An Open Letter to Sam Harris About Islam, Fear, and Hale-Bopp

Dear Sam:

First, permit me to offer some context and disclaimers. I hold you in high regard. I consider you to be a rational and insightful thinker, an eloquent writer, and a conversationalist without equal. I’m also convinced that you and I share many views, including a belief that truth claims should be supported by evidence, a respect for scientific inquiry, a rejection of superstition as a source of wisdom, and a curiosity about the nature of consciousness. Yet, whenever you grapple with the topic of Islam – a topic that you have admitted dominates your writings and discussions to a degree you find undesirable – I struggle to accommodate one of your main theses: that a belief in the ideas espoused in the Quran and its supplementary texts represents the primary cause of contemporary terrorist activities. Or, as you have more directly stated it, “It is time we admitted that we are not at war with ‘terrorism’ … We are at war with Islam.”

Please forgive me if you believe I have misstated your thesis. I realize that you often must defend against misquotes and misrepresentations and I do not wish to add to that onslaught. I also realize that since you made the foregoing statement you have taken pains to differentiate between “Islam”, “Islamists”, and “jihadists”. Still, even if you think I have framed your argument unfairly, please hear me out. Part of my assertion here is that you might be unaware of your bias when it comes to the negative impact on society of religion in general and Islam in particular, at least insofar as you contend that a belief in certain religious doctrines directly leads to the crimes perpetrated in the name of such doctrines. I contend that such beliefs are less a cause and more a symptom or constituent of the bad behavior. You might be tempted to dismiss that distinction as a chicken-and-egg quibble, but I believe it explains your feelings of surprise or confusion whenever someone like Reza Aslan or Ben Affleck accuses you of bigotry. I agree with you that such an accusation is ridiculous on its face, especially in light of all that you have written and spoken on the subject. At the risk of being overly charitable to your accusers, I suspect they are trying to articulate an intuition that blaming heinous acts on the belief in a religious narrative not only fails to adequately explain those acts, but implicitly condemns a huge group of innocent, similarly-believing people as ignorant monsters.

I can imagine your retorts. ‘I’m talking about the dangers of Islamic theocracy, not about the Muslim people.’ ‘Ideas matter.’ ‘The jihadists have told us why they do what they do.’ ‘Muslim moderates and secularists are the most important people in this discussion and the ones deserving of our support.’ ‘Faith-based thinking is the problem, not the people who suffer under the yoke of religion.’ I get it. Truly. And I generally agree with your concerns about the level of suffering that inevitably accompanies a widely accepted social narrative that is infested with intolerant or aggressive ideology. I even agree that Islam is a motherlode of bad ideas, as is Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Scientology. Yet, each of those ideologies (except, perhaps, Scientology) might also be viewed as a motherlode of good ideas. If we look hard enough, perhaps for every Christian who would stone a homosexual we might also find a penitent who accepts human imperfection and sincerely seeks to make amends for injuring another. If we really try, perhaps for every Muslim father who would kill his daughter to protect his honor we might also find one who sincerely lives by the tenet that one should do no harm. In fact, given the statistics you have cited regarding the number of law-abiding, peaceful religious folks versus extremists, I suspect that a substantial majority of adherents to any faith, including Islam, cherry-pick from the motherlode of good ideas and shun the bad.

To be clear, I equate religious dogma with fairy tales – stories that, if learned in our youth, should be left behind with childhood once our cognitive abilities mature. I also acknowledge that a widely adopted social narrative can significantly impact a society. My point is not whether religious ideas are true or even helpful; my point is that merely proving them false will never quell our human proclivity for violence and cruelty.

Ideology does not cause human suffering. Every human-on-human offense, from bullying to terrorism, is born of a dark and enduring aspect of human nature: our penchant for soothing our fear by controlling, dominating, or hurting others. The fear we so desperately seek to soothe is not a fear of predators lurking behind bushes, although evolutionary adaptation might certainly have contributed to our current state. This fear is an existential one that takes many emotional forms, including anxiety, distress, self-doubt, embarrassment, grief, guilt, and shame. We manifest this fear when we feel neglected, defensive, intolerant, jealous, helpless, hopeless, or worthless. This fear is not rational. A cogent counter-argument can dissuade neither the schoolyard bully nor the suicide bomber from following their chosen path to feeling less afraid.

So long as we receive a modicum of affection during childhood, most of us possess enough empathy to appreciate the nature of another’s suffering and to understand that we would suffer similarly in a similar situation. Consequently, in order to inflict harm on another with minimal remorse, most of us need a narrative that acquits us of responsibility for the other’s pain. The stories we embrace to mitigate our cruel acts differ with the context and the historical period. In the 1930s, Nazism provided a terrifyingly effective framework for such fear-quelling. Still, it would be incorrect to argue that the ideas articulated by Hitler on the podium or in Mein Kampf caused the Germans to exterminate millions of Jews, just as it is incorrect to attribute the phenomenon of suicide bombers to Islamic tenets or the Jonestown massacre to the incoherent ramblings of Jim Jones. The cruel deed is the problem, not the justification for the deed, regardless whether that justification is religious or secular. Reforming Islam in order to better align its doctrines with modern liberal values will not end the fear that prompts terrorist bombings, any more than forcing Marshall Applewhite to watch Carl Sagan’s Cosmos would have prevented him or his Heaven’s Gate flock from killing themselves in an attempt to hitch a spiritual ride on Hale-Bopp.

The narrative does not come first. The fear comes first, followed by a craving to quell that fear. That craving typically prompts a search for relief, which can be achieved by means of peaceful, self-affirming methods (e.g., social support, wise mentors, education, therapy, healthy lifestyle changes, etc.), but which can also be achieved, often more rapidly, through self-harm (drugs, sex, junk food, reality TV, etc.) or by participating in activities designed to control, subjugate, or hurt others. Notwithstanding the lone psychopath, the solution that involves hurting others generally requires social support, usually in the form of a group of similarly fearful people. Unfortunately, such groups often congeal around a shyster who promises some form of paradise (i.e., relief from the fearful feelings) in exchange for a commitment to a particular doctrine. Enter L. Ron Hubbard, David Koresh, Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse-tung, and so many more. (I resisted including Donald Trump in that list because Trump has yet to extol any coherent doctrine; although I can’t help wondering which came first for Hitler, his narcissism or his seductive ideology.)

I’m not suggesting that a person becomes a suicide bomber solely as a result of indoctrination. Heredity begets cognitive predilections and sensitivities, which are shaped by familial and cultural conditioning. From our first breath we are taught by our caretakers and social groups what to believe. If we happen to be born with a healthy cognitive capacity for skepticism and/or born into a culture that has developed a modicum of tolerance for differing viewpoints, then our beliefs can evolve to encompass reason and reality. If we are born with a cognitive susceptibility to suggestion and/or born into a culture that resists change with gusto, then breaking free from dogmatic assumptions can be quite a challenge.

Neither am I suggesting that efforts to reform Islamic practices are pointless. I certainly approve of the reforms that have occurred in other religions over the years, especially the reduction in virgin sacrifices and witch burnings. If nothing else, reforming Islamic traditions might dilute the ability of evil-doers to use the narrative of Muhammad to justify their bad acts. And yes, ideas matter and challenging bad ideas, especially ideas that enable bad acts, is a worthy endeavor. There is a difference, however, at least in efficacy, between challenging bad ideas and declaring war on an entire religion, between advocating for rational, compassionate behavior and condemning entire groups for the actions of a few, and between encouraging progress toward more widespread kindness and exacerbating social conflict. I happen to think that you, Sam, stand firmly within a desirable moral landscape. I also think there is room to improve your tactics for courting others to join you there, if such courting is part of your mission.

We often speak of the “reformation” of Christianity as though it occurred quickly and comprehensively. Real change occurs slowly and mostly as an accumulation of changes in individuals. We perceive historical reformations only in retrospect, after a critical mass of individual changes has revised a prevailing cultural narrative. We witnessed evidence of that process just last weekend with the women’s marches that were held throughout the U.S. Despite some negative messaging (who can resist waving a sign that reads “pussy power” or “super-callous-fascist-racist-sexist-braggadocios”), marchers generally advocated for fairness, respect, and compassion. The marches indicate that beliefs about the nature of society and human interaction held by millions of Americans have transformed enough over the years to modify the prevailing narrative into one that supports a culture of kindness and equality. That does not mean that the opposing narrative of racial and gender privilege and scripture-based morality will disappear any time soon. Hopefully, though, it signals a trend in our societal script from the negative toward the positive.

As I hope you have surmised by now, I do not disagree with the general thrust of your arguments against religion, only with your contentions, implicit or otherwise, that a belief in religious tenets, especially those espoused by Islam, causes evil behaviors and that the eradication of religion, even if that were possible, would eliminate those behaviors. Challenging bad ideas is appropriate and necessary for our human civilization to progress toward a more rational, compassionate morality. So please, keep up the good fight. However, so long as you insist on affixing the blame for bad acts on irrational beliefs, be they religious, political, metaphysical, or the “just how we do things” sort, rather than viewing those beliefs as symptomatic of our desperate craving to soothe our fear, I suspect you will continue to confront false accusations of bigotry. Positive moral reformation materializes only when people begin to feel safer. Declaring war on a person’s religion, no matter how nonsensical that religion may be, rarely results in feelings of safety.

Warmest regards,

Geoffrey Geddes


Go to the Source:

Harris, S. (2004). “Mired in a Religious War”. Washington Times.

Harris, S. (2005) The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. W. W. Norton & Company.

Rubin, D. (2015). “Sam Harris: Islam is the Motherlode of Bad Ideas?”. The Rubin Report.