Problematic Thoughts 06 - A Criticism of Sam Harris and the New Atheist's Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Doctor Comrade

Transcript and Sources:

There has been immense controversy surrounding the possibility that the US would provide sanctuary to refugees from Syria, and every presidential candidate has weighed in on the issue. The propositions from the conservatives have been vile, xenophobic, racist garbage spewed forth to win favor from the most disgusting parts of the Republican Party. Candidates like JEB Bush and Ted Cruz have both said that the US should only allow Christian refugees into the country because of security concerns. And they won themselves a strange, liberal ally.

Author, neuroscientist, and anti-religion advocate Sam Harris declared: “Given a choice between Noam Chomsky and Ben Carson, in terms of the totality of their understanding of what’s happening now in the world, I’d vote for Ben Carson every time… Ben Carson is a dangerously deluded religious imbecile… but at the very least he can be counted on to sort of get this one right. He understands that jihadists are the enemy.”

I guess someone should let Sam know that Chomsky is not running for president. But he continued: “Take the personalities of the people on the right out of the equation. Is it crazy to express, as Ted Cruz did, a preference for Christians over Muslims in this process? Of course not. What percentage of Christians will be jihadists or want to live under Sharia law? Zero. And this is a massive, in fact the only, concern when talking about security. We know that some percentage of Muslims will be jihadists inevitably… So it is not mere bigotry or mere xenophobia to express that preference.”

First of all, let’s clarify something here. The United States is the home to numerous Christian terrorist organizations that carry out acts of violence in the name of Christianity: the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, Rescue America, the Army of God, and others. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a dedicated list of 21 “Christian Identity Hate Groups” which are “fundamentally racist and anti-Semitic,” several of which have committed acts of domestic terrorism. Are we supposed to pretend that these groups would not impose some version of Christian Sharia law if given the opportunity? This just shows that Harris’s premise is myopic, ahistorical, and shortsighted. The Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado only underscores the religious extremism that leads to terrorism in the US.

Additionally, I think it would be a complete waste to quote statistics about the number of Syrian refugees in the US who have committed acts of terrorism—which is zero—or the number of mass murderers and serial rapists in this country who were raised Christian. I think it would also be lost on Harris to explain how state terrorism is the official foreign policy of the United States. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Subjugation and suppression of the populations in Palestine and Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria clearly meets this definition. Yet, Harris is a tireless apologist for killing civilians and torturing terror suspects, which the United States has done to a greater degree than any terrorist organization on the planet. In what Harris calls the battle of civilization vs. un-civilization, we can count the death toll and see what real terrorism looks like.

I think it is appropriate to criticize religion on many grounds, and we can have a nuanced discussion about religion and the way it influences people’s lives. I think Harris is correct when he asserts that religion is a system of indoctrination, almost always forced upon children who are uneducated and can’t make decisions for themselves, and then must live out their lives with the intellectual baggage of religious dogma. I also agree with Harris that religion has been used as a justification for violence, war, misogyny, and racism. Religious thinking is, in many ways, a delusional misrepresentation of reality. But Harris is wrong about Islam, its relationship with Christianity and the West, what constitutes religious delusion, and terrorism.

Where these proponents of New Atheism misunderstand religion is in its effects. We can’t presume to know the true intentions or thoughts of any person; we can only observe the effects of their actions. Religion is delusional only insofar as it distorts people’s understandings of their material conditions because religion has historically been used as a way to pacify or divide the working classes. As I wrote earlier this year, “The mass appeal of religion, as an ideological tool, could be used to harness or direct the revolutionary potential of the working class. Historically, that revolutionary fervor has been turned against itself in order to limit the working class’ power.” Religion demonstrates, almost in its very nature, that a natural hierarchy exists and must be adhered to every turn. Religious leaders, including pastors, priests, and popes, and any people who claim authoritative knowledge of religious texts or prophecy, teach followers that there are certain rules that must be followed and protected.

Religion, as an institution, is founded upon several overlapping hierarchies. On one hand, the spiritual hierarchy may be constituted as subjection to a god and that god’s prophets. On the other hand, social hierarchies may be constituted as subjection to god’s representatives on Earth, including religious leaders, but also in terms of rules concerning who holds legitimate leadership. For example, in most Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, the male head of household is imbued with a religious mandate to be the familial authority. This has several social implications, including the institutionalization and normalization of patriarchy and misogyny.

As history has demonstrated, religious sects have battled for millennia over who should serve as a god’s legitimate prophet. For example, the founding of Christianity taught Christians that Jesus and his disciples should displace Jewish religious leaders as the representatives of God and the holders of legitimate religious knowledge. Abandon the old hierarchies, embrace the new hierarchies. The Catholic Church and all subsequent Christian sects contain this same fundamental belief: that there are certain humans who hold legitimate knowledge about God, scripture, and the nature of the universe.

Religions, as transmitters of hierarchy and tradition, often prevent the working class from attaining class consciousness, and these religious conflicts have manifested in several ways. For instance, sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants[1] is well documented in American labor history, where Irish and Italian immigrants in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were disenfranchised and suppressed by their Protestant peers. There is no working class cohesion or consciousness when Christianity’s competing traditions prevent workers from realizing they have more in common with each other than with the rich bourgeoisie with whom they may share religious ideology. This is why I call religion a delusion of material reality: it is an obstacle to class consciousness, and as such, it has been successfully deployed by religious elites as a means by which to diffuse revolution.

Moreover, here we isolate one particular piece of what could be called the logic of religion. By instituting a social hierarchy and defending that hierarchy’s legitimacy through spirituality and scripture, religion teaches complacency and acceptance of material conditions. Of course we know that many religious people may reject a church’s hierarchy but accept the broad religious dogma (for example, Cafeteria Catholics). However, still inherent to this belief system is a submission to a divine authority or supernatural understanding of fate, which may have the result of disempowering resistance to other forms of authority. It may be easy to fall into the epistemological trap of believing that God has a plan and therefore accept material conditions as if they are predetermined.

One last criticism of religion is the effect it has on people’s beliefs about their time on Earth. I believe this follows the religious logic I previously outlined about adherence to legitimate religious hierarchy. Scientists, regardless of their own religious affiliation, are often excluded from religious legitimacy because their profession is outside the scope of religious doctrine. For example, many religious people, and particularly conservatives in the US, oppose efforts to combat global climate change. They are opposed to scientific advancement of our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Other religious beliefs characterize some Americans’ principles: resistance to access to abortion, preservation of the US as a “Christian Nation,” opposition to LGBTQ rights, etc. These are modes of oppression (of women, of non-Christian minorities, of LBGTQ people) that exist primarily because of religion, and these discourses must be attacked if we believe in liberty, emancipation, or any other number of lofty goals. This point should appeal to both Liberals and Marxists.

I have outlined several objections to religious thought. But I refer to Marx’s proclamation about the nature of religion, that it is the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions,” and Howard Zinn’s characterization of the positive aspects of Marx’s religious thought. Religion is not inherently evil, and it provides a great deal of comfort to those who languish under the yoke of oppression. In the midst of late capitalism, and the degradation of the Earth and its poorest inhabitants, religion gives its adherents a reason to live, act, and find happiness. The effects for many societies up to this point in history may have often been to inspire violence, war, and oppression. Religion has motivated communities to attack, kill, maim, and brutalize scores of people. But religion has also been a comfort to the victims, a refuge for those whose souls have been attacked by the ruthless conditions fostered by capitalism and other forms of oppression.

In a revolutionary sense, some theological developments like Liberation Theology encourage a reinterpretation of religious beliefs in order to address social and economic injustice. These beliefs are the kinds of proletarian energies that can be directed towards dismantling capitalism and overthrowing established hierarchies. It should be no surprise to us that some religious figures, like Martin Luther King Jr., advocated a kind of liberation theology that would deconstruct structures of power like racism and classism. It’s also important to note that King embraced democratic socialism. And Malcolm X, a Muslim, said in 1964, “all of the countries that are emerging today from under the shackles of colonialism are turning toward socialism. I don’t think it’s an accident…. And if you find a person without racism and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political Philosophy is socialism.”

What becomes evident is that for some people, their religion becomes an impetus for emancipation. For others, religion keeps them complacent and closed off to consciousness. For these reasons, I reject Harris’s criticisms of Islam on the grounds that they lack any nuance or understanding of the ways many people experience their religion. It is obvious that ISIS presents a legitimate threat to many people living in the West, and it should be opposed because its violent ideologies have had the effect of justifying the murders of thousands of people. These ideologies are religious in nature, but they are not characteristic of religious experience as a whole, for all Syrians, all Muslims, or all religious people. And we should not ignore the vast majority of Muslims who condemn ISIS and other terrorists. We should instead observe the way that this particular, limited version of Islam deludes its adherents into rejecting a unified goal of anti-colonialism with other Muslims. Members of ISIS have much in common with Muslim anti-colonialists, yet they target people they see as apostates rather than using their revolutionary energy against colonialism.

Harris’s well-documented feud with Noam Chomsky is instructive here. Harris advocates and defends military actions with high civilian casualties on the grounds that civilian deaths are justifiable, either because of imperfect technology, flawed intelligence, or the elimination of actual combatants. Chomsky, a longtime critic of US foreign policy, responds with several moral claims about the victims of terrorism. Referring to the bombing of al-Shifa in Sudan authorized by President Clinton, Chomsky retorts, “The acts can be excused, then, only on the Hegelian assumption that Africans are ‘mere things,’ whose lives have ‘no value,’ an attitude that accords with practice in ways that are not overlooked among the victims, who may draw their own conclusions about the ‘moral orthodoxy of the West.’” In reference to the American military, Chomsky argues, “of course they knew that there would be major casualties.  They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims,” and he continues later in the exchange, “it just didn’t matter if lots of people are killed in a poor African country, just as we don’t care if we kill ants when we walk down the street.” Ultimately, Chomsky reiterates that he is not drawing a moral equivalence between American terrorism and Islamic terrorism, but rather that Americans shouldn’t allow themselves to be deluded into thinking that they are the moral paragons in a deteriorating world.

Sam Harris’s own views on religion are clearly the same kind of material delusion that constricts the energies of many religious people. His blind hatred for Muslims prevents him from recognizing the historical and material circumstances that have produced terrorism and violence. US military attacks against civilians are used as recruitment propaganda for al-Qaeda and ISIS, so we shouldn’t be surprised when people become terrorists. Moreover, Harris has more in common with the civilians in Sudan and Afghanistan than he does with the military apparatus that is dead-set on killing them. At the heart of the matter is survival in the face of terrorism, whether it is state-sponsored or religious. This is not to say that Harris is some kind of alienated proletarian yearning for connection to his brethren; rather that the interests of civilians and Harris are conspicuously aligned: end terrorism, end violence, end oppression. But Harris is too focused on his fear of Muslims to realize that Muslims across the globe also want to end those things.

Harris refers to this battle against Islamic extremism as a battle between the civilized world and the uncivilized world.[2] It’s not. It’s an ideological struggle over the nature of religion, its revolutionary potential, and the soul of humanity.


[1] I refer to Christianity specifically because it is the religion with which I am most familiar. I think it is worth noting the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims is also relevant here. Rather than uniting under the banner of Islam, or rather than presenting a united front as what could be called “colonized peoples,” some Muslims are consumed with killing other Muslims. A huge majority of ISIS’s victims have been Muslims, after all.

 [2] Noting the attendant colonialist discourses of power over marginalized peoples.