Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Secular fanatacism?

Alonzo Fyfe at The Atheist Ethicist has argued that 'militant' should not be used as a descriptive term unless the target of the description actually is militant, i.e. advocates or endorses the use of violence in the name of some cause. I'm drastically oversimplifying Alonzo's argument, so I'd refer you to his own post on this subject in case that I've mis/under represented his position.

Now, I've used the term before, and I think that the term can be used figuratively to convey a certain sense of hard-line-ish-ness (did I just invent a pseudo-word?) that someone might display in the pursuit of some goal. But in the current political climate, I think its important to start paying attention to Orwell's admonition about the proper use of language, and think it best that we start leaving words relating to war and militancy unclouded with ambiguities that might be exploited for various reasons.

As it just so happens, I just finished The End of Faith:Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris, who is a good case study seeing as he is generally considered to be a militant atheist. My verdict? Um, I think applying our more stringent standard he scrapes by, but it's close (for what it's worth, Alonzo is more decided that Harris is not 'militant' than I am -but given the framework of his argument, I really don't disagree with his perspective, either.)

Yet consider this: Harris's basic argument (about the danger of unreason in the modern world) is not dramatically different from the one that Carl Sagan presented in The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, but Sagan's book is devoid of a hypothetical case for genocide or a rather flippant observation that unreason will make 'collateral damage' a necessity we'll have to learn to live with or an argument for the use of torture. I suppose you can use that as a kind of barometer for judging just how _____ Harris is in calling for an end to faith. (The blank is there because I haven't thought of a phrase to replace "militant" yet.)

But it's the back cover of the book that is the inspiration for this post. There, you will find the following blurb from Alan Dershowitz

Harris's tour de force demonstrates how faith - blind, deaf, dumb, and unreasoned - threatens our very existence. His expose' of faith-based unreason - from the religious fanatacism of Islamic suicide bombers to the secular fanatacism of Noam Chomsky - is a clarion call for reasoned debate in this age of terrorism. A must read for all rational people.
Now here we have an opportunity to apply Alonzo's maxim. Professor Dershowitz engages in just the sort of slight of hand that Alonzo was speaking against where he states "from the religious fanatacism of Islamic suicide bombers to the secular fanatacism of Noam Chomsky." This sentence unfairly equivocates Noam Chomsky with suicide bombers. Whatever "fanatacism" Chomsky has engaged in, it is not in the same category as that of the genuine fanatacism of suicide bombers. What's more, Harris does not accuse Chomsky of faith-based unreason within the book.

In fact, he concedes many of Chomsky's points about wrongs committed by the US government, but argues Chomsky is guilty of unreason for engaging in moral equivalency between the acts of the US gov't and those of the 9/11 terrorists, while accusing Chomsky of downplaying the role of religious fanatacism in the 9/11 attacks. Harris believes that Chomsky's points are irrelevant to the issue. This isn't quite the same thing as saying that Chomsky is a faith-based secular fanatic of some sort.

Dershowitz's comment really comes across as a petty swipe at Chomsky, whom I would guess he considers a "fanatic" because he and Chomsky are on different sides of the debate relating to Israeli/Palestinian relations. If we were to loosen the use of fanatic in such a way, one might also describe both Harris and Dershowitz as "secular fanatics" since they both endorse the use of torture as a tool to combat terrorism. But to do so would be improper, as both present reasoned arguments for the use of torture that are not fanatical in nature, regardless of whether or not you agree with them.

A couple of other observations about the book.

1. Harris cites Muslim opposition to the invasion of Iraq as being an example of faith-based unreason. I find it difficult to imagine how Harris could have put much thought into that statement. Surely he is aware that virtually the entire world (outside of the United States) protested the invasion of Iraq? To single out Muslim opposition to the invasion as if this is some sort of abberation is to suggest (tacitly) that the rest of the rational world favored it, when in fact it did not.

2. Harris relates an anecdote about an incident at night while he was in Prague where several drunken men were in the process of attempting to force a woman into a car against her will. Harris is able to free the woman from this situation by approaching the men (who did not speak English) and asking them for directions to his hotel. While they began trying to decipher amongst themselves what Harris was asking them they became distracted and the woman was able to escape without notice.

Harris gives this anecdote as an example of a moral failure in a section critical of pacificism. He writes:

I was lying, and lying out of fear. I was not lost, and I needed no assistance of any kind. I resorted to this tactic because, quite frankly, I was afraid to openly challenge an indeterminate number of drunks to a brawl. Some may call this wisdom, but it seemed to me nothing more than cowardice at the time. I made no effort to communicate with these men, to appeal to their ethical scruples, however inchoate, or to make any impression upon them whatsoever. I perceived them not was ends in themselves, as sentient creatures capable of dialogue, appeasement, or instruction, but as a threat in its purest form. My ethical failure, as I see it, is that I never actually opposed their actions - hence they never received any correction from the world.
Harris continues on to state that the next woman to come along and fall prey to the drunkards would have little reason to thank Harris and that if he had more directly confronted the men he would have sent the message that not everyone will stand idly by and watch a woman be assaulted.

I've read several reviews of The End of Faith, and I don't recall a single reviewer relating this passage. Which is peculiar, I think, since Harris's odd interpretation of his situation left me questioning his credibility in matters relating to ethics.

First, who cares if he was lying to these men or if he failed to send the men a message or to remonstrate with them about the wrongness about assaulting a woman? Given the situtation, the highest ethical objective would be to secure the woman's safety. If Harris had approached the men in the manner that he seems to think would have been the more moral way to proceed, it's possible that he would have merely provoked them to defend the woman from him, and given that he was outnumbered, it's not at all certain that he would have been able to free the woman with this approach.

Secondly, Harris gives this anecdote as a argument against pacificism. Is he daft? The clever approach that he considers cowardice did not preclude the use of force in defense of the lady. Had his subterfuge failed he would still have had the opportunity to confront the men more directly.

Then the bit about not approaching them as sentient beings capable of talking it over or learning a lesson. Really, this is just stupid. I've come across plenty of drunks in my day - ones that happen to speak the same language as me - and let me tell you from my own experience that they tend not to be the best candidates for "dialogue, appeasement, or instruction." That's not to say that they can't be reasoned with or appeased (I've done it before on occasion), but doing so was a means to an end (preventing violence) and not an end in itself. Again, what should have been running through his head was "how can I get this woman free" not "how can I convey to these sentient beings that they are engaging in morally questionable behavior."

The only point that I would concede Harris is that the men were left free to potentially go looking for another victim. But this is what the police are for. What was stopping him from attempting to contact local authorities and relating the incident with a description of the men and their car? The alternative appears to me for Harris to play the role of Batman by striking fear into the heart of these drunkards, hoping that his confrontation with them will discourage them from such activity in the future. The whole passage just struck me as bizarre, and quite unneccesary given that the proceeding section actually does make a solid point against pacificism.

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