Recently, a heated email exchange occurred between Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris. It was another nail in the coffin of a movement that was almost taken seriously when it was launched ten years ago. But something was rotten in the kingdom of New Atheists from the very start. Christopher Hitchens brought all of his newfound love for war to the movement. Sam Harris was writing things like “Some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them”. And soon it became obvious who we were supposed to be “ethically killing”. It just so happened to be the same people that were already being killed – in Iraq and Afghanistan – and the whole thing was just too convenient. In the eyes of many progressives around the world, New Atheists were nothing more than apologists for neoconservative militarism.
Considering this back story, it is unsurprising that there was no love lost between Chomsky and Harris. Previously, Harris had repeatedly accused Chomsky of misrepresenting his views (Chomsky had in fact never even mentioned him by name) and ignoring the role of intent (Chomsky had written about the subject many times during his long career). The email exchange was short but exhaustive, and it touched on some important issues. Simply put: in his criticism of religion, Harris has reserved a special place for Islam; a religion shared by 1, 6 billion people, to which he refers as “The Mother Lode of Bad Ideas”. To defend his obsession with Muslims and Islam, he often highlights the importance of intent. An example he and Chomsky discussed in length was the 1998 US bombing of Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Since tens of thousands of innocent people are believed to have died as a consequence of this action, Chomsky views it as a state sponsored atrocity. Sam Harris, on the other hand, wants us to differentiate between the horror of 9/11 – which was perpetrated with ill intent, and the bombing of Sudan – which was supposedly perpetrated with good intent.
So what’s the problem? At a first glance, it appears quite natural that we should look at the professed intentions behind acts of violence. It is, however, a different question entirely whether we should believe in them. There are myriads of problems with believing in what people say about their intentions. And according to many commentators, Chomsky was so successful in pointing them out, that Harris no longer wished to continue with the debate, blaming it on Chomsky’s unwillingness to act “collegial”. But let’s not let him get away that easy. Let’s take a look at how Harris wants us to think, or more accurately; which shortcuts to thinking he expects us to take.
Accepting a person’s professed intent as a pure manifestation of their will is so blatantly unscientific that it shouldn’t even require any further discussion. Does Harris suggest we take all of Adolf Hitler’s professed intentions at their face value? Since Harris accepts everything ISIS and Al Qaeda are saying about their intentions, we should logically do the same with Hitler and other figures as well. Hence: George W. Bush was a democracy sprinkler, Stalin was simply cleansing the state from a “fifth column of wreckers, terrorists and spies”, and the Interahamwe in Rwanda were simply doing sanitary work. And further down the rabbit hole of silliness we go.
To only look at people’s professed intentions, without addressing their earthly grievances is not only intellectually dishonest, but ethically reprehensible. We know that people are not some automatons who are separated from their environment. Sam Harris wants us to focus mainly on the fact that ISIS claim they want to create a global caliphate. Let’s concede for a moment that this is their main objective. How do we then explain that there is not one single Indian Muslim fighting on their side? There are 180 million Indian Muslims, which is more than two times the population of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. How come not a single one of them has found the idea of fighting for a global caliphate with ISIS appealing? After all, they are reading the same Holy Book, so why are their intentions different? The answer is self-evident.
The irony of New Atheists ignoring the material world and solely focusing on professed theological motivations perfectly illustrates their lack of analytical skills or – in the worst case scenario – a conscious effort on their part to muddy the waters. Even if we were to concede that religion is the biggest problem in countries like Syria and Iraq, there are heaps of studies that show that the most religious populations are to be found in poor and war-torn countries. Accordingly, the scientific conclusion of such an argument should be that we should shower these countries with aid (or at the very least stop incinerating their citizens).
But none of this is about science and reasoning. None of Sam Harris’ efforts in this matter are about making the world a better place. There is nothing atheistic in replacing the concept of God with an absolute faith in the country one lives in. There are dangers in not thinking, and negating every single fact that contradicts one’s view of the world. In fact we have a word for that: fundamentalism.