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ISSUE #116
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Features

ArrowLost in Translation
McCain's Iraq perception gap explained

Allan Uthman

ArrowThe BEAST Totally Irresponsible Guide to Campus Massacres
If it makes you laugh, you're a bad person!

ArrowParenti Guidance
Our interview with Michael Parenti

Josh Bunting

ArrowTrail of Tiers
Disgrace for the WHite House!

Matt Taibbi

ArrowA Graphic Guide to Democratic Tiers
See how your candidate ranks!

ArrowAnd God Cursed us with Boredom
Diary of an internet-addicted infidel

Ian Murphy

ArrowNotorious C.H.O.
The creative aftermath of the VA Tech massacre

Eric Bryant

ArrowWhy is Sam Harris a Best-Selling Atheist?
A. Monkey

ArrowYe Neocolonialists
Dems poised to pillage Iraq

Matt Taibbi

ArrowBattle of the Network Stars
Are elections bad for democracy?
Allan Uthman

ArrowGuten Tag, Bitches!
A brief message from the father of psychoanalysis
Sigmund Freud

Departments

ArrowThe Beast Page 3
Retarded Presidential Candidates

ArrowKino Kwikees: Movie Trailer Reviews
Spiderman 3, Lucky You, 28 Weeks Later, The Flock, Georgia Rule, Delta Farce, Shrek the 3rd, The Ex

ArrowBEAST-O-Scopes
Your completely accurate horoscope

Arrow[sic] - Letters
Intolerance intolerance, Electophobia, Islamormon, Rush the Magic Honkie

 

Why Is Sam Harris a Best-Selling Atheist?

There 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 irrational.”

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 time bomb.”

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 )

 

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