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Is Sam Harris a Best-Selling Atheist?
are at least 450 atheists who are so pissed off about all the religious
belief in the world that they’ve sat down to write one or more very decent
books on how there is no God. You really have to wonder then, why so many
American readers would choose to put Sam Harris on best-seller lists across
the country. It’s not like he’s a good writer or anything.
Sample Harris sentence: “One of the greatest challenges facing
civilization in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak
about their deepest personal concerns--about ethics, spiritual experience
and the inevitability of human suffering--in ways that are not flagrantly
Never mind the cheap use of a new (Christ-based) century to lever urgency
into his argument; Harris can’t make any kind of clear point. He uses
the term “deepest personal concerns” to mean “principal issues that atheists
and believers have jousted over for centuries.” The real “deepest personal
concerns” for human beings — physical appearance, social status, material
wealth -- are also “flagrantly irrational” with regard to the kind of
“reason” an atheist wields to fight religious belief.
Compare Harris with a truly gifted atheist, whose prose is so gorgeous
and lucid that it survives translation and 120 years. Nietzsche: “The
last Christian died on a cross.”
Now, I’ve committed a sin against the reader, because while I did pick
out the Harris citation to show what a shit writer he is, I simply wanted
to share my favorite Nietzsche quote. So, sorry.
Back to my question: Harris, a cloudy amateur writer, sells hundreds of
thousands of copies against all those other choices available on Amazon.
Why do the readers go for Harris?
Here’s the tricky part: It’s not because of his atheism. It’s because,
buried in his books like Easter eggs, Harris makes the word and sensibility
of atheism safe for two very unstable, deeply “irrational” sets of audiences.
1. Making torture of muslims
safe for atheists. The first group is the huge number of superficially
secular and humanist Americans who have the good sense not to believe
in the religious system of the white tribe, but still share the rest of
its tribal mindsets, aka most atheists. These
include a fairly unconscious general loathing of Arabs and Muslim culture,
a scarcely legitimate belief that they represent an existential threat,
and a simple vengeful, spiteful mood akin to the alarmingly calm expressions
that white people make when they are exposed to the facts and stats about
the rate of black incarceration in America.
A person might point
out that Harris’ two books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian
Nation” don’t have the words Muslim or torture in them. They don’t need
to, and in fact if they did, they probably wouldn’t have sold as well.
That’s because speaking on behalf of torture is the kind of thing our
polite society conducts in whispers. You bury it in your book. People
who need to have their repressed desires justified get the same comfort
out of discovering the buried textual defenses they crave as they do receiving
their porn videos mailed to them in unmarked boxes. And that’s what Harris
did: “In one section of the book (pp. 192-199), I briefly discuss the
ethics of torture and collateral damage in times of war... [T]here are
certain extreme circumstances in which I believe that torture may not
only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary. I am not alone
in this. Liberal Senator Charles Schumer has publicly stated that most
U.S. senators would support torture to find out the location of a ticking
Readers of the Beast are deeply aware about what kind of a liberal
Chuck Schumer is, whose explanation for his vote for invading Iraq was
“I believe you had to fight a strong war on terror, and that’s what that
vote symbolized to me.” What’s truly stunning is Harris’ use of the utterly
discredited “ticking time bomb” scenario to make his zombie case for Muslim/Arab
torture — a method of argument that the most venal liars and thieves apply
against the stupidest audiences. It’s been discredited on the macro level
— Bush and Condi’s use of it to justify attacking Iraq, the popularity
of 24 — and in the micro sense: we’ve gotten jack shit out of the thousands
of people we’ve tortured from Gitmo to Abu Ghraib. Truly, nothing. If we had
gotten even a shred of valuable intel
out of all that torture, Lindsay Graham and John McCain wouldn’t have
fake-banned it — they would have proposed it as a constitutional amendment.
Also, it practically goes without saying that there isn’t a single theoretical
instance of torture that Harris invokes that doesn’t involve Muslims in
a post-9/11 context.
2. Making eastern spiritually and crazy
beliefs safe for “atheists.” Harris’ other strange property is that
he’s no atheist at all. What he is, really, is someone willing to go out
and slay the Judeo-Christian texts and customs for the reason that they
are outdated and don’t jibe with the modern world. There are a lot of
people who want to believe in something, like their Jewish and Christian
parents did, but the stupid Orthodoxers and Catholics refuse to update God, and the more
adaptive Protestant/progressive blend hasn’t done it fast or well enough.
In the way that Judeo-Christian belief still dominates among the white
tribe, “atheism” for most of its practitioners is a rejection of it, not
other faiths. So Harris does a smart thing — smart that is, if you want
to sell books. He goes through the motions of rejecting the Christian,
Jewish and especially the Muslim faith, while making some very, very weak
disclaimers against phenomena like xenoglossy (the sudden ability to speak in languages you’ve
never learned), reincarnation, and the mundane Eastern products like Buddhism
and meditation — as opposed to that Judeo-Christian waste of time, prayer.
Here’s Harris: “If some experimental psychologists want to spend their
days studying telepathy, or the effects of prayer, I will be interested
to know what they find out. And if it is true that toddlers occasionally
start speaking in ancient languages (as Ian Stevenson alleges), I would
like to know about it. However, I have not spent any time attempting to
authenticate the data put forward in books like Dean Radin’s
The Conscious Universe or Ian Stevenson’s 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.
The fact that I have not spent any time on this should suggest how worthy
of my time I think such a project would be. Still, I found these books
interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the
way that I can dismiss the claims of religious dogmatists. ... There are
several neuroscience labs now studying the effects of meditation on the
brain. While I am not personally engaged in this research, I know many
of the scientists who are. This is now a fertile area of sober inquiry,
purposed toward understanding the possibilities of human well-being better
than we do at present. While I consider Buddhism almost unique among the
world’s religions as a repository of contemplative wisdom, I do not consider
myself a Buddhist.”
If you did, Harris, you’d worship the god Buddha. But if you read Buddhist
tracts for their “wisdom” and believed what you did in contemplative,
meditative privacy, that would be fine. You’d
have to be extremely well-versed in obscure frauds to know who Dean Radin
or Ian Stevenson are, but let me put it this way: This is not like a deacon
speaking out against Playboy
centerfold shots as fonts of immorality. This is the deacon decrying ass-to-mouth
or chocolate cream pie videos. It’s worth noting at this point that the
two quotes are Harris writing on defense. He had been attacked as pro-torture
and pro-Eastern religion in an article, and this is Harris ostensibly
disavowing those two allegations.
(You can read more of Harris’s “defenses” here: http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2