Sam Harris Is Right About Religion, But Wrong About Terrorism


I finished reading Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape a week or so ago. The book had come up in several discussion with some atheist friends and in order to have an informed opinion, I read the book.

I don’t have that much to say about the book that hasn’t been said much more eloquently than I am able to. But here are some general thoughts and one thought in particular.

On a positive note, I found some of the neurological research he brought up to be genuinely interesting. They bring a certain level of clarity of mental phenomena which is helpful. And I really liked his argument against moral relativism. Moral good and evil do exist and I agree with Harris when he points out the wrongness of those who think they don’t. I just don’t find his utilitarianism to be an adequate basis for affirming the opposite.

But that’s about it. I found the book to be poorly argued. His rhetoric is forceful and comes across as confident, but his lack of real engagement with his opponents turns that confidence into arrogance. He almost never charitably and impartially represents opposing viewpoints, but restates them in ways that’s very close to the creation of straw men. Which makes his arrogance deeply frustrating. And his case unconvincing. I found myself raising what I thought were obvious objections that often weren’t addressed at all and when they were, they were represented in simply uncharitable ways.

I was left with an strong sense of epistemological dead ended-ness of modernity itself. The reductionism inherent in modernistic, scientistic modes of reasoning which create Harris’ neuro-centrism, where everything must be reducible to brain states in order to be worth talking about, is just depressing. It’s impatient, somehow, with being human. I don’t know. The book kind of made me hate modernity as a whole. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Harris intended.

The chapter I found most objectionable by far was the one on religion. First of all, I found it weird, because it had little or nothing to do with his central thesis on morality and was basically reducible, pretty much all of it, to the argument from incredulity. “Look at this ‘sophisticated Christian’ – he believes all sorts of weird stuff! Religion is crazy and incompatible with science!” Uh, yeah. Ok. And what does that have to do with the moral landscape? With a science of morality? Harris doesn’t say.

It’s in the chapter about religion that Harris makes a rather glaring mistake. Harris is known for his, shall we say, special disdain of Islam and it shows in this chapter. In his fervour to blame theology and religion itself for the evil of Islamic terrorism, he leaves behind his otherwise (somewhat) scientific treatment of religion. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the somewhat scientific treatment of religion.

Harris begins his chapter on religion by asking why religion, despite the predictions of classical secularist theory, is still such a potent force in the world. He briefly considers and dismisses the theory of the religious marketplace. Rather, religion is an indicator of social insecurity.  I quote,

It seems, rather, that religiosity is strongly coupled to perceptions of societal insecurity. Within a rich nation like the United States, high levels of socioeconomic inequality may dictate levels of religiosity generally associated with less developed (and less secure) societies. In addition to being the most religious of developed nations, the United States also has the greatest economic inequality. The poor tend to be more religious than the rich, both within and between nations. […]

And on almost every measure of societal health, the least religious countries are better off than the most religious. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands—which are the most atheistic societies on earth—consistently rate better than religious nations on measures like life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP, child welfare, economic equality, economic competitiveness, gender equality, health care, investments in education, rates of university enrollment, internet access, environmental protection, lack of corruption, political stability, and charity to poorer nations, etc. […]

Whether religion contributes to societal dysfunction, it seems clear that as societies become more prosperous, stable, and democratic, they tend to become more secular. (pp. 145-147)

That seems true enough. Religion becomes more attractive and religious truth-claims more plausible in socially deprived and unjust environments and situations. I don’t think that’s all there is to religion, but it certainly can be seen as a response to social insecurity. There are, thus and according to Harris, underlying factors that explain religious adherence.

But in the same chapter, when talking about Islamic terrorists, Harris ridicules attempts to explain terrorism with reference to “deeper” (his own quotation marks) factors than their mere beliefs.

In this context he quotes anthropologist Scott Altran and his research on Islamic terrorists. Altran explains the actions of such terrorists by referencing bonding between what he calls “fictive kin”, and the “sacred values” and “moral obligations” shared among such groups. (I’m using Harris’ own summary of Altran’s thought here. Given my comments above about his uncharitable characterisations of his opponents, I’m open to the possibility that I have mischaracterised Altran. If anyone knows better, do correct me.) Reference to deeper, underlying factors such as these to explain Islamic terrorism are a no-go for Harris.

Many social scientists have a perverse inability to accept that people often believe exactly what they say they believe. […] How can we explain this behavior apart from the content of people’s beliefs? We need not try. Especially when, given the clarity with which they articulate their core beliefs, there is no mystery whatsoever as to why certain people behave as they do.

So when a suicide bomber says his first and foremost duty is to serve Allah by dispatching infidels to hell, that’s the end of the discussion for Harris. Attempts to explain terrorism with reference to social and anthropological factors are rejected out of hand and mocked for good measure. Yet in the same chapter he himself reduces religion to the social factor of insecurity, thus showing what he himself calls a “perverse inability” to accept that people often believe exactly what they say they believe. “Deeper” explanations are OK for religion as a whole, but not for religious actions Harris finds especially offensive. “Deeper” explanations are OK for Harris himself, but not for other people, I guess. That’s not to say that the explicit beliefs of Islamic terrorists shouldn’t be taken into account. They certainly should. But Harris is simply not being consistent here.