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Michelle Nguyen
Sarah Eltantawi
RELI E-1010/W
28 April 2011

Essay 4 – Religion, Rationality, and Violence

Part I Although Sam Harris has written that the primary purpose of Letter to a Christian

Nation is “to arm secularists in [American] society, who believe that religion should be

kept out of public policy, against their opponents on the Christian Right” (viii), his

approach reveals a more radical set of commitments. In less than 100 pages he presents a

set of lean arguments meant to discredit not only the moral authority of the Abrahamic

traditions, but also to abolish the legitimacy of all faith-based discourse, which he sees as

violently divisive, wholly incompatible with rational inquiry, and obstructive to modern


1) Harris argues that so long as there are “better and worse ways to seek happiness

in this world”, a universal standard of morality can be ascertained without the need for a

lawgiving God, since knowledge of the “psychological laws that govern human well-being”

would provide a more enduring basis for an objective morality than scripture (23-24). The

premise is that religions value happiness and human well-being insufficiently because they

tend to “divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering” (25). Harris cites

Christians who oppose abortion more vigorously than genocide as one example of moral

concern gravely misplaced (25).

2) Harris argues that competing religious doctrines have divided up the world into

separate moral communities, resulting in a continual source of conflict (79). He claims that

religion is a more powerful motivating factor than tribalism, racism, or politics because “it

is the only form of in-group/out-group thinking that casts the differences between people

in terms of eternal rewards and punishments” (80). His evidence is a list of tragedies

where countless murders have been committed in the name of religion, including
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Palestine, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Sudan, Nigeria, and many others. In an

effort to counter those who would attribute religious violence to a “lack of education, [to]

poverty, or [to] politics”, Harris describes the September 11 hijackers as “college-

educated, middle-class people who had no discernible experience of political oppression”

(82). For Harris, Islam is to blame for having nursed their hatred of infidels and inspired

romantic visions of martyrdom.

3) Harris argues that religious tolerance, while preferable to religious war, has not

been without its pitfalls, namely that religious ideas such as a belief in God and Paradise

are protected against criticism instead of being rejected as incompatible with scientific

rationality, which Harris seems to hold as the only reliable determinant of what a “viable,

global civilization” should look like (80). Furthermore, he deems attempts at interfaith

dialogue as largely ineffectual, since there can be no reconciliation between worldviews

that are “fundamentally incompatible and, in principle, immune to revision” (86-87). Here

his evidence is the certainty with which people of faith believe their “religion is perfect and

that any deviation leads to hell” (86).

Part II Returning to Harris’ first claim, his belief that religion does little to contribute

to human well-being due to its tendency to frame moral questions as separate from the

reality of suffering is not supported by Harris’ own example of Christian opposition to

abortion. What he thinks is a serious misunderstanding of what should constitute a moral

priority is one that nevertheless affects millions of American women each year and hits

very close to home. Genocide, on the other hand, is usually happening in far-off countries,

which makes it more difficult to sensitize anyone to such issues, not only religious people

who might be pushing other agendas. In any case, if Harris’ views on abortion could be

deduced, he would probably fault Christian “pro-lifers” for imagining that they are

preventing the murder of innocents on the basis of the religiously-grounded belief that life
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begins at conception when in fact they are inflicting suffering on women who are unready

for motherhood, curtailing their rights to exercise control over their own bodies, and

turning a blind eye to matters of greater importance. This, however, would be a caricature,

for Christian responses can and have been varied.

For example, in 1990 the Reverend Terry Hamilton gave a sermon on the need for

the church to face the issue of abortion “in a distinctly Christian manner”, which meant

dropping the political banners of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” and reframing the issue

“around God's call to care for the least among us whom Jesus calls his sisters and

brothers”, a reference to Matthew 25:31-46. Hamilton pointed out that the Gospels

favored women and children, with the one oppressed and the other powerless, stressing

the responsibility of the Christian community to care for both rather than pitting these two

groups as enemies of one another in a battle over rights. Her stories were about how

members of a Methodist and Roman Catholic Church acted together to support two

women who would otherwise have had much difficulty in raising a child alone. Professor

Stanley Hauerwas, who teaches theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, contributed to

the reflection by addressing the problem of male promiscuity and arguing that the church

must also hold men responsible for their progeny and sexual power. Thus, although this

particular response to abortion was not framed in reference to human suffering or to its

alleviation, neither was it insensitive to it, for it went beyond condemning abortion as

“wrong” to how Christians should act in such situations as to honor their communal

obligations. Hamilton and Hauerwas spoke of the importance of care and responsibility in

the name of a distinctively Christian morality, and though Harris would argue that one can

be just as caring and responsible without believing in an all-powerful, all-loving God, it

seems foolish to dogmatically insist that religion has no potential worth exploring when it

comes to the question of how to build strong, nurturing communities.

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Harris’ second claim, however, is more problematic than the first. Is it true that

religions merely retrace the boundaries of tribalism, racism, and politics only to bloody

them under the guise of sanctity? It would be impossible to analyze here all of the cases

that Harris cites, but suffice it to say that human conflict is rarely reducible to a single, or

even primary, cause. Nevertheless, especially after the September 11 attacks, even

educated lay people like Harris increasingly perceive Islam as an inherently violent religion

that breeds terrorists, oppresses women, and fans the flames for anti-Western sentiment.

Rarely is its rich history considered in conjunction with the deep and complex problems

that the Muslim world now faces as it struggles, unevenly, with the demands and

pressures of globalization. Bassam Tibi, a political scientist originally from Syria but now

living in Germany, warns against confounding Islam as a religion with Islamism as a

fundamentalist ideology of political Islam. One need only consider how the term jihad is

employed in different contexts to recognize Harris’ vision of an essentialized Islam as

naïve and unhelpful.

Jihad means ‘struggle’, or striving, and it can refer to both armed and unarmed

forms. When the Prophet Mohammed engaged in jihad against the Meccans, he did so not

out of desire for worldly power, wealth, or prestige but in order to defend the faithful of

the Medina and to follow the Path of God. Rabia Terri Harris claims that it was his

commitment to the Greater Struggle, “the inward effort of confronting our lower nature”

that enabled him to succeed in the Lesser Struggle—“the outward effort of confronting

social injustice” (95). Mary Pat Fischer describes this lesser jihad as “the safeguarding of

one’s life, faith, livelihood, honor, and the integrity of the Muslim community” (428), but

she also writes that jihadis are never allowed to harm women, children, or unarmed

civilians and insists that terrorist tactics are not permitted by the Qur’an.
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What, then, legitimates Al-Qaeda’s use of jihad to justify suicide operations against

‘infidels’ (mainly Westerners) and ‘apostates’ (moderate Muslims and Arabs)? Assaf

Moghadam suggests that “Salafi Jihad” is best thought of as a religious ideology in that its

beliefs are more akin to modern political ideologies than to a religion even though it

invokes religion and claims to act on its behalf (46). He contrasts religion and ideology to

the extent that the former “focuses on maximizing individual benefit through group

participation” while the latter is “intent on maximizing group benefit through individual

participation” (48). As with other totalitarian ideologies, the individual is submerged and

defined solely by his relation to the group, which demands complete control over the

thoughts, words, and deeds of its adherents. Yet it should be stressed that anyone who

believes Al-Qaeda’s claims that their version of Islam is definitive has not only forgotten

history but sprinkled salt onto a festering wound—other voices within the Muslim world

that deserve to be heard are then drowned out by fear and hatred.

Tolerance has its pitfalls not only because it shields religious communities from

criticism but also because it allows some of them to avoid interacting with each other. Any

truly global culture must be the collaborative creation of a global constituency, and this is

the major contribution of interfaith dialogue—it attempts to transform the nature of

religious conversation to one of exchange, respect, and mutual concern. Pluralism aims for

open, committed discussion and engagement to the creation of a common civil society as

achieved through the acknowledgement of differences, not through agreement or

uniformity. Harris’ hasty conclusions about entire communities of faith unfortunately

undermine his own wishes for social harmony.

Part III Perhaps the most difficult part about combating violent instincts and

reactions is that it is nearly impossible to do so on a purely intellectual level. A person

could be entirely committed to the idea of peace and loving one’s enemies yet feel
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overpowered by negative thoughts and feelings whenever she encounters those who have

hurt or wronged her. This is where it is helpful to have not only teachings but also

techniques for developing awareness and self-mastery over one’s emotional states.

Though different kinds of meditation have been practiced by followers of all the world’s

major religions since antiquity, the Buddhist tradition is a particularly rich resource in

mind-transforming practices. For example, it has given us lovingkindness meditation

(metta bhavana), which Christopher Queen describes as the practice of “cultivating

goodwill toward oneself and others” by focusing loving attention on one’s being and

repeating the phrases “May I be free from enmity, May I be free from ill will, May I be free

from distress, May I keep myself happy” before directing these same wishes toward

someone who is beloved, then someone who is dear, then someone who is neutral or

unknown, and then finally to someone who is repellent (30). The mind becomes suppler

and less attached to rigid categories. This practice, so simple to learn, could be easily

accepted by people of all backgrounds because there is no belief or religious dogma


However, for those who wish to delve deeper, Buddhism offers another technique

called Vipassana, or Insight meditation, whose ultimate goal is to purify the mind of

hatred, greed, ego, and delusion. It teaches that by learning to observe one’s subtlest

sensations and developing complete equanimity to them, one can experience the truths of

mind and matter and liberate oneself from suffering. This technique has been practiced

successfully by people coming from many different faiths, but it is not suited for everyone

for it requires a good deal of discipline, at least ten consecutive days in order to learn it,

and the willingness to follow a specific code of conduct during the course, which includes

abstaining from engaging in prayer, ritual, and other meditation techniques. Yet those who
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persevere witness the gradual transformation of aggressive behavior into productive

action and tumultuous internal states into a sense of loving peace.

Works Cited

Assaf Moghadam. The Globalization of Martyrdom: Al Qaeda, Salafi Jihad, and the diffusion
of Suicide

Attacks. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Barram Tibi. The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder.

University of California Press, 1998, 2002.

Christopher S. Queen. “The Peace Wheel: Nonviolent Activism in the Buddhist Tradition”.

Hatred. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1998

Mary Pat Fischer. Living Religions. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010.

Rabia Terri Harris. “Nonviolence in Islam: The Alternative Community Tradition”.

Subverting Hatred.

Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1998. p.95

Sam Harris. Letter to a Christian Nation, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Terry Hamilton, Stanley Hauerwas. “Abortion, Theologically Understood”.

<> Last Accessed 1 May 2011.