Why I'm getting sorta sick of Sam Harris

2007-03-16 06:34

There’s this guy, Sam Harris, who has made quite a name for himself in the evangelistic atheist community. I first became aware of him through some ads he took out on the Internet Infidels discussion site. They had the text “The End of Faith” superimposed on a mushroom cloud.

My impression hasn’t changed much since then.

Harris talks a lot about how “moderates” enable “extremists”. He recently gave an analogy of a set of concentric circles, with more extreme people in the middle.

Like a number of American atheists, Harris appears to be willing to completely concede the definition of Christianity to the Christians he dislikes most. Does he trust their judgement when it comes to the age of the Earth? No. Does he share their moral evaluation of gay marriage? No. In fact, it is fairly hard to find any topic at all related to Christianity on which he agrees with these people. This makes it all the more mysterious that, the moment we come to the question of what Christianity is, he is their #1 biggest fan, absolutely convinced that they have precisely and accurately captured it.

In fact, Christianity is a pretty broad group. There is more than one set of beliefs which are “Christian”. The “liberals” out there are not just “fundamentalists who are less committed”. One of my friends is a member of a Christian group called “Jesus People USA“. They don’t fit in the simplistic view Harris promotes. They are obviously zealous to a level that very few modern Christians are; for instance, they take the injunction to “sell all you have, and give the money to the poor” as an unambiguous statement of direction. On the other hand, they define their mission and goals in terms of, well, service to the poor. Not exactly the first image that comes to mind when you think of Jerry “blow ‘em up in the name of the Lord” Falwell, is it?

Ultimately, I am obliged to agree with Harris on one thing; there is a real threat to our society that comes in large part from its Christian members. There are a lot of people who are convinced that it is not enough for them to be Christian; it is required that everyone else be Christian, or at least act according to their church’s view of what Christianity is like. These people have done a lot of things that the rest of us are stuck making up for.

However, I do not think this is a question of zealousness about “Christianity”. The belief that other people must comply with your beliefs is not necessarily a question of zealousness vs. apathy; it is a separate belief, which must be considered on its own. It is closely tied to the way in which people build a sense of identity, and one of the things humans love to do is demand agreement and similarity, and demonize those who don’t comply. It’s not enough for Dr. Dobson to marry a girl; no, he has to tell everyone else that for two men to get it on is an attack on marriage. The people who are different are not just maybe wrong, or something; they are so desperately, terrifyingly, wrong that it is obligatory to use any means at our disposal, including horrible abuse of a variety of research results (and a cherry-picked variety at that) to make other people shun them or punish them.

Even within fundamentalism, this is not always there in zealous believers. Another of my friends is a very zealous fundamentalist. I don’t just mean “thinks gay sex is a sin”. I’ve seen him argue, convincingly and seriously, that speeding is a sin. (I’ve even conceeded that I think he has a point.) So you’d expect him to be an authoritarian, maybe? Nope. I’ve seen him argue just as persuasively that, while he has powerful personal objections to the practice of prostitution, he can’t understand why we outlaw it, since prostitution laws not only don’t stop prostitution, but they make it harder for prostitutes to get legal protections that might help them get away from abusive pimps. That’s not exactly the authoritarian pseudo-Puritan view we’ve been told to expect.

So what’s going on? Where does Harris get this stuff?

Nietzsche once said (paraphrased, obviously) “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Harris has become the thing he hates. When we hate a group, it becomes necessary to demonize the group; to dismiss their humanity, their individuality, and to compress them into a single well-understood group whose attributes can be unambiguously loathed. Just as some modern Christians believe ludicrous and horrible things about “Arabs” or “gays”, Harris has come to believe ludicrous and horrible things about “Christians”. Are any of these things ever true of anyone? Of course they are. Not six years ago, “some Arabs” destroyed the World Trade Center. I’ve even met one of the gay guys who’s had sex with over a thousand people. But these remain anomalies; most people aren’t like that, and indeed, most Christians aren’t much like Harris’s bogeyman. The so-called “moderates” aren’t just watered-down versions of the militant and hostile Christians; often, they are zealous and committed opponents of the people Harris has justifiable gripes about.

Harris and Falwell are ultimately in the same line of work; peddling fear of another group, to build interest and swell the ranks, to get people comfortable dismissing that group as a threat. Someone like Harris is the best thing that could happen to a pundit like Falwell; after all these years of claiming that “atheists” want to destroy Christianity, we’ve finally got one that really does, and says it openly. Every time he writes an article, you can bet that the people in the treasuries of the big institutionalized Christian lobbies warm up their cash registers. And, likewise, people like Falwell give Harris material to work with.

They need each other. They deserve each other. I wish the two of them would leave the rest of us alone.

Peter Seebach

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Comments

  1. "Does he trust their judgement when it comes to the age of the Earth? No. Does he share their moral evaluation of gay marriage? No. In fact, it is fairly hard to find any topic at all related to Christianity on which he agrees with these people. This makes it all the more mysterious that, the moment we come to the question of what Christianity is, he is their #1 biggest fan, absolutely convinced that they have precisely and accurately captured it."

    It's not mysterious in the slightest. Xianity is something that xians know about, after all.


    — Goliath · 2007-03-17 17:14 · #

  2. I live in Scandinavia, I actually think Christians here think of themselves as Protestants here. Not that I would know, I have never been to church or been in contact with religious people for the major part of my life.

    What puzzled me on my first trip to the USA was the amount of religious people that actually believed in their faith. It made me more than a bit scared. People actually insisted that I should come with them to church! Ouch! It reminded me of some of the trips I made to Egypt and Syria, people there are almost just as religious as in the US. The only difference is that they are Muslims. I do not consider myself Atheist, more a modern believer in common sense.

    It is kind of sad that common sense is not prevalent in the US or other fundamentalist nations...

    — Scandinavian · 2007-03-27 02:02 · #

 
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