2 Thoughts About Sam-I-Am Harris

A couple more reactions to Sam Harris, prominent New Atheist who is not an atheist, before we go back to looking for the Big Banana in the tropical sky:

(1) He is not self-reflective

One prominent critic of Harris’ The End of Faith is Chris Hedges, another excellent journalist/writer type who found the screed to be, ahem, rather intemperately anti-Muslim. Hedges, an ex-seminarian and war correspondent for the New York Times, has repeatedly observed that people like Harris “embrace the same kind of bigotry and chauvinism and intolerance that marks the radical Christian right.”

Hedges’ blindingly obvious point is that reading Harris can easily make you hate Muslims just as much as Harris claims going to a Mosque in Kabul can make you hate Southern Baptists. And it’s true: I have never read a more meticulous, well-documented condemnation of a particular religion in my life. The apostle Paul may call pagan Gods “demons,” but Harris one-ups him by calling the entire faith of Islam a “cult of death.” (It won’t do to say Harris condemns all religion, which is technically true but ignores the proportional real estate devoted to Muslim-bashing.)

But rather than take on Hedges’ main point, Harris goes off on a rant about some passing, extreme comments Hedges (or others) may have made about whether or not he advocates nuclear strikes. For the record, Harris does not advocate nuclear strikes, just the elimination of Islam.

Harris is a master of the laser-site: focusing on the most extreme statements of people with whom he does not agree, taking them literally, and attacking them at tedious length. He is guilty of serial moral metonymy. (I think that’s the poetic term for taking the part for the whole.)

2. Harris lacks humility

What I like best about faith is its insistence on humility, or ego-deflation. It is mile one on the road. There is no prominent theologian I know of before the 20th century who does not make radical humility before the mystery of the universe — and before other people — dead center in their orbit. In the words of the 14th century English mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, “Humility … is nothing else but a true knowledge of yourself as you are.”

It’s not religion but secularism that makes people self-centered. Harris recently said that of all the criticisms of his new best-seller The Moral Landscape “by far the best” was this one by the philosopher Russell Blackford. Why does Harris respect this particular attack so much? Maybe because it includes such scathing zingers as “I enjoyed this book, and I recommend it highly.”

And in a recent, typically verbose essay in The Huffington Post called “A Response to Critics,” Harris is true to form: he lays into Deepak Chopra and Colin McGinn for going negative on his book without apparently having read it — way uncool, no doubt, — and then goes on to discuss a certain barbed venom-slinger named, well, Russell Blackford, whose contribution to the outrageous anti-Harris dialogue includes such firebombs as “Almost anyone could benefit from reading The Moral Landscape.”


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