Through Berlinski's book I have become aware of something that I'm sure caused a flap in the blogosphere, but as it was a flap I missed, and as some of my readers may have missed it too, I will report it here. The atheist Sam Harris has made some...striking comments apropos of the Holocaust in his book The End of Faith. Predictably enough, Harris attempts to blame anti-semitism in part on religion (Christianity and Islam, which he treats as equivalent in this regard), but Harris has an additional theory about the causes of anti-semitism that is more surprising. After documenting contemporary Muslim anti-semitism for a couple of pages, Harris proceeds (pp. 93-94) to say this:
The gravity of Jewish suffering over the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, makes it almost impossible to entertain any suggestion that Jews might have brought their troubles upon themselves. This is, however, in a rather narrow sense, the truth. Prior to the rise of the church, Jews became the objects of suspicion and occasional persecution for their refusal to assimilate, for the insularity and professed superiority of their religious culture-that is, for the content of their own unreasonable, sectarian beliefs. The dogma of a "chosen people," while at least implicit in most faiths, achieved a stridence in Judaism that was unknown in the ancient world. Among cultures that worshiped a plurality of Gods, the later monotheism of the Jews proved indigestible. And while their explicit demonization as a people required the mad work of the Christian church, the ideology of Judaism remains a lightning rod for intolerance to this day. As a system of beliefs, it appears among the least suited to survive in a theological state of nature. Christianity and Islam both acknowledge the sanctity of the Old Testament and offer easy conversion to their faiths. Islam honors Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as forerunners of Muhammad. Hinduism embraces almost anything in sight with its manifold arms (many Hindus, for instance, consider Jesus an avatar of Vishnu). Judaism alone finds itself surrounded by unmitigated errors. It seems little wonder, therefore, that it has drawn so much sectarian fire. Jews, insofar as they are religious, believe that they are bearers of a unique covenant with God. As a consequence, they have spent the last two thousand years collaborating with those who see them as different by seeing themselves as irretrievably so. Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. [Emphasis added]
Berlinski on this passage is inimitable.
Having rejected the suggestion [that the Jewish people brought their troubles on themselves] as an impossibility, Harris at once proceeds to embrace it....Although Harris is officially committed to assigning the blame for intolerance on the intolerant, there is blame enough left over to assign some to the intoleree as well....To be a lightning rod for intolerance is a moral defect, the more so when the remedy--get rid of those divisive sectarian beliefs--lies close at hand. (pp. 28-29)
Berlinski on the "civilizing insights of modernity" with which Judaism is allegedly incompatible:
No doubt the civilizing insights of modernity appear considerable in Santa Barbara, where Sam Harris lives; but as travel broadens one's mind, it enlarges one's perspective, and those civilizing insights of which he writes are apt to seem a good deal less persuasive five thousand miles farther to the east, where modernity expressed itself in cattle cars rumbling from all the ancient civilized cities of Europe in order days later to deposit their famished, suffering victims at German extermination camps. (p. 30)
There's much more, including a terrific riff on Richard Dawkins's attempt to claim that atheism had nothing to do with the evil behavior of Stalin, Mao, et. al. (pp. 25-26).
I am, in point of fact, seriously considering sitting down and actually reading the entire Berlinski book, and if you knew how seldom I actually sit down nowadays and read a new book cover to cover, you would know how high a compliment that is. From what I've seen already, it's highly recommended.
As for Harris's disgusting anti-Jewish remarks I have nothing much to add to Berlinski's scathing response, except that when, just past the section I quoted, Harris manages to drag in the Evil Israeli Settlers (a principle obstacle to present peace and a cause of future wars, according to Harris), a few dots connected up for me. A certain type of secularist does find anti-Israel sentiment to be a gateway drug, as it were, for more sweeping anti-Jewish opinions.
I think that Harris's remarks should be more widely known and should call down upon him a due measure of opprobrium from non-Christians as well as Christians. But they probably won't. When I was seeking the electronic text of the Harris passage for easy copying into this entry (and, yes, I did also find it in its context in Harris's book on Google books), it was interesting to find one atheist blogger seeking help to answer criticisms of Harris based on the remarks--anti-atheist propaganda, as he called it.
That tells one a lot about the way a "rational skeptic" thinks. At least, it should.