Tuesday 4 March 2008

The end of faith is not the answer (on romanticising reason)

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris / The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left, by Ed Husain

If Sam Harris and Ed Husain met you might think it would be pistols at dawn, tumbleweed flying past and plenty of this world ain’t big enough for the both of us, but the American New Atheist and reformed British Islamist have more in common than their excellent taste in jackets.

Whilst both believe isolating politics from religion is necessary to clear the way for a progressive politics in a climate saturated by religious identities, Husain nevertheless believes in Allah, whereas Harris is every mote the evangelical anti, calling for the total obliteration of faith. But the two ‘H’s have a more interesting similarity, endorsing at the end of their books a carefully-defined mysticism, and talking about the importance of meditation.

Meditation is certainly making a comeback as a niche growth industry with trinkets and yoga courses to boot, and grounding its appeal is its potential as part of the good life: popular books on the subject slap up the importance of setting aside time for ourselves to cultivate inner gardens away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, while a waffly anti-capitalist mentality urges us to stop being material girls by having a dabble in the spiritual realm. Or for those who dislike touchy-feely stuff, there’s stats on the scientifically-proven benefits of meditation, tales of longer life and wrinkle-avoidance, increased intelligence or emotional IQ. Stranger still is the kitsch legitimacy mysticism takes from the natural idyll, with adverts conjuring up images of untouched misty mountains set to the strain of atonal bamboo flutes.

Another fetish in the current climate is renunciation of past political beliefs gone wrong, and in this vein The Islamist follows Husain through the 1980s and 1990s, from being taken under the wing of a renowned Islamic scholar during his early childhood, through his campaigning campus days with Jaamat-e-Islami, Hizb ut Tahrir and the Islamic Society of Britain and his agitation for a Caliphate in Britain. The book tells his story, it’s beautifully written and it draws you in. And it spits you out, as the close sees him embrace a dignified, meditative Sufism as the true expression of the spirit of Islam, a peaceful personal religion that makes no political demands. Though this doesn’t mean Husain has quit the public sphere, having been catapulted to fame by the success of his book, lauded (and later lampooned) in the liberal press: the New Statesman, the Guardian and a clutch of BBC Radio 4 programmes to name but a few, into the public eye as an authority on political Islam, landing neatly now – and as his father was before him – in the lap of the Labour Party. Nevertheless, he speaks not just as a public figure or party member but as a moderate Muslim and spokesperson for others who share his beliefs.

Which is just what Sam Harris does for the New Atheists in The End of Faith. Harris writes widely on the central place religion has come to occupy in American life, the rise of radical Islam, the merging of private and public spheres; he also makes a strange defence of the use of torture on terrorist suspects, and discusses the reaction to 9/11. His lynchpin is that a person’s beliefs and ideas – however much in the background of their day-to-day lives - ultimately shape the world they live in - a claim with something in it, and one used to frame Harris’ anti-religious polemic. He says since people ‘of faith’ believe irrationally in an afterlife – virgin orgies with unlimited honey sort of stuff – they can’t be trusted to make reliable decisions, which explains why suicide bombers happily blow themselves up, and ‘the religious’ (mostly Muslims) are a bit knee-jerk. Better to eradicate irrational beliefs, he says, and make decisions from The Evidence. And in his proposed world without faith, mysticism gets awarded a place since it has a rational basis, in that the claims of mystics can be verified empirically by each one of us in our ongoing search for knowledge. Which is why Harris meditates.

What draws the two authors together is that neither seems quite able to let go of a gentle obsession with the religious experience, and both – though not always in name – advocate a ‘soft religion’ that points to the importance of personal feelings and private journeys. Whether it’s Harris’ fascination with people’s experience of the divine or Husain pursuing inner peace, mysticism holds a fascination for both authors that has less to do with straightforward characterisations of religion than the question of what being human is all about. That said, mysticism seems praised more for its innocuousness and lack of prescriptions about how society should be, as something to be saved from religious practice as a last ditch option, than for any robust contribution it makes to the ongoing exploration of humanity. It’s seen to have an emancipatory quality in that it can free our minds, defended accordingly in terms of the ‘enlightenment’ found at the end of a journey of mental – rather than societal - liberation. No wonder it’s chosen as the upbeat ending to two books that have an ultimately bleak message about people’s ability to get together meaningfully to shape the world we live in.

There is a benefit to premising the private, personal and not overtly ‘religious’ parts of religion like meditation or prayer: it broadens understanding of what faith is and the role it plays in day to day life in debate where definitions are a little thin. But the New Atheist critique also serves to blur boundaries and confuse social, moral, and political issues: whilst a more thorough understanding of the way religious codes and practices influence moral attitudes and political persuasions is worthwhile, it all too often ends up smudging the boundaries between private and public realms. It ultimately undermines the idea of a shared secular social space where people are judged by what they say and do rather than what they get up to in their heads or behind closed doors.

On the other side of the coin, religious institutions have begun to defend themselves in terms of ‘social cohesion’: they claim to offer communities a space where people can come together in mutual activity, provide comfort and support to families and get yoof off the streets. To get rid of them, the new defence goes, would unravel the very fabric of our society.

And it’s hardly wrong that religious institutions attempt to deal with contemporary concerns and respond to the public mood. A recent meeting at St Mary le Bow Church in London, for example, discussed the role of neuropsychology in debates about God and the psychological necessity of religious experience; religious leaders have begun both to market themselves as ‘therapists’ and to get annoyed by the trend. But most worrying in this new defence of religion is the way it’s played out in terms of state-set agenda, as if religious institutions and practices become legitimate once they begin to deliver policy objectives. What’s interesting is that this move towards premising the more innocuous parts of religion is made by those defending and attacking religion alike. It reflects a more generally fragmented world-view.

Undeniably, having a community is important and religion does play a role, but this doesn’t mean we can’t look elsewhere for social groups or that a drop in shared worship signifies the end of civil society while its growth benefits society. That’s just conservative scare-mongering. And whilst there does seem to be something to the idea that meditating or generally thinking about things deeply can be emancipatory, it comes at the cost of – to be crass – premising the inner at the cost of the outer. Whereas really, the whole focus on ‘soft religion’ is a thinly-veiled corrective about how people should think and behave in public. Faith: Harris says it has to go since you can’t trust people who’ve got it; Husain worries it makes people do bad things.

Talking about meditation makes sense as it has a double appeal: it’s open to all and it’s harmless. And here, meditation – or mysticism – is about more than the dictum ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, since it has a specific method and focus of inquiry apart from getting cross-legged and analytic on your ass. There’s a disturbing context at play, as Harris gives way to popular anti-Western East-fetishism when he says we’re ‘conceptually inequipped’ to deal with staple mystic Buddhist expositions on consciousness, and this orientation toward the mystical is fast becoming trendy. The broad premise of a series recently on BBC2 for instance, Extreme Pilgrim, is that we in the West must turn to the east to reclaim our notion of spirituality and sense of meaning, since losing it is the price we pay for economic development, greater choice and perverting the divine music of the spheres.

A search for meaning is certainly important and it helps to have faith, but truncating what faith is meant to be cuts off any deeper value to be had from truly believing in anything. It makes faith out to be a matter of sexless belief, valued for the personal benefits it brings rather than for what it’s faith in. Not to say that mysticism doesn’t have benefits: it can constitute some of the wonder of being alive. But imagining this will bring existential comfort and that’s all we can ask for whilst saving us from the Sisyphean frustrations of the daily grind, shows more a lack of clear ideas about where Western liberalism will lead us and infuriation with diminishing political subjectivity.

And in ejecting religious faith from the public sphere, what the brothers H really want to avoid is the idea faith might play a role in politics. Taking a position perhaps too easily diagnosed as postmodern nihilism, they seem to think any ambitious forward-looking project will end in disaster. Both have seen it – they know – and rather than see us make the same mistakes they warn us away from Getting Ideas: if we want to change the world we would be better off tackling problems one by one by using tried and tested methods, or else tweaking ourselves. Change should come at the mystical level of ideas where they’re safely divorced from everything else, and the final word of both books is across-the-board-or-I’ll-eat-my-hat against faith doing any work in public debate. For we have sinned.

As if faith was the nub of all our problems so we should all take a reason steam bath and the world will come smelling up roses. But the interaction between faith and reason is boringly more complex. For example, inductive reasoning – used in scientific methodology and the way we navigate the world – is said by many to have no underpinning in deductive logic and doesn’t conform to easy-reading models of rationality. To think beliefs can be separated like goats and sheep into irrational faith-based ones and rational evidence-based ones is a bit reckless, since what’s rational depends on contextual factors. And it further seems right that just as the non-religious shouldn’t have a monopoly over acting reasonably, it’s wrong for the religious to monopolise having faith in things. And before you say it, the question of whether a gob of beliefs amount to a faith – secular or otherwise – is much less interesting than what these beliefs themselves are, and whether we should believe them. Rather than focusing on people’s intentions or motivations it would be much more productive to look at what they’re trying to achieve and go from there. And more to the point, the contemporary vogue of blacklisting ideas characterised in religious terms at the cost of trying to understand their potency smacks of the petty-authoritarianism of the ‘new Enlightenment’ wave. Why try to anaesthetise a generation already accused of nihilistic, selfish indulgence by giving us a lobotomised idea of what faith – in things like human beings at the very least – can really do?

But leering under the surface of both these texts is a fear of ideology, of anything with a utopian tinge, and a tendency to merge having ideals with both these things. Harris refuses to recognise the rational life as an ideal itself: rather than looking at beliefs one by one and vetting them for how rational they are, he would be better settling for rationality as a bearer of value and cornerstone of a broader world-view. Rationality and the ideals of the Enlightenment should be championed, but not as something ‘inherited’ that put us in slavish relation to the past. The worth of a fully rational society isn’t given its due once rationality is wielded like a wily weapon by the few against the many, and the fact shared agreement is key to the whole shebang is shoved under the carpet in the face of dumbed down public debate. Harris is right when he points out being rational doesn’t mean not being able to fall in love or have ‘experiences’, but he goes too far in claiming a monopoly on rational action for us ‘the worthy’ in his attack on all those silly faith-heads.

And the upshot of all this is a tendency to romanticise Reason itself - as if a thinly-defined reason alone can save us and set us free so long as we give ourselves over to its transformative power. Of course this is kind of right, but even then can never be the whole story: deciding to be reasonable and rational is one thing, collectively coming to conclusions and implementing decisions another. The answer to the question of why we’ve done something must be more than the bald ‘because the evidence told me to’.

Rather than the rise in mysticism being a Romantic reaction against the New Atheists, or even a straightforward response to the dissatisfactions generated by a perceived all-pervasive consumerism and capitalism, it seems to come more from the Romantic focus on the rational life pushed by those clamouring for people to take notice of their emaciated version of rationality. It’s a crowd-puller that attracts anybody not looking to make too much of a commitment and it ties in with the trend: look inside rather than out, don’t under any circumstances get your hands dirty, avoid contamination with vain ideals for you shalt be disappointed. And don’t under any circumstances entertain faith of any kind in the hallowed halls of reason. It’s a half-way house for those who want more rational thinking about the place, but also want a sense of spirituality or deeper meaning, which mysticism is seen to deliver through its links with tradition and the pseudo-ideology of self-transcendence. Not that romanticising is in itself bad, but maybe there are better things to romanticise if that’s your thing, and there are better reasons to be rational than a vague feeling of attraction to the image. Faith can and does play a role in the rational life, which allows it to do more than make us feel a bit better. If it comes to it, content is more important than form. And being rational is nothing to the cause without a broader framework that says something about what we really have faith in. Ohm-ing is only the easy bit.

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