Faith in Secularism

Posted on June 4, 2006

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Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, the New York Times bestseller and PEN non-fiction award winner, has been celebrated by a legion of pundits, and even a UK Guardian piece extols readers to read Harris “and wake up”. Indeed, who can argue with Harris’ broad strokes when they are presented in the first chapter of the book, for his premise is everything we secularists have been brought up to believe in the era of modernity. Since theistic religious faith must necessarily position itself against anything it is not, Harris posits, it is thus a unique engine of conflict. So far, so good–what reasonable westerner living in the age of suicide bombings and pro-life militancy could argue with the premise?

A further reading however reveals that Harris would do well to examine his own faith-based belief system before he gets around to condemning religion for being everything that is wrong with the world today. Though it would be comforting to blame the world’s conflict on the fervor generated by faith, religion is a relatively minor player in the field of war. Making do with only enlightenment ideals, Western societies have been capable of the most inhuman brutality in the history of civilizations. In fact, there is no doubt that all of the major conflicts of this century have been waged over the very earthly matters of border and ownership disputes, trade routes, ethnic affiliations, treaty obligations and resource scarcity. The only current conflicts that Harris can point to that are ostensibly religious based are the India-Pakistan tensions and the occupation of Palestine by Israel, and most observers would agree that both of these conflicts have much more to do with real estate than religeon.

Similarly, Harris does not need to investigate the confluence of suicide bombing with socio-economic-political factors, because his visceral belief is that suicide bombing cannot be justified. Harris conflates suicide bombings in the Palestinian context with the kind predicated by Al Quaeda, which is much like equating shooting someone in self-defense and shooting someone during a crime, based on the fact that a gun was used in both incidents. Harris provides a Pew poll that he claims demonstrates the inherent inhumanity of Islam. The fact that less than 10% of respondents in Arab countries think that suicide bombing could be, under certain circumstances, defensible, is “hideous” proof that Islam by its nature is supportive of terrorism. Harris does not bother to investigate what such circumstances could be. Harris has no qualms about entertaining extenuating circumstances to justify cruel behavior later in the book, when he examines the “ticking bomb” rationale for torture–though no ticking bomb has ever been found in the history of modern torture. Thus to Harris, Islam, unlike every other belief system in the world, must be judged in a vacuum and taken at face value from region to region without the necessity of knowing any of the history or current situation of those involved.

Harris makes no such pronouncements of secular warfare, because of his belief that the civilian deaths so engendered are “accidental by-products” and not, as with suicide-bombing, the “intended targets”. Not surprisingly, Harris is more moved by the necessity to curb religious suicide bombing than by the need to stop the secular kind, though the latter has surely represented more deaths of “accidental by-products” in just the past three years than in the half-century old history of suicide-killings of “intended targets”. Harris also spends an inordinate amount of time addressing the suicide aspect of the bombings, as if this makes it particularly opposed to rationalism, forgetting of course, that the history of the wars based on rationalism are replete with irrational calls to martyrdom (a la ‘give me liberty or give me death’ “I regret that I have only one life to give for my country”, etc). It goes without saying that secular leaders have been responsible for far more deaths by violence than any religious extremist could hope for.

This fact does not bother Harris for he reveals himself as a pushover when it comes to secular rationalizations for military activity. He quotes the attorney Alan Dershowitz, who presents himself as an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations in his book The Case for Israel that “no other nation in history faced with comparable challenges has ever adhered to a higher standard of human rights , been more sensitive to the safety of innocent civilians , tried harder to operate under the rule of law, or been willing to take more risks for peace.” Obviously, there is no data in this statement, it is the baseless opinion of Dershowitz, who is an American lawyer, not a historian of the conflict. There is no reason to accept the claim on its own merits. It is, however, a similar incantation as those made by Israeli leaders throughout the history of the country’s dispossession of the Palestinian people. Israel’s national character, in fact, is bound up in the religiosity of this myth that it fights its wars according to some greater moral compass, though various Israeli government documents have indicated that its military and civil forefathers believed otherwise. Even if Dershowitz’s claim was as manifest as Harris seems to believe it to be, however, South Africa’s previous white-minority government could have easily made a similar claim. Beset on all sides by hateful peoples of another race and culture, white South Africa showed remarkable restraint in responding to this demographic threat. South Africa, in fact, fought its battle according to an even higher moral standard, never directing its military against black rebellions, but instead using its civilian police force according to internationally agreed human rights doctrines of the day governing civilian disturbances. South Africa’s oppression of its black majority generated fewer deaths and casualties than Israel’s apartheid experiment, but Harris would no doubt lose the ear of many of his adherents if he claimed that black South African acts of “terrorism” were as unjustifiable as he believes suicide bombing and other so-called terrorist activities of the Palestinian battle for self-determination to be.

Interestingly, Harris is silent on the subject of Zionism–it is not mentioned in the book nor does it appear in the index, though it is the basis for the first-world’s only theocracy. Harris makes few statements that Judaism is just as indefensible as the other religions he mentions, but his heart is not really in it, for Harris refers to the Occupied Territories as “disputed” even though Israel’s only claim to the land is based on the same biblical texts he ridicules. The End of Faith, in fact, outside of a few interesting exercises in logic and philosophy, is little more than an attack on Islam and a defense of Western secularism, itself disturbingly similar to a belief system.