I like a lot about The End of Faith. There are a few things that bother me, however, which I’ll get into now.
Religion leading us to extinction?
Sam Harris is very concerned that religious beliefs will lead to the extinction of humans. Quoting from the book:
We are fast approaching a time when the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction will be a trivial undertaking; the requisite information and technology are now seeping into every corner of our world. … we can see at a glance that aspiring martyrs will not make good neighbors in the future. We have simply lost the right to our myths, and to our mythic identities.
I pray that we may one day think clearly enough about these matters to render our children incapable of killing themselves over their books. If not our children, then I suspect it could well be too late for us, because while it has never been difficult to meet your maker, in fifty years it will simply be too easy to drag everyone else along to meet him with you.
There is certainly reason for concern. It is, however, a little unclear to me how much of the world’s violence is attributable to religion. Yes, in most conflicts religion does seem to play a role. However, I agree with Errol Morris that
Religion can certainly help good people to do evil things, but good people do evil things even without religion.
Even without religion, people would find other differences with their rivals that they could cling to. Groups often battle over control of resources. Members of opposing groups fall into the trap of correspondence bias — they attribute differences in action to differences in character. It’s not that your adversaries are like you, but have different experiences, perspective and interests that drive their action. It’s that they are innately evil. You don’t imagine that you would be like them if you were in their place.
With that said, I do think that religion can make the difference between a violent or non-violent protestor. There is something uniquely powerful about the belief that God is on your side. I can’t think of anything quite as powerful that doesn’t involve religion.
Harris is particularly tough on Islam. He has a chapter entitled The Problem With Islam, where he argues that Islam is a dangerous religion. Quoting from the book:
…Islam is undeniably a religion of conquest. The only future devout Muslims can envisage — as Muslims — is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, subjugated, or killed.
He goes on to quote from the Qur’an. He also cites a Pew study where a nontrivial percentage of Muslims said that suicide bombing in defense of Islam is justifiable (e.g., 43% of Jordanians said it’s justifiable).
There are some problems with his argument. First, there is a problem with the interpretation of the texts. I’ll quote my friend on this one
The texts that discuss fighting are all done in a historical context and has to be balanced against all the other verses that talk about peace. It’s not that hard to figure out…. and there are like 5 verses that discuss fighting… and it was to the Prophet, who was a head of state. I mean, you honestly don’t have to be a genius to figure that out.
The other issue has to do with how the perceived actions of people that believe in a certain religion affect your judgement about that religion. Harris seems particularly alarmed by suicide bombing. It seems to me that that is what is driving his opinion that Islam is a violent religion.
Cause and effect
We live in world where state violence is not considered terrorism. Take, for example, the US invasion of Iraq. We are a majority Christian nation. George Bush claims to be a Christian. There were reports that he said that God told him to invade Iraq. He certainly referred to God often when talking about foreign policy. Like suicide bombers, Bush thought he was fighting for a just cause (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt). He thought he was on the side of God. Why isn’t US aggression, especially violence that was ordered by a Christian President who was inspired by God, used as evidence of Christian violence?
Or consider Israeli aggression:
The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism. The aim was to establish Greater Israel through permanent political, economic and military control over the Palestinian territories. And the result has been one of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times.
Why isn’t Israeli violence considered to be evidence that Judaism is a violent religion? As Nir Rosen put it:
The powerful – whether Israel, America, Russia or China – will always describe their victims’ struggle as terrorism, but the destruction of Chechnya, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the slow slaughter of the remaining Palestinians, the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan – with the tens of thousands of civilians it has killed … these will never earn the title of terrorism, though civilians were the target and terrorising them was the purpose.
The reason is because the powerful write history.
Imagine things were different. Imagine that a majority Muslim nation was the major military superpower in the world. It worked to expand its wealth and power, at the expense of citizens of less powerful countries. Let us assume that one group of people that really suffered at the hands of this superpower happened to be Christian. Would some of these Christians fight back? Would they launch rockets into that nation if they could? Would some of them resort to terrorism? And if so, would they use the Bible to help justify it? I think so. People start with their bottom line. It wouldn’t be difficult to come up with passages in the Bible. I mean you could turn to Deuteronomy “you must kill him, your hands must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the people following” or John 15:6 “and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.” Sure, maybe that is not the right interpretation of the text, but like my friend said, that’s what happens with the Qur’an.
Harris seems to be aware that people could use the Bible to justify violence. He said that:
A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do [emphasis mine].
But would most Christians “ignore most of their canon” if they were in the position that the Palestinians are in?
If there was a majority Christian nation, a majority Muslim nation, a majority Jewish nation, a majority Hindu nation, etc., that all had similar power and resources, then we might be in a better position to judge the effect of the religion on violent behavior. We do not live in a ceteris paribus world, however.
I don’t think that any of these religions inherently inspire violence. Oppression is the breading ground of extremism. If the world community works together on education, human rights, democracy, freedom, and so on, I think we’ll see a reduction in violent, radical behavior. I’m not sure that Harris’ approach, which comes across as a call for a war against religion, is a winning strategy. I do share many of his concerns though.
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