What can you learn from someone you disagree with the most? As it turns out, there’s not much to learn from the ever biased and hypocritical Sam Harris, a person whose whole book is about condemning religious violence but yet criticises Mahatma Gandhi’s pacifism as “highly immoral.” So much for challenging my default perceptions every once in a while.
I cannot treat this book with an open mind when the very first few paragraphs consist of ficticious over-dramatized story of a terror attack to make his points, then assume without a doubt that ALL 1.5 billion Muslims are supporting terrorist attacks, that ALL baptized Christians cannot respect the beliefs of others, and that moderation is a myth in any religion.
It is astonishing for me that for a self-proclaimed atheist he’s preaching a way of thinking that are strikingly similar with the argument of every religious extremists: that their way of thinking are the correct one, others are stupid or even dangerous, and therefore should be abolished. Religious scholars such as Karen Armstrong refer people like this as anti-theist, rather than atheist, an extremist in their own way.
Yes, there’s no denying that there are plenty of religious hardliners today, as covered in “The Wahhabi Code” by Terrence Ward or even “Buddhist Warfare” by Michael K. Jerryson, but if he actually reads all of the religious texts (rather than point out some of the bad verses without providing the context, and excluding the later verses that cancel off these bad verses), Harris would find several unifying messages across many different religion for the better of humankind, in which the Rig Veda commented as “Truth is one, the wise call it by different names.”
So the problem is not religion, remarked Karen Armstrong in her brilliant book on extremism “Fields of Blood”, but human struggle for power and money. It is not religion that is violent or peaceful, says another religious scholar Reza Aslan, but it is people that is violent and peaceful. And blaming religion as the cause (rather than the tools and justification) for violence is missing a huge point, akin to blaming atheism on all the desructions and genocides caused by atheists Stalin and Mao.
But it doesn’t stop Harris for presenting what he thinks as the biggest demon in this book: Islam. He dedicate the whole 44 pages of chapter 4 on “the problem with Islam” but yet fail to mention about the ACTUAL problem with Islam: the descendants of Ibn Saud and Muhammad Abdul Wahhab that captured the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the 1920s, and forced their extreme version of the Hanbali interpretation into the world with their petro-dollars. The fact that the vast majority of terror attacks in the 21st century – from Al Qaeda to today’s ISIS – all have roots in Wahhabism is lost in this book. And instead he leave out Islam’s 1300+ years of progression (he might not even aware of the Golden Age of Islam), and thus gives the impression that Islam has always been a barbaric religion since birth. It is as if he’s portraying Christianity solely based on the conducts of the Crusades, but then fail to mention about the Crusaders.
Conversely, I can’t help comparing Harris with Alain de Botton, another atheist. Like Harris, de Botton believes that God does not exist and that religion is nothing but a human invention. But de Botton also believes that these human inventions are key to create order out of chaos in many parts of cultures and civilisations throughout history, provide good instructions for daily living, and that there are so many things that we can learn from religion and can implement in the secular world to make us a better human being.
Things such as meditation, where Sam Harris has the audacity to critise the Buddhist religion (Buddhists, he says, improperly treat Buddhism as a religion, which is “naive, petitionary, and superstitious” and that such beliefs impede the spread of Buddhist principles), but then created a meditation app with the purpose of cashing in on the teachings of the Buddha.
Indeed, apparently according to Harris the teachings we found in religion are not that bad, and in the book he actually mentions about the strong points of religion such as “strong communities, ethical behaviour, spiritual experiences”. But instead of being respectful, Harris insult them as obsolete and says “it require no faith in untestable propositions – Jesus was born of a virgin, the Koran is the word of God – for us to do this”, then proceeded to “steal” the religious teachings as if he figured them out himself from sheer logic.
Believe in the miracles, or don’t believe in the miracles. Follow the doctrines with no questions asked, or constantly seeking historical accuracy of the events. It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an atheist or a pantheist. What matters, as de Botton remarks, is that we live life as a decent human being and treat others the way we want to be treated. As progressive Christian Matthew Disterano commented, kind atheists are closer to Jesus than mean Christians. And abolishing religion alltogether – as per Harris’ big takeaway – will take away THE solution to very old problems in humankind, one that is brilliantly analysed in “A World Without Islam” by Graham E. Fuller.
Alain is wise to be a kind atheist. Alain is respectful. Alain is not a hypocritical a-hole. If you’re an atheist, be more like Alain.