The latest issue of The Nation contains 6800-word attack on Sam Harris, “Same old new atheism: On Sam Harris,” by Jackson Lears. (Lears appears to be the same as “T. J. Jackson Lears,” a professor of history at Rutgers and editor of The Raritan Review). Sam has taken a lot of knocks lately, centered mostly on the neo-utilitarianism he espoused in The Moral Landscape. But this is a broad-based attack on all three of his books, and contains a number of serious (and largely inaccurate) charges.
Before getting down to Harris, Lears makes a general attack on positivism (a view whose virtues seem self-evident to me) and on science in general, blaming it for all the ills of the twentieth century, including eugenics, racism and war:
Every schoolkid knows about what happened next: the catastrophic twentieth century. Two world wars, the systematic slaughter of innocents on an unprecedented scale, the proliferation of unimaginably destructive weapons, brushfire wars on the periphery of empire—all these events involved, in various degrees, the application of scientific research to advanced technology. All showed that science could not be elevated above the agendas of the nation-state: the best scientists were as corruptible by money, power or ideology as anyone else, and their research could as easily be bent toward mass murder as toward the progress of humankind. Science was not merely science. The crowning irony was that eugenics, far from “perfecting the race,” as some American progressives had hoped early in the twentieth century, was used by the Nazis to eliminate those they deemed undesirable.
Sociologists of knowledge, along with historians and philosophers of science (including Karl Mannheim, Peter Berger and Thomas Kuhn), all emphasized the provisionality of scientific truth, its dependence on a shifting expert consensus that could change or even dissolve outright in light of new evidence. Reality—or at least our apprehension of it—could be said to be socially constructed.
What does this have to do with Harris? Simply that he advocates positivism, Enlightenment values, and science as tools for moving our world forward. Lear’s beef with Harris is multifarious, including the following accusations:
- Harris neglects the good side of religion:
Sometimes religion has bolstered the forces of political sanctimony and persecution, as with Prohibition in the 1920s and anticommunism during the cold war; but it has also encouraged dissenters to speak truth to power—to abolish slavery, to regulate capitalism, to end the Vietnam War.
These claims about the net power of religion in regulating capitalism, and in ending war and slavery, are of course disputable. Some churches did have these aims; others were on the opposite side.
- The depredations Harris imputes to religion aren’t really due to faith:
Still, it remains an open question how much this ideological offensive depended on religious dogma, and how much it was the work of seasoned political players, such as plutocrats bent on deregulating business and dismantling progressive taxation, corporate-sponsored media eager to curry favor with the powerful and military contractors hoping to sup at the public trough. Even the rhetoric of Providential mission owed more to romantic nationalism than to orthodox Christianity, which has long challenged the cult of the nation-state as a form of idolatry.
What Lear is really on about is capitalism, and he sees Harris—indeed, all the New Atheists—as having an agenda to serve capitalism and the political status quo, using science as a tool:
To define science as the source of absolute truth, Harris must first ignore the messy realities of power in the world of Big Science. In his books there is no discussion of the involvement of scientists in the military-industrial complex or in the pharmacological pursuit of profit. Nor is any attention paid to the ways that chance, careerism and intellectual fashion can shape research: how they can skew data, promote the publication of some results and consign others to obscurity, channel financial support or choke it off. . .
Despite their disdain for public piety, the New Atheists provided little in their critique to disturb the architects and proselytizers of American empire: indeed, Hitchens and Harris asserted a fervent rationale for it. Since 9/11, both men have made careers of posing as heroic outsiders while serving the interests of the powerful. . .
If we evaluate those arguments according to their resonance with public policy debates, the results are sobering. Harris’s convictions reveal his comfortable cohabitation with imperial power.
I’m speechless. Yes, Hitchens supported our incursion into Iraq, and yes, Harris has said that we might want to rethink our policy (either official or unofficial) on torture—more on that in the coming days. But the blanket accusation that both of these men are dedicated to serving imperialism and capitalism bespeaks a complete ignorance of their work.
- Harris and the New Atheists lack a sophisticated and “nuanced” view of religion:
But Harris is not interested in religious experience. He displays an astonishing lack of knowledge or even curiosity about the actual content of religious belief or practice, announcing that “most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths.” . . . Harris espouses the Enlightenment master narrative of progress, celebrating humans’ steady ascent from superstition to science; no other sort of knowledge, still less wisdom, will do.
Lears, who is remarkably sympathetic to faith, doesn’t consider whether religion actually provides any “other sort of knowledge” or “wisdom.”
Finally, Lears takes out after Harris’s views on morality. He makes some points that other critics have made as well, but infuses his critique with a vicious anti-scientism, citing Jonah Lehrer’s misguided interpretation of “the decline effect” as evidence that something is badly wrong with the scientific process itself:
These sorts of problems make replicating results more difficult, and the difficulties are compounded by the standard practices of professional science. Initial research success is written up for scientific journals, rewarded with grants and promotions, and reported to credulous nonscientists; subsequent failures to replicate results remain largely invisible—except to the researchers, who, if they are honest in their appraisal of the evidence, find it hard to accept simple-minded notions of statistically based certainty. The search for scientific truth is not as straightforward as Harris would like to believe.
If you think that Lears is treading on the ground of postmodernism here, you would not be far afield. And that’s confirmed when he starts espousing moral relativism. He first defends the burqa:
As the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod writes, the burqa is a “mobile home” in patriarchal societies where women are otherwise confined to domestic space. Harris cannot imagine that Islamic women might actually choose to wear one; but some do.
Yes, and many others don’t, and how many of the ones who do have been forced or taught or indoctrinated to do so? Things get even stickier when we come to the indefensible practice of female genital mutilation. According to Lears, who comes very close to defending it, Harris simply doesn’t appreciate its cultural significance:
Nor is he aware of the pioneering work of Christine Walley on female genital mutilation in Africa. Walley illuminates the complex significance of the practice without ever expressing tolerance for it, and she uses cross-cultural understanding as a means of connecting with local African women seeking to put an end to it.
Well, this morning I spent some time reading the work of Christine Walley (another postmodernist and moral relativist), and I couldn’t find any intolerance for genital mutilation. All she talks about is how the West should not impose its cultural hegemony and moral values on Africans who choose to mutilate their daughters (granted, I’ve not read everything she’s written on the topic). Here’s the peroration from p. 430 of her major paper on what she calls “genital cutting,” “Searching for ‘Voices’: Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations” (Cultural Anthropology, 1997, Vol. 12, pp. 405-438.)
Ultimately, however, the theoretical separation between clitoridectomy in Kikhome as ritual practice and the international controversy surrounding female genital operations as discourse is untenable. Discourse is also practice; it is not simply a way of understanding or thinking about the world, it is also a way of acting in it. Given that our discourse also signals a form of intervention, I would like to encourage feminists of whatever national origins, race, or gender to work against those assumptions being made in Western-oriented media accounts of female genital operations that reproduce colonial and neocolonial ideologies. Feminist anthropologists can also make a productive contribution by examining the social contexts of both ritual practices and international controversies and by exploring the power dynamics surrounding support and opposition to such practices, whether in rural African villages or urban France. For those interested in more hands-on styles of activism, critics of identity politics and hardened notions of culture are also pointing us in the direction of a feminist politics based on alliances and coalitions (Butler 1990; Haraway 1989; Mohanty 1991); hopefully, this brand of feminist politics will also be capable of critiquing practices such as clitoridectomy and infibulation without resorting to neocolonial ideologies of gender or denigrating the choices of women who support such practices.
Note that there’s nothing here about stopping the practice: the closest Walley comes is the mention of “critiquing” it, although she doesn’t want people “denigrating” it. The vast bulk of her article criticizes Westerners who attack genital mutilation from their privileged colonialist position. Both Walley’s and Lears’s pieces are steeped in postmodernism, with Lears’s additionally infested with anti-science bigotry.
Actually, Lears’s piece is much worse than I’ve made out here. It’s largely a tirade, winding up with these words:
In The Moral Landscape he observes that people (presumably including scientists) often acquire beliefs about the world for emotional and social rather than cognitive reasons: “It is also true that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for.” The description fits Harris all too aptly, as he wanders from neuroscience into ethics and politics. He may well be a fine neuroscientist. He might consider spending more time in his lab.
Harris, who has written serious critiques of religion and attempted—albeit perhaps not with complete success—to ground ethics in reason and science, deserves far better than this sophomoric rant.