Posted by: Harold Knight | 06/16/2011

Choose your own fundamentalism – Atheist or Christian, American or Iranian

One should not, I tell my students, begin a piece of writing with a quotation; however, I don’t how to begin what I want to say without simply jumping in.

Moral progress is unmistakable, he believes, at least in “the developed world.” His chief example is how far “we” have moved beyond racism. . .  Ultimately his claims for moral progress range more widely, as he reports that “we” in “the developed world” are increasingly “disturbed by our capacity to do one another harm.” What planet does this man live on? Besides our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, “we” in the United States are engaged in a massive retreat from. . . any notion that we have a responsibility to one another or to a larger public good that transcends private gain (1).

The “he” to whom Lears refers is Sam Harris, neuroscientist and Poster Child for a virulent fundamentalist “atheism” that feeds into the neo-con view of the world. I expect Sam Harris to show up at one of the seminars at the new Bush library and propaganda factory and announce, with Dick Cheney at his side nodding in approval, “Given recent developments in biology, we are now poised to consciously engineer our further evolution” (2).

Logically, on the other side nodding in approval would be Mark Lilla, professor of the humanities at Columbia University. Professor Lilla, I suspect, would be bemused if not downright hostile to my placing him in company with Cheney and Harris. I’m not enough of a philosopher (or thinker of any kind) to ferret all of this out (3), but it seems to my limited vision the three have in common at least one foundational idea.

Harris says “Moral progress is unmistakable” in the “developed world.” That is, by his reckoning, in the non-Islamic world. We, the highly evolved and developed folk are “disturbed by our capacity to do one another harm” while those less developed folk in the parts of the world where Islam is the dominant faith are not disturbed by that capacity. However, I cannot reconcile Harris’ contention that we are disturbed at doing one another harm with his understanding that “torture is just another form of collateral damage in the ‘war on terror’— regrettable, maybe, but a necessary price to pay in the crucial effort to save Western civilization from the threat of radical Islam” (4).

We have other choices, of course. Torture and war are not the only possibilities for living on the same planet with Islam.

It is an unfortunate situation, but we have made our bed, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Accommodation and mutual respect can help, as can clear rules governing areas of tension, like the status of women, parents’ rights over their children . . . standards of dress in public institutions and the like . . . we need to recognize that coping is the order of the day, not defending high principle, and that our expectations should remain low. So long as a sizable population believes in the truth of a comprehensive political theology, its full reconciliation with modem liberal democracy cannot be expected (5).

So, like Sam Harris, Professor Lilla understands the world to be divided between “liberal democracy” and the world of a “political theology.” And it is apparently the given that the latter world needs somehow to “reconcile” itself with the former. Until that happens, those of us living in “liberal democracies” must learn to “cope.”

Lilla’s argument is based on his clear and concise (and, I have to assume, accurate) synopsis of the history of what he calls “The Great Separation” between religion and politics. His discussion begins with Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, moves through Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century and comes to rest in the 20th century. He describes the evolution of the idea of The Great Separation and the constant balance between religion and politics which collapsed with the Protestant embrace of Nazism in Weimar where “we encounter what those orthodox traditions always dreaded: the translation of religious notions of apocalypse and redemption into a justification of political messianism. . .” (6).

His purpose in explaining this translation is to explain that we see this same kind of political messianism “now under frightening modern conditions,” that is, under fundamentalist Islam. He finds the writings of Islamic “renewers” such as the Swiss-born grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tariq Ramadan, to be as dangerous as Islamic fundamentalists. He says that

when liberalizing reformers try to conform to the present, they inspire a countervailing and far more passionate longing for redemption in the messianic future. That is what happened in Weimar Germany and is happening again in contemporary Islam (7).

His analysis of the relationship of western “liberal democracies” to the Islamic world is not far distant from Sam Harris’. He concludes his warning about the difficulty of engaging constructively with “the opposite shore,” as he calls Islamic societies, by asserting that we “have little reason to expect societies in the grip of a powerful political theology to follow our unusual path” because those societies may “lack the wherewithal to create a decent and workable political order” (8).

He has described previously described our “decent and workable political order” as the result of our “strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks” (whatever they are). He claims the reason “political theology” has never challenged our system is that, even though “Americans have potentially explosive religious differences over” many social issues, we “generally settle them within the bounds of the Constitution.”

For some of us it is not so clear that we are not living in an age of “political theology.” The Texas State Board of Education has systematically adopted public school textbook language that substitutes sectarian views for science. Californians, with political organization and money in great quantities from Mormon sources in Utah, passed Proposition 8. The rush to pass ever more restrictive legislation about abortion continues unabated in state legislatures. Several states have recently passed legislation designed to prevent Sharia law from ever being used (against a non-existent threat, one should add). All of these, and many more, are purely religious issues, now being settled by political theology.

Library or propaganda

Library or propaganda

However, religion, whether Christianity or Islam or any other, is not the problem facing Americans. The “retreat. . . from responsibility to one another or to a larger public good” Lears speaks of has nothing to do with atheism or religion. Fundamentalists of all stripes—atheist or Christian or Muslim or anyone else—seem not to be concerned that the “dominant religion of our time is the worship of money, and the dominant ethic is ‘To hell with you and hooray for me’” (9). Perhaps the real fundamentalists are Wall Street bankers.

When Sam Harris begins to raise issues of basic morality and decency—aside from any religious connotation or absence thereof—I’ll listen to him. I’d like to find an atheist with something to say other than denunciations of religion(s), denunciations that support the neo-con hegemonic agenda.
(1) Lears, Jackson. “Same Old New Atheism.” Nation 292.20 (2011): 27-34.
(2) Lears 34.
I am not being self-effacing or disingenuous when I make statements like this. I truly am aware of my limited knowledge and my intellectual limitations. I believe, however, that I am in a now life-long process of trying to understand important ideas, and I have carefully chosen articles for this writing that present very different views. I welcome comments and reactions, pro or con.
(4) Lears 33.
(5) Lilla, Mark. “The Politics of God.” Current 497 (2007): 15-23.
(6) Lilla 21
(7) and (8) Lilla passim.
(9) Lears 34.


  1. […] are equally dangerous to true freedom it appears. However, the religious fundamentalists are on the ascendancy (most likely they have […]



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