Wednesday, September 19, 2012

To follow Sam Harris--a tough act with self-indictment

Sam Harris delivered a powerhouse of an article today on his blog, "On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God," and because I feel ever so guilty after reading it, I've felt compelled to write a bit about it. No doubt, Harris is a hero of mine, and just for the contrarian in me, I almost wish I could find something substantial with which I can disagree with him. This piece didn't satisfy that wish.

One of the main themes of God Doesn't; We Do is that we, people, are responsible for all of the human drama that we experience. We do the good. We do the evil. There are no cosmic forces about it. In that theme, God doesn't justify murder and mayhem, however people might try to use the name of God to do it. This is particularly poignant given the recent violence erupting in various parts of the Middle East--notably at American embassies and consulates--and as usual, I am forced to agree with, almost in total, and thus follow Harris's incredible erudition on a facet of this problem, in particular the one related to activist Islam.

Sam Harris seems to have shifted his focus more and more intensely over the past few years toward dealing with the extreme problem that lies at the feet of Islam, which is remarkably extreme for a nontrivial proportion of its followers and terrifyingly violent for a nontrivial proportion of those. Even children hold signs saying to behead those who insult the Prophet, and Harris rightly notes that carrying such a sign "may still count as an example of peaceful protest, but it is also an assurance that infidel blood would be shed if the imbecile holding the placard only had more power." Harris's reasons are right for this shift too--in terms of consequences, Islam poses enormously more threat than do other aspects of the One True Faiths, and we can't even be certain what proportion of the Islamic community is "extremist."

Here I have to indict myself. In God Doesn't; We Do, I am by far too lenient on Islam--and Harris nails the reason for this as well. "The point, however, is that I can say all these things about Mormonism, and disparage Joseph Smith to my heart’s content, without fearing that I will be murdered for it. Secular liberals ignore this distinction at every opportunity and to everyone’s peril," he writes. Indeed.

I might try to justify my relative silence about Islam by pointing out that I have written from the perspective of a frustrated Southerner in the United States, inundated by Christian lunacy at almost every turn several times a day, every day (and thus the weight of the question from the perspective of my culture). I could also try to explain it by staying that I wanted to stay in my strengths or that I felt the need to wrestle with my loosely Christian upbringing. I might also claim that the differences between the religions are less important than their similarities, as I do in the book, following the admirable lead of Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. I might mention that I had other priorities, particularly the development of the mathematical arguments I feel are strongest. I might lie and say that I feel authors like Harris, Ibn Warraq, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have done enough with the topic already (although evidence clearly indicates that this fight is not over). While all of those things are true, the real reason I'm light on Islam in God Doesn't; We Do is because I don't want to get murdered (i.e. I'm a bit of a coward still).

Relevantly, I'm also not too keen on dealing with the backlash that might come out of the hills down here in the rather rabidly Christian Southeast. I certainly don't want a cross burned in my yard, my house set on fire, my business messed with, or my family threatened--or worse. I'm pretty nervous about all of that too, to be frank. My copy editor, in fact, who is a friend of mine locally, specifically asked to have his name left off the book for those very reasons--the fears that Harris hits about Islam worldwide exist in nontrivial microcosm throughout the Bible Belt. While, like Harris, I can write about Mormonism or Joseph Smith without fear of reprisal here, I cannot do so about Jesus Christ, and the main reason I can get away with it about Mormonism is because evangelical Christians see it the same way all infidels see all religions: bogus and mock-worthy.

Now I think Harris is showing a heavier tone in this piece than I'm used to from him. In fact, it is my opinion that he exhibits a little of the essence of the late Christopher Hitchens, a hammer against which all other hammers might be judged. In particular, I quote from Harris:
What exactly was in the film? Who made it? What were their motives? Was Muhammad really depicted? Was that a Qur’an burning, or some other book? Questions of this kind are obscene. Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.
And:
The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. And the only forces on earth that can recover it are strong, secular governments that will face down charges of blasphemy with scorn. No apologies necessary.
Bravo! Let's not forget that many of us, particularly those in the United States and much of Western Europe, represent the states that form those secular governments, and we must urge our governments to stand firm in this regard. Furthermore, it is our responsibility to start to change the dialogue--to lay blame where it belongs, in this case at the feet of the Islamic religion (which is not the same as "upon all Muslims"), and to urge Muslims that deplore this kind of bad behavior to say so. Their silence is complicity. Perhaps they own, even more fully and gravely, the same fear I had in writing my book--a realistic fear of them being murdered for disagreeing with the lunatic fringe of their religion. That too, then, needs to be laid directly at the feet of Islam as a whole. Where we, in the wild liberal West, are unwilling to stand against this problem and call it for what it is, we too are complicit (to get a sense of what Harris is talking about, see this piece from Al Jazeera published Sept. 16 and appearing several times on my newsfeed on Facebook since--Muslims reacting to the film represent 0.001% of Muslims, from "The Fallacy of the Phrase, 'The Muslim World'").

So, my self-indictment and awestruck appreciation aside, let me urge you to read Harris's essay "On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God" and note that I agree with it in full--in terms of consequence, a great deal of Islam is the biggest religious threat, the biggest oppressor of human rights and dignity, that we have going in the world right now. Do read it. Do give it the heed it deserves.

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