A Parish Of One

[Re-posted from earlier today]

Well, that’s how Sam Harris has often described me – so I might as well repay the back-handed compliment. But what makes Sam’s work about religion so compelling is that, unlike my old friend, Hitch, he actually grasps what faith can be at its best. He doesn’t dismiss it – or its spiritual aspirations – as somehow inherently absurd. In fact he has spent years of his life exploring the possibility of sublime spirituality without God. And his argument, it seems to me, is mainly with intolerant, fundamentalist forms of religion, of which Islam is easily the most troublesome at this point in history. Glenn Greenwald recently said that Sam could feel no empathy for Muslims, that his worry about Jihadism was a function of not getting their point of view, a sweeping generalization based in tribalism. Sam cannily responds in a post worth reading and listening to at length:

Let us see where the path of empathy actually leads…

First, by way of putting my own empathy on my sleeve, let me say a few things that will most likely surprise many of my readers. Despite my antipathy for the doctrine of Islam, I think the Muslim call to prayer is one of the most beautiful sounds on earth. Take a moment to listen:


I find this ritual deeply moving—and I am prepared to say that if you don’t, you are missing something. At a minimum, you are failing to understand how devout Muslims feel when they hear this. I think everything about the call to prayer is glorious — apart from the fact that, judging by the contents of the Koran, the God we are being asked to supplicate is evil and almost surely fictional. Nevertheless, if this same mode of worship were directed at the beauty of the cosmos and the mystery of consciousness, few things would please me more than a minaret at dawn.

Sam gets it because he’s been there, having engaged in thousands of rituals and countless hours in meditation for much of his adult life. This is why he of all the new atheists was the one I most wanted to have a dialogue with. (You can read it here.)

The whole new post is full of that sum of religious and spiritual experience. But this is what he also gets:

Islam marries religious ecstasy and sectarian hatred in a way that other religions do not. Secular liberals who worry more about “Islamophobia” than about the actual doctrine of Islam are guilty of a failure of empathy. They fail not just with respect to the experience of innocent Muslims who are treated like slaves and criminals by this religion, but with respect to the inner lives of its true believers. Most secular people cannot begin to imagine what a (truly) devout Muslim feels. They are blind to the range of experiences that would cause an otherwise intelligent and psychologically healthy person to say, “I will happily die for this.” Unless you have tasted religious ecstasy, you cannot understand the danger of its being pointed in the wrong direction.

I too understand that ecstasy, having experienced it myself in my life. There was a time as I was cast adrift in my teens when I clung to doctrine even more ferociously as a bulwark against shifts and changes I could not yet master. I see this now. I didn’t then. I believed God was telling me I had to enforce countless tiny things – avoiding cracks in the pavement, painting the Crucifixion repeatedly in art class, annotating my school books with little tiny crosses, praying constantly. I never reached the total subservience demanded by Islam, but I saw enough of why that appeals to be alarmed by it.

Belief, when severed from healthy doubt, when grasped as a psychological crutch to keep reality at bay, reaches inevitably for totalism. In fact, the bewildered and conflicted may need that totalism to keep their lives under any sort of order. Think of those 9/11 mass murderers, attending strip bars, then shaving their entire bodies, then flying planes into building.

Think of the staggering sectarian carnage now metastasizing in the Muslim Middle East. Think of how total your devotion must be to do the things some Jihadists do – like hacking a person down in the street and bragging about it.

To argue that we should not associate those actions with religious extremism, but be more aware of our own alleged Islamophobia, seems simply perverse to me. But – and this is a crucial qualifier – that does not mean that ratcheting up rhetoric against this fundamentalism necessarily helps. Nor does treating their crimes as different. Nor does invading Muslim countries, or torture. We can both recognize the unique threat Jihadism represents as the Muslim world attempts to navigate a modernity beyond their control – and we can be very cool, calm and collected in deciding how best to stymie it, defuse it, prevent it.

But we will not stop it. I suspect this phenomenon – and its concurrent violence – may last as long as the savagery of the European wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The difference is that this time, our technological capacity for mass slaughter is exponentially greater than it was four centuries ago. And the likelihood of a mass-casualty catastrophe occurring at some point is extremely high. We must simply hope it happens, if it must, somewhere other than here.

(Thumbnail photo: Minaret at sunset by Flickr user Dingopup)