Yesterday morning, I stumbled upon this article by Madeleine Bunting on The Guardian website. It seemed to be the usual moaning about “new” atheists being too aggressive, intolerant and ignoring the real debate about the “remarkable benefits” of religion. It was most irritating, but repeated themes that are ever more common in the popular press. Then I read this (I have left in the typo at the beginning, a habit for which The Guardian have been notorious for many years).
In a another passage [Sam] Harris goes even further, and reaches a disturbing conclusion that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”. This sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition.
Excuse me? I’ve read The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, but I couldn’t ever remember Harris saying that. I typed the quoted phrase into Google, and was distressed to find that many people were attributing the same phrase to Harris. Surely I would have remembered him saying something like that! Curiously, like Bunting, nobody was offering a page reference. Eventually I tracked it down to p52-53 of The End of Faith. I took my copy from the shelf to see for myself, and my suspicions were confirmed – it was taken completely out of context. Here’s the full passage.
The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:
Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.
What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.
The link between belief and behaviour raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas. (The End of Faith, p52-53.)
Whether or not you agree with Harris, it should now be clear to you just how wildly his point differs from the one that is implied by the cropped down version quoted by Bunting.
Harris is simply saying that when people hold beliefs that lead to them committing acts of violence and murder, and killing them is the only way of protecting our selves, then it may be justified. As he rightly points out, this is the thought process that has taken many democratic countries to war, and will continue to do so.
Does this sound like the sort of reasoning that inspired the Inquisition? Bunting clearly wants to create an image in her readers’ minds of an atheist interrogating a normal, everyday believer, torturing them and then finally murdering them in cold blood simply for holding a harmless belief in God. What Harris is actually arguing is that it is better for the would-be fundamentalist terrorists to be killed by us first, than to wreak their havoc on innocent lives.
Just imagine that we had a time machine, and therefore the ability to travel back to September 10, 2001 and slip cyanide into the drinks of the terrorists who attacked America, thus preventing the disaster and saving thousands of lives. How many children would keep their mothers and fathers? Whether you would or not, please realise that this is the point Harris is making.
Madeleine Bunting finds Harris’ conclusion disturbing. What I find disturbing, is that a professional journalist writing for a national newspaper could so flagrantly and irresponsibly mislead her readers. Either she has not checked her sources thoroughly, or she has deliberately and deceitfully distorted Harris’ words in order to convey a meaning he did not intend. Whichever way it happened, she has no excuse. Whether through laziness or intellectual dishonesty, it was disgracefully unprofessional.
We atheists believe staunchly in the right to free speech and the importance of debate. However, it has to be done fairly. When incidents like this occur, nobody wins. The one side is misrepresented, the other misinformed, and no progress is made by anyone.