An Agnostic Defense of Religion (Sam Harris Might Still Be Sleeping)

Sam Harris is a professional contrarian, but little else.  He made a cult name for himself and a reputation for being extraordinarily open-minded, extremely thoughtful, and supremely inquisitive but I am skeptical.  Apparently, he is a brilliant scientist and interesting philosopher, but in his more prominent role as a self-styled public intellectual, he is neither open-minded nor thoughtful nor inquisitive.

I listen to his podcast regularly, but in truth, I’ve never been so thoroughly disappointed by the chasm separating an intellectual’s reputation and his or her actual ideas and writing than I was when I first encountered Sam Harris.  There’s no disputing his intellect and expertise in his chosen fields, but he has chosen further to make himself something of a renaissance man by commenting extensively on politics, identity, culture, and (most famously) religion.

I’ve written at some length about Harris’s thoughts on politics and culture but had not yet decided how best to tackle his ideas about religion (about which I also feel quite strongly).  It was several weeks ago when he stoked a bit of a fight with liberal commentator Ezra Klein over race science, that I remembered how grating his views can be and his lack of interest in the prejudice that they often casually justify.  

(I don’t want to gloss over the fact that Sam Harris was oddly uncritical of proponents of theories of genetic differences in the capacity of races for intelligence.  Ezra Klein, however, did a much better and more thorough job than I ever could of cutting him down to size on that topic in his column “Sam Harris, Charles Murray, and the Allure of Race Science” and in their podcast some days later.  Please read and listen as well as check out the book he cites several times by Ibram Kendi.)

Harris rose to prominence as one of several philosophers who are not only atheists in their unbelief of a higher being, but extremely pointed both in their certainty and their focus on religion for its own sake (as opposed to others like Albert Camus, for example, who would be more easy to classify as agnostic and whose doubt was incidental to complex and wide-ranging ideas about a whole host of topics).  Among those popularly included in his company are the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Harris’s views on religion are important, in part, because religion and faith are important.  They are also important, however, because they serve as a prelude to the sort of absolutism and dogmatic thinking that characterize his positions on a range of other political and social topics.

He often articulates his views with a sort of aggressive edge that detracts from what might be otherwise legitimate points. More often, however, the ideas themselves border on or cross into actual bigotry:

“Mormonism, it seems to me, is—objectively—just a little more idiotic than Christianity is. It has to be: because it is Christianity plus some very stupid ideas.”

Other times his desire to make a splash lurches into the abhorrent:

“If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.”

Still other times he makes sweeping generalizations that are impossible to support:

“No culture in human history ever suffered because its people became too reasonable or too desirous of having evidence in defense of their core beliefs.”  

The twentieth century was rife with examples of atrocities in service of science, of brutality in the name of rationality or secular social progress, and of incomplete or imperfect science honing the ability of humans to do monstrous damage to others in service of both evil and good (those who argue that religion is the most destructive concept in history seem conveniently to forget that Stalin did just fine without it).  Harris would no doubt argue that these were bad applications of science or evil means to progressive ends or misapplications or misunderstandings of data, but he leaves no space to consider the same of the poor applications of theology that justify religion's related violence and bigotry.  Instead he continues to kickbox with a straw man.

Harris argues from a misunderstanding of religion that parrots the very faults of those fundamentalists he criticizes.  Rather than offering a critique of religion that takes into account the flawed way in which many understand it, he adopts those flaws as his own, pretends that they’re not flaws after all, but rather representative of the wider religious tradition, and screams into the wind in a manner eerily similar to the Franklin Grahams and Jerry Falwells of the world.  For example:

“There are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison.”

He takes the common but by no means universal or even majority belief of conservatives who understand their religious doctrines as literal and uses that belief to stake out a similarly narrow version of atheism that exists and has validity only in opposition to that particular conservative concept of faith.  He also says things like:

“If religion were the only durable foundation for morality you would suspect atheists to be really badly behaved.”

Again, he constructs an argument that only retains its value in opposition to a particularly narrow strain of religious belief; this one the notably marginal idea that one’s own religion is the only legitimate foundation for moral behavior.

Harris’s arguments stand up only against similarly strident opposition and under the favorable and uncritical gaze of his audiences.  Subjected to reasonable spiritual people or scholars of religion, his pronouncements wither.

Renowned religious scholar Karen Armstrong, in her book The Case for God, argues in favor of a compatibility of religions that stems from the interpretation of “God” as something beyond knowledge and comprehension.  This creates space for common ground, not only amongst the three Abrahamic faiths that quite literally share the same God, but with eastern religions whose focus lies more in transcendence, and even with philosophers who reject the concept of God more generally.  In doing so, she traces fundamentalism (particularly Christian fundamentalism) as a sort of radical strain even within conservative religion, wherein the concept of God is literal and the focus of faith becomes dogma rather than compassion and community. Her argument culminates in rejecting a broad dogma that includes the shrill sort of absolutist atheism of Harris’s ilk as a fundamentalist version of a far more rich and varied concept of religious skepticism.  She states:

“The more recent atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris is rather different, because it has focused exclusively on the God developed by the fundamentalisms, and all three insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religion.  This has weakened their critique, because fundamentalism is in fact a defiantly unorthodox form of faith that frequently misrepresents the tradition it is trying to defend.”

Armstrong argues that the defining characteristic of all fundamentalisms is a sort of radical certainty and dogma and that atheism and agnosticism typically reflect an uncertainty of meaning that mirrors the doubt typical of most religious practice.  Harris’s atheism is a rejection only of the dogma of fundamentalists and evinces its own radical certainty of the error of religious faith. She continues:

“… but they refuse, on principle, to dialogue with theologians who are more representative of mainstream tradition.  As a result, their analysis is disappointingly shallow, because it is based on such poor theology. ”

Harris’s disdain for religion doesn’t stop with religious dogma.  He often uses the extremism of fundamentalists to accuse religious people of idiocy and diminish their compassion by dismissing their motivations.  He repeatedly suggests that people can do good because of religious faith, but that their motivation somehow taints the good that they do. He states so, quite clearly, in an exchange on his podcast with Andrew Sullivan and David Frum:

Harris:  “When it does cause someone like Martin Luther King Jr to be good and heroic, well, there are better reasons to be good and heroic than to believe that the Bible is the word of God and that Jesus is his son.  We can find better reasons.”

Sullivan:  “Why are these better reasons and not just different reasons?”

Harris:  “They are reasons that are truly defensible.  You don’t have to believe any bullshit to have them.”

Harris mirrors the single defining characteristic of religious fundamentalism by assigning a higher value to correct dogma and right belief than to good works and compassion.  His atheism is a fundamentalism in its own right.

I stopped calling myself a Christian when at a bible study I attended twice a week, the leader kept referring to non-Christians as “sick.”  It was a metaphor, but my sister had recently decided that she didn’t believe in God, and it struck me the wrong way. My sister is unfailingly compassionate, demonstrates for social justice, and has done work for prisoner rights both as part of her job and on a voluntary basis.  Discounting her love of humanity because of her motivation made me sick to my stomach.

Still, I’ve never called myself an atheist, in large part because of the rhetoric of people like Harris.  To some Christians, my militantly compassionate sister was “sick” for her atheism. But to Harris, my deeply religious and conservative father-in-law would be unreasonable in spite of his interest in others and his scientific mind.  My mother, who has described her Christian faith as radical and verging on socialist, should find better reasons to care about her community. My father, a moderate and teacher of English, volunteers because of the delusions of his religion.

There is a better sort of uncertainty than Harris's.  For years I kept the conclusion of Albert Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus taped above my desk:

"I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain.  One always finds one's burden again.  But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks.  He too concludes that all is well.  This universe neither sterile nor futile.  Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world.  The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Camus looks to Sisyphus's punishment for inspiration.  Sisyphus, forced by the gods to push a boulder each night up a mountain only to have it roll down the following morning, represents a man with nothing but the reality of his task.  Sisyphus has to find peace in his task because he is condemned to repeat it for eternity, and from that Camus draws his beautiful imagery. 

But Camus no doubt knew the rest of the myth.  

Sisyphus was condemned to eternal toil for repeatedly challenging the gods, for believing himself smarter than the divine.  He didn't choose this particular story by accident.  Camus, though he shares in his atheism, would probably find some parallel in Harris's dogma.  Camus has no need for Gods because he elevates the dust and bone of humanity to their divine level.  Harris merely rips religion down and leaves others to clean up the rubble.

Harris is demeaning and his rejection of religion writhes and contorts and covers its eyes from the reality of billions of people who use religious practice to bring them personal peace, look to religious institutions to provide strong communities, and use religious texts as a common language of compassion and love.  Harris consigns himself to the same wilderness he thinks he protests, not only because he doesn't understand religious faith, but because of his unflinching and uncompromising dogmatic belief that he does.