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(DV) Papathanasis: Deconstructing The End of Faith







Deconstructing The End of Faith 
by Theo Papathanasis
November 21, 2006

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“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” 

Who penned this ugly little medievalism? The Taliban? Stalin? A National Socialist contemplating what to do with German labor organizers? Perhaps a puritanical do-gooder off to purge satanic elements hidden under the foliage's bright taches shrouding sleepy seventeenth century Salem in a gorgeous autumnal firestorm? No, this winsome sentiment was recently expressed by yet another of America's just-add-water "public intellectuals," one Sam Harris, atheism's would-be heresiarch in the politically incoherent age of War for Oil on Terror. In his The End of Faith, a short work the careless might take for a polemic against organized religion, Harris’s central theme is that "all reasonable men and women have a common enemy . . . Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself." [1]  
Sadly, this enlightened secularist’s homily is not what makes Harris an interesting read. Harris's attack on religious literalism is nothing but familiar to anyone who's ever picked up Paine's The Age of Reason (a work strangely absent in Harris's well-padded bibliography, and a curious omission by a man who writes: "If there is a book [other than The End of Faith] that takes a harder swing at religion, I'm unaware of it.") No, what makes Harris interesting is what he makes of our contemporary geopolitical climate. According to this broadminded man of science: "We are at war with Islam," [2] a war we cannot lose, for, you see, "life under the Taliban is, to a first approximation, what millions of Muslims around the world want to impose on us." [3] According to Harris, this war on Islam should be prosecuted remorselessly, consciously accepting civilian casualties and, by extension, torture. [4]  
It is a remarkable conceit to think one could invoke reason in the hopes of convincing otherwise thoughtful people of the preposterous and it is precisely such an impossible strain for the demented that Harris attempts in a book shot through with poor argument and delusive thought experiments, all couching the wretched logic of Bush's global anti-terror militarism in terms slightly more palatable to non-believers who might otherwise be repelled by what they understand to be the messianic madcapery of the president's born again evangelicalism. [5]  
I first stumbled on a snippet from Harris here, and originally thought I might enjoy reading his "Letter to a Christian Nation," advertised as "the courageous new book that arms all rational Americans with powerful arguments against their opponents on the Christian right" on a pricey page two of October's Harper's Magazine (featuring "The Way out of Iraq" by McGovern and Polk). I had never read or even heard of Mr. Harris. Unsurprisingly, I expected him to be some sort of liberal atheist. Then I read The End of Faith, Harris's previous book and the source of this review's introductory quotation. [6] I borrowed the paperback from someone amused by Harris's quips about "religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman." It all sounded so clever and titillating. However, upon opening the book, my Spidey sense started tingling: Harvard's Alan "The Ticking Time Bomb" Dershowitz, accused plagiarist and apparent libeler, praises the book as a "tour de force" on a page-one blurb.  
I decided to read the book anyway. 
And learned blurbs mean nothing. Not only is it not, in any way, a "tour de force" as America's onetime distinguished torture advocate put it, neither is it "badly needed," as The Independent is quoted on the back cover. Interestingly, if one actually reads that particular review, one learns The Independent's reviewer, Johann Hari, thought parts of the book "quite crazed," specifically noting Harris's "bizarre speculation about circumstances in which a nuclear first strike would be acceptable against jihadists with a nuclear weapon." [7]  
There are so many execrable claims in The End of Faith, refuting them all demands the space of a long and considered essay, an exercise in exorcising the shrill anti-Islamic paranoia that interlaces Harris's purported project of sending organized religion itself to "the blue mists of heaven" (Marx). I simply do not have that kind of time. It should suffice to show the moral paucity of Harris's worldview with a few simple comparisons.  
In his third chapter to "intimate . . . some of the terrible consequences that have arisen, logically and inevitably, out of the Christian faith" [8] Harris begins by asking his readers to imagine themselves apprehended by the Inquisition:  

Without warning you are seized and brought before a judge.

This, absent the judge, is frightfully similar to what has happened to several victims of the CIA counter-terrorist policy of extraordinary rendition.

You are not told the names of your accusers.

Neither were the suspected members of Al Qaeda rounded up by Afghan bounty hunters, turned over to American forces, and shipped off to Guantánamo Bay.

But you have a choice, of sorts: you can concede your guilt and name your accomplices.

This was exactly the kind of choice offered Mr. Maher Arar, a victim of extraordinary rendition and recipient of the 2006 Letelier-Moffitt International Human Rights Award. Why is this ultimately a choice? Well, following Harris:  

You may be imprisoned in total darkness for months or years at a time, repeatedly beaten and starved, or stretched upon the rack.

Interestingly enough, something similar -- minus the rack and the starvation -- happened to the innocent Mr. Arar:  

The cell was about three feet wide, six feet deep and about seven feet high. It was dark. There was no source of light in it. It was filthy. There were only two thin covers on the floor. I was naïve; I thought they would keep me in this place for one, two, maybe three days to put pressure on me. But this same place, the same cell that I later called the grave was my home 10 months and 10 days. The only light that came into the cell was from the ceiling, from the opening in the ceiling. There was a small spotlight and that's it. [9]

He was, however, "repeatedly beaten": 

He hit me again. And that one missed and hit my wrist. The pain from that hit lasted approximately six months. And then he would ask me questions. And I would have to answer very quickly. And then he would repeat the beating this time anywhere on my, on my body. Sometimes he would take me to a room where I could, where I was alone, I could hear other prisoners being tortured, severely tortured. I remember that I used to hear their screams. I just couldn't believe it, that human beings would do this to other human beings. And then they would take me back to the interrogation room. Again another set of questions, and the beating starts again and again. On the third day the beating was the worst. They beat me a lot with the cable. And they wanted me to confess that I have been to Afghanistan. This was a big surprise to me because even the Americans who interviewed me, the FBI officials who interviewed me, did not ask me that question. I ended up falsely confessing in order to stop the torture. [10]

The only telling difference here is that Mr. Arat was eventually freed, not burned at the stake. Now that's progress. Naturally, Harris will tell us, things were rougher during The Inquisition:

You may be hoisted to the ceiling on a strappado (with your arms tied behind your back and attached to a pulley, and weights tied to your feet), dislocating your shoulders.

This also had its eerie echo in Afghanistan.  

Both men had been chained to the ceiling, one at the waist and one by the wrists, although their feet remained on the ground. Both men had been captured by Afghan forces and turned over to the American military for interrogation. [11]

Of course, these men were not actually hoisted midair, merely beaten to death while dangling from a chain, beaten so badly the medical examiner reported of one victim that 'even if he had survived, both legs would have had to be amputated.'  
I could go on like this; but the point has been made. Although Inquisitional torture was probably more brutal than that practiced today, both are justice as farce. Justice is something Harris should know something about, as he, a graduate in philosophy from Stanford, for some unknown reason, includes the complete works of Plato in his doubtful bibliography (Plato appears nowhere in the index). He might have read:  

You must consider not only what happens if a particular hypothesis is true, but also what happens if it is not true. [12]


Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.

Or maybe it's not ethical at all. 
In my modest opinion Mr. Harris is another voice joining in an inane chorus that preaches that we must all embrace barbarisms so as to save civilization. It is my recommendation to him and all who think as does that the greatest threat to western civilization and humanity as a whole are not terrorists (or, as Mr. Harris would put it, Islam itself), but, far more reasonably, it's global warming.  
Theo Papathanasis is secretly collaborating with the forces of Grand Archon Nabqilzar from the planet Yxorlox to enslave Earth with an orbiting Black Hole Detonator before the United States can mount a space-based defense. He can be reached at: heartsoul@gmail.com

Other Articles by Theo Papathanasis

* The Obliterator
* Fascism: Scare? Tactics?: A Comment on Mickey Z. and Antiwar Tactics

[1] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith (New York: Knopf, 2005), p. 131.  
[2] ibid., p. 109. 
[3] ibid., p. 203. 
It should go without saying that the idea of an Islamists' victory over American Forces stationed in the Mid East could result in the western world's kowtowing to Wahhabism is about as realistic a proposition as The Onion's faux historical headline about the American withdrawal from Vietnam: North Vietnam Wins War! All Americans to Salute Our New Viet Cong Rulers.  
On a serious note, Robert Fisk interestingly interpreted 'the [Taliban's] new laws of Afghanistan – so anachronistic and brutal to us, and to educated Afghans – were less an attempt at religious revival than a continuation of life in the vast dirt camps in which so many millions of Afghans had gathered on the borders of their country when the Soviets invaded sixteen years before.' From The Great War for Civilisation (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), p. 31. 
[4] See Harris, 2005, p. 198 and p. 2003. 
[5] For a recent political conspectus that probably shares some themes contained in Letter to a Christian Nation (as well as more than a few of those found in The End of Faith), see Garry Wills' comments about faith-based war in 'A Country Ruled by Faith', The New York Review, November 16, 2006. 
[6] Harris, 2005, pp. 52-3. 
[7] Hari, Johann, 'The sea of faith and violence', The Independent, Feb 11, 2005. 
[8] Harris, 2005, p. 106. Here too (and this has been pointed out about another passage by Hari in his review) Harris seems to be under the dubious impression that The Holocaust was a product of Christianity not of National Socialism, and that Hitler was Catholic.  
Unless noted, all the following quotes by Harris are from The End of Faith, pp. 80-1. 
[9] Arar, Maher, 'The Horrors of "Extraordinary Rendition"', Foreign Policy in Focus, October 27, 2006.  
[10] ibid. 
[11] Jehl, Douglas, 'Army Details Scale of Abuse of Prisoners in an Afghan Jail', The New York Times, March 12, 2005. 
[12] Plato, Parm., 135e.