Sam Harris: One Confused Homey

Sam Harris pens a not so great piece in HuffPo. He’s become a real one trick pony and it’s wearing a tad thin.

Using Obama’s discussion of race he goes on to give us the New Atheist interpretation/identity politics version of what he (Sen. Obama) should have said.

There’s a number of egregious errors in this piece, so this might take a bit to deal with them all.

Why couldn’t Obama just cut his ties to his church and move on? Well, among other inexpediencies, this might have put his faith in Jesus in question. After all, Reverend Wright was the man who brought him to the “foot of the cross.” Might the Senator from Illinois be unsure whether the Creator of the universe brought forth his only Son from the womb of a Galilean virgin, taught him the carpenter’s trade, and then had him crucified for our benefit? Few suspicions could be more damaging in American politics today.

First off, if Harris had bothered to actually read Obama’s reflections on his faith in Audacity of Hope or Dreams of my Father he would have quickly realized that Obama is not a traditional fundamentalist-mythic believer Christian.

Or he might have watched Obama’s interview on Nightline where Obama gives the reason he could not cut his ties with the church, Rev. Wright, or the larger black community (esp. south side Chicago):

You know, this is why, during the course of this campaign, there have been moments where people say, “Well, I like Barack Obama, but not Al Sharpton. I like Colin Powell, but not Jesse. I like Oprah, but,” you know, those of us who are African-American don’t have that luxury.

And so what I can do then is to say, “Here’s what I believe. Here’s what I think. Here’s where I think America needs to go.”…

I don’t have the luxury of separating myself out and being selective, in terms of what it means to be African-American in this society. It’s a big, complex thing. It’s not monolithic.

Back to Sam Harris. (Much more after jump)

Mr. Harris then goes on a riff about how religion, particularly right-wing evangelical Christianity has kept creeping in to negative effect on the Republican side (again obviously there’s truth in that). But then he goes down this road:

Prior to McCain’s ascendancy, we saw Governor Mitt Romney driven from the field by a Creationist yokel and his sectarian hordes.

The Creationist yokel in question is of course Mike Huckabee, (I’m no fan of Creationism) who no doubt has views I find imbecilic, but since we supposedly on the discussion of race, Huckabee has said one of the most compassionate, wisest things on the subject of anybody so give the guy some credit where credit is due. Huck pointed out that people who grew up in segregated society (as he did from the other side) ought to be “cut some slack” and we ought to understand where anger comes from and image ourselves in that person’s shoes.

Harris next proceeds to point out that if only the US were more like secular Sweden, Finland, and Norway and not worried about the end-times things would be better. Now I’m not here to knock on the Scandinavians. Certainly it is true that there are higher life quality (e.g. better education) in those countries than the US. Less crime. I would love to see those things. But only dealing with the negative side of the US and the positive side of Europe is not particularly fair to say the least. (e.g. plummeting birth rate in Europe, high suicide rates in the Scandinavian countries–which to be fair may be related to less yearly sunlight).

And then this whopper from Harris:

It is, of course, good to know that people like Reverend Wright occasionally do help the poor, feed the hungry, and care for the sick. But wouldn’t it be better to do these things for reasons that are not manifestly delusional? Can we care for one another without believing that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is now listening to our thoughts?

First off–occasionally? Excuse me? Occasionally? The black church is the historic bearer of a culture who survived through legal domination, oppression, and state terrorism. So I don’t think some privileged white dude gets to so easily write that off. Again it’s his ignorant equation of all church goers simply with doctrine that is the issue. Maybe some people feel loyalty because the black church was the only institution that told them they were dignified human beings.

Not nice humanist atheists like Bertrand Russell. If the New Atheist crowd wants to start dealing with the structural and emotional scars that still exist today in those communities, all the best on that. Of course people can and do care for one another without having to believe in Christian dogma.

But let’s be clear. Non-christian religious (esp. Jews) as well as atheists and agnostics participated in the Civil Rights movement. But its base was the church. It’s language was theological. It’s appeal was to transcendence and power beyond the domination of the worldly powers. A God on the side of justice.

An important point to keep in mind when you read the following from Harris:

But he did not (and should not) acknowledge that the worst parts of Reverend Wright’s sermons, as with most sermons, are his appeals to the empty hopes and baseless fears of his parishioners–people who could surely find better ways of advancing their interests in this world, if only they could banish the fiction of a world to come.

He is free to his opinion that churches preach empty hopes and baseless fears–often enough they do black, white, brown, mixed, any kind of church. But if people can “surely find better ways” again he is free to put up or shut up on that question. i.e. Actually be with people and their struggles and then find ways to help.

Also not that Harris would care to you know read anything on the subject, but the church Obama went to and the theological tradition it comes from is that God seeks change in this world. It is not some pie-in-the-sky everything will be wonderful after you die. The black church theological tradition (as opposed to the white one which Harris has unconsciously absorbed) is that God is in the world acting. Sometimes powerfully (Civil Rights movement), sometimes in the shadows (e.g. the black church tradition of Jesus as walking at night in the cotton fields anonymously).

Again recall that as you read this:

Obama was surely wise not to mention that Christianity was, without question, the great enabler of slavery in this country.

Yes Christianity did enable slavery. And Christianity was also the enabler of the Emancipation Movement (see the movie Amazing Grace for example). So again if he wanted to be just in his appraisal, by all means. The churches, particularly the white churches that supported the white domination of blacks, have many sins to repent for.

And again it was Christians not agnostic (possibly atheist) humanists like Thomas Jefferson (who was too busying loving some of his slaves) or Thomas Paine who courageously faced this issue.

Harris again:

The problem of religious fatalism, ignorance, and false hope, while plain to see in most religious contexts, is now especially obvious in the black community. The popularity of “prosperity gospel” is perhaps the most galling example: where unctuous crooks like T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar persuade undereducated and underprivileged men and women to pray for wealth, while tithing what little wealth they have to their corrupt and swollen ministries.

I’m with him on the prosperity gospel. But again there’s a little bit of confusion here, since Obama was responding to his church (and then more broadly), his church does not teach prosperity gospel. Harris doesn’t say that, but by beginning with Obama’s church and pastor and then going on to other famous black preachers, it comes off to me and I would bet the general reader unacquainted with some of the nuance here, as if they are al just part of one and the same thing.

Harris isn’t against Obama of course; he is railing against what he sees as the injustice of the US discourse:

But Obama’s candidacy is also depressing, for it demonstrates that even a person of the greatest candor and eloquence must still claim to believe the unbelievable in order to have a political career in this country. We may be ready for the audacity of hope. Will we ever be ready for the audacity of reason?

First off the most clear objection and the problem with his whole edifice is that Obama himself, who clearly is as sharp as they come, sincerely (I think) praises his Christian faith for giving him insight into our world and motivating his values.

A real audacity of reason would I submit be to live with the question of ultimacy unanswered. To approach it more as inquiry and a journey and a life of reflection than as dogma (fundamentalist) or “reason” (New Atheism dogmatism).

No one knows.

Harris has spent so much time dealing with that kind of fundamentalism and objective value system, that it has become him. Just in reverse. But the mentality is the same.

It’s a flat note. It’s tone deaf. The aura of utter conviction is the same in both camps. They can have each other.

How rational is it, in other words, to be so dogmatic and convinced of the power of rationality (and secularity its outgrowth?). Reason–especially as seen in the religious traditions of the world–has both great light and therefore the potential of great destruction and shadow.

Some such realist outlook (atheist or religious) is what is necessary and what is lacking with Harris’ take.

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Published in: on March 21, 2008 at 1:46 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Sam Harris – There is room at the cross for you!

    Christ is RISEN!

  2. […] On the other hand, Chris has begun to articulate how religion can be again applicable in a world of New Atheism, nihilistic inclination, and scientific materialism. His Collosseum tendencies allow him to […]


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