Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sam Harris and the Jews

I have recently become aware of The Devil's Delusion, David Berlinski's book on the New Atheists. Berlinski has in excelsis the gift of biting invective, and to let him loose on the New Atheists is almost unfair but also highly satisfying. One might almost say that he writes like an angel, but one would immediately have to add that he writes like a cynical, secular, and very Jewish angel.

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.


William Luse said...

I've read a few articles by Berlinski in the past and always enjoyed them. I think you should finish the book so's you can tell me whether to get it.

Gina M. Danaher said...

Good post Lydia. I had no idea who Berlinske was/is until I read this. I would love to read this book, but I too can't ever get through a book cover to cover because someone is always talking to me. In the meantime, I'll put it on my list. It sounds like it provides important ammo for dialogue with or about the New Atheist gang.

Kevin Deval said...

Did you know that Sam Harris is Jewish? Does that (even slightly) change your sinister interpretation of his comments?

Lydia McGrew said...

Started going through from the beginning today, Bill. It's looking good, though he's sometimes so witty that I don't get every one of his references. My only objection to the writing so far is that he uses "men and women" instead of just "men," which is a blemish in such an excellent writer.

Gina, it really does, because he just laughs to scorn (appropriately) the inflated claims that science supports naturalism and atheism. He says that the emperor has no clothes in no uncertain terms.

Kevin Deval, the answers to your questions are

1) I had heard so,

2) No. The comments are there for anyone to read and interpret for himself.

Mr Veale said...

John Cornwell makes similar observations about Dawkins' rhetoric and presupposition in "Darwin's Angel"
Comparing Theism to a mental virus is redolent of talk about "racial hygiene."


Lydia McGrew said...

I need to check out Dawkins on "viruses" and Cornwall's comments on him, Graham. The truth is, if you scratch a New Atheist, you'll always find a totalitarian underneath. Dennett's "disarm and cage" comments come to mind as well.

Mr Veale said...

Cornwell draws attention to Dawkin's reliance on an article by anaesthesiologist John Hartung, which argues that "Love thy Neighbour" referred only to Jews. Christianity in Hartung's article is referred to as "Judaisms recusant evangelical sect".

The article can be read here:

although it seems to be continually updated and renewed.

Cornwell then picks up on a book review by Hartung which states

"Isaiah’s dream has come true and it rests on two pillars: (1) most of the citizens of most donor nations are Christian or Jewish, such that, the former religion being a form of the latter, to varying degrees they believe in a god who gave Palestine to the Jews, and (2) the most enormous act of reactive racism ever perpetrated, namely the Holocaust, has been presented, and so is perceived, as having been the psychotic swelling up of a form of evil that resides disproportionately in the souls of Goyim — and so they have been induced to irrationally atone for their special evil by enabling descendant and nondescendant coreligionists of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust to systematically purloin the land and property of people who were not those victims’ persecutors"

Note the "reactive racism". Anti-Judaism is the Jews fault. As is the Holocaust.

The review can be read here:

Mr Veale said...

Cornwell also makes some salient points about Dawkins' use of memes. Dawkins writes of those "afflicted with the mental virus of faith, and its accompanying gang of secondary infections."

Religious believers are compared to disease carriers.

"We expect that replicators will go around together from brain to brain in mutually compatible gangs. These gangs will come to constitute a package, which may be sufficiently stable to deserve a collective name such as Roman Catholicism or Voodoo. It doesn't much matter whether we analogise the whole package to a single virus, or each one of the components to a single part"

This seems to be why Dawkins believes that "the teachings of moderate religion...are an open invitation to extremism".

Cornwell points out that "the implication of depersonalisation and identification of groups of individuals with a single dangerous disease is clear"

Dawkins compares Religious Education to child abuse, and you have drawn attention to Dennett's cage. Cornwell also gives a list of the language that Dawkins uses to describe religious believers.

"malevolent...propagandist...vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent..."etc.

Cornwell simply wonders what policies would follow from Dawkins beliefs should he ever "gain political influence or actual power." But Cornwell is at least reminded of the bio-political ideas that arose in Nazi germay in the 1920's and 1930's.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Graham. I hadn't heard of Hartung before. He's a piece of work, isn't he? It's interesting to see how his Darwinism acts as a two-edged weapon that can be turned in any direction. For example, he sees Jews as a particularly successful people group in Darwinian terms, and he _might_ have chosen to applaud this. But instead he chooses to use it to excuse antisemitism as "reactive racism"--reactive, that is, to the competitive success of the Jews as a group. Thus, he can make the Jews look sinister while pretending simply to wear the mantle of a dispassionate scientist recording the facts without commenting on them.

On Dawkins, et. al., and memes: I noticed not long ago when I looked up the context of Dennett's infamous "disarm and cage" phrase the clever way in which Dennett comingles references to _all_ religion with references to practices of Islam, particularly, which obviously should be proscribed--e.g., female genital mutilation, jihad. A familiar trope: Use Islam as the stalking horse, but actually intend to punish Christians for teaching Christian doctrine that is not at all objectionable in any way that should concern the state. In fact, Muslims are the one group least likely to be called to account for their wicked practices, for actual threats of violence, etc., in a state ruled by the Dawkins & Dennett type of crowd.

Ji Xiang said...

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."

I think this passage is just erroneous. Islam and Christianity also find themselves surrounded by "unmitigated errors". They also claim to possess the only truth. And what's more, they want and expect the whole of humanity to step in line. How is that going to attract less intolerance than Judaism? The truth is that Judaism is no worse than the other two monotheistic religions.

Lydia McGrew said...

The passage is indeed erroneous, for many reasons. For example, the attempt to portray Islam as more tolerant than Judaism is ludicrously unrelated to reality. As for "easy conversion," I'm not at all sure conversion to Christianity is all _that_ easy, as anyone who is honest will tell a potential convert that he has to make many changes in his lifestyle. Moreover, Christianity is _concerned_ with conversion, whereas Judaism holds that Gentiles do not necessarily _need_ to convert to Judaism to be righteous. Harris is wrong six ways from zero.