Love Begins at the Nerve Endings

To celebrate the tolerant and open spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ 3:AM is devoting its weekend coverage to rampaging atheism. There’s me, on Sam Harris‘s The Moral Landscape, an exploration of how we can rescue morality from religion, and S J Fowler interviews A C Grayling, another New Atheist who has written a book on similar themes. I particularly liked Grayling’s comment here:


Though perhaps not in this country, or northern or central Europe, but certainly in America, Africa and the Middle East, there has been a resurgence in religious extremism and fundamentalism. Why do you think this has happened? Are the reasons cultural or political, or economic?


In my view religion is diminishing not resurgent; what looks like resurgence is a turning up of volume, an amplification, the noise of protest and anxiety resulting from the pressure that religious groups feel from the secularising tendency of history. The historical precedent is the sixteenth-seventeeth century loss of hegemony by the Roman Catholic Church: as the Reformation broke its control over the mind and life of Europe, it fought back hard, causing nearly two centuries of extremely bloody and cruel religious wars and turmoil. At the time it would have looked like the Church militant and rampant, but it was more the rearguard action of a diminished power, like a cornered animal. I think something like this is happening today, not least with Islam, whose way of life and values are under severe pressure from a globalising world with the sometimes rapacious secular values of the powerful West.

Update: You can’t talk about Sam Harris without discussing his views on torture. This is a standard charge the pro-faith left throw at him as a substitute for content. Harris has written a piece for his website where he clarifies his views on torture. His argument appears to be that:

1) Torture versus collateral damage: why do people support the killing of innocent civilians in airstrikes, but oppose the torture of people who are probably guilty?

2) Ticking bomb scenario: No one has ever come up with an argument against the use of torture against someone who knows about a secret bomb that will annihilate millions of people in an hour’s time. It doesn’t matter that this scenario is so unrealistic – if you can’t explain why torture should not be used in even this unlikely situation, you don’t have an absolute argument against torture.

I’ve taken issue with Harris before, on immigration and on prospects for democracy in the Middle East. I think he is wrong about torture as well, on both these points. For what it’s worth, I think torture is always and everywhere a crime – I agree with Norman Geras that ‘there is no higher authority that can legitimize the practice of torture.’

This is a crime under international law, as is all but universally recognized, and everyone may be expected to know that it is, irrespective of how they have been advised. Apart from the legal constraint, all people, everywhere, have a moral duty not to torture.

The point is that Harris’s argument on torture doesn’t fit the pro-faith stereotype of the rationalist inquisition, but is well within the realms of the reasonable.


3 Responses to “Love Begins at the Nerve Endings”

  1. Paul Murdoch Says:

    I thought this was a very strange review. Fair in many respects but oddly silent on the book’s main theme: that morality or ethics can effectively be brought under the provenance of science; Harris’s claim to have abolished Hume’s is-ought-distinction, an endeavour in which he patently falls short. Whatever fMRI scanning may one day achieve, it can only correlate certain observable brain states with certain states of the world; it still can’t definitively rule those states of the world as ethically ‘correct’ however self-evident this may appear nor how obviously conducive to human flourishing or ‘the well-being of conscious creatures’. The best review I’ve read was Kenan Malik’s who nails this brilliantly.
    I also thought he missed a trick in failing to expand on two other themes: our inability to rationalise on morality; the evidence seems fairly compelling that most ethical reasoning takes the form of post hoc justification for knee-jerk ‘ visceral ‘ responses to moral dilemmas. He also touched on the fascinating but almost entirely counter-intuitive topic of population ethics.

    However, he never really got past the fact that presented with the news, say, that Obama was prepared to pump in billions to ensure the schooling and functional literacy of all Afghan children, the fMRI image of your own neural activity and that of a zealous Taliban would tell two very different stories. Someone or something external to both of you and outside of your cultural prejudices would still have to rule which was ‘right’. And, in this respect, since righteous claims to common sense, common decency, conclusive statistical evidence on the benefits of girls’ education and even objective scriptural exegesis have so far failed to ‘prove’ the case, it’s a fair assumption that neural imaging will also prove ineffective.
    I also thought you somewhat remiss in omitting mention of some of Harris’s more outré comments on torture and his willingness to deny Muslims certain freedoms purely on religious grounds-which seems a contradictory stance for such an avowed secularist. This elision was especially marked since you were only too willing to take a –wholly justified-swipe at those bien pensant cultural-relativist idiots who cite highly nuanced and sophisticated modes of reasoning to account for what the rest of us-lacking their logical dexterity- clearly regard as egregious cognitive dissonance and intellectual dishonesty. That they persist in this conceit is, I’d venture, a product of their elitist-mainly Oxbridge-education and what appears to be a lifelong liberal media sinecure which leaves them in an unassailable position to keep spouting just whatever fanciful post-structuralist bullshit happened to tick all the boxes 25 or 30 years ago.
    It is precisely this sort of setup which I feel I’m attacking in my position on Laurie Penny. I’ve read the links which Jenny posted on the previous thread and, to be honest, I feel even more justified in laying into the little careerist than before. For entirely self-serving reasons, she seems to have positioned herself as the mouthpiece of a leaderless, democratic movement which she is trying to depict-regardless of facts, or the views of the activists themselves-as a proto-anarchist. I really do think she believes herself to be channelling Rosa Luxembourg at the moment…ripping into the old left as anachronistic and Leninist. It should be borne in mind that it’s only about 18 months ago that she was declaring herself a Lib-Dem and pouring qualified praise of Harriet Harman.

    …quite a turnaround. She really is an outrageous opportunist. The last link on the previous thread had it right when it called her an ‘historical ignoramus’. Now, even disregarding the pejorative force of this epithet when delivered from a Marxist perspective, subsuming every stripe of ‘useful idiot’ and bourgeois sentimentalist, it is entirely accurate in a conventional sense. She simply has no grasp of current political forces nor their historicity. She is, as I pointed out before, just too ignorant to realise what a cliché she is. And, other than an understandable and forgiveable tendency to support young aspiring writers, I don’t understand your own attitude to her.
    Anyway, I’m back at work tomorrow and hopefully next time I get a few days off I’ll be out doing something once my ankle heals (fell off my bike).

  2. Paul Murdoch Says:


    Meant to say..

    Anyway, I’m back at work tomorrow and hopefully next time I get a few days off I’ll be out doing something once my ankle heals (fell off my bike). But, nice blog. Keep it up and best of luck.

  3. maxdunbar Says:

    Haha, it is all about Laurie Penny for you!

    The Harris position on torture is always used by his critics as a substitute for actual argument and an easy way to disfigure the case against secularism. It comes from an ethical problem in The End of Faith where he compares torture to airstrikes and asks: why are we afraid of torturing people who are probably guilty, and not afraid of killing people who are innocent? A standard moral problem that people in ethics classes will argue about all the time.

    Harris is of course wrong about Muslim immigration, and Muslim support for Islamism, but these things don’t feature in the book under review.

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