fundamentalism rears its ugly head (part one)

Incompatible nationalist ideologies have balkanized our world into separate moral communities, and these divisions have become a continuous source of bloodshed. Indeed, nationalism is as much a living spring of violence today as it has been at any time in the past. The recent conflicts in Palestine, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Iran and Iraq, and the Caucasus are merely a few cases in point. These are places where nationalism and/or ethnic identity has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in recent decades.

Nationalism (and in particular patriotism) is also the only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet, these beliefs often determine what they live for, what they will die for, and—all too often—what they will kill for. This is a problem, because when the stakes are high, human beings have a simple choice between conversation and violence. At the level of societies, the choice is between conversation and war. There is nothing apart from a fundamental willingness to be reasonable—to have one’s beliefs about the world revised by new evidence and new arguments—that can guarantee we will keep talking to one another. Certainty without evidence is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing.

Therefore, one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord national/ethnic identity. While there is no guarantee that rational people will always agree, the irrational are certain to be divided by their politics.

So, not too long ago, the work of Sam Harris found its way into my life via my wife’s family. Many interesting debates ensued (only some of which I was a party to). And I staked my usual claim that I think the ideas of the “New Atheists” are, at best, short sighted. At worst, grossly essentialist and downright racist.

To help prove my point, I’ve taken the above the passage from an essay written by Mr. Harris for the Shambhala Sun a couple of years ago. You may notice, however, that something is not quite right. I’ve done some editing. I’ve replaced any mention of “religion” or “spirituality” or “dogma” with “nationalism,” “patriotism,” and “politics.”

Why? Because I contend that the problem with religion has nothing to do with religion at all. It has everything to do with people. People do stupid, horrible, violent, ghastly things to one another, and they use religion as the proverbial scapegoat. However, they could just as easily use some other human-made, social construct (i.e., nationalism), and acheive the same ends. When Mr. Harris writes that “Religion is the only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence,” all I can think of is the harsh reality that people consistently use “patriotism” in the same way. Barack Obama decides not to wear a flag lapel pin or put his hand on his heart during the National Anthem (even though it’s customary to put your hand on your heart during the Pledge of Allegiance only), and no matter how irrational it is, people think he’s a godless, Muslim, anti-American, commie hooligan. How, exactly, is that any different from how people use religion?

So I’ve changed Harris’ words here to make a point. The point being that if we do away with religion, people will replace it with some other fanatical, dogmatic system that cannot be questioned, so help us god. We don’t need to do away with religion; we need to change people. Religions are abstract sociological constructions. Placing the blame on religion absolves us of the responsibility we have, the complicity we share, in spreading intolerance, religious, nationalistic, ideological, ethnic, or even between Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans. Ending religion will not end intolerance and violence. Changing minds will.

Don’t forget that.

But there are far more interesting things for me to rail against in this article. So I’m going to devote a whole second post to it!