Sam Harris: Believing in Almost Anything
By David J. Theroux*
By David J. Theroux*
As one of the Big Three, “ready-for-prime-time,” evangelical atheologians and best-selling authors of anti-religious books this past Christmas season (the others being Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett), Sam Harris (author of the books, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation) has received a mountain of favorable media coverage and has been toasted by celebrity scientists, philosophers, and media pundits for his “courage,” “insight,” and devotion to “scientific truth.”
However, what has somehow been overlooked, until now, is that Harris not only believes in reincarnation, Buddhism, Hinduism, and a wide assortment of New Age mysticism, but in abandoning what he considers to be the “immorality” of Christianity and its teachings of natural moral law and the universal rights of mankind, he alternatively supports water-boarding and other forms of torture so long as such practices are used against Muslims and others he disapproves of. Needless to say, he was also an early supporter of the war in Iraq, including the bombing of civilians, et al. Clearly, regardless of anyone’s personal belief system, such views regarding the treatment of innocent people should be deeply disturbing.
Yet the presumption of Harris’s crusade against God, and the Zeitgeist’s support for him as a media darling, is based on a modernist myth. As Rodney Stark shows in his recent book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005), the Scientific Revolution was not, as is popularly supposed, the result of an alleged Enlightenment battle of “secular forces of reason” against the “irrational religious dogma” of the Middle Ages. “Rather, these achievements were the culmination of many centuries of systematic progress by medieval Scholastics, sustained by that uniquely Christian twelfth-century invention, the university. Not only were science and religion compatible, they were inseparable—the rise of science was achieved by deeply religious Christian scholars.”
Such insights were rooted in a Christian theology that went back to the very origins of the Christian Church and were developed in the work of many early writers. Quintus Tertullian of the second century a.d., said, “Reason is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason—nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by reason.” Clement of Alexandria in the third century noted, “Do not think that we are to be asserted by reason. For indeed it is not safe to commit these things to bare faith without reason, since assuredly truth cannot be without reason.” Hence, by the fifth century, Augustine expressed the conventional view of the day: “Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals! Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls. . . . [F]or faith to precede in certain matters of great moment that cannot yet be grasped, surely the very small portion of reason that persuades us of this must precede faith.”
This focus produced a radical change in a world in which, despite notable but limited exceptions of political decentralization, slavery, human sacrifice and nearly universal and unyielding despotism had ruled, where people were treated as mere members of a group without rights. For example, Eastern religions exalted resignation, accommodation or obedience to despotism and consequent human misery. Based on his extensive studies of the history of Chinese technology, Joseph Needham has shown that the Chinese failed to develop science their religious views prevented them from believing in natural laws. They simply did not believe that science mattered or was possible: “For those holding these religious premises, the path to Nature never developed. . . . It was not that there was no order in Nature for the Chinese, but rather that it was not an order ordained by a rational personal being, and hence there was no conviction that rational personal beings would be able to spell out in their lesser earthly languages the divine code of laws which he had decreed aforetime.”
The ancient Greeks and Romans’ polytheistic system of gods did not include a creator not subject to the same universe of continuous cycles of progress and decline affecting mortals, and, according to this system, inanimate objects were living beings with personal aims and foibles, as opposed to being subject strictly to physical laws. Major Greek thinkers, including Plato and Aristotle, also rejected the notion of progress. Indeed, Aristotle believed that “the same ideas recur to men not once or twice but over and over again” and that everything had “been invented several times over in the course of ages.” Michael Rea notes that “Paramenides threatened to bring natural sciences to a standstill with his powerful arguments for the conclusion that the world is unchanging, unmoving, ungenerated, and indestructible. . . . [And Plato] did share the Parmenidean view that the most fundamentally real things in the world are unchanging.” Because of such views, science was unable to develop in the Greek or Roman worlds.
With Christianity, each and every person is “a child of God” or holy object (res sacra homo) who has free will and is responsible for the choices he or she makes. In this tradition, Thomas Aquinas stated, “A man can direct and govern his own actions also. Therefore the rational creature participates in the divine providence not only in being governed but also in governing.” Similarly, Augustine explained that, “without any delusive representation of images or phantasms, I am most certain that I am, and that I know and delight in this. In respect to these truths, I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, What if you are deceived? For if I am deceived, I am. For he who is not cannot be deceived; and if I am deceived, by this same token I am. . . . And, consequently, neither am I deceived in knowing that I know. For, as I know that I am, so I know this also, that I know.”
The concept of the self (individualism) and free will had been discussed by Marcus Tullius Cicero and others before the Christian era, but it was not until Jesus personally asserted in words and deeds the concept of moral equality before and responsibility to God and not until Christian theologians made it a central feature of their doctrine that the rights of each and every individual were championed and slavery was condemned. As explained by the third-century Christian theologian L. Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius, “The second constituent of Justice is equality. I mean this . . . in the sense of treating others as equals. . . . For God who gives being and life to men wished us all to be equal. . . . Since human worth is measured in spiritual not in physical terms, we ignore our various physical situations: slaves are not slaves to us, but we treat them and address them as brothers in spirit.”
Subsequently, with the end of the Roman Empire, opposition to slavery grew (starting in a.d. 324 with the Christian Council of Granges), and by the seventh century “priests began to urge owners to free their slaves as an ‘infinitely commendable act’ that helped ensure their own salvation.” In the eighth century, Charlemagne, king of the Franks and leader of the Holy Roman Empire, opposed slavery, and during the eleventh century Wulfsen and Anselm successfully campaigned to eliminate slavery throughout most of Europe. During the Middle Ages, despite the opposition of numerous despots, the Vatican issued papal bulls condemning slavery elsewhere in no uncertain terms in 1430, 1537, and 1639.
Opposition in the 16th century to the widespread abuses and enslavement of Native Americans by the Castilian conquistadors after the Spanish conquest was led by numerous Christian clerics including the Spanish Friar and Bishop, Bartolome de Las Casas, author of In Defense of the Indians, who received his law degree at the School of Salamanca. The discoveries in the New World had brought the issues of human rights and international law to the forefront in the Iberian universities. Las Casas in turn fought the conquistadors in Spain and the Americas, showing that their violence, cruelty, and claims of the inferiority of Amerindians were entirely at odds with the legacy of all Christian writing and teaching: “Our Christian religion is suitable for and may be adapted to all the nations of the world, and all alike may receive it; and no one may be deprived of his liberty, nor may he be enslaved on the excuse that he is a natural slave.” And Pope Paul III’s 1537 bull, Sublimis Deus, stated that: “The said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they may be outside the faith of Jesus Christ … nor should they in any way be enslaved.” This persistent Christian opposition to slavery spread, ultimately resulting in the abolition of slavery throughout Latin America, in the British Empire under the leadership of Christian pastor William Wilberforce (the subject of the recent major film Amazing Grace), and in the United States because of the Christian-inspired persistence of William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolitionists.
So powerful did the moral authority of Christianity become that, starting with Constantine, despots and opportunists of all stripes sought to wrap themselves in the Christian banner in order to hide their egregious crimes, which were clearly evident in the Crusades and in other wars and brutalities. Yet even when Christians and others have pursued invasive wars and tyrannies “in the name of God,” the condemnation of such actions by others as wrong has stemmed directly from the Christian teachings of individual sanctity and worth. In areas of the world without the revolutionary insights from Christianity of individual worth, free will, and reason, the crushing impact of total despotism remained the standard, as was especially evident in Asia where the idea of “self” was either entirely unknown or stringently suppressed by the weight of imperial and bureaucratic rule.
In contrast, materialists such as Dawkins, Dennett and Harris deny the existence of free will, without which however no scientific enterprise is possible or has any meaning. Moreover, such materialists are utilitarians and ethical relativists who reject objective moral ethics which form the very basis for civilization itself, including the opposition to tyranny, war, and all forms of human cruelty. Exactly opposite to the claims of Harris, the core of his materialism is thus a modern throwback to the fallacies that kept most of mankind in darkness, misery, and chains before the Christian era began, an incoherent denial of the objective truth of purposive, individual, human choice as the basis for human action and morality.
As Stark shows, real science arose only in Christian Europe. “The earlier technical innovations of Greco-Roman times, of Islam, of China, let alone prehistoric times, do not constitute science and are better described as lore, skills, wisdom, techniques, crafts, technologies, engineering, learning, or simple knowledge.” In his book, he traces the “launch of Western science” to the Scholastics, “fine scholars who founded Europe’s great universities.” Not surprisingly, virtually all of the founders of the various scientific fields were Christian theists, including Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel, and so on.
Joseph Schumpeter, Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson, Raymond de Roover, and Emil Kauder have further shown that it was the Italian and Spanish Scholastics, especially those at the University of Salamanca, who applied rational theism to uncover both moral ethics and the science of economics in the theories of value/utility, prices, money, and competition. As this influence spread to Italy, Portugal, and the low countries of Europe, it formed the basis for the Austrian school of economics.
Both the literary scholar and philosopher C. S. Lewis and the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead similarly showed that science arose only because the dualism of Christian theistic beliefs of medieval European scientists led them to consider the universe to be a systematic realm of objective reality, and that non-Christian beliefs hindered or prevented science. As Whitehead notes, “The greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement [was] the inexpugnable belief that . . . there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled,” rooting this conviction in “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality.”
Harris’s book, The End of Faith, was published in 2004 and clearly laid out his irrational faith in unscientific paranormal studies and support for the torture of Muslims, and his support for the war in Iraq has been no secret from the beginning. The obvious questions to ask are, how could this highly relevant story of his blatant hypocrisy have been overlooked for so long, and why has this not appeared in the major media? And, will it now? (After all, it took the antiwar news site AlterNet to finally break the story for the media.)
Could the answer be in some significant yet remarkable way that Harris is “politically correct” and “ready-for-prime-time” simply because his “anti-religious” (especially anti-Muslim) views sufficiently comport with those of others supporting the “war on terror,” including U.S. interventionism in the Mideast? We already know that the war is supported by an alliance of Wilsonian liberals, neoconservatives, Christian Zionists, Randians, and other militarists of all stripes. Why not someone who considers himself to be an atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, New Age “scientist” of the paranormal?
Perhaps such incoherent thinking explains how for Harris, while properly decrying the torture of Jews for their beliefs during the Spanish Inquisition, then targets belief in Islam itself as the enemy: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” And, given his screed against both the Old and New Testaments, it’s an open question whether he would stop with Muslims. Perhaps Nero will become a hero for him?
Disdainful of “wasting time” on Jesus’s teachings of love, peace, tolerance, and the Golden Rule, Harris is nevertheless now seeking an alliance with right-wing American warriors against Muslim Arabs and “head-in-the-sand liberals” he recently denounced in an article. And in Letter to a Christian Nation, he notes, “Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living.” Perhaps, he and Pat Robertson can now join spiritual forces on how to kill the infidels.
Hence, as a high-profile media Crusader against all Muslims (and others), Harris is in good company with William Kristol, Alan Dershowitz, Hillary Clinton, Rush Limbaugh, Victor Davis Hanson, Joe Lieberman, Ann Coulter and Dick Cheney in championing the U.S. warfare state. Of course, the political tide against the war in Iraq has dramatically turned with the polls registering higher and higher percentages against U.S. involvement, not to mention Bush’s desperate latest plans for escalation. Yet, Harris remains unapologetic and committed for battle. Perhaps, he is in communion with Shankara and other “scientific” oracles?
Having adopted the “atheist,” “Buddhist,” Hindu,” “New Age” torture-mongerer Harris as his trusty side-kick in their jihad against God (all in the name of “scientific truth” of course), Dawkins has stated that, “The End of Faith should replace the Gideon Bible in every hotel room in the land.” However, the scientific evidence pertaining to Sam Harris now points more toward supporting the claim that some people have rightly or wrongly attributed to G.K. Chesterton: “The danger when men stop believing in God is not that they’ll believe in nothing, but that they’ll believe in anything.”