The Violence of Faith, Part 2: Karen Armstrong & Sam Harris



 

In a previous installment, I asked the obvious questions about the intangible, heinous, and inexorable social power of the Islamic State:

Is this power derived from religious faith? If so, is it only Islam we should fear, or is this just one more iteration of the violence endemic to all classic monotheism?

I ventured the suggestion that George Packer has, the last week, brought us close to the beginning of an answer: the Islamic State’s indiscriminate massacre and torture are acts of purification, and the Jordanian pilot’s slow death by fire the ultimate sacrifice. The blood and dread serves to excite, unite, and grow the new community.

But before traveling further down this explanatory path, I want to back up for some context setting and take a look at what is, or at least should be, the larger debate.

There is no better place to start than new atheist and cognitive neuroscientist Sam Harris, who has more than anyone helped galvanize the post 9/11 American imagination. In his best-selling End of Faith (2004) Harris announces that Americans should fear “the fall of civilization” given the new close proximity of religious fanatics to weapons of mass destruction. Religion – more exactly, religious faith – “has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years” and the “most prolific source of violence in our history” (26-27). “The problem is with Islam itself.” The reason Osama bin Laden intended to kill innocent men, women, and children is obvious.” Bin Laden believes “in the literal truth of the Koran.”

Some of Harris’ arguments are quite persuasive. Consider this one:

Subtract the Muslim belief in martyrdom and jihad, and the actions of suicide bombers become completely unintelligible, as does the spectacle of the public jubilation that invariably follows their deaths; insert these peculiar beliefs, and one can only marvel that suicide bombing is not more widespread (33).

Harris also points to results from a 2002 global survey of over 38,000 Muslims. The survey revealed a shocking acceptance of suicide bombing and violence against civilian targets: 82% of Muslims in Lebanon endorsed suicide bombing and violence against civilian targets, 73% in Ivory Coast, 66% in Nigeria, 65% in Jordan. A number of countries not included in the survey would have shown percentages higher than Lebanon’s 82%.

Holy War. An innocent, secular America caught in the cross hairs of the latest man of fanatical irrational faith, speaking on behalf of the Almighty. Or maybe not. In her newly released Fields of Blood, Karen Armstrong tracks the interplay of religion and violence from the dawn of civilization up to today’s global jihad. For much of our history, Armstrong argues, all violence was sacred. We devised rituals to cope with our need to destroy beautiful and awe-inspiring animals when we roamed the wilderness freely in the dangerous hunt for food. Just so, the ruling elite of the new agrarian civilizations devised stories about their special mingling with gods – in need of some way to make intelligible the inescapable ‘structural violence’ in their communities, specifically, their control and exploitation of most the human population (land-working peasants). If the economics of civilization has always been intrinsically violent and religion intrinsically political, then religion has always been ‘implicated’ in violence, but never its ‘sole cause.’ If we really want to understand the causes of the insidious violence in the Middle East, we cannot continue to make a scape goat out of religion.

When Salon recently asked Armstrong about Sam Harris’s (and Bill Maher’s) opinion that there is “something inherently violent about Islam,” Armstrong responded this way:

It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe. . . . Germany was one of the most cultivated countries in Europe; it was one of the leading players in the Enlightenment, and yet we discovered that a concentration camp can exist within the same vicinity as a university. . . . [John Locke] said that a master had absolute and despotical power over a slave, which included the right to kill him at any time. That was the attitude that we British and French colonists took to the colonies, that these people didn’t have the same rights as us. I hear that same disdain in Sam Harris, and it fills me with a sense of dread and despair.

To the new atheist complaint over the ‘irrationality’ of religion, Armstrong reminds us that we will always have ‘myth,’ since that is what we are.

I am inclined to think that both of these polarizing stances carries an important truth. But I am more certain about an ironic similarity between Harris and Armstrong, one that has so far gone unnoticed. It is where they agree, perhaps inadvertently, that they are each deeply flawed.

More to come soon.

 

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Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt



The goal of Stephen Meyer’s recent book, Darwin’s Doubt, seems straightforward: clear an ecumenical path for the scientific viability of Intelligent Design. Of interest to me was Meyer’s detailing of allegedly non-Darwinian theories recently spawned from within the scientific establishment, the inevitable response – so the argument goes – to the still unexplained proliferation of new animal forms during the Cambrian period. Given Meyer’s humble underdog appeal, patient tutoring, and respect for the relevant sciences, I even found myself appreciative of his eventual philosophical argument for the classification of Intelligent Design as a ‘scientific’ theory.

But I wondered. What would the ‘other side’ have to say about all this? Gareth Cook’s review for the New Yorker satisfied some of my curiosity. Cook tells us that the “aim” of Meyer’s book is to “rekindle the ‘intelligent design’ movement” [all emphases here are mine]. The theory of intelligent design is “Probably best understood as the central element of a cunning legal argument,” for which the “engineers” of intelligent design “improved the disguise” of creation science. “Their agenda” was setback in 2005 when a federal judge declared intelligent design a “religion.” Darwin’s Doubt is “pseudoscience.” Meyer “appears” serious and reasonable. Those “who sense that science is a conspiracy against spiritual meaning will find the book a thrilling read.” The most “honest moments” come at the very end of the book, when Meyer offers a few personal reflections on meaning and the universe. “Here, at last, Meyer is not pretending to be a scientist.”

If Cook was after an accurate and informative book review, he failed. That may not have been his goal, however, in which case, he perhaps succeeded brilliantly. But I have saved Cook’s most striking comment for last:

Most absurd of all is the book’s stance on knowledge: if something cannot be fully explained by today’s science—and there is plenty about the Cambrian, and the universe, that cannot—then we should assume it is fundamentally beyond explanation, and therefore the work of a supreme deity.

This is decisively not the book’s explicit stance on knowledge. Meyer offers his theory as the ‘best explanation’ according to ecumenical criteria such as falsifiability and the ability to make predictions. I think the New Yorker owes a correction, and given the word “absurd,” perhaps also an apology.

If this is what the ‘other side’ has to say about Darwin’s Doubt, then I encourage everyone to buy Meyer’s book and read it.

But I pause. Crucial to Meyer’s argument is the satisfaction of this criterion: our scientific theories must appeal to causal connections observable in the world today. Meyer argues that good science can talk about design by non-physical Intelligence, even if we have no idea how this could work, since this is the explanation we give every day for the information-rich products of our own conscious, intentional acts. I do not think this argument works. That our intentionality and creative acts are themselves constituted by physical mechanisms is a defining assumption in current mind science.

Meyer side steps this problem, perhaps inadvertently, by appeal to the conventional ‘mind-body problem’ philosophers like to talk about, a reference to our apparent inability to explain, in principle, the subjective ‘what it is like to be me’ (consciousness) in purely objective terms. This might make for an interesting argument for the limitations of science, but that would not be what Meyer needs. Meyer needs to show that we do observe today, even though we cannot explain it, non-physical minds causing physical items rich with information. To do this, Meyer conflates this mind-body explanatory problem with an outdated Cartesian metaphysics. To complete his argument, Meyer appeals to a “principle” we see operative in the world today by which “immaterial thought” and “rational activity of mind” impresses “itself on the physical world.” Thoughts, decisions, and choices “occur in our conscious minds” and then somehow “affect our material brains, nerves, and muscles.”

Given the current state of the mind sciences and the now entrenched concern over ‘embodiment,’ Meyer’s centuries-old metaphysic is not going to work as part of an argument that otherwise seeks to appeal to the most current scientific questions and data. The problem extends beyond the abstract question of what kind of thing the mind is. The idea of ‘thoughts’ and ‘decisions’ existing inside ‘conscious minds’ gives expression to the lingering myth of the Autonomous Rational Self. If we are not god-like in this way – and we are not – then we do not have an observed model by which to conceive of a disembodied spirit willing new animal types into existence.

There is one other thing. Meyer’s overall story and argument suffers from a high degree of implausibility when set in proper context: After hundreds of millions of years of the natural development of the worm, a supreme intelligence decided to help things along by morphing the worm into a trilobite?

As a side note: I was inclined to offer more protest here to the arrogant ‘priesthood’ of science, but ambivalence settled in once I remembered the history from which this metaphor draws its power.

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