Best-selling atheist author Sam Harris pushes back against Karen Armstrong's sympathetic take on religion.
- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
In her article ("Think Again: God," November 2009), Karen Armstrong discovers that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and I have mistaken "fundamentalism" for the totality of religion. (Sorry about that.) But do Richard and Christopher really hold religion responsible for "all human cruelty"? That is a surprise. I hadn’t realized that they were idiots.
In any case, I am hopeful that Armstrong’s winsome depiction of Islam will shame and enlighten them, as it has me. They will discover that Hassan al-Banna and Tariq Ramadan are paragons of meliorism and wisdom, while we are ignorant bigots who know nothing of theology (of course), politics (Christopher, are you listening?), human nature (what’s to know?), or the proper limits of science (um … narrower?).
I can’t quite remember how we got it into our heads that jihad was linked to violence. (Might it have had something to do with the actual history and teachings of Islam?) And how could we have been so foolish as to connect the apparently inexhaustible supply of martyrs in the Muslim world to the Islamic doctrine of martyrdom? In my own defense, let me say that I do get spooked whenever Western Muslims advocate the murder of apostates (as 36 percent of Muslim young adults do in Britain). But I now know that these freedom-loving people just "want to see God reflected more clearly in public life."
I will call my friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali at once and encourage her to come out of hiding: Come on out, dear. Karen says the coast is clear. As it turns out, those people who have been calling for your murder don’t understand Islam any better than we do.
Armstrong assures us that because religion has existed for millennia, it is here to stay. Of course, the same could be said about a preoccupation with witchcraft, which has also been a cultural universal. The belief in the curative powers of human flesh is still widespread in Africa, as it used to be in the West. It is said that "mummy paint" (a salve made from ground mummy parts) was applied to Lincoln’s wounds as he lay dying.
This is now good for a laugh. But in Kenya elderly men and women are still burned alive for casting malicious spells. In Angola, unlucky boys and girls have been blinded, injected with battery acid, and killed outright in an effort to purge them of demons. In Tanzania, there is a growing criminal trade in the body parts of albino human beings — as it is widely believed that their flesh has magical properties.
I hope that Armstrong will soon apply her capacious understanding of human nature to these phenomena. Then we will learn that though witchcraft has occasionally been entangled with political injustice, an "inadequate understanding" of demonology and sympathetic magic was really to blame.
People will torture their children with battery acid from time to time anyway — and who among us hasn’t wanted to kill and eat an albino? I sincerely hope that my "new atheist" colleagues are not so naive as to imagine that actual belief in magic might be the issue here. After all, it would be absurd to criticize witchcraft as unscientific, as this would ignore the primordial division between mythos and logos. Let me see if I have this straight: Belief in demons, the evil eye, and the medicinal value of a cannibal feast are perversions of the real witchcraft – -which is drenched with meaning, intrinsically wholesome, integral to our humanity, and here to stay. Do I have that right?
Karen Armstrong replies:
It is clear that we need a debate about the role of religion in public life and the relationship between science and religion. I just wish this debate could be conducted in a more Socratic manner. Socrates, founder of the Western rationalist tradition, always insisted that any dialogue must be conducted with gentleness and courtesy, and without malice. In our highly polarized world, we really do not need yet another deliberately contentious and divisive discourse.
When I was a student, I was taught to listen to all sides of a question, examine the evidence impartially, and be prepared to change my mind. For many years, I wanted nothing to do with religion and would have agreed wholeheartedly with Sam Harris; my early writing definitely tended to the Dawkinsesque. But my study of the history of world religion during the past 20 years has compelled me to alter my views.
Religious traditions are highly complex and multifarious. Like art, religion is difficult to do well and is often done badly; like sex, it is often tragically abused. I hold no brief for witchcraft or the superstitious trading of body parts. Like many religious people, I do not believe in demons. I abhor violence of any kind, be it verbal or physical, religious or secular.
I have written at length about the desecration of religion in the crusades, inquisitions, and persecutions that have scarred human history. I have also pointed out that, driven by political humiliation and alienation, far too many Muslims have in recent years distorted the traditional Islamic view of jihad, which originally referred to the "effort" required to implement the will of God in a violent world.
But these abuses do not constitute the whole story. Religion is also about the quest for transcendence, the discipline of compassion, and the endless search for meaning; it was not designed to provide us with the same kind of explanations as science, but to help us to live creatively, serenely, and kindly with the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition. As such, it continues to appeal to millions of human beings across the globe. To identify religion with its worst manifestations, claim that they represent the whole, and then demolish the straw dog thus set up does not seem a rational or useful way of conducting this important debate.
Historically, this kind of attack only serves to make religious fundamentalists more extreme. Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens have flung down the gauntlet in their spirited — some would say intemperate — manifestos against religion. They cannot be surprised if people challenge their critique in the way that I attempted in my article.
In the past, theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Rahner, and Paul Tillich enjoyed fruitful conversations with atheists and found their theology enriched by the encounters. We desperately need such interchange today. A truly Socratic dialogue with atheists could help to counter many of the abuses of faith that Harris so rightly deplores.