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Sam Harris: You Are My Data

August 12, 2014


by Matt Sheedy

* This post originally appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog.

As a scholar of religions, I find your arguments about religion both frustrating and wrongheaded, which is a sentiment that is shared by most of my colleagues, though often for different reasons. Your recent post, “Why I Don’t Criticize Israel?” is but one example in a litany of arguments where you reify (I know you don’t use this term so I’ve provided a link) the concept “religion” in such a way that it functions like some contagion infecting all those who come into contact with it, unable to escape the grasp of its most virulent strains (read: literal interpretations of scripture).

Having read most of your books along-side the other so-called “New Atheists,” it became apparent to me as early as The End of Faith (2004) that you were the most reactionary among them, endorsing torture and writing the following remarkable lines in Letter to a Christian Nation, (2008) which I was recently humoured to see annotated in my personal copy with the letters, WTF?

If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself. … So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose. (5)

Since this time, to your credit, you have put your money where your mouth is, earning a PhD. in cognitive neuroscience in 2009, which you drew upon in your argument for a scientific morality in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2011). More recently, you have doubled-down on this proposition with the release of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. (2014)

I would imagine that most scholars of religions do not object to your quest to find a scientific basis for morality per se, since theories of mind and cognition are but one of many tools in the collective toolbox of the study of religions. Notwithstanding some of your arguments on topics such as neuroscience and free will, however, you do not provide any sort of theory that we can take seriously. For a brief overview of the kind of work that we do, I’d suggest starting with this concise taxonomy of scholars of religion by Travis Cooper. But I digress.

In “Why I Don’t Criticize Israel?” you raise a variety of points in defense of this question, including qualifying notes that you place in brackets in an attempt to nuance your previous statements on this topic, such as the following:

[Note: Again, I realize that not all Palestinians support Hamas. Nor am I discounting the degree to which the occupation, along with collateral damage suffered in war, has fueled Palestinian rage. But Palestinian terrorism (and Muslim anti-Semitism) is what has made peaceful coexistence thus far impossible.]

It is not my aim to engage you here on your arguments relating to the conflict at hand, but rather to offer my thoughts on how they bear upon the ways that we talk about religion. While the claims that you make about Israelis and Jews, Palestinians and Muslims are selective and limited (as I’m sure you’d acknowledge, after all it is a blog post), they nonetheless constitute claims that can be reflected on and challenged with alternative facts and additional evidence, which can then be re-interpreted, re-evaluated and revised if found to be compelling. As with any conflict, I endorse the ideal of taking up as many critical perspectives as possible in order to better grasp the messy world of politics and I encourage any honest efforts to do so.

When it comes to the question of religion, however, your reasoning comes up against a wall, which muddies your ability to clarify what is at stake in this and many other situations that involve groups that identify as religious (note the displacement of “religion” here, as we are still debating whether it is best understood as a first- or a second-order category). Curiously, you seem to make one exception to your general rule, which is worth quoting in full:

There are something like 15 million Jews on earth at this moment; there are a hundred times as many Muslims. I’ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, “Why would you think that I believe in a God who can hear prayers?” So there are rabbis—conservative rabbis—who believe in a God so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about Him—and therefore, nearly every concrete demand upon human behavior. And there are millions of Jews, literally millions among the few million who exist, for whom Judaism is very important, and yet they are atheists. They don’t believe in God at all. This is actually a position you can hold in Judaism, but it’s a total non sequitur in Islam or Christianity.

You suggest that those who identify as Jewish are, on the whole, capable of aligning their beliefs in such a way that is compatible with modern, liberal ideas and that “Judaism” permits its members to hold a dual-membership in “atheism.” Putting aside the rather sticky question of Jewish identity and where “its” authority comes from, it is certainly true that there are many more people who identify as Muslim than those who identify as Jewish and that the inflation of such identities can have negative consequences, not least of which is the reliance on certain political theologies as a primary lens for interpreting events in the social world, which sometimes aligns with anti-Semitic sentiments (anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments also abound, I might add, though I’d wager that you’d disagree that holding the second of these positions is problematic). This no doubt plays into the existential insecurity of Israel, which is surrounded by countries where such theologies and sentiments regrettably persist (and again, the reverse persists in many other countries too, including the US and Israel).

While you argue that Jews are able, on the whole, to take a self-critical stance on “God” so that the (scriptural) claims about “Him” don’t have much of an effect upon human behavior, you also suggest that the Hebrew Bible is the worst among equals:

Let me remind you that parts of Hebrew Bible—books like Leviticus and Exodus and Deuteronomy—are the most repellent, the most sickeningly unethical documents to be found in any religion. They’re worse than the Koran. They’re worse than any part of the New Testament. But the truth is, most Jews recognize this and don’t take these texts seriously. It’s simply a fact that most Jews and most Israelis are not guided by scripture—and that’s a very good thing.

Let’s assume for a moment that both of your claims are correct—that parts of the Hebrew Bible are highly unethical and that the majority of those who identify as Jewish are not guided by them. Why might this be the case? What historical, political and socio-cultural reasons might account for such a shift? What variations do we find within distinct sub-cultures within, say, Israeli society or in diaspora communities in different parts of the world that might help to explain these variations in the outward performance of Jewish identities as it relates to scriptural beliefs and practices?

While I know that many of my colleagues in the study of religions, especially those who conduct fieldwork, would object to the claim that similar “atheist” and “secular” beliefs and practices (though there’s some magic in those concepts too, no?) don’t also occur in many communities that identify as, say, Christian or Muslim, that is somewhat beside the point. I wonder though, if “Jews” can adopt such a position despite their “sickeningly unethical documents” then why not “Muslims” too? There appears to be a logical inconsistency here.

What you don’t seem to understand is that “religion” is not a material object like a table or a chair that can be classified in a generic sort of way, nor is it a condition, like the Ebola virus, that can be diagnosed and cured (or not cured) of its symptoms. It is, rather, a discursive concept with multiple variations. Most in my field, in fact, have been talking about it in the plural for some time now (e.g., Judaisms, Christianities, Islams), while others have done a fair bit of leg work identifying its linguistic and cultural roots in the Euro-West (with a healthy dose of Protestant theological influence, I might add) and in showing the ways in which dominant classifications of “religion” have been applied to a wide variety of cultural practices, which, of course, are constantly changing. Frankly, we have a tough time keeping up with it and are not at all clear on how to square the circle.

Because of the political nature of any field of study that reports its findings and engages with the general public, many scholars of religions get sucked into debates on the ideas and representations that go by the name “religion” (myself included), which sometimes distracts us from examining its unstable meaning and compels us to engage directly with its practical uses. What tends to get the most attention and carry the day in the popular public sphere (and this won’t surprise you, Sam) are those loud, dominant voices that claim to offer a definitive representation of this or that (or all) “religion,” for or against as the case may be. As many scholars have pointed out, this field of representations constitutes the discourse about religion, which, as I noted above, varies widely across time and space.

Becoming aware of this discourse, charting its themes and variations, is what some of us (though not all) in the study of religion are trying to do, which we hope will add more theoretical clarity to the field and, perhaps, may even have some positive social effects.

Once you take this bitter pill, Sam, you’ll quickly realize that there is no stable object, across cultures and across centuries, that can be placed into the tidy little box that you call religion, but only groups and individuals who identify what this or that tradition—your Buddhisms, your Hinduisms, your Islams—that we have come to call religions, who take up beliefs and practices in literally countless variations, though often with certain commonalities, to be sure. It is this problem that many of us are trying to get a handle on and until you realize this “fact,” you are my data.

* Photo credit from Wikimedia Commons.

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