Tuesday, January 23, 2007


I'd have thought that any book attacking faith and organized religion as the deadliest threat to civilization would have been squarely aimed up my alley. While I agree with many of Mr. Harris's conclusions, however, I have to point out that his book is often shoddy, and at times descends from the merely fallacious into the deeply moronic. This is inexecusable in a book by a Smart Guy--and Mr. Harris is obviously one of those, with a Philosophy degree from stanford and PhD work in neuroscience under his belt. Who am I to critique his book? My brain has been choked by clouds of THC, stretched across the searing rack of psilocybin, pushed through the mescalin strainer, and pickled in vodka. But I read the book--and did so upon the recommendation of many minds I admire--and so I must do my best to coagulate a coherent response.

Mr. Harris is the latest in a long line of Smart Guys who criticize Noam Chomsky, and end up looking decidely foolish. Mr. Harris's attempt is so lame I have to believe he only included that chapter in order to garner a laudatory blurb from Alan Dershowitz, who singles out Harris's criticisms of Noam in his recommendation of The End of Faith. Harris also credulously quotes from torture supporter Dershowitz's flawed revisionist history The Case for Israel (which was plagiarised at least in part, as pointed out by Alexander Cockburn and Norman Finkelstein amongst others). But conspiratorial and baseless suppositions of motive aside, let's look at Harris's argument contra Chomsky:

A) Chomsky is right that the US has done horrible things for which it must atone in the Middle East and elsewhere.

B) Chomsky is wrong that a dead Muslim child killed accidentally by the US is equivalent to a dead American child killed by Osama bin Laden.

C) Chomsky fails to take into account that intention matters in these killings. If we kill ten thousand civilians accidentally in the Sudan by mistaking a pharmaceutical plant for a WMD factory and destroying a nation's medical supplies, it doesn't matter because it's a mistake. Bin Laden kills civilians on purpose.

So Noam Chomsky is right to criticize the US for killing civilians, but he is wrong to criticize the US for killing civilians when they have the intention of not doing so. This argument is so poorly reasoned that my ENGL102 students at Towson University could have demolished it betwixt snapping bong hits and guzzling Busch Light. Harris says that Americans were disgusted by My Lai, and that proves we are a more mature civilization than any of those backwards Middle Eastern places where people celebrate atrocity. I wonder why Harris goes so far back? Couldn't he have found more recent atrocities in Guatemala, Nicauragua, Honduras--all perpetrated by the US? How about the massacre of a retreating army during the first Gulf War, in direct contravention of the Geneva Accords? I suppose the Highway of Death doesn't support his argument that intention matters. The US had good intentions, after all, when they supported, condoned, or participated in these slaughters. And most Americans would probably be disgusted by these acts, if they knew about them, so we're obviously better than Muslim countries.

Like many of Chomsky's critics, I have to suspect Harris has not read any of his books. Much of Chomsky's political science work is devoted to deconstructing the stated intentions of US military engagements, and pointing out that the stated intentions are almost always complete bullshit propaganda. Harris's intentions argument, and his entire chapter critiquing Chomsky, belongs in the shitter.

I do agree that we (by 'we' I mean America and Europe) face a dire threat from militant Islam, but I don't agree that militant Islam is a bigger threat than the Russian Federation, Chinese expansionism, George W. Bush, Christian fundamentalism, or global warming. Harris thinks that Islam is an especially disturbing faith, and goes on to argue that Islam is entirely deplorable and that anyone who claims to be a moderate Muslim actually believes that infidels must be put to death according to the tenets of his or her faith. Yes, Harris also criticizes Christianity and Judaism as ludicrous systems of belief that have led to the perpetration of hideous crimes--but he thinks the Judeo-Christian West is now somehow better than the Islamic East, and that the Islamic East is unredeemably barbarous. Militant Islam is going to kill lots of people if we don't stop it by 'winning the war,' whatever that means. Harris devotes a lovely chapter full of elegant condemnation to the past crimes of Christianity, but seems to think these are all in the past. We've somehow gone beyond that behavior in the West. The Islamic East is stuck in the 7th century and therefore we need to confront it and destroy Islam if we can't change it. This argument is at the level of Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter; footnotes referencing Richard Rorty and Stephen Pinker can't dress up such ghastly reasoning.

It would be an enormous undertaking for Islam to achieve anywhere near the level of killing unleashed by Christians throughout their two-millenium reign in the West. Harris warns reasonably against the acquisition of WMD by a militant Islamic nation or organization because there is no belief against killing civilians in that barbarous region of the world. I wonder: would an atomic bomb in the hands of Al Qaeda be any worse than an atomic bomb in the hands of the Aryan Nation? None of these groups should have WMD; that's obvious, and it doesn't require 250 pages to get there. Harris fails to effectively argue that the threat from Islam is worse than the threat from any other group of fanatics, despite his lavish footnotes(I'd suggest he read Bernard Lewis and Fareed Zakaria more carefully--he relies a bit too much on these neo-con intellectual architects of the Iraq war in condemning Islam).

Harris believes that America kills civilians wholesale, but at least we intend not to. The 4 million souls bombed to death in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were 'accidents,' as were the 100,000-500,000 civilian accidents in Iraq so far. America can say 'whoops' and be absolved because we're disgusted by civilian deaths. Muslims are not, so when they kill civilians it's criminal. I think this is rubbish.

But Harris is not entirely wrong, just as Smart Guy Christopher Hitchens is not entirely wrong. We face a terrible enemy, an insidious foe, whose motives and methods are indeed barbarous. The Iraq war and the half-assed Afghan campaign likely made this situation worse rather than better, and Smart Guys like Harris are to blame for whipping the electorate into a gung-ho lather for bloodshed.

There are huge swaths of Harris's book that are worthy. The best part of The End of Faith is the chapter about legislating sin. His argument that victimless crimes like home drug use and sodomy are only crimes because of religious belief is spot-on. Harris is correct that this type of legislation only comes about when religious fanatics worry that people are having fun and decide to stop it. He should expand that into book form.


Seth Anderson said...

good, now I don't have to read the book ;}

geoff said...

I just read a scathing review of Dawkin's book in the NYRB. Can we get a good book about atheism?

Seth Anderson said...

blogger seems to be sucking methane gas at the moment, so my oh-so-witty comment got lost. Paraphrased: am about 30 pages into Dawkin's book, and i like it. What does the NYRB criticize him for? Dawkins is a prick, by design more than by DNA.

geoff said...

Blogger choking? What a surprise!

Here is the NYRB article.

I'd be prone to read Dawkins for the acid tongue, if no other reason. Let me know if you dig it the whole way through.

Seth Anderson said...

thanks for the link. I was going to write a little snark in response, but then stumbled on this which basically makes the same point:
The Courtiers Reply, and as a bonus, reminds me of something Lewis Lapham might have written. Well, if it was expanded several more hundred words, that is.

Glancing at the God Delusion index, there are plenty of mentions of Aquinas, btw, but there are also references to Monty Python and Doug Adams. You'd think Dawkins wanted to sell books to the mainstream or something.

geoff said...

That was a good laugh--better even than coffee this morning. If Dawkins references Python and Adams he's surely on terra firma; those cats were most gifted at discovering absurdities.