A Response to Sam Harris' Talk at the Atheist Alliance
This so-called atheist movement is pushing me further and further into the fringes of society. I used to call myself an atheist, thinking that the term “atheist” referred to a simple lack of belief in a higher power. I used to comfort myself on lonely godless nights by telling myself that there were other wonderful and caring atheists out there, waiting for me to join their joyous, science-loving brethren. But then I was forced into a shocking realization: to be an atheist, you have to be a total fucking asshole.
Or that is what Sam Harris and his legions would have the world believe.
I think that we godless folk can all admit that we have succumb to the temptation of mocking the religions of the world, even at times making unfair generalizations about the devout themselves. Religious beliefs are unscientific and illogical, which makes them an easy target. But so are most human ideals—think of true love or world peace. Our beloved science tells us that religious belief is a byproduct of evolution—a natural phenomenon among human beings. Are we really so foolish as to believe that we can magically (to use the word that Harris so snottily wields on the faithful) undo a natural phenomenon by arguing with people and calling them stupid?
Frankly, I find it appalling that a group of such undeniably brilliant men and women as those at the forefront of the burgeoning atheist movement have devoted so much time, thought and energy to an effort that amounts to little more than militant cheerleading. While there is a real and valid need to create a society that values inquiry and the free exchange of ideas, those working to do so do not seem privy to the commonly held wisdom that the best possible way to firmly entrench a person in their opinions—however illogical they may be—is to attack and insult them.
The justification for this attack on decent people is endlessly fueled by Harris’ assertion that religion is a fundamentally destructive force that is responsible for violence, torture, war and countless other atrocities. Well, I am going to point-blank disagree with that. The most destructive force in society—in all societies—is polarization. The polarization and exploitation of the ideology of the masses has been the true underlying phenomenon driving every war, every violent crusade, every transgression that we can point our finger at and shout “religion”—and many that we can’t. Because religion exists pervasively throughout human societies, it is often exploited. But there is a difference between something’s source and its vehicle—and it is an important difference.
I doubt that this is any revelation to Harris. I propose that the reason why Harris is able to find such penetrating insights into the effects of the exploitation of religion is that he himself is an exploiter. He is using the tremendous power of human ideology to further his own interests and his own notoriety, all while exacerbating the conflict that he claims to be trying to fix. If Harris wins his war we will not have a reconciled society, but rather a larger and more vicious divide than ever before. Don’t believe me? Look at how many commenters were eager to jump up and commend Harris for comparing religious belief to racism (specifically, lynching). Faced with rhetoric like that, those reasonable and tolerant religious people who have not yet declared us their enemies are surely running out of good reasons not to.