the religious faith of sam harris
October 19, 2015 § Leave a comment
How “secular” is Sam Harris? How secular is anybody who believes in the religion of “progress” which justifies imperialism? It’s no different than any other faith and leads to the same medieval result.
It may be entirely possible that, many centuries from now, when historians look back on this thing we call “Western Civilization,” they will see, not what the West wants to believe about itself, but what is actually true about it and its relationship to the world outside of its geographical borders. They will likely note the way that Westerners justified not only the potential destruction of their environment, but the destruction and repression of other peoples through war, the installation and support of client and proxy dictatorships, and other systemic forms of brutality in order to impose their notion of civility and progress on a world that they – like Mr. Harris – regarded as filled with morally and culturally inferior savages.
Death squad terror, secret prisons, dumping depleted uranium on civilians, and defense of torture are not more civilized when the West does it, even if Mr. Harris apparently disagrees. As Mahmood Mamdani points out, the West will justify any atrocity in the name of “progress,” and this is precisely why we should call its pretensions to civility into question. It is precisely this quality which the West shares with the historical monsters it believes it’s defending us from.
Godwin’s Law aside, does Mr. Harris not recognize that the Nazi project of Lebensraum was, in essence, simply an attempt to treat Eastern Europe the way the Western European powers had treated their colonies in the previous century? It was an imperial project like any other, and its ideological justification wasn’t in any relevant sense different than the ones that came before it. It certainly wasn’t much different than the one which justified Manifest Destiny in the United States, at any rate.
Columbia was a symbol of American “progress.” This is how we’re supposed to understand or remember the settler colonialism of the 19th century, even when its architects like John Quincy Adams and Henry Knox regarded it, in retrospect, as a historical crime. Really look at this image and consider if, for any practical purposes, it was even relevant if somebody understood Manifest Destiny in religious or secular terms.
Did Mr. Harris think that the Nazis woke up every morning and put on their tunics without being comforted by the conviction that they were on the side of reason and civility? Did he think they didn’t believe themselves to be the agents of “progress,” the defenders of civilization against the barbarism of morally inferior and degenerate people? It’s not like the bad guys ever know they are the bad guys. As Plato’s Socrates once said, “nobody knowingly does wrong.” Like those who waged the War on Terror or any other war, the Nazis believed their actions were necessary and therefore just. As Himmler said in his Posen speech, his only public reference to the Jews and the Holocaust, “we must destroy these people before they destroy us.”
How different was this moral calculation from the one Harris flirts with in his discussion of Islam and nuclear weapons? I’m not entirely sure that it was unfair of Hedges to make the accusations he made. What other logical conclusion were we supposed to draw from Harris’s argument? If there was some other conclusion, and this wasn’t Harris’s intent at all, is it really so unreasonable to suggest that other people will draw precisely this conclusion and no other?
In Harris’s defense, where his politically correct opponents are concerned, his position is the far stronger one: We should be free to criticize Islam because we should always be free to criticize ideas, regardless of who holds them or where they fall on some ridiculous intersectional matrix of oppression and privilege, but he has yet to demonstrate that his ideas in practice are actually any better than the ones you find on offer in any form of Islam. It’s not clear if Mr. Harris’s crusade for reason which would justify U.S. aggression is any better or worse than a radical Islamic crusade for faith which attempts to establish a new Caliphate.
Does Harris not recognize the religious dimension of earlier versions of his position? It’s basically “white man’s burden,” a kind of messianic moral paternalism which has always been linked to faith-based and religious conceptions of nationalism. It’s irrelevant if you replace “white” with “western” just as surely as it’s irrelevant if you remove the supernatural element from it, since the real world result is identical. It’s the holier-than-thou logic of “humanitarian intervention,” an attempt by the same people to sell the same imperialism to those of us who are rightfully more suspicious of nationalism and jingoism than the Right typically is.
I would not accuse Mr. Harris of racism and nor do I think that he should be on the hook at all times to prove he isn’t a racist just to pay fealty to the mommy politics of the new politically correct inquisitors of the Left, but I do think that he begins with the same set of assumptions that racists very often do, even if he draws conclusions which aren’t necessarily racist. After all, Mr. Harris isn’t an idiot, so he’s well aware that Muslims come in many different racial varieties. For him, I’m absolutely certain, this is not a debate about race at all, but about reason and its relationship to faith in public affairs. The problem is that Mr. Harris doesn’t recognize himself as a person of faith.
The reason Harris doesn’t recognize this is because he has an extremely facile understanding of the political economy of religion. He doesn’t seem to recognize that faith, as a mode of thinking, isn’t confined to institutionalized religion, but is everywhere throughout philosophy, theory, and ideology, apparently even his own.