Harris and Rushdie on Ayaan Hirsi Ali

From this week’s LA Times, a good op-ed piece by Sam Harris and Salman Rushdie, both of whom know something themselves about living with threats from religious fanatics:

Hirsi Ali may be the first refugee from Western Europe since the Holocaust. As such, she is a unique and indispensable witness to both the strength and weakness of the West: to the splendor of open society and to the boundless energy of its antagonists. She knows the challenges we face in our struggle to contain the misogyny and religious fanaticism of the Muslim world, and she lives with the consequences of our failure each day. There is no one in a better position to remind us that tolerance of intolerance is cowardice. (read the rest here)

I was somewhat disappointed in the arguments of The Caged Virgin, which I thought relied too heavily on personal experience and anecdote to draw large conclusions (sometimes, to say “I saw such a thing happen” or “I was a Muslim, so I know” is not enough to go on, however compelling it may be as individual testimony)–this despite, of course, my strong sympathy for and general agreement with those conclusions. I haven’t had a chance to read Infidel yet. But Hirsi Ali’s story is truly both remarkable and horrifying, and everything I’ve seen and read about her, including her interview with my former UBC classmate Irshad Manji in her documentary Faith without Fear, has increased my respect for her dignity, forthrightness and courage.

God’s Incompatible Warriors

I’ve just finished watching the three installments of Christiane Amanpour’s CNN series “God’s Warriors,” and although I appreciated the information and the varied perspectives the series offered us, I ended up frustrated (though not surprised) that the most important question of all was never asked (or at least never aired), namely, “What makes you so sure that you are right in your beliefs and the guys in the other episodes are wrong?” Over and over her interviewees proclaimed their absolute conviction about what God wants of them, but they can’t all be right (and this applies not only across the three monotheisms that were her main topics but internally as well, as she met with Jews, Christians and Muslims who profess widely divergent views of the obligations and teachings of their own religions as well). Of course, the problem is that at bottom, their answers could only be of these three kinds:

  1. I’m absolutely sure I’m right because I have faith/belief; I feel it in my heart/soul.
  2. I’m absolutely sure I’m right because I was raised in these beliefs.
  3. I’m absolutely sure I’m right because I have read the infallible word of God in [fill in title of book here].

The first position gives us no way to distinguish the religious believer from someone who believes, say, that she is the reincarnation of Joan of Arc: the latter may be equally convinced on internal ‘evidence’ and strong feeling, but nonetheless we don’t hesitate to call her delusional. The second is really an admission that the person might well have believed something else altogether if raised in another family, parish, or country (as in fact we know to be the case, since religious beliefs vary widely according to geography). And the third simply returns us to the original problem–there’s more than one book that purports to be the definitive word of God, and they can’t all be it. How do you know that yours is the right one and your neighbour’s (or enemy’s) is not? Here we have people prepared to sacrifice their own lives, take the lives of others, engage in time-consuming, sometimes self-destructive, often expensive rituals, influence the outcome of elections, subvert the teaching of science, put their children at risk of STDs by denying them sex education…and on what solid basis? None at all. Overall, the series was very depressing. I ended up feeling a lot of sympathy for Richard Dawkins‘s provocative notion that religious education is a form of child abuse. We intervene to ensure medical treatment for children when their parents’ beliefs would deny it to them; why not consider it equally unacceptable for children to be raised to idealize martyrdom, or raised in dangerously controversial settlements in occupied Palestine, or denied the benefits of a modern scientific education because their parents cling to superstitious, magical ideas about the world and their role in it? There’s no question that, historically, religious belief has contributed to what George Eliot calls “the growing good of the world” as well as to its cruelties, irrationalities, and evils, but we can see now that the foundations of modern faiths are no stronger, no more defensible, than, say, the Greek or Roman beliefs in their deities (as Sam Harris likes to point out, we’re all atheists now with respect to Zeus and Poseidon). So why should we accept them as guides for living–or killing, or dying?

I hope Amanpour’s planning a follow-up series on “Reason’s Warriors.”

George Eliot: The Friendly Face of Unbelief

I’ve read a number of reviews lately on the spate of books by the ‘new atheists,’ notably Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and, most recently, Christopher Hitchens. Among the many interesting features of these reviews is how often they protest against the tone of the books, even if they agree with their arguments. A lot of people seem worried that a world without religion will be either a coldly austere, heartless place, or a chaotic place with no moral principles or values drawing people into communities. The complaints about the harsh tone of these books seem motivated by these fears, as well as by the widespread (but, as Harris especially would argue, misguided) attitude that whatever our own views on religion, we ought to treat it with respect. They are also often accompanied by the complaint that writers like Dawkins and Harris are taking away beliefs that bring comfort or satisfy emotional and aesthetic needs, without offering up anything to replace them.

I don’t personally think there is any obligation for critics of religion to be nice, or for them to make up for whatever people may feel has been taken away from them along with their superstitions. And, in fact, all three of the writers I have named have plenty to say about ways an atheistic worldview can enhance, rather than inhibit, our emotional, moral, and aesthetic experiences and sensibilities. But it’s clear that their case is not always persuasive, particularly to those readers who most need persuading. Because I think the world would benefit if they were victorious in their campaign on behalf of reason and evidence, I think they should call in some allies who can help them past what may be primarily a problem of genre. In addition to making the case against religion, they need to help people move imaginatively towards a world in which it is no longer necessary. Who better to assist in this endeavour than George Eliot, who was, as noted by one of her contemporaries, “the first great godless writer of fiction”?

Of the three writers I’ve named, Hitchens makes the most explicit appeal to literature. In god is not Great, he remarks that atheists “are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books” (5). Later, he notes that the “study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected” (283). This general position is one with which I have great sympathy; it is also one which, though without explicit reference to replacing theistic moral systems, is much considered in the work of contemporary moral philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum who are exploring the contributions literary forms make towards our ethical understanding. But Hitchens could get a lot more specific about just how George Eliot is useful to his project. Here are some excerpts from my paper “George Eliot: Moralist for the 21st Century” that suggest how her ideas, particularly as given literary form through her fiction, might complement his and the others’ work and contribute to forming what Ronald Aronson in The Nation describes as “coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life’s vital questions.”

[A recent University of Minnesota study] found that many people consider atheists “self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good” (Edgell et al. 227). The researchers conclude that “Americans construct the atheist as the symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether” (230). However contingent the relationship between morality and religion may seem in academic or philosophic circles (witness the decisive critiques of divine command theory in analytic ethics, for example), most of our real-world compatriots are convinced that morality will break down without religion, with dire consequences for human flourishing. To correct this mistake—to lay these fears to rest—we could really use George Eliot’s help.

As her contemporaries noted, George Eliot’s novels portray “a world of high endeavour, pure morality, and strong enthusiasm, existing and in full work, without any reference to, or help from, the thought of God” (Mallock 698). After her own de-conversion from Christianity, Eliot worked tirelessly to develop a secular, humanistic framework for morality. As is well known, she believed, with Feuerbach, that people have given the name “God” to qualities and aspirations of their own, that motives and accomplishments called “religious” and credited to supernatural forces are really the products of human effort, of the human capacity for generosity, sympathy, and love—but also egotism, pettiness, and hatred. In her deterministic universe, we are responsible for our own deeds and their consequences, for our own contributions to, or obstructions of, the “growing good of the world” (Finale). She rejected extrinsic motives for good behaviour, including appeals to the “glory of God” or hope of an afterlife, arguing eloquently that “the immediate impulse of love or justice … alone makes an action truly moral” (rev. of Constance Herbert 322). These are components of an ethos that seems highly conducive to “moral solidarity” and “the common good.”

More important than her specific conclusions, though, is her resolve to work with the facts of human existence rather than comforting fictions. She did not deny the austerity of non-belief, but she agrees with Harris that “the fact that unjustified beliefs can have a consoling influence on the human mind is no argument in their favour” (67). The “‘highest calling and election’,” she asserted, “is to do without opium and live through all our pain with conscious, clear-eyed endurance” (Letter 254).

Other examples of George Eliot’s own statements on the relationship between faith and morality include this, from “Worldiness and Other-Worldiness: The Poet Young”:

‘And in opposition to your theory that a belief in immortality is the only source of virtue, I maintain that, so far as moral action is dependent on that belief, so far the emotion which prompts it is not truly moral—is still in the stage of egoism, and has not yet attained the higher development of sympathy. In proportion as a man would care less for the rights and the welfare of his fellow, if he did not believe in a future life, in that proportion is he wanting in the genuine feelings of justice and benevolence…’

And this, from her letters, a simple statement that would have revolutionary consequences if applied instead of many of the doctrines put forward in the world’s sacred books:

Our moral progress may be measured by the degree in which we sympathize with individual suffering and individual joys.

These are all philosophical statements, but George Eliot opted to give her ideas fictional form so that we would not just understand them intellectually, but experience them as principles operating in the world of human feelings, histories, and relationships. I have written more about this choice elsewhere. For my purposes now, I’ll just say that this choice of genres allows her to show us morality and community both flourishing and faltering as the result of human character and human choices. The mathematician Laplace famously replied to Napoleon, when asked about the role of God in his view of the universe, that he had “no need of that hypothesis.” Through her novels, George Eliot helps us understand that we too have no need of it, and that we will do better by ourselves and by others when we acknowledge our own responsibility for the world we live in and the rules we live by.