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Atheism, Islam and liberalism: This is what we are really fighting about

The debate raging in American culture boils down to an even simpler divide than you think


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Andrew O'Hehir
October 11, 2014 8:30PM (UTC)

Here’s a news flash: None of these heated public debates about atheism and religion, or about how Western “liberals” should think about Islam, ever reach a satisfactory conclusion. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that talk-show hosts and movie stars (just for instance) aren’t necessarily the best people to bring nuance or thoughtfulness or clarity to these conversations. An even bigger reason may be that religion in general, and fundamentalist religion in particular, is a major sore spot in Western culture, a source of tremendous vulnerability and anxiety.

One of the few propositions that Reza Aslan and Sam Harris might both agree with is that God’s return to the world-historical stage long after Nietzsche supposedly killed him off, as both an internal and external enemy of the Western secular-capitalist order, is a dangerous phenomenon for which our society has no clear answer. Our exaggerated response to ISIS is a dead giveaway: They may be a stateless desert army of bloodthirsty nutjobs, but they have something we lost a long time ago and can’t get back.

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Fundamentalist Christianity appeared to be on a long, slow decline in the United States. Now right-wing Christians have mounted a vigorous counterattack against reproductive rights, largely by cloaking themselves (ingeniously, it must be said) in pseudo-liberal sheep’s clothing, as an oppressed and disenfranchised group entitled to legal protection. Similarly, fundamentalist Islam seemed to be on the run in the Middle East, although that required the expenditure of trillions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of human lives and the last reservoir of goodwill toward America in the Arab world. Then came the rollout of ISIS, with its genocidal mass killings and its beheading videos: an al-Qaida 2.0 for the YouTube age, with better graphics and an even more deranged vision.

ISIS is scary, all right, and despite President Obama’s claim that the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state, the group’s extreme version of religious orthodoxy is clearly an important part of its allure. But when a radical militia group waving a flaming ideological sword has successfully lured the major Western powers into yet another self-destructive Middle East war, it’s legitimate to wonder who is behaving rationally and who has lost their minds. Religion is driving us crazy, and the disorder is by no means limited to believers.

I want to focus on Harris, the neuroscientist and “New Atheist” philosopher, because he’s a fascinating and troublesome figure who embodies many of these contradictions. His premise that the primary role of religion in human history has been as “failed science” – as a set of factual claims about the universe that have now been proven false (or are inherently unfalsifiable) – lies at the core of his atheist worldview. It's also dramatically at odds with the standard view in religious studies, and would provoke eye-rolling from a sophomore seminar in the subject. At best, it’s a partial account of one of the roles filled by religion, and an account that ignores overwhelming evidence that believers interpret religious doctrine and scripture different ways in different contexts. Did the ancient Greeks literally believe that Zeus and Athena and Apollo lived in palaces on top of Mt. Olympus? It would take a sociologist with a time machine to supply a definitive answer, but the best available evidence suggests a situation we ought to recognize: Some did, some did not and a great many weren’t sure or hadn’t really thought about it.

On the other hand, Harris’ belief that reason and science can (or someday will) supply a transcendent, religion-like experience that satisfies the human yearning for spirituality, while relinquishing all claims to metaphysical truth, is almost charming. That’s an article of faith if I’ve ever heard one, and one that rests on what St. Augustine would have described as a theological heresy – a misguided faith in the perfectibility of man in this fallen world. There is something noble about Harris’ efforts to bridge the gap between science and philosophy, and also something severely naïve in his declaration that in the age of astrophysics we no longer need God. To phrase Augustine’s response in modern terms, what we know about human psychology to this point suggests that as a species we favor storytelling over facts, and that we do not draw much distinction between stories that are true, those that are metaphorically true and those that feel true but are entirely false.

Indeed, I would argue that people who line up on opposing sides of the Harris-Aslan feud over religion and Islam represent fundamentally different worldviews, in ways they themselves may not recognize. I’m not talking about East vs. West or Muslim vs. Christian, and still less about lily-livered p.c. “progressives” vs. courageous contrarian truth-tellers, or however Bill Maher would like to phrase it. And I don’t precisely mean the difference between people of faith and the atheistic or irreligious. Those are facets of the dispute that are largely obvious. In a conversation between Richard Dawkins and Pope Francis (and I’d definitely pay to watch that), both would politely acknowledge that they hold divergent views about the fundamental nature of reality. What I really mean is the difference between humanities majors and science majors.

That may sound like crude or facetious shorthand, but I believe it contains a genuine insight. Given that I clearly belong to one of these tribes (you get only one guess), it’s entirely likely that I will mischaracterize the other one. Such is the nature of the epistemological division. When I say that one side is primarily concerned with facts and the other with narrative, or that one side understands the world primarily in subjective, experiential and relativistic terms while the other focuses on objective and quantifiable phenomena and binary true-false questions, that may help us frame the profound mutual misunderstanding at work. Harris' conception of religion as bad science, which seems like a ludicrous misreading to those who understand religion as a mythic force that shapes community and collective meaning, is a classic example. One side insists that the only important question is whether the truth-claims of religion are actually true; the other side says that question doesn't even matter, and then wonders what "truth" is, anyway. It's the overly literal-minded versus the hopelessly vague.

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What we see in discussions about religion in general and Islam in particular is a version of the same problem: People who barely speak the same language talking past each other, either making grand claims that refute themselves or raising legitimate questions that the other side ducks. I fall much closer to the Ben Affleck-Reza Aslan camp than to the tough-talkin’ pseudo-liberalism of Harris and Maher, as it slides toward a justification of permanent drone war and universal anti-Muslim profiling. But both sides engage in oversimplifications and ideological short cuts that seem like efforts to conceal what this debate is really about. Despite all its remarkable accomplishments, Western culture feels guilty and ill at ease. It traded in God for Snooki, swapped transcendent meaning and social cohesion for a vision of Enlightenment that started out bubbly and gradually went flat, like a can of week-old Mountain Dew. It’s not the kind of trade you can undo.

At this point, Harris and Maher have become war trolls and fellow travelers of Dick Cheney, without even realizing it. It’s a sad fate for Maher, who was an acrid voice of resistance under the Bush administration. As for Harris, he has played an elaborate intellectual game of bait-and-switch since at least 9/11: He makes inflammatory comments about how we must wage war against Islam, or about the need to consider a nuclear first strike against a Muslim nation, and then backs away, protesting that he’s been taken out of context and actually thinks those things would be dreadful. He and Maher have provided covert aid and comfort to bigots who firebomb mosques or beat up “Muslim-looking” people at the mall, while officially being horrified by such hateful actions. They’re analogous to polite Southern whites of 1955, who did not personally use the N-word and found the Klan distasteful, but who never questioned the fundamental rightness of white supremacy.

But Harris and Maher and other prominent anti-Muslim voices are right about one thing: Western leftists are often reluctant to criticize Islam, and it isn't entirely healthy. This reluctance stems from many understandable causes: from sheer politeness, from a desire to promote harmony rather than discord, and from an eagerness not to come off as smug, xenophobic blowhards, the way Maher and Harris so often do. Of course the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world do not support terrorism; that hardly need to be said. Despite right-wing claims to the contrary, any number of imams and Islamic community leaders have spoken out against the likes of al-Qaida and ISIS and Boko Haram. As Aslan has repeatedly observed, Islam looks very different in different countries, and like any other major religion it has many competing and overlapping currents. A Muslim woman cannot drive a car or go outdoors unaccompanied in Saudi Arabia, but she can go to the beach in cutoffs in Istanbul or go dancing all night in Dubai.

Ultimately it does not aid the cause of tolerance to deny that social practice in most majority-Muslim nations involves a lot of stuff that Western liberals rightly find appalling: the subordination of women, the suppression or persecution of LGBT people, extremely limited tolerance for those of other faiths (or none) and sharply restricted freedom of expression. One can discuss these troubling aspects of real-world Islam – as Reza Aslan and many other Western Muslims frequently do, in fairness – while also insisting that you can’t understand them independent of social and historical context. We don’t have to follow Maher and Harris down the rabbit hole of unjustified assumptions and disastrous conclusions: Illiberality and intolerance are intrinsic elements of Muslim doctrine, they argue, and Islam is a zone of monolithic groupthink unlike any other world religion (“the mother lode of bad ideas,” says Harris). Therefore Islam is a global cancer or disease, which must be killed or cut out.

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Sam Harris genuinely appears to view himself as a voice of science and reason, defending the Western intellectual tradition against its enemies. So it’s striking that he has surrendered to a seductive and paranoid narrative about Islam as a corrosive, contagious and essentially evil force, which seems so devoid of the critical thinking that represents the Western tradition at its finest. To take the most obvious example, Harris must be aware that Middle Eastern nations have repeatedly been subjected to humiliating wars of invasion, conquest and expropriation that have killed millions of people. They play no evident role in his thinking about the state of Islam, which he appears to view as an unchanging entity.

As Aslan or any other religious scholar could tell him, fundamentalism is a historically recent invention that emerged in response to the erosion of traditional social mores by the forces of modernity. Christian fundamentalism did not become a significant force until the 20th century; although William Jennings Bryan is claimed as a grandfather by today’s Christian right, he would have found its theology baffling and retrograde. Within Islam, the Salafi and Wahhabi revivalist movements that inform the theology of al-Qaida, ISIS and other extremist groups were relatively minor currents within the faith before exploding in the 1970s and ‘80s. Many historical forces fueled that rapid growth, but as Harris should be well aware, the American-supported jihad that eventually drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan played a major role.

In both major religions, the rise of ultra-orthodox revival movements – and within them a tendency toward apocalyptic violence – represents a rearguard action, an attempt to regain the ground lost to science, pop culture, consumerism and other irreligious influences. Viewed through the long lens of history, fundamentalism is almost certainly a sign of religion’s decline and weakness, rather than the opposite. That doesn’t mean that violent splinter groups like ISIS are not dangerous, or that Christian fundamentalism at home does not pose political problems. But the exaggerated fear response of many liberal Westerners reflects our own culture's weakness and moral uncertainty, not the strength of its enemies.

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Atheism Ben Affleck Bill Maher Editor's Picks Islam Islamophobia Muslim Muslims New Atheism Religion Sam Harris

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