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Sam Harris Takes On the Muslim Cartoon Controversy and His Critics

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Posted on Feb 3, 2006
Sam Harris
Courtesy of Sam Harris

Sam Harris

By Sam Harris

Update: Sam Harris responds to the Muhammad cartoon controversy.

In recent days, crowds of thousands have gathered throughout the Muslim worldburning European embassies, issuing threats, and even taking hostagesחin protest over 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that were published in a Danish newspaper.  The problem is not merely that the cartoons were mildly derogatory.  The furor primarily erupted over the fact that the Prophet had been depicted at all. Muslims consider any physical rendering of Muhammad to be an act of idolatry.  And idolatry is punishable by death. Criticism of Muhammad or his teachingwhich was also implicit in the cartoonsחis considered blasphemy.  As luck would have it, blasphemy is also punishable by death.  Pious Muslims, therefore, have two reasons to not accept less than a severing of the heads of those responsible,” as was elucidated by a preacher at the Al Omari mosque in Gaza.

Let us take stock of the moral intuitions now on display in the House of Islam: on Aug. 17, 2005, an Iraqi insurgent helped collect the injured survivors of a car bombing, rushed them to a hospital, and then detonated his own bomb, murdering those who were already mortally wounded as well as the doctors and nurses struggling to save their lives.  Where were the cries of outrage from the Muslim world? Religious sociopaths murder innocents by the hundreds in the capitols of Europe, blow up the offices of the U.N. and the Red Cross, purposefully annihilate crowds of children gathered to collect candy from U.S. soldiers on the streets of Baghdad, kidnap journalists, behead them, and the videos of their butchery become the most popular form of pornography in the Muslim world, and no one utters a word of protest because these atrocities have been perpetrated ӓin defense of Islam. But draw a picture of the Prophet, and pious mobs convulse with pious rage. One could hardly ask for a better demonstration of the manner in which religious dogmatism and its pseudo-morality eclipses basic, human goodness. This behavior would be impossible without religious belief. It is time we realized that the endgame for civilization is not political correctness.  It is not respect for the abject religious certainties of the mob.  It is reason.


While ԓAn Atheist Manifesto received considerable support from readers of Truthdig, a variety of criticisms surfaced in the reader commentary.  I summarize and respond to some of these below:

1. Just because you havenԒt seen God doesnt mean He doesnҒt exist.  Atheism, therefore, is as much an act of faith as theism is.

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Bertrand Russell demolished this fallacy nearly a century ago with his famous teapot argument.  As his response appears to me to be perfect, I simply offer it here:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

If a valid retort to Russell has ever seen the light of day, Im not aware of it.  As I tried to make clear in my essay, the atheist is not in the business of making claims on insufficient evidence, he merely resists such claims whenever they appear on the lips of the faithful.  I donҒt think it can be pointed out too often that the faithful do this as well. Every Christian knows what it is like to find the claims of Muslimsthat the Holy Koran is the perfect word of God, that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, etc.חto be utterly incredible.  Everyone who is not a Mormon knows at a glance that Mormonism is bogus. And everyone of every religious denomination knows what it is like not to believe in Zeus. Everyone has rejected an infinite number of spurious claims about God.  The atheist rejects infinity plus one.

2. You will never get rid of religion, so criticizing it is just a waste of time.

I would be the first to admit that the prospects for eradicating religious dogmatism in our world do not seem good. Still, the same could have been said about efforts to abolish slavery at the beginning of the 19th century. Anyone who spoke about eradicating slavery in the United States around 1810 surely appeared to be wasting his time, and wasting it dangerously.  The analogy is not perfect, but it is suggestive.  If we ever do transcend our religious bewilderment, we will look back upon this period in human history with absolute astonishment.  How could it have been possible for people to believe such things in the 21st century? How could it be that they allowed their world to become so dangerously fragmented by empty notions about God and Paradise? The answers to these questions are as embarrassing as those that sent the last slave ship sailing to America as late as 1859 (the same year that Darwin published “The Origin of Species”).

3. Religion is our only source of morality. Without it, we would be plunged into a secular moral chaos.

This concern is so widespread that I have responded to it at some length.  A version of this response will soon be published in the magazine Free Inquiry (www.secularhumanism.org) as The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos.Ӕ

One cannot criticize religious dogmatism for long without encountering the following claim, advanced as though it were a self-evident fact of nature: there is no secular basis for morality. Raping and killing children can only be really wrong, the thinking goes, if there is a God who says it is.  Otherwise, right and wrong would be mere matters of social construction, and any society will be at liberty to decide that raping and killing children is actually a wholesome form of family fun. In the absence of God, John Wayne Gacy would be a better person than Albert Schweitzer, if only more people agreed with him.

It is simply amazing how widespread this fear of secular moral chaos is, given how many misconceptions about morality and human nature are required to set it whirling in a persons brain. There is undoubtedly much to be said against the spurious linkage between faith and morality, but the following three points should suffice.

If a book like the bible were the only reliable blueprint for human decency that we have, it would be impossible (both practically and logically) to criticize it in moral terms. But it is extraordinarily easy to criticize the morality one finds in bible, as most of it is simply odious and incompatible with a civil society.

The notion that the bible is a perfect guide to morality is really quite amazing, given the contents of the book. Human sacrifice, genocide, slaveholding, and misogyny are consistently celebrated.  Of course, GodҒs counsel to parents is refreshingly straightforward: whenever children get out of line, we should beat them with a rod (Proverbs 13: 24, 20:30, and 23:13-14). If they are shameless enough to talk back to us, we should kill them (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Mark.7:9-13 and Matthew 15:4-7).  We must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshipping graven images, practicing sorcery, and for a wide variety of other imaginary crimes.  Most Christians imagine that Jesus did away with all this barbarism and delivered a doctrine of pure love and toleration.  He didnt (Matthew 5:18-19, Luke 16:17, 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 20-21, John 7:19). Anyone who believes that Jesus only taught the Golden Rule and love of oneҒs neighbor should go back and read the New Testament. And pay particular attention to the morality that will be on display if he ever returns to Earth trailing clouds of glory (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9, 2:8; Hebrews 10:28-29; 2 Peter 3:7; and all of Revelation). It is not an accident that St. Thomas Aquinas thought heretics should be killed and that St. Augustine thought they should be tortured.  (Ask yourself, what are the chances that these good doctors of the Church hadnt read the New Testament closely enough to discover the error of their ways?) As a source of objective morality, the bible is one of the worst books we have. It might have been the very worst, in fact, if we didnҒt also happen to have the Koran.

It is important to point out that we decide what is good in the Good Book. We read the Golden and Rule and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses; we read that a woman found not to be a virgin on her wedding night should be stoned to death, and we (if we are civilized) decide that this is the most vile lunacy imaginable. Our own ethical intuitions are, therefore, primary.  So the choice before us is simple: we can either have a 21st century conversation about ethicsavailing ourselves of all the arguments and scientific insights that have accumulated in the last 2,000 years of human discourseחor we can confine ourselves to a first century conversation as it is preserved in the bible.

If religion were necessary for morality, there should some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers. But evidence for this is in short supply, and there is much evidence to the contrary.

People of faith regularly allege that atheism is responsible for some of the most appalling crimes of the 20th century. Are atheists really less moral than believers? While it is true that the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were irreligious to varying degrees, they were not especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements were little more than litanies of delusion—delusions about race, economics, national identity, the march of history or the moral dangers of intellectualism. In many respects, religion was directly culpable even here. Consider the Holocaust: the anti-Semitism that built the Nazi crematoria brick by brick was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity. For centuries, Christian Europeans had viewed the Jews as the worst species of heretics and attributed every societal ill to their continued presence among the faithful. While the hatred of Jews in Germany expressed itself in a predominately secular way, its roots were undoubtedly religiousand the explicitly religious demonization of the Jews of Europe continued throughout the period. (The Vatican itself perpetuated the blood libel in its newspapers as late as 1914.) Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields are not examples of what happens when people become too critical of unjustified beliefs; to the contrary, these horrors testify to the dangers of not thinking critically enough about specific secular ideologies. Needless to say, a rational argument against religious faith is not an argument for the blind embrace of atheism as a dogma. The problem that the atheist exposes is none other than the problem of dogma itself—of which every religion has more than its fair share. I know of no society in recorded history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

According the United Nationsג Human Development Report (2005), the most atheistic societies—countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdomare actually the healthiest, as indicated by measures of life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate and infant mortality. Conversely, the 50 nations now ranked lowest by the U.N. in terms of human development are unwaveringly religious. Of course, correlational data of this sort do not resolve questions of causalityחbelief in God may lead to societal dysfunction; societal dysfunction may foster a belief in God; each factor may enable the other; or both may spring from some deeper source of mischief.  Leaving aside the issue of cause and effect, these facts prove that atheism is perfectly compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society; they also prove, conclusively, that religious faith does nothing to ensure a societys health.

If religion really provided the only conceivable, objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a non-theistic, objective basis for morality.  But it is not impossible; it is rather easy.

Clearly, we can think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a law-giving God.  In “The End of Faith,” I argued that questions of morality are really questions about happiness and suffering.  If there are objectively better and worse ways to live so as to maximize happiness in this world, these would be objective moral truths worth knowing.  Whether we will ever be in a position to discover these truths and agree about them cannot be known in advance (and this is the case for all questions of scientific fact). But if there are psychophysical laws that underwrite human well-beingҗand why wouldnt there be?җthen these laws are potentially discoverable.  Knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality. In the meantime, everything about human experience suggests that love is better than hate for the purposes of living happily in this world.  This is an objective claim about the human mind, the dynamics of social relations, and the moral order of our world. While we do not have anything like a final, scientific approach to maximizing human happiness, it seems safe to say that raping and killing children will not be one of its primary constituents.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. Incompatible religious doctrines have balkanized our world into separate moral communities, and these divisions have become a continuous source of human conflict.  The idea that there is a necessary link between religious faith and morality is one of the principal myths keeping religion in good standing among otherwise reasonable men and women.  And yet, it is a myth that is easily dispelled.


New and Improved Comments

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By Robert E. Moran, February 3, 2006 at 8:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Atheist Manifesto is really fine. The definition is so apt regarding how atheists like myself feel about a reality so muuch more profound that can be assigned to a god of our making. Keep it up.

R. Moran

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By Jay L, February 3, 2006 at 8:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I enjoyed the articles by Sam Harris very much and look forward to reading his book. In this time, when phrases like “Going Forward” are used to indicate a 180 degree turn from the age of enlightenment, and no one notices, we need people who have the courage to state the obvious dangers inherent in letting others become the magnet of our moral compass.

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By Pankaj Seth, February 3, 2006 at 8:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In the Indian tradition of Religion-Philosophy-Art-Medicine (these are not cleanly separable in India), Theism is considered one “view” (darshana) among many. Atheism is its mirror image. Theism and Atheism, and other “views” are relative views onto the mystery of existence; the idea of complementarity is key here. “Objective knowledge” is a noble quest, but a futile one. To want to know the totality of existence, but from its “outside” is folly. Modern physics has shown us recently that ultimately the subject-object duality is a construction made out of the Whole.

But as long as “objective knowledge” is considered possible, then I suppose we will have debates between the Theist and the Atheist. From the point of view of complementarity, all views, including their opposites are simply relative. This putative absolute knowledge that the misguided religious impulse aims for is an impossibility; that this is impossible to grasp through thought, or reason has been amply proclaimed in Yoga and Buddha’s teaching. Due to this insight, both Buddha and Yoga point away from the Theism-Atheism thought structure. Instead, it is recommended that Meditation is a closer approach than thought/reason, and through meditation it is considered possible to know THAT (which in Theisms, is personified as the mythological creator of the world), not in the form of an object, but rather as subject. Non-dualism leaves the theism-atheism debate behind. There can only be a personal road to, and a personal knowledge about THAT, because the notion of an objective knowledge about THAT is simply a mental trap that one can fall in.

Otherwise, I find Sam Harris’s critique of our human folly sound. To be reasonable is preferable to be in the grip of “faith”. However, neither reason nor faith can enable that which would quench the impulses to religion, philosophy, art and science.

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By Chris Duel, February 3, 2006 at 7:47 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Sam Harris is making us think.  He’s making us stop and consider our beliefs and long held dogmas.

I saw him on C-SPAN and bought his book “The End of Faith.”

He supports his positions with reason and logic.

In a world where the notion that “My God is The Only God,” and “If You Don’t Believe As We Do, We Can Kill You,” Sam’s thesis is critical to the global discourse.

I applaud his courage, candor and level-headed presentation.

We should all consider what he has to say.

Chris Duel
News-Talk 550 KTSA
San Antonio, Texas

http://www.chrisduel.com

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By JW, February 3, 2006 at 5:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good stuff. The Atheist Manifesto was such an excellent read, I am surprised anyone would come back with such lame comments that are so predictably answered from the writing itself.  Sam Harris is awesome.  Keep it up.

By the way, the link http://www.secularhumanism.org doesn’t seem to work.

Cheers,
JW

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