who hold beliefs for which there is no rational justification and which therefore cannot even be discussed, and yet these are the very beliefs that underlie many of the demands they are likely to make upon us.” This is especially a problem if such people gain access to nuclear weapons. “There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. . . . In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.” Muslims then would likely misinterpret this act of “self-defense” as a genocidal crusade, thus plunging the world into nuclear holocaust. “All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns.”

In other words, if we have to slaughter millions through a nuclear first strike, it will be the fault of the Muslims and their crazy religious beliefs.

This, to me, is the most amazing, (and dangerous) irony in Harris’ work. Essentially, Harris believes, that some religious people’s beliefs are so dangerous to other people’s lives, that we should take their lives, and possibly millions alongside of them.

Harris is absolutely right: our beliefs matter when it comes to dealing with violence in the world. Some beliefs are dangerous. What he’s missing is the fact that some of them are his own.

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