Sam Harris: You Are My Data


by Matt Sheedy

As a scholar of religions, I find your arguments about religion both frustrating and wrongheaded, which is a sentiment that is shared by most of my colleagues, though often for different reasons. Your recent post, “Why I Don’t Criticize Israel?” is but one example in a litany of arguments where you reify (I know you don’t use this term so I’ve provided a link) the concept “religion” in such a way that it functions like some contagion infecting all those who come into contact with it, unable to escape the grasp of its most virulent strains (read: literal interpretations of scripture).

Having read most of your books along-side the other so-called “New Atheists,” it became apparent to me as early as The End of Faith (2004) that you were the most reactionary among them, endorsing torture and writing the following remarkable lines in Letter to a Christian Nation, (2008) which I was recently humoured to see annotated in my personal copy with the letters, WTF?

If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself. … So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose. (5)

Since this time, to your credit, you have put your money where your mouth is, earning a PhD. in cognitive neuroscience in 2009, which you drew upon in your argument for a scientific morality in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2011). More recently, you have doubled-down on this proposition with the release of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. (2014)

I would imagine that most scholars of religions do not object to your quest to find a scientific basis for morality per se, since theories of mind and cognition are but one of many tools in the collective toolbox of the study of religions. Notwithstanding some of your arguments on topics such as neuroscience and free will, however, you do not provide any sort of theory that we can take seriously. For a brief overview of the kind of work that we do, I’d suggest starting with this concise taxonomy of scholars of religion by Travis Cooper. But I digress.

In “Why I Don’t Criticize Israel?” you raise a variety of points in defense of this question, including qualifying notes that you place in brackets in an attempt to nuance your previous statements on this topic, such as the following:

[Note: Again, I realize that not all Palestinians support Hamas. Nor am I discounting the degree to which the occupation, along with collateral damage suffered in war, has fueled Palestinian rage. But Palestinian terrorism (and Muslim anti-Semitism) is what has made peaceful coexistence thus far impossible.]

It is not my aim to engage you here on your arguments relating to the conflict at hand, but rather to offer my thoughts on how they bear upon the ways that we talk about religion. While the claims that you make about Israelis and Jews, Palestinians and Muslims are selective and limited (as I’m sure you’d acknowledge, after all it is a blog post), they nonetheless constitute claims that can be reflected on and challenged with alternative facts and additional evidence, which can then be re-interpreted, re-evaluated and revised if found to be compelling. As with any conflict, I endorse the ideal of taking up as many critical perspectives as possible in order to better grasp the messy world of politics and I encourage any honest efforts to do so.

When it comes to the question of religion, however, your reasoning comes up against a wall, which muddies your ability to clarify what is at stake in this and many other situations that involve groups that identify as religious (note the displacement of “religion” here, as we are still debating whether it is best understood as a first- or a second-order category). Curiously, you seem to make one exception to your general rule, which is worth quoting in full:

There are something like 15 million Jews on earth at this moment; there are a hundred times as many Muslims. I’ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, “Why would you think that I believe in a God who can hear prayers?” So there are rabbis—conservative rabbis—who believe in a God so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about Him—and therefore, nearly every concrete demand upon human behavior. And there are millions of Jews, literally millions among the few million who exist, for whom Judaism is very important, and yet they are atheists. They don’t believe in God at all. This is actually a position you can hold in Judaism, but it’s a total non sequitur in Islam or Christianity.

You suggest that those who identify as Jewish are, on the whole, capable of aligning their beliefs in such a way that is compatible with modern, liberal ideas and that “Judaism” permits its members to hold a dual-membership in “atheism.” Putting aside the rather sticky question of Jewish identity and where “its” authority comes from, it is certainly true that there are many more people who identify as Muslim than those who identify as Jewish and that the inflation of such identities can have negative consequences, not least of which is the reliance on certain political theologies as a primary lens for interpreting events in the social world, which sometimes aligns with anti-Semitic sentiments (anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments also abound, I might add, though I’d wager that you’d disagree that holding the second of these positions is problematic). This no doubt plays into the existential insecurity of Israel, which is surrounded by countries where such theologies and sentiments regrettably persist (and again, the reverse persists in many other countries too, including the US and Israel).

While you argue that Jews are able, on the whole, to take a self-critical stance on “God” so that the (scriptural) claims about “Him” don’t have much of an effect upon human behavior, you also suggest that the Hebrew Bible is the worst among equals:

Let me remind you that parts of Hebrew Bible—books like Leviticus and Exodus and Deuteronomy—are the most repellent, the most sickeningly unethical documents to be found in any religion. They’re worse than the Koran. They’re worse than any part of the New Testament. But the truth is, most Jews recognize this and don’t take these texts seriously. It’s simply a fact that most Jews and most Israelis are not guided by scripture—and that’s a very good thing.

Let’s assume for a moment that both of your claims are correct—that parts of the Hebrew Bible are highly unethical and that the majority of those who identify as Jewish are not guided by them. Why might this be the case? What historical, political and socio-cultural reasons might account for such a shift? What variations do we find within distinct sub-cultures within, say, Israeli society or in diaspora communities in different parts of the world that might help to explain these variations in the outward performance of Jewish identities as it relates to scriptural beliefs and practices?

While I know that many of my colleagues in the study of religions, especially those who conduct fieldwork, would object to the claim that similar “atheist” and “secular” beliefs and practices (though there’s some magic in those concepts too, no?) don’t also occur in many communities that identify as, say, Christian or Muslim, that is somewhat beside the point. I wonder though, if “Jews” can adopt such a position despite their “sickeningly unethical documents” then why not “Muslims” too? There appears to be a logical inconsistency here.

What you don’t seem to understand is that “religion” is not a material object like a table or a chair that can be classified in a generic sort of way, nor is it a condition, like the Ebola virus, that can be diagnosed and cured (or not cured) of its symptoms. It is, rather, a discursive concept with multiple variations. Most in my field, in fact, have been talking about it in the plural for some time now (e.g., Judaisms, Christianities, Islams), while others have done a fair bit of leg work identifying its linguistic and cultural roots in the Euro-West (with a healthy dose of Protestant theological influence, I might add) and in showing the ways in which dominant classifications of “religion” have been applied to a wide variety of cultural practices, which, of course, are constantly changing. Frankly, we have a tough time keeping up with it and are not at all clear on how to square the circle.

Because of the political nature of any field of study that reports its findings and engages with the general public, many scholars of religions get sucked into debates on the ideas and representations that go by the name “religion” (myself included), which sometimes distracts us from examining its unstable meaning and compels us to engage directly with its practical uses. What tends to get the most attention and carry the day in the popular public sphere (and this won’t surprise you, Sam) are those loud, dominant voices that claim to offer a definitive representation of this or that (or all) “religion,” for or against as the case may be. As many scholars have pointed out, this field of representations constitutes the discourse about religion, which, as I noted above, varies widely across time and space.

Becoming aware of this discourse, charting its themes and variations, is what some of us (though not all) in the study of religion are trying to do, which we hope will add more theoretical clarity to the field and, perhaps, may even have some positive social effects.

Once you take this bitter pill, Sam, you’ll quickly realize that there is no stable object, across cultures and across centuries, that can be placed into the tidy little box that you call religion, but only groups and individuals who identify what this or that tradition—your Buddhisms, your Hinduisms, your Islams—that we have come to call religions, who take up beliefs and practices in literally countless variations, though often with certain commonalities, to be sure. It is this problem that many of us are trying to get a handle on and until you realize this “fact,” you are my data.

* Photo credit from Wikimedia Commons.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth and social formations. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

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7 Responses to Sam Harris: You Are My Data

  1. I’m not a student of religion so please forgive any crass misunderstanding. I found your article most interesting, Matt, and wondered how it might apply to me. I’m ‘Jewish’, by birth and indeed by cultural background. However, I’m one of the Jewish atheists, in fact I’m a rabid atheist. Really, I’m ethnically a Jew. Ethnicity is horribly mixed in with the whole Jewish/Muslim thing. Is it simply one of the ‘variations’ you mention? Typically the early pioneers settling in Palestine and founding kibbutzim were very secular. Yet one of my children, NOT brought up with any Judaism in the background, very left-wing and secular neverthless identifies as being ‘Jewish’. And no, Judaism (which to me is the religion) is not important to me. Another set of ‘religions’ that’s still causing trouble in the UK is Catholicism and Protestantism. I hazard that they couldn’t care less about each other’s beliefs, but have very strong political differences that have developed over the centuries from more religious points of view. I suppose also there are cultural differences, uniforms and so on.

    I bringall this up not to thrust my personal matters before you and your readers, but rather to point out that it’s the ‘non-religious’ side of attitudes and beliefs that fuel the ghastly conflicts that are going on around us. The actual ‘religions’ need to be put to one side, and the roles of culture, politics, ethnicity etc. need to be examined on their own. Otherwise the current and the future conflicts will always have the covering of ‘religion’ which we’re all supposed to think is wonderful and important to shelter behind.

    • mattsheedy says:

      Thanks for your thoughts on this Devra,

      My first reaction to reading your comments about your own identity formation is that you provide a good example of what I was talking about in the article. Your own identity has clearly conditioned how you relate to Judaism, in terms of things like ethnicity, scriptural adherence and the broader political concerns that have inflected your own position. As sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists (and a lot of everyday folk too, for that matter) know full well in their research (and as people know from their experiences), those we identify as “religious” will often differ considerably even within family units depending on the environment, internal pressures, external influences, etc., making it impossible to generalize broadly about what those who identify as Jewish (or are labelled as such) actually believe and practice. We can’t know in advance yet there’s a tendency to throw a large blanket over those who are classified as Jewish or Catholic or Muslim, etc. (and note the distinctions that I unconsciously made here as I typed these words, saying Catholic instead of Christian) prior to any sort of investigation.

      I take the position that identity and how one performs it is always conditioned by context. Many of my ancestors were Irish Catholics whose “Irishness” and “Catholicness” mattered a great deal to Protestants in Ireland and in Canada when they migrated and became settlers. Having grown up in Toronto much later than my ancestors who came here at the turn of the 20th century, those labels have not been all that relevant to my own identity formation in any significant way. I don’t identify as Catholic, for example, and given where I live today no one externally places that label on me as they did with my ancestors, and as I imagine they still do in parts of Ireland and the UK (esp. in parts of Ulster).

      With Jewish identity, my sense is that it’s not as easy to walk away from it (if one wants to or chooses to, that is), not least of b/c of on going racism given the long-standing “otherizing” of Jews the world over. Much the same could be said of those who identify as Muslim, especially if their differences are also coded in terms of language, cultural practices, skin colour, etc. as they often are in the Euro-West.

      As for your question on the role of “religion” in these and other conflicts, I would tend to agree with the gist of your sentiments here, if I’m reading you correctly. To underline the main problem that I attempted to raise in this piece, calling someone or something “religious” is not a first-order description like a table or a chair, but rather a symbolic discourse that means something particular for the one using that label. Without definitional clarity, such a label often functions as little more than the application of a personal/cultural prejudice upon large groups of people, with little or no attention to questions of distinction. In many cases, as I suspect with Harris, to be religious involves some level of magical thinking and irrational beliefs that can lead to irrational behaviour. Consider the following lines from his article, which I did not quote in my piece:

      “Even on their worst day, the Israelis act with greater care and compassion and self-criticism than Muslim combatants have anywhere, ever.”

      What if we conducted a simple thought-experiment and instead of saying “Muslim combatants” we said, for example, Kurdish combatants fighting in “Turkish” regions at the turn of the 20th century? We might then go on to ask about the political factions involved (and what that field of factions is represented by), the make-up of ethic groups in the region, how external pressures from other nations factor into the equation, and so forth. Assuming that some identify as Muslim (in a minimal or perhaps maximal sort of way), then that becomes a significant part of our data–e.g., figuring out how a Muslim identity is conditioned by environmental variables and how it conditions the social and political culture that they are situated in, in turn.

      When we start with “Muslim” combatants (or Jewish or Christian, etc.) as Harris does, I’m afraid reductionism has already won the day as we are then (typically) guided in our analysis by trying to figure out how “religion” is *the* primary causal factor, how “religion” leads to violence, rather than develop a complex analysis that looks to account for the overlapping and integrated relationship between cultural norms, ethnicity, language, environmental factors, infrastructure, external alliances, etc, etc.

  2. This is excellent. I had a number of people clamouring for me to write some sort of blog post criticising Harris’s position on Israel-Palestine, as I have some background studying that conflict, but I couldn’t be arsed to devote any further attention to this man’s sophomoric bigotry. Suffice it to say, his positions on the conflict are untenable aside from the total incoherency with which he approaches and conceives of religion and its relationship to action. In any case, I’m very glad that you had more patience than I did.

    • Matt Sheedy says:

      Thanks for your kind comments, Simon. In brief reply, I’d say that it’s crucial that we look at Harris and other dominant narratives about religion in the public sphere (whether they identify as religious or secular, atheist, etc.), in order to get a better handle on what makes up the logical and discursive ground upon which we talk about religion in the first place. Part of the problem for me is that too much time is focused on engaging directly with the practical uses of the term, rather than assessing various meanings and how it actually gets used by people, and often as a mask for many other things.

      As tricky as it is, I think scholars, journalists and bloggers have an important role to play in clarifying what is at stake (linguistically, conceptual, culturally, etc.) in these and similar situations.

  3. JayLJeffers says:

    This is a tremendous post. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to make any difference to committed New Atheists (NAs), and particularly not to Harris. But kudos nonetheless, because the argument is worth having and there are still plenty of people in the middle who need to hear it.

    Of course, the NAs could have avoided most (but likely not all) of your apt critique by simply attacking fundamentalism or rigid ideologies in general, but then that wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting, headline-friendly, or lucrative. Actually we might not have heard of the NAs at all if they’d advanced that more responsible argument.

    • Matt Sheedy says:

      Thanks for saying so, Jay. I think you hit the nail on the head with your remarks about sensationalism and headline-friendly (and headline grabbing) modes of argumentation. What, for example, happens to an author’s argument once they themselves become a popular voice in the debate? How does their emphasis and narrative get conditioned by the fields representation that they’re caught up in?

      Whether they realize it or not, the so-called NAs are caught up in discourses with particular conventions and particular logics that often obscure what is at stake, especially when we use other theories and methods of analysis to interpret insiders’ descriptions regarding what “Islam” or “Judaism” signifies for them (i.e., if we’re being attentive to difference and not simply assigning a broad categorization to large groups of people).

      I also think that you’re correct to suggest that they would be on safer ground if they directed their critique at certain “maximalist” orientations of, say, Islamic political theology, where some of the more troubling statements that they flag in their work to represent *the whole* are more accurately representative of certain groups within the larger umbrella of “Islam.” Even in such instances, of course, we need to understand the material conditions where such conceptions of “Islam” arise, how they are distinct from other variations and what internal and external forces (such as US wars) function within their own narrative histories. That Hamas identifies as Islamic is not in dispute. Why they have come to identify in the ways they have and under what conditions of possibility is a more fruitful academic question to my mind.

      J.Z Smith’s essay “A Matter of Class” touches on this point nicely where, at the end of his argument, he points out that so-called “fundamentalism,” coined in the 1920s to refer to particular modes of Protestant Christianity who were reacting to the rise in biblical criticism (among other things), loses its force as a when applied as a “generic category,” especially in contexts where narratives are much more closely related to “colonial and post-colonial histories.” For this reason, Smith argues that they are perhaps better described as “nativism” or “revitalization” movements. He also notes:

      “To read Islamic fundamentalism as a nativistic movement is to call for a different set of comparisons and other sorts of explanations than would occur when one foregrounds the Christian phenomenon.”

  4. doug says:

    This piece was horrible. At the outset it is unforgivably dishonest. Don’t berate Sam Harris with the same old bullshit about endorsing torture without answering the same questions regarding torture yourself. Is it an acceptable practice when an answer from a destructive party can save thousands of lives? Don’t disregard the question entirely and suddenly feign moral outrage that Harris supposedly “endorses torture”. And then, what do we learn from this piece? Religion is a terribly complicated topic, so it’s best we not talk about its role in modern conflicts, given the non combative variations?

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