Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Interview Analysis: Part IV

The interview continues:

DP: I will defend the religious books, but you need to defend the alternative. Why is it that religious folks whom you fear turn out to be more morally accurate today than the secular folks at the university?

SH: Well, actually, I didn’t concede that first point. I think you would find that healthy people are going to be more or less the same across the board. But I agree with you that our discourse about any number of a variety of things right now in academia has really become unhitched from morality, as you and I know it.


I'm not entirely sure why Mr. Harris insists on substituting medical for moral terminology here. Healthy people and immoral people are not mutually exclusive categories. This seems to be part of the general trend on the part of Liberals to define evil as some kind of psychological disease. Also, Mr Harris should be careful here in his assumption that the morality he talks about and the morality Prager talks about amount to the same thing.

DP: I was going to say, “God bless you for saying it,” but ‘Spirituality’ bless you for saying it. And I’m not being sarcastic. I admire the fact that you, who are in academia, would say that. But don’t you ask what the root cause might be? To me it is clear: secularism.

As I have already discussed to some extent in Part II of this analysis it is not the secular nature of the universities that is to blame, but their irrationalism. Also, it is not at all clear to me that the original claim by Prager, that a thousand evangelical ministers would have greater moral acuity than a thousand liberal arts professors, would in fact be so obviously true. I'll concede that due to the irrationality of the universities it is more likely than not to be true in most cases (and certainly in the case of the war). However, religion comes with its own inherent irrationalities and it very much depends on the specific issue whether the ministers or the professors would be more irrational.

SH: Actually, no, I think the root cause in academia, certainly liberal academia now, is what we call “political correctness.” There are so many taboos in academia and in our culture at large, the one of which that I’m going up against most directly in my book is the taboo around criticizing faith itself, which is something you and I are going to differ on. But, there again…

Once again I have to bemoan the superficiality of Mr. Harris's analysis of the universities. "Political Correctness" is at best a description of a symptomatic trend. It is not an explanation of why institutions supposedly concerned with reason have turned against it. For a deeper analysis from a Conservative source I again suggest Lynne Cheney's Telling the Truth and, even better, from an Objectivist source, Dr. Peikoff's The Ominous Parallels. Fundamentally the answer comes from philosophy. Perhaps I will attempt to sketch a detailed answer at some point.

DP: Oh, no, there’s no taboo on criticizing Judaism or Christianity. There’s only a taboo in the university on criticizing Islam. It’s just… I differ with your read.

SH: Right. Well, I actually find that people are very reluctant to criticize faith itself, even when they don’t have it. I mean, in the privacy of their own salon, they’re going to speak wildly about anybody.

DP: Christianity? I mean, everyone who goes to university learns that Christianity is an impediment to progress. I mean, it is part of the
liberal arts curriculum.

I think I agree with Prager here. Universities these days feel very comfortable in criticising Christianity and even Judaism to some extent. Of course, there would be plenty to criticise. However, since they are criticising it from an multicultural, post-modernist standpoint, they are not much better than what they are criticising. The interview continues:

SH: Right. Well, you know, I don’t think this is at the core of either our agreement or our differences on this subject. I think that the problem we have to face now is, people are flying planes into our buildings because they believe their book was written by God. And it doesn’t seem to me that our proper response to that predicament is to say, “No, no, you have it wrong; OUR book was written by God.” That’s not a basis for dialogue; that’s not a basis for sorting out the excesses of human irrationality.

This is arguably Mr. Harris' most intelligent statement in this interview so far but he still gets something important wrong. He says "that's not a basis for dialogues; that not a basis for sorting out the excesses of human irrationality." Why on earth would anyone want to have a dialogue with people who fly airplanes into buildings? The response needs to be to locate the source of the problem and destroy it. A dialogue is no longer possible.

DP: Yet, ironically, it is really only very strongly religious Christians, by and large – and I’m not a Christian, I’m a Jew – who have been at the forefront of criticizing Islam today. And they are called, by your whole secular liberal world, racists and bigots for doing so.

SH: Right, right. I agree with you totally. I think it’s profoundly ironic that the most sensible statements about Islam to appear in our culture have come from our own religious dogmatists.

DP: It’s not ironic! Sam Harris, that’s where you and I differ, and let me just say, I appreciate your honesty, I really do. You are very rare, and I am happy to know you. But to me it is not ironic! It is their faith that gives them their [values and their] strength to say it.

SH: Well, then, I think we’re seeing it slightly differently. You take someone like Falwell, or Pat Robertson, who very clearly appreciate the danger posed to us by Islam. It seems to me they’re uniquely in a position to appreciate it, because they understand that people really do believe the letter of their holy books. And they’ve read the Koran, and they’ve perhaps read the Hadith, the commentarial tradition around it, and they know that the contents of these documents are antithetical to living in tolerance in a pluralistic world. And what has really hampered liberal discourse, intellectual discourse, ivory tower discourse on this subject is that secular people really cannot get it into their heads that when the guy looks into the video camera and says, “We love death more than the infidels love life,” and blows himself up, he really means it. He didn’t blow himself up for economic reasons.

DP: That’s right! You’re right. I agree with your critique perfectly. So then, where do we differ?

What the above exchange proves is not the superiority of a religious point of view over a secular one but rather the superiority of moral judgement, even coming from a religiuos point of view, to moral agnosticism. There are specific historical reasons why the current intellectual landscape is what it is. But it's quite clear that proper moral judgment is not inherent in religion (as can be seen in the current religious left for example or even in some of the less pleasant moral conclusions of the right), nor necessarily absent from the secular as can certainly seen in the Ayn Rand Institute. Moral judgement questions ultimately reduce to questions in the subject of epistemology -- the theory of knowledge. In order to establish moral conclusions we must first know how to establish any conclusions. It is as a result of the disintegration of epistemology on the secular side over the last few centuries that the average secular university professor is no longer able to judge right from wrong. The religious side has been subject to much the same influence though not to the same degree, which is why it frequently appears more rational than the the secular side.


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