In recent days, crowds of thousands have gathered throughout the Muslim world—burning European embassies, issuing threats, and even taking hostages—in protest over 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that were first published in a Danish newspaper last September. The problem is not merely that the cartoons were mildly derogatory. The furor primarily erupted over the fact that the Prophet had been depicted at all. Many Muslims consider any physical rendering of Muhammad to be an act of idolatry. And idolatry is punishable by death. Criticism of Muhammad or his teaching—which was also implicit in the cartoons—is considered blasphemy. As it turns out, blasphemy is also punishable by death. So pious Muslims have two reasons to “not accept less than a severing of the heads of those responsible,” as was recently elucidated by a preacher at the Al Omari mosque in Gaza.
Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind is not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of 6 billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl s parents believe at this very moment that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?
The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. It is, moreover, a job that the atheist does not want.
In my last post, I argued that there is a direct link between Islam and suicide bombing. Many readers of this blog considered this post to be offensive, tendentious, and even irresponsible. An addendum seems to be in order. Criticism of my argument fell into a few broad categories:
1. Sam, you don’t know a damn thing about Islam, the Koran, or Muslim history. Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by extremists.
This objection is generally put forward by people who have not read the Koran or the hadith (the literature that recounts the sayings and actions of the Prophet). Some readers also pointed out that the bible contains some very scary passages. This is true, and I discuss the consequences of biblical literalism in my other writing. But the bible is a vast, self-contradictory book. It is very easy to just read the “good parts” and ignore all the barbarism found in books like Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus, etc. The fundamental message of the Koran is impossible to ignore and far easier to summarize. And there is no Sermon on the Mount in there to break the spell. Yes, there is a single line that can be read as a prohibition against suicide (4:29 – “Do not destroy yourselves.”), but this line can also be read as an admonishment to Muslims to refrain from killing other Muslims. In any case, we are talking about one line set in a wilderness of other passages that clearly admonish the faithful to despise unbelievers. On virtually every page of the Koran we are informed that Allah is in the process of “mocking,” “cursing,” “shaming,” “scourging,” “not forgiving,” “not reprieving,” the infidels. Had Allah wanted to guide the infidels to the true path, he would have. So he has cursed them with their doubts. He allows them to prosper in this world only so that they may have a greater opportunity to heap sin upon sin and more richly deserve the eternal punishment of the fire whose “fuel is men and stones.” As a basis for religious tolerance in a pluralistic world, the Koran is one of the least promising documents ever written—despite the few lines that, read in isolation, seem to counsel patience, charity, tolerance, etc. And the hadith is even worse.
Open the newspaper today—or tomorrow, or almost any day for many years to come—and you will discover that some pious Muslim has deliberately blown himself to bits for the purpose of killing “infidels” or “apostates.” It is likely that the bomber was male, middle class, and comparatively well educated. It is especially likely that he was guided by the sincere expectation of spending eternity in Paradise. In fact, suicide bombing is now so commonplace in our world that most of us have lost sight of just how unimaginable it should be. It is, perhaps, the least likely thing human beings could ever be inclined to do. What, after all, is less likely than large numbers of middle class, educated, psychologically healthy people intentionally blowing themselves up—in crowds of children, in front of the offices of the Red Cross, at weddings—and having their mothers sing their praises for it? Can we even conceive of a more profligate misuse of human life? As a cultural phenomenon, suicide bombing should be impossible. But here it is.
PERHAPS it should come as no surprise that a mere wall of water, sweeping innocent multitudes from the beaches of 12 countries on Boxing Day, failed to raise global doubts about God’s existence. Still, one wonders just how vast and gratuitous a catastrophe would have to be to shake the world’s faith. The Holocaust did not do it. God’s ways are, indeed, inscrutable. It seems that any fact, no matter how infelicitous, can be rendered compatible with religious faith. In matters of faith, we have kicked ourselves loose of the earth. Given the degree to which religion still inspires human conflict, this is not the good news that many of us imagine it to be. One of the greatest challenges facing civilisation in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Incompatible religious doctrines have Balkanised our world and these divisions have become a continuous source of bloodshed.
It appears that President Bush and the Republicans in the Senate have failed (for the moment) to bring the U.S. Constitution into greater conformity with Leviticus and the writings of St. Paul—which are, respectively, the sections of the Old and New Testaments that justify Christian concerns about gay marriage. Reading these documents, one discovers that the Creator of the universe does not approve of homosexuality. In fact, his instructions on the subject go far beyond a mere prohibition of gay marriage. According to God, homosexuals must be put to death. God himself says so in Leviticus (20:13), and St. Paul says it in Romans (1: 24-32). God also instructs us to murder people who work on the Sabbath, along with adulterers and children who curse their parents. Congress might also want to reconsider the 13th Amendment, because the biblical God clearly expects us to keep slaves. He merely admonishes us not to beat them too severely (Exodus 21). God’s wisdom on this subject can be distilled to a single precept: don’t injure their eyes or their teeth, because then you have to set them free.
Supporting the Blog and Podcast
SamHarris.org is supported by the generosity of its readers. If you find my essays, interviews, or podcasts useful, please consider becoming a sponsor of the website. —SH
You can also become a member by making a one-time donation in any amount.
Get Sam's Newsletter
Joining our email list is the best way to hear about Sam's upcoming books, articles, podcasts, and public talks.