Saturday, December 22, 2007

Being Cautious

Jonah Goldberg over at National Review posted an email from a reader regarding a comment made by atheist author and champion Sam Harris, as quoted by Theodore Dalrymple in an article for City Journal. Harris' comment is a bit, well, breathtaking. Here is Dalrymple's take on it:

"Harris tells us, for example, that 'we must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting.' I am glad that I am old enough that I shall not see the future of reason as laid down by Harris; but I am puzzled by the status of the compulsion in the first sentence that I have quoted. Is Harris writing of a historical inevitability? Of a categorical imperative? Or is he merely making a legislative proposal? This is who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-priest language, ambiguous no doubt, but not open to a generous interpretation.

"It becomes even more sinister when considered in conjunction with the following sentences, quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist: “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may 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.”

Harris' book, The End of Faith, was on the NY Times Best Seller list for 33 weeks, according to Wikipedia. Somewhat ironically, Wikipedia says,
"After coming under intense criticism in response to his attacks on dogmatic religious belief, Harris is cautious about revealing details of his personal life and history ."
This is ironic because I have yet to read or hear about any Christian hinting in a best-seller that it may be ethical to kill atheists for their beliefs. If Harris' ideas catch on, religious believers may be the ones who need to exhibit caution. (And by the way, those who believe Wikipedia is without bias may want to explain the presence of the adjective "dogmatic" in the above quote.)

Atheists like to pretend that Christians are scary. Come back to me about the scariness of Christians when a best-selling Christian author writes that it may be ethical to kill people over what they believe. How do you think atheist or liberal circles would respond if Pat Robertson or James Dobson were to make identical remarks?

Harris responded to Dalymple, here. Harris says Dalrymple was dishonest and ripped his words out of context. Perhaps this is worth a future post, but at the moment it's hard to imagine a context in which his remarks seem normal and wholesome. Dalrymple gets the last word:

"Finally, with regard to Mr. Harris's statement that it may be ethical to kill people with certain (unspecified) ideas: for myself, I fear the likelihood of mission creep. I cannot help recalling the wise words of a great British judge, Lord Mansfield, who said in the eighteenth century that so long as an act remains in bare intention alone it is not punishable by our law. Killing people for their thoughts alone is not a recipe for anything except bloody disaster."

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