Why are we all suddenly going to Sam Harris for insight on Gaza?
Intelligent Design advocacy groups are doing it. Some of my Christian friends on Facebook are doing it. People are gleefully quoting some recent comments from Sam Harris about why he doesn’t criticise Israel but is sharply critical of Hamas. Here’s the snippet being passed around like reefer at a Green party conference:
What do groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda and even Hamas want? They want to impose their religious views on the rest of humanity. They want stifle [sic] every freedom that decent, educated, secular people care about. This is not a trivial difference. And yet judging from the level of condemnation that Israel now receives, you would think the difference ran the other way.
Sam Harris is well known for publicly and vocally opposing religion. He does it very, very, badly, in my view. His actual arguments against religious beliefs are a fiasco (as seen in his debate against William Lane Craig – check out the review) and his attempts to supplant religious approaches to morality with a moral philosophy of his own with science as its foundation was, in my view and that of many others, remarkably poor (as I explain in a presentation on Sam Harris, Science and Morality). In short, as far as people sympathetic to Christianity are concerned, there’s nothing markedly positive or helpful about what Dr Harris has had to say. This is not to say that he has nothing worthwhile to say about anything, it is only a commentary on his arguments in which religious people probably have the most natural interest.
And yet, I have seen some of my Christian friends, and nobody else, repeating Dr Harris’s comments about the conflict between Israel and Hamas, as though the fact that he said it somehow gives us reason to look twice. I did a bit of snooping around, and yes, some others have taken an interest in them, but the Evangelical interest is easily the strongest.
There’s a kind of trophy status attached to seizing onto an instance of agreement between us and other people who strongly disagree with us about something important.
Naturally none of this is a reason to think that Sam Harris is wrong about the Israel-Hamas conflict. But I just don’t see why it is Christians more than anyone else who are sharing his comments as though they have some sort of status by virtue of who said it. What is it about Harris, in your view, my fellow believers, that makes him an especially likely candidate for offering sage advice on such things?
But there’s a particular reason why I haven’t shared these thoughts from Dr Harris with approval. Although there is something in it that I agree with, like a lot of social commentary from those who have a particularly strong beef with religion (note: I am not talking about people who just happen to not be religious), it contains just a little bit of poison.
Dr Harris believes in imposing views onto people. So do I.
In short and to get right to the point: If certain views or values are harmful and rob human beings of dignity, then surely that is why they should not be imposed on people. Whether or not they are held for overtly religious reasons does not tell us enough about the content of those values to know whether they are good or not. Toxic values that are held and imposed for religious reasons are no worse than toxic values that are held and imposed for non-religious reasons. Why are my Christian friends endorsing the concern that specifically religious values are particularly nefarious? Do you really think they are?
Similarly, when Harris describes the kind of person who would oppose the sort of values that Hamas would impose, he does not take a bird’s eye view of things and say that it is those who love freedom, equality, dignity, justice and so on. Instead he selects from that group one type of person in particular as the model of a person who would oppose the values that Hamas would impose upon people: “Secular.” Why express such favour of the attitude that is respectful, inquiring, honest, creative, has ambition, values excellence, etc and is secular? Why not just extol the mindset that is respectful, inquiring, honest, creative, has ambition, values excellence etc? What does being “secular” add here, other than the caveat “and they are not religious”?
I understand that you might agree with Dr Harris’s stance on who, on the whole, is the nobler player in the game of Israel vs Hamas. But I am somewhat surprised about who is sharing his sentiments, given the rhetoric with which it is laced (and knowing what Harris thinks in general about religion and secularity). His perpetuation of the innuendo about the particularly insidious nature of “religious” views is flat out wrong, and his deification of the concept of “secularity,” effectively meaning godlessness, is a mistake. Why are Christians gobbling this up and passing it around? Don’t be so desperate for political affirmation.
In the interests of thinking critically about what we share with others (and in full awareness that I could do better myself)
- Episode 035: Sam Harris, Science and Morality
- Public Lecture: The New Atheism, Science and Morality
- (dis)honest to God: How Not to Argue about the Smacking Referendum
- Religion, morality and politics do mix, say (some) Harvard Students
- North Korea Executes Christians