Saturday, August 18, 2007

Review: Letter to a Christian Nation Part IV

I'm back. I know you missed me. So, here's a really long post for you.

"Our competing religious certainties are impeding the emergence of a viable, global civilization." (p80)

Really, now? I would argue that human nature (as revealed by science) and conflicts between a whole host of social, political, and economic systems impedes the emergence of global civilization. Remove religion from the world and a global civilization created by universal consensus would still be impossible. There is a reason that, in the course of human history, the only truly globe-spanning civilizations were created by force and exploitation for the benefit of the home country and at tremendous cost to conquered peoples.

Primatologists examining our nearest biological relatives have shown that cohesiveness in primate groups is limited both by primate brain structure and the number of individuals with which a particular individual can have direct physical contact through grooming. Based on this information, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has theorized that humans are able to maintain social relationships with a maximum of 150 people. Beyond this number, known as Dunbar's number, societies must create and enforce strict social rules if they are to function. Beyond this number, human societies begin to break themselves into subgroups such as clans, where negotiations between subgroups replace social relationships between individuals.

As the number of individuals in a society increases, subgroup structures become more numerous and complex, social rules increase in number, and hierarchical governmental structures arise. When deciding how to organize a complex civilization, humans have come upon a variety of systems, of which religion is but one. The conflicts between these systems and the values upon which they depend would make global civilization difficult if not impossible. Survey the difficulties that have beset our modern globalization efforts and religion fades into the background: free trade v. fair trade, the instability of democracy v. the brutality of dictatorship, the economic interests of the strong v. the survival of the weak, human rights v. corporate profit, capitalism v. communism v. socialism v. fascism, national pride v. equality between nations, environmentalism v. the exploitation of natural resources, etc. ad infinitum.

Unfortunately, this basic limitation to the human capacity for group cohesiveness leads to tribalism, ethnic rivalries, racism, sexism, nationalism, and all too often, intergroup and intragroup conflict. One need only glance at human history and current events to see that religion is far from necessary for the creation of conflict. In fact, the overwhelming majority of human conflicts have had little or no relation to religion. The most fundamental conflicts arise from competition for basic resources: potable water, arable land, hunting grounds, inhabitable territory, security, etc. The next level arises when one group grasps for a standard of living far beyond basic necessity at the cost of other groups. The history of imperialism and the spread of dominant civilizations reveals our capacity for violence up to and including genocide for precious stones, precious and not so precious metals, fossil fuels, access to trade, and other means to wealth and privilege. In the cyclic turns of human events, yesterday's victims become today's oppressors when those who once suffered seize the opportunity for revenge. (I'll refer you to the Rwandan genocide, where 500,000 Tutsis were murdered and countless more raped, tortured, maimed, and permanently displaced from their homes when the Hutu took their vengeance for the Tutsis' position of privilege during colonialism.)

"Second, far greater numbers of people fall into conflict with one another because they define their moral community on the basis of their religious affiliation [...] Conflicts that seem driven by terrestrial concerns, therefore, are often deeply rooted in religion". (p81)

In addition to the arguments above, I'd like to address some of the examples Mr. Harris gives to support his claim.
Palestine: Deeply rooted in religion? Hardly. First, a survey of the history of global Muslim-Jewish relations shows far more cooperation than conflict. Muslims and Jews lived together for more than a millenium with relatively little conflict when compared to the history of Christian-Jewish relations. Secondly, just a few decades ago, Israelis and Palestinians readily engaged in personal and business relationships with one another. Even today, in some of the border settlements, Israelis and Palestinians regularly engage one another peacefully. Secondly, any honest assessment of the situation would reveal that occupation by a foreign power and the resulting daily indignities and deprivations is the primary cause of Palestinian hatred for Israelis. On the Israeli side, the inability to tell friend from foe when dealing with the Palestinians, the increasingly difficult security situation, and the death toll of hundreds of terrorist attacks (carried out by a small minority of Palestinians) has fostered hatred of the Palestinians. On both sides, tit for tat calls for revenge lead to a constant escalation of the conflict. If you think this is just because of the religious difference, I'll advise you to ask the Muslims of Lebanon how they felt about being occupied by their fellow Arab Muslims.

Northern Ireland: Again, a situation where invasion and occupation by a foreign government lead to historical and modern indignities and deprivations for the indigenous population. Yes, as in the Palestinian case, the differences in religion between the two peoples allows easy identification of the two groups (although I'd point out that there are Muslim Israelis and Christian Palestinians); however, religion is hardly the source of the conflict. In fact, the seizure of lands in Northern Ireland to bring Ulster under control in the 17th century and Cromwell's subsequent seizure of 80% of Irish land to pay for the English Civil War are at the root of the "Irish Problem." Some people, including Richard Dawkins, have pointed to linguistic and cultural similarities between the two peoples to argue that religion is the source of conflict. I'll point out that these linguistic and cultural similarities are the result of British imperial policies and that this cultural genocide provides further justification for Irish resentment of the British. (Gaelic is the indigenous language of Ireland for those who don't know.) I'll also refer you to a former member of the British Empire that initiated a brutal, prolonged war for home rule despite being English-speaking and predominantly Protestant: the United States of America.

The Caucasus: While this is a case of Orthodox Russians v. Chechen Muslims according to Mr. Harris, it is yet another case of a foreign power that invaded, occupied and brutally exploited the indigenous people according to, well, the facts. The Chechens have been fighting against foreign rule since the 15th century, first taking up arms against the Russians when that nation attempted to spread its influence into the Caucasus for strategic reasons (maintaining communications with Georgia) in the 18th century. Neither the Russian occupation nor the Chechen opposition to foreign rule were based on religion. In fact, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin's decision to deny Chechnya the right to secede from Russia was politically and economically motivated. (His arguments included the precedent it would set for other Russian territories and Chechnya's position in the oil infrastructure.) I'll refer you to the resistance movements of the former Soviet Republics and Soviet-occupied territories.

"Most nonbelievers, liberals, and moderates apparently think that no one ever really sacrifices his life, or the lives of others, on account of his religious beliefs. Such people simply do not know what it is like to be certain of Paradise." (p82)

Isn't it lovely how reasoned debate allows you to make up ridiculous beliefs for your opponents? Oh, wait. It doesn't? Could've fooled Mr. Harris, apparently.

No intelligent person of any stripe would believe that no one ever sacrifices his life or the lives of others due to his religious beliefs. In fact, martyrdom (the sacrifice of one's life rather than surrendering one's religious beliefs) is a key factor in all three Abrahamic religions. Jews who died rather than convert under threat of death during the Crusades were martyrs. Christians who were thrown to the lions because they would not deny their G-d were martyrs. Muslims who died to protect Muslim lands from Christian Crusaders were martyrs. And yes, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Bhuddhists, Pagans, etc. have killed in the name of their religions, either to spread it or to protect it. Of course, it would be dishonest to deny that atheists have sacrificed themselves and others in their attempts to eliminate organized religion in Revolutionary France, the Soviet Union and its territories, Albania, China, North Korea, Cuba, and North Vietnam.

It's all beside the point. The true beliefs of those nonbelievers, liberals and moderates who oppose Mr. Harris' arguments are similar to those I've discussed here with a few more throw in. They are:
1. Factionalism and violence are part and parcel of human nature.
2. The majority of human conflicts have not been based on religion.
3. Defining the term "religion" leads to such fuzziness and subjectivity that little can be said about religion as a whole rather than about specific, concretely described behaviors and beliefs.
4. Each human being and each human society is influenced by such a wide variety of factors that tracing most problems to just one of them is all but impossible.
5. Humans have committed both the highest of goods and the worst of evils in the name of religion.
6. Humans have committed both the highest of goods and the worst of evils in the name of (insert any political, economic, social, or moral philosophy here).
7. Humans have committed both the highest of goods and the worst of evils in the name of (insert human desire, value, emotion or interest here).
8. Eliminating religion will not accomplish what Mr. Harris thinks it will.
9. If we believed it would, even the religous liberals and moderates would jump on Harris' bandwagon, although we'd probably wonder how an eternal and nearly universal aspect of human culture can be destroyed without recourse to the very factionalism, violence and brutality we'd be attempting to eliminate. Remember those people willing to die for their beliefs?
10. If we look at religion carefully, examining all of its aspects, we see religion and reason overlapping far more than they conflict and far more than Mr. Harris would care to admit.
11. Etc. (I don't think I can provide an exhaustive list of the beliefs of all nonbelievers, liberals and moderates.)

As for Mr. Harris' claim about Paradise and his later follow up that liberals and moderates also don't know what it means to really believe in G-d, I'd argue that:
a.) He's obviously not very well versed in theology since most religious liberals and moderates believe they're going to Heaven or Paradise. By definition, all liberal and moderate theists believe in G-d. They simply define G-d and morality differently than Mr. Harris and his presumed ultra-conservative, literalist audience.
b.) Many religions don't have an afterlife or like Judaism, have one afterlife for everyone. Yet, their followers are still willing to sacrifice themselves. Paradise is obviously not a sufficient explanation.
c.) Islam, for one, offers guaranteed paths to Paradise that are a lot easier, less controversial, and less destructive than suicide bombing. We need a bit more than Islam to explain why young men would choose suicide bombing in particular and why it is such a recent phenomenon in the Muslim world.
d.) Many people, like the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, have sacrificed themselves and others without either religious beliefs or a belief in an afterlife. We therefore need something other than religion to explain self-sacrifice and terrorism.

"Throughout Europe, Muslim communities often show little inclination to acquire the secular and civil values of their host countries, and yet exploit these values to the utmost, demanding tolerance for their misogyny, their anti-Semitism, and the religious hatred that is regularly preached in their mosques." (p84)

Strange that in the U.S., where opportunities for immigrants are greater, Muslims have embraced our secular and civil values. Strange that Muslim Turkey is one of the most secular countries in the world. Is it the Muslims or is it Europe's infamously anti-immigrant policies? I'll hold out the possibility that it's both but you'd have to provide a lot of evidence to convince me that this is solely a Muslim problem. I'd also caution Mr. Harris against praising Europe's secular and civil values when some European countries (England, Denmark, Andorra, Greece, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Scotland, Serbia, and Montenegro) still have state religions or state churches and where freedom of speech is limited by what the majority is willing to tolerate. (I'll refer you to laws that criminalize Holocaust denial.)

"It is now a truism in foreign policy circles that real reform in the Muslim world cannot be imposed from the outside. But it is important to realize why this is so--it is because most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religous faith." (p85)

Yes, despite the evidence of science, history and basic common sense, let's argue that reform can't be imposed from the outside because Muslims are deranged. That's rational. (Is my sarcasm evident? It's so hard to express tone properly in writing.)

I think it's obvious if you've followed the political debates, that this has become a truism in part because imposed reform has almost never been successful anywhere and it has never been successful without the consent of the people. Most if not all human societies don't take well either to foreigners meddling in their affairs or to their nation's policies being set to benefit foreign powers. (I'll refer you to the uproar over the possible involvement of China in Clinton's election campaign or the role of Saudi Arabia in America's pre and post-9/11 policies for the Middle East.) This is especially true when you're talking about imposing democratic ideals in a part of the world that has only recently emerged from centuries of foreign occupation. Imposed democracy is kind of an oxymoron, don't you think?

"It accomplishes nothing to merely declare that 'we all worship the same G-d.' We do not all worship the same G-d, and nothing attests to this fact more eloquently than our history of religious bloodshed. Within Islam, the Shi'a and the Sunni can't even agree to worship the same G-d in the same way, and over this they have been killing one another for centuries." (p86)

Amazing how Harris manages to so thoroughly contradict himself in the space of three sentences. Either religious bloodshed is proof that we don't all worship the same G-d or we partake in religious bloodshed despite worshipping the same G-d. You can't have it both ways.

I'd go on, but to be honest, I've grown tired of Mr. Harris. I'll do a brief general review in the next post, but then I'll move on.


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