Tuesday, January 29, 2008


dissent magazine, issue 70, winter 2008in the latest issue of dissent (print-only), avishai margalit makes a most intelligent and articulate refutation of the kind of "new atheism" pitched by sam harris. it is not his direct intent, though, which is to explain the dynamics of sectarianism -- a tool that can help us how christian and islamic fundamentalisms alike are dangerous without drawing moral equivalents between the two or throwing the baby of faith out with the bathwater of religion altogether.

sam harris, the end of faithlet me back up by explaining my sense of the critique of belief registered by sam harris (in this book the end of faith). i'm getting this not from the book itself, which i have not finished yet, but from a c-span broadcast of a lecture he gave on his book tour. the argument goes something like this: faith exists completely outside the boundaries and conventions of rational thought, evidence and argument; as such, we treat it in special ways that it does not really deserve, e.g. we tolerate almost anything if it rests on the grounds of faith. this kind of deferential treatment to matters of faith is doing great harm to us as a species and may end up getting all of us killed in the religious wars we are increasingly seeing. and it's not just the extremists who are to blame; people of modest or moderate religious faith are just as much to blame for their toleration of extremists or thinking that extermists can somehow be talked out of their extremism. conflicting religious beliefs can only end in the elimination of opposing dogmas. we should all, for the salvation of the species, simply give up our faiths, which will one day seems as quaint as all primitive deities, a flat earth and a geocentric universe seem now.

avishai margalitmargalit's analysis begins by distinguishing two lenses through which politics can be viewed: market economics, in which infinitely interchangeable commodities only have value in relation to each other and not inherently; and politics, in which sacrifice is more important than satisfaction, and has an overarching sense of what is needed for the collective good and the individual's duty toward that collective good. he continues,
Most of us see both pictures of politics. We have a stereoscopic political perception, recognizing that some aspects of politics are better covered by the first picture, while other aspects are better covered by the second. In a time of war and crisis, the religious picture may have the upper hand in making sense of politics. In a time of business as usual, the economic picture has the upper hand. But there are people who lack stereoscopic vision--the perception of depth that comes from the use of both eyes--and they look at the political world with one eye, and one eye only.
two implict and important critiques of the harris position are already registered. first, a plurality of views is not only needed, but indispensable. one cannot simply jettison faith as a category of experience (which harris probably would not deny) or judgment (which is what i think harris wants to eliminate).

second, faith itself is not the problem; sectarianism is the problem. and it is not exclusive to those of a professed religious belief: mao for example was an atheistic sectarianist who nevertheless clung to his dogma with a religious fervor. margalit is still more precise:
Sectarianism in politics is an extreme case of viewing politics with one eye--the eye of politics as religion. [...] Sectarianism is a mode of operation and a state of mind. The operation is that of splitting the party rather than splitting the difference. The state of mind is that of keeping your principled position uncompromised, come what may.
in short: no compromise of principles, my way or the highway, with us or against us. margalit then proceeds with some additional characterizations of sectarianism.

1) strength in small numbers: sects are not interested in democracy. polls and surveys do not matter, nor does having a sizable numbers in one's ranks. sectarians are an embittered minority and a vanguard. while missionary zeal is not out of the question, it cannot happen at the expense of principles.

2) the difference is everything, no matter how small: to the uninitiated, sectarian principles may be drawn over very faint lines. (what christians can fully explain the historical split between shia and sunni muslims? few i think.) but those differences are indeed the basis for rigorously maintained and defended principles.

3) it's all black and white: otherwise known as manichianism. there are no grey areas. but this can also fuel the siege mentality: there are no trivial contests, every fight is a fight to the death.

4) purity: not just of one's own principles, but the logical contrary which is the complete defilement characterizing opposing principles. any intermingling pollutes and taints that which must be kept pure. as margalit puts it with zizekian aplomb: "Shit is the negation of the pure. The sectarian craves life without shit. Compromise is part and parcel of the shitty world."

the piece goes on to do other things -- distinguish sectarianism from sectorialism, for example, and weight the latter's relation to social democracy -- against the real backdrop of the israeli-palestinian dispute, but i find the above analysis especially useful. margalit's clarity and examples throughout are commendable. contact me if you are interested in reading the entire piece.

1 comment:

mark wallace said...

Fascinating material. It's certainly true that it's possible to have faith without sectarianism. But I'm not sure about the other way: sectarianism does require faith, I think. It doesn't have to be faith in religion automatically, but it has to be a faith, or belief if one wants a broader term, that eliminates the possibility of any kind of counterargument. Sectarianism requires the feeling that a certain belief or set of beliefs may not be questioned. Religion certainly doesn't require an authoritarian viewpoint, but it's nonetheless implicated in the history of such authoritarianism. What percentage of the world's religious people are also authoritarian would be interesting to know.