Monday March 6, 2006
The End of Faith: Religion, terror and the future of reason. Sam Harris. The Free Press / Simon & Schuster 2005
The Twilight of Atheism. Alister McGrath. Rider 2005
Eschatology – the prediction of end-times – is, it seems, a hard habit to break. Margaret Thatcher’s favourite philosopher, Francis Fukuyama, must be wondering now what has happened to his predicted “end of history”; but meanwhile in the halls of academia, predictions of endings – the end art, the end of the novel, the end of politics, the end of man (washed away like a face drawn in the sand, in Foucault’s memorable image) – are whispered daily. As Emmanuel Levinas once wrote, the supposed end of metaphysics has almost become the metaphysics of our current age.
Both Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism suffer from this obsession with endings; but it is a curious thing to hear two such passionate prophets, well-armoured with endless facts about the sufferings of the world, speaking at such cross-purposes.
McGrath, first of all. The thesis of The Twilight of Atheism is simple: that atheism has been, in the history of the world, a short-lived and ultimately failed doctrine; and that as a result of this failure, it is on the way out, to become a mere historical curiosity. McGrath’s view of atheism, and his triumphalist prediction of its ending, rest upon a number of curious assumptions. Firstly, McGrath does not take seriously enough the many atheist voices of the ancient Greek world, for example the persistent strain of atomism that stems from Democritus, or the philosophy of the Epicureans and of Lucretius. These McGrath dismisses as mere eccentricities, so that he may be able to maintain that atheism is something that has come much more recently to the human scene, some time around the 18th Century – a fascinating interlude in a world of belief.
The second assumption is when McGrath casts atheism as essentially negative in character, a movement that has sought to strip the world of all possibility of wonder and enchantment. This view of atheism is simply false: many of the godless have been quick to point out, the addition or subtraction of a creator god does not effect the wonder or the beauty of the world a single ounce. The world is the world. It is how we find it. And our wonder does not need any metaphysical justification.
But it is the third assumption that is most troubling: the Dostoyevskian claim that in a world without God, anything is possible, and there is nothing to prevent us from the most terrible of crimes. One might counter that the history of many of the so-called world religions hardly bears this out, and that it may be that precisely the opposite is true, that it is systems of essentially untestable metaphysical beliefs that render the worst crimes of humanity possible. For evidence, McGrath points to the brutalities of Nazism and of Stalinism; and yet, he does not acknowledge that the murderous anti-Semitism of Nazism is, in part, the culmination of an equally murderous resentment systematically cultivated within the Christian tradition for almost two thousand years; nor does he admit how close the communism of the Soviet Union was to a state-sponsored religious cult, even if its metaphysics were avowedly materialist. Neither, sadly, does he inform us of precisely how it might be that untestable religious claims about the world might be the solution to the problems that afflict us. Certainly, when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, having exhausted all rational arguments for launching a disastrous war, finds his last defence in the claim that his God will judge him, one has to wonder what kind of a moral framework such beliefs provide. Nor does McGrath fully acknowledge the extent of disarray that the growth of scientific knowledge has sown in the temple of religious belief. In the West, for example, one by one, the claims to authority of Christianity have been undermined: claims to scriptural authority undermined by a growing understanding of the origins of the Biblical texts, claims to speak truly of the world undermined by the sciences, ethical claims undermined by the woeful history of brutality amongst the faithful.
A reader dissatisfied by McGrath’s book might expect to turn in relief to Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, a polemic that is almost diametrically opposed to McGrath’s. Harris’s claim is simple: the biggest threat facing the world is that of faith; and within the various world religions the moderates are as dangerous as the fundamentalists. This is not to say that Harris eschews all forms of spiritual practice. Indeed, he considers spiritual practice in the form of meditation to be both amenable to reason and also to be indespensable to any true understanding of the world, and singles out the “precise, phenomenological studies” that can be found in the Buddhist canon. Thus on the one side we have faith – for Harris founded upon irrrational belief, whilst on the other side we have practice, a worthwhile distinction. Harris’s critiques of faith, in this sense, although perhaps well-worn, are nevertheless worth listening to. It simply is the case that “unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern” – whether these beliefs are nominally Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or even, perhaps, Stalinist – have been responsible for the most appalling human sufferings. We are right to have an unease with the hold that such faith has on contemporary public life. But the question is this: how are we to respond to the fact that many hold such beliefs? Given that we are in this predicament, what is to be done?
This is where Harris’s book, which is strong in its diagnosis, is at its weakest: in his recommended response to the problem. And it is a shameful weakness. Harris is at heart a passionate evangelist for a simple-minded, morally unnuanced view that champions the West as the moral trailblazer for all mankind, and is willing to sanction many unspeakable acts in the service of this moral advancement. No matter that Saddam Hussein was armed and supported by the West, who turned a blind eye for many years to his atrocities, no matter that the American government has sought to overthrow a string of democratically elected and more or less peaceful regimes; no matter that the views of the moral superiority of the West are themselves rooted in a deeply religious and racial set of prejudices. Nevertheless, Harris stridently asserts the moral superiority of the nations who arm those they later condemn. Despite their difference in faith, it would be hard to draw much of a distinction between Harris’s politics and those of the present American regime. How much is Harris a secularist apologist for what is essentially a religiously inspired body of views and acts of violence?
The shamefulness of all of this is most evident when Harris writes of Guantanamo Bay. “There are,” he says, “no infants interned at Guantanamo Bay, just rather scrofulous young men, many of whom were caught in the very act of trying to kill our soldiers.” (p. 194). Why ‘scrofulous’? But for the scrofulous (only two out of six hundred of whom, it should be said, have been formally charged of attempting to kill – and a formal charge is not the same as a conviction), Harris not only argues for the moral necessity of torture, he also manages to give it a diabolical spin of his own.
… if our intuition about the wrongness of torture is born of an aversion to how people generally behave while being tortured, we should note that this particular infelicity could be circumvented pharmacologically, because paralytic drugs make it unnecessary for screaming ever to be heard or writhing seen. We could easily devise methods of torture that would render a torturer as blind to the plight of his victims as a bomber pilot is at thirty thousand feet. Consequently, our natural aversion to the sights and sounds of the dungeon provide no foothold for those who would argue against the use of torture… we only need to imagine an idea “torture pill” – a drug that would deliver both the instruments of torture and the instrument of their utter concealment. The action of the pill would be to produce transitory paralysis and transitory misery of a kind that no human being would willingly submit to a second time. Imagine how we torturers would feel if, after giving this pill to captive terrorists, each lay down for what appeared to be an hour’s nap only to arise and immediately confess everything he knows about the workings of his organisation. (pp 196-197)
One has to ask: what is going on in Harris’s head? Torture, it is true, is not pretty. But to find a solution to what might be called the aesthetic problem of torture, and to claim that this is an ethical solution, seems to me to be inadequate. And how should “we torturers” feel, in Harris’s world-view? Pleased that we have struck a blow for freedom and secularism? If this is the kind of world that we should desire for ourselves and for others?
Perhaps, in the end, McGrath and Harris are closer than they would like to admit. In their concern with endings, in their dreams of the possibility of peace on earth, they are both millenarian thinkers – Harris perhaps more so than McGrath. Indeed, Harris’s secularism has all of the blood and fire of the Book of Revelation. For him, ultimately, it is a fight to the death between good and evil; and he is asking us to stand up and be counted.
But I for one will remain seated, watching the coming and going of my breath – countless twlights and countless dawns, beginnings and endings – and noticing how the mind so easily, too easily, is stirred to the kind of crusading excitement that leaves misery, death and suffering in its wake.
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