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Sam Harris’s “Scientific Fundamentalism” Couched in Atheism

by Martin E. Marty, special contributor

Religion is StupidProtestors rally during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to London. (photo: Colin Grey/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

“Same Old New Atheism,” last week’s clipping about religion sighted in the public sphere (it might as well be labeled “Same New Old Atheism”) is a 6800-word review, which places the trendy “New Atheism” in the context of previous efforts to establish scientific positivism in the place of religion. Religion, in turn, is to be done away with, as it’s been done away with for centuries.

The review in question is not a fundamentalist screed against defamers of the faithful, but the voice of Rutgers professor Jackson Lears, whose critics describe him as a “man of the left” in a “magazine of the left.” Lears reviews three books by Sam Harris, who to Lears is a “scientific fundamentalist.” Harris, in turn, has responded that Lears’s review is “idiotic.” It isn’t.

We can only hit some high spots of Lears-on-Harris and hope that readers will all follow through by reading the whole article, one of the best short criticisms yet of the old/new or new/old atheism.

Lears locates the genre in a “back-to-1910” cultural fashion in which now “deregulation” and “starvation of the public sector” have returned to the pre-World War I style. The key in philosophy, including manifestly in Harris’s works, “depends on the reductionist belief that the entire universe, including all human conduct, can be explained with reference to precisely measurable, deterministic physical processes.” The positivists, their outlook revisited by Harris, “assumed that science was the only sure guide to morality, and the only firm basis for civilization.” With them came “pop-evolutionary notions of progress,” “scientific racism and imperialism” and, most measurably, “eugenics” and the like.

Sociologists of knowledge (Karl Mannheim, Peter Berger, Thomas Kuhn and others) countered positivism, but it has come back in the works of authors Lears cites. They were also countered, in turn, by fellow scientists who found it philosophically and scientifically weak. But since 9/11 it is back again in Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and, of course, Harris, who now “press the case against religion with renewed determination and fire.”

The Christian Right’s absolutism next provided a fat target, and Islamic fundamentalism one even fatter. Its presence legitimates torture — in Harris’s books, at least — while “multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance,” writes Harris, hobbles “the West” in its war against “radical Islam.”

Harris argues that to be un-hobbled, the West must reject “both religion and cultural relativism, and [embrace] science as the true source of moral value.” Lears praises sciences but rejects the implicit (and sometimes explicit) metaphysic, which the new atheists do not discern in their putatively scientific empirical approach to morality. How Harris roots his metaphysic in brain research, which is his main work, and how Lears criticizes it is a story too complex for this brief article, but is available in Lears’s essay.

The title term “Infidelity,” the colonial and early modern word for atheism, agnosticism, and radical religion through three centuries, was the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation in 1956 in “The Uses of Infidelity.” Protestant conservatives would show how unmoored Christianity and faith in general were when infidels, never great threats on their own, got a hold of them. Now again, it is usually “infidels” who do the most telling reviews of fellow infidels’ books. Conservatives through the decades hollered, and gave those of other faiths and no faiths a potency they had otherwise not known. Now, again?


Martin Marty

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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