Jackson Lears, a perceptive student of American cultural history, a history professor at Rutgers, and the editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review, has a piece up at The Nation offering his thoughts about Sam Harris and the so-called “New Atheism.” He is not impressed.
To define science as the source of absolute truth, Harris must first ignore the messy realities of power in the world of Big Science. In his books there is no discussion of the involvement of scientists in the military-industrial complex or in the pharmacological pursuit of profit. Nor is any attention paid to the ways that chance, careerism and intellectual fashion can shape research: how they can skew data, promote the publication of some results and consign others to obscurity, channel financial support or choke it off. Rather than provide a thorough evaluation of evidence, Harris is given to sweeping, unsupported generalizations. His idea of an argument about religious fanaticism is to string together random citations from the Koran or the Bible. His books display a stunning ignorance of history, including the history of science. For a man supposedly committed to the rational defense of science, Harris is remarkably casual about putting a thumb on the scale in his arguments.
If we evaluate those arguments according to their resonance with public policy debates, the results are sobering. Harris’s convictions reveal his comfortable cohabitation with imperial power. From him we learn, among other things, 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. We also learn that pacifism, despite its (allegedly) high moral standing, is “immoral” because it leaves us vulnerable to “the world’s thugs.” As in the golden age of positivism, a notion of sovereign science is enlisted in the service of empire. Harris dispenses with the Christian rhetoric of his imperialist predecessors but not with their rationalizations for state-sponsored violence. Posing as a renegade on the cutting edge of scientific research and moral enlightenment, Harris turns out to be one of the bright young men who want to go back to 1910…
Read the entire piece click here.
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