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Pestilential theology

The greatest problem facing civilization

Writing in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, author Sam Harris castigates “liberals” for being “soft on terror”. From a bracing and in many ways admirable position of contempt for all religion, Harris derives a picture of an apocalyptic global fight for “civilization” of which George W. Bush himself would surely approve. It’s a good trick.

The message of Harris’s article is: “We are not fighting a ‘war on terror’. We are fighting a pestilential theology”. The image of religion as a plague or a virus is interesting, though it lacks an epidemiological hypothesis as to how the disease is spread. To be on the safe side, if you are one of Harris’s “we” (let us silently ignore a few million American Muslims here and there), you should probably be careful not to stand too close to any Muslim in case his “pestilential theology” can be transmitted by airborne particles. For this disease is more widespread than you suspect . . .

Unfortunately, such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope. Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities.

As so often in such discussions, logic has gone on holiday. If by “the most radicalized Muslims” (radicalized by pestilence?) Harris means suicide bombers, then it is true that studies such as Robert A Pape’s Dying to Win and Louise Richardson’s What Terrorists Want have found suicide bombers to be better educated than average in their countries, and not among the poorest. But how do you get from this to concluding that it is “not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope”? The second simply does not follow from the first. It is like saying serial killers are often quite intelligent – so serial killing must be more common than we thought. Luckily, Harris doesn’t mention the “studies” he invokes by name. For if he is really thinking of Pape et al., he would have been obliged to mention that the same research also shows that the “pestilential theology” itself is not the prime motivational factor of al Qaeda-type suicide bombing. Nor, as Pape has recently shown, does it even feature very much in their recruitment materials. But if you seek out such facts you show a regrettable lack of imagination. Harris knows the truth:

The truth is that there is every reason to believe that a terrifying number of the world’s Muslims now view all political and moral questions in terms of their affiliation with Islam. This leads them to rally to the cause of other Muslims no matter how sociopathic their behavior. This benighted religious solidarity may be the greatest problem facing civilization and yet it is regularly misconstrued, ignored or obfuscated by liberals.

A terrifying number. How big a number is terrifying? Personally, a googolplex makes my head spin. And, you know, 666 is quite scary. Harris furnishes us with an estimate:

Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies.

Tens of millions! Are these “tens of millions” all aspiring suicide bombers, or people who express sympathy with suicide bombers, or merely people sweating in a fever of their pestilential theology’s making? Is it pedantic to point out that public support for al Qaeda-style groups has fallen rather than risen in recent years, for instance, in Indonesia? How many of these “tens of millions” of plague-carriers have managed to kill more civilians than have died as a result of the actions of the government that harbours Dick Cheney?

But that latter question is silly, of course. I am overlooking the most basic moral distinctions:

In their analyses of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, liberals can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions. For instance, they ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. Muslims routinely use human shields, and this accounts for much of the collateral damage we and the Israelis cause; the political discourse throughout much of the Muslim world, especially with respect to Jews, is explicitly and unabashedly genocidal. Given these distinctions, there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah. And yet liberals in the United States and Europe often speak as though the truth were otherwise.

This accounts for much of the collateral damage . . . we cause. This is a marvellously Janus-headed sentence. On the one hand, Harris cannot deny that civilian deaths have been caused by the bombs and missiles “we” launch. Yet even though “we” cause them, they are nonetheless accounted for by the actions of the “Muslims” (yes, Muslims in general) themselves. Can you think of anything else that is caused by one thing yet accounted for by another?

Harris thinks it is a basic moral distinction that “we”, as it is often put, do our best to avoid civilian casualties. This is an appeal often made by defenders of “our” actions, even though it begs a very simple reply: Dude, your best is not good enough. I suppose it did not make much difference to the thousand-plus civilians killed in Lebanon, about a third of whom were children, whether they were being killed by people in the grip of a “pestilential theology” or not. That you can nonetheless stand on the moral high ground while killing twenty-five times as many civilians as your enemies should tell us something about people who make such claims to metaphysical territory.

Is it possible that policies based on inflammatory rhetoric about threats to civilization are themselves a greater threat to civilization than any “pestilential theology”? Is it possible that securing “loose nukes” in Russia and elsewhere to combat nuclear proliferation, currently assigned only a tiny proportion of the US’s budget for its own nuclear weapons, let alone the whole “war on terror”, should rather be treated as a first priority? Is it possible that shouting about a terrifying Muslim menace drowns out discussion of global warming, which has a much better empirical case to be considered a threat to civilization?

Such carping questions, on Harris’s view, mean I am a liberal with my head in the sand. Won’t you come and join me? It’s nice and warm down here.

  1. 1  abb1  September 19, 2006, 2:10 pm 

    Israeli IDF routinely use Palestinians, including children, as human shields:

    And people like Dick Cheney and his sidekick Sam Harris are hiding among us thus using us all as human shields.

    Also, just once I’d like to see some evidence of this “explicitly and unabashedly genocidal” political discourse in the Muslim world. He’s just bullshitting here, isn’t he?

  2. 2  abb1  September 19, 2006, 2:20 pm 

    I wonder what he has to say about Israel dropping millions of US-produced and paid for cluster bomblets into southern Lebanon in the last 3 days of the conflict – hundreds of thousands of them still unexploded. Will he call it “explicitly and unabashedly genocidal”?

  3. 3  C Reaves  September 19, 2006, 4:51 pm 

    Harris’s kind of writing just fans the flames of group insanity. Talk about the need for an epidemiology study!

    I don’t buy Harris culture-centric logic any more than I buy the Islamic radicals’ logic that Christianity is a religious infection that threatens their civilization.

    Where did Harris’s “Christians don’t kill civilians” idea come from? England, Germany and the United States were all Christian throughout the 20th century and they killed millions of each others civilians in WWII. Catholics and Protestants killed each other’s soldiers and civilians (and Muslim soldiers and civilians) by the tens of thousands throughout the Middle Ages.

    I think a good case could be made for calling Harris the virus for metastacizing otherwise good people into cancerous Muslim-hating religious neo-conservative Crusaders.

    But we all know that this particular article at this point in time is all about politics and the election. If it would get votes we would be seeing Bush in halberd with lance, St. George’s Cross, and a white charger.

  4. 4  HCE  September 19, 2006, 6:24 pm 

    Thanks, Stephen. This is an excellent unmasking. Harris, oddly, made quite a splash a year or so ago among leftists. One of his articles appeared on Truthdig. I thought it was crap (to use an Eddie Izzard term), especially coming from a PhD philosopher. Who doesnt already know that religion is an emotional language, very often allied with conservative politics? At the same time, who believes that “reason”, as embodied in the modern secular state, has provided a better answer?

    Harris now sounds like he is hoping to get into the neocon fraternity of elitist philosopher kings.

  5. 5  minerva  September 20, 2006, 8:52 am 

    Of course, there is a much creepier tradition of using the imagery of pests and vermin (or diseases) to describe one’s real or imaginary enemies.

    I do think that much the excessive fear of Islam has partly to do with the fact that there are SO MANY Muslims. And they can be ANYWHERE. In fact, they can even reproduce themselves! The pestilential metaphor tugs on that line.

    As for PhDs, I’m afraid the current Bush adminstration gives us more evidence than we ever needed (if Pol Pot and Abmael Guzman’s philosophy degrees were not enough) that a doctorate does not make someone sane or ethical. It’s sad but not too surprising that Harris has a philosophy degree.

  6. 6  Seattle Man  September 20, 2006, 3:32 pm 

    “Is it possible that policies based on inflammatory rhetoric about threats to civilization are themselves a greater threat to civilization than any “pestilential theology”?”

    Well sure it is but I think that you are doing the same thing as the people you heap with scorn and sarcasm — shape their arguments to fit your own wishes.

    For example, in the quote above, you could have just as easily said that “unwise, shortsighted and stupid policies based on inflammatory rhetoric such as we have from the current administration are themselves a greater thereat…”

    You get the idea.

    I am not sure if your own rhetoric is all that more honest than is anyone else’s. You hold yourself so far above others based as much on substantive policies — in which in fact I agree with you in many cases — but you cloak that policy criticism in an argument supposedly based on use of language. The whole “UNspeak” bit. I am not convinced.

  7. 7  SP  September 20, 2006, 8:15 pm 

    Hello Seattleman,
    This is a version of a common complaint. However, I’m not convinced that I am cloaking anything in anything else. I have never denied that I use rhetoric, sarcasm etc; but I do not do it in order to obfuscate matters. The introduction is more detailed on such matters.

    Perhaps you will explain how I am “shaping” Harris’s argument to “fit my own wishes”? You appear to be accusing me of misrepresenting him. I invite you to go ahead and show me where I have done so.

  8. 8  Chris  September 21, 2006, 2:17 pm 

    I’ve seen this theory of Pestilential Theology before, or rather the practice stemming from it. I studied the French Wars of Religion, and the methods of massacring your opponents reflected the underlying feeling that heresy was like a disease. As a result, heretics were either drowned or burned en mass. This served as a carthasis, removing the threat of contagion. Its a very dangerous concept.

  9. 9  Scott Ahlf  September 22, 2006, 7:36 am 

    The American (US) Left cannot shake it’s belief in belief in religion–
    Still stuck one circle in, and unable to see the global picture–
    Harris points this out, and the squirming and sweating starts-

  10. 10  Seattle Man  September 23, 2006, 4:05 pm 

    “Perhaps you will explain how I am “shaping” Harris’s argument to “fit my own wishes”? You appear to be accusing me of misrepresenting him.’

    Oh I guess in a way I am making such an accusation.

    Your own rehetoric makes Harris into an apologist and backer of American foreign policy by linking his supposed “inflamatory rhetoric” to Bush’s stupid policies. By implication that makes him a supporter of the Administration. I think that is misrepresenting him.

    Further, can you document any specifc links between Harris and the Administration? Is he one of their consultants? Has anyone there ever read him? quoted him?

    Put it this way. Suppose some future Democvratic administration take the dangers of global climate change to heart and institutes policies to address that problem. Isn’t it possible that such administration is so blissfully stupid that its policies are counter-productive, foolish, cruel and make matters worse? (Of course that’s possible – one who thinks otherwise would have no acquaintance with the real world of government.)

    But in such a case one wouldn’t say that in fact the science of climate change had caused the problem but would attribute it (correctly) to stupid government policy.

    I think that’s a fair parallel.

  11. 11  Seattle Man  September 23, 2006, 4:09 pm 

    Putting it as easily as I can:

    1. Islam (in its apparently dominant form) does offer a problem to liberalism and liberty.

    2. Our American administration has shown itself to be sadly, tragically incompetent to deal with it.

  12. 12  SP  September 23, 2006, 4:41 pm 

    Nope, I never said Harris was a supporter of Bush’s policies; his article actually makes clear that he thinks many of those policies have been wrong. However, Bush’s policies are based on inflammatory rhetoric which is very much like Harris’s in its talk of threats to civilization etc. My post was about inflammatory rhetoric, and merely ended by asking if any such inflammatory rhetoric, from Harris or Bush or anyone else, should be a guide to policy.

    You say:
    Islam (in its apparently dominant form) does offer a problem to liberalism and liberty.

    Uh, what is it you think is the dominant form of Islam, exactly?

  13. 13  abb1  September 23, 2006, 5:20 pm 

    Also define ‘liberalism’ and ‘liberty’. As they say: liberty for whom? to do what?

  14. 14  Richard  September 23, 2006, 9:11 pm 

    a couple of pedantic points:

    “apparently dominant” may not be the same as dominant. Working with the appearances put forward on Fox News, I’d say Islam very often seems basically at odds with current Western governments, which in contrast often appear to be beacons of liberty (although not, perhaps, liberalism). Perhaps this is what Seattle Man means. In the world outside Fox News, as far as I can tell, there is very little broad consensus or dominant voice in Islam regarding current world politics; in this it resembles Christianity.

    Finally, just in case there’s anyone I haven’t annoyed yet, re: C Reaves’ “seeing Bush in halberd…” I think the word you’re looking for is “hauberk.”

    Sorry, but if we’re getting medieval we might as well do it properly (halberds are ‘early modern’).

  15. 15  SP  September 23, 2006, 9:34 pm 

    Excellent point, Richard: it is certainly possible to say that the “apparently dominant form”, ie the dominant form according to certain sources, is just what Seattleman seems to think it is.

    I love to think this is a forum where people can get medieval on each other’s asses.

  16. 16 » links for 2006-09-27  September 27, 2006, 8:22 pm 

    […] Unspeak » Pestilential theology From a bracing and in many ways admirable position of contempt for all religion, Harris derives a picture of an apocalyptic global fight for “civilization” of which George W. Bush himself would surely approve. It’s a good trick. (tags: usa war terrorism islam extremism language) […]

  17. 17  Stephen Frug  October 18, 2006, 8:00 am 

    Excellent post. (I also appreciated your Hitchens take-downs too.) I just came across your blog — great stuff!

    If you’ll forgive a bit of blogwhorring, I responded to the same Sam Harris article on my own blog, making a similar point in (I think) a rather different way.

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