Category Archives: Islam

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.”

Mulla Garda Da Vida, Baby

Ready, girls? I thought not. Here’s our best swipe at describing the Big Cat Mulla Sadra’s spooky philosophical argument for the existence of God, yowling at you from the 17th century. Breathe in, breathe out. Meow:

"Only one thing is purr-fect"

Philosophers are careful about words, much more careful than writers. Why? Because they’re not just playing games. (At least, we hope not.)

Since the Pre-Socratics, whom the Shiite Muslims of Sadra’s day revered, there was a lot of discussion about a “contingent” vs. a “necessary” being. Contingent means it relies on something else – it is not self-sufficient.

So, you are contingent on your sainted mother, Heather, and the yoga instructor. (I’m kidding.) The squalid tundra of Minneapolis is contingent on a wagon-load of clinically insane Scandinavians, who were themselves contingent on your sainted mother, Heather, and … kidding again. You get the point.
Everything is contingent. Except one thing.

To spoil the ending: Sadra says the only thing that is not a contingent being is Existence itself. And he equates Existence with God.

See what he’s done here? It’s quite breathtaking, across the centuries, poorly understood, in bad translation, butchered by a man who will probably never go to Iran. I mean it: breathtaking.

If Sadra can convince us that Existence is the only necessary thing … and that Existence actually exists … he seems to have proved God exists. It’s a long road from here to Jentezen Franklin or the Episcopal Synod, of course, but that’s a different problem.

Pause tape. Rewind. We can imagine something in our minds, like a “Lost Island,” says Sadra, and it can have all kinds of super-amazing properties and still not exist. (Gaunilo: 1.) But we cannot imagine “Existence” itself as not existing. (Anselm: TKO.)

We invite you to try it. Think about “Existence.” Got it? Now try to conceive of a world – any world – where “Existence” does not exist. Hmmm. Awkward. We may have found it: One It-ness that MUST exist: Existence itself.

One more step. Existence is the essence of everything that exists. It’s not an accidental, or predicate. It’s required. Necessary. And Sadra equates this “Existence” with ….

“Nothing is more perfect than Him. And in Him there is no room for non-existence or imperfection.” (Asfar, Vol 6: 14-16)

Toodles.

Grrrr-Ontology

So we’re searching for this thing called God, and we’re looking at old-time arguments for (and, eventually, against). And we’ve talked about what King Kong named the “ontological” jib-jabs, because they can be done with your eyes closed. That is, not easily, but without looking at the world outside your righteous noodle.

Samuel L. Jackson

"Hey, it works for me"

And the more I think about it, the more convinced I get these arguments only work if you already believe. They may convince a believer that her faith is not entirely irrational. But if you close your eyes an atheist, and master the ontological method, I’m thinking you’re going to open your eyes and say, “So what?”

Bertrand Russell agreed. In his “Autobiography,” he’s quoted in his early career saying, “Great God in Boots! – the ontological argument is sound!” But in his standard “History of Western Philosophy,” he one-eighties:

“The argument does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.” (p536)

For the ontological argument is really more a form of meditation than a chain of thought. It may well be possible to sit down to meditate on perfection as a skeptic and stand up a true believer in the one God, creator of heaven and earth and of all that is, seen and unseen, but I doubt it.

So unless I hear a righteous upswell of ontologists, I’ll move on after mentioning what I think is the spookiest, most full-throated case of this kind: Mulla Sadra’s so-called “Argument of the Righteous.”

This is the Samuel L. Jackson of ontological attempts: it’s that cool. Mulla Sadra was a Muslim theologian living just after our Reformation, foremost among the Illuminationist school of Transcendental Theosophy. In other words: deep.

At the risk of transcendentally travestying the late Mullah, we’ll say it goes something like this:

  1. Existence itself is perfect
  2. Created things – because they are created – are imperfect
  3. Existence is an end in itself: it does not rely on anything else
  4. If anything exists, then God exists

Or, more simply: Existence itself is not the same as the existence of things – it is separate, “independent.” And that independent Existence is perfect because it is not a thing. Mulla Sadra calls Existence, God.

Still not convinced? Think about Existence for a moment. Why does it even Exist? Do you have an answer?