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Love Begins at the Nerve Endings

By Max Dunbar.

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Sam Harris, Transworld 2011

In a line perhaps meant to come off as piercing insight, but instead just sounds insipid, Giles Fraser declared that ‘it is not so much that I disagree with Harris. Rather, I am scared of him… his complete lack of ambiguity, his absolute clarity of vision, his refusal of humour or self-criticism, his unrelenting seriousness.’ The Canon Chancellor’s review of this book by a neuroscientist and atheist is predictable in every sense: you could have written the piece blind and got the exact tone and argument if not the verbatim article. Fraser continues: ‘I fear Harris in just the same way I fear evangelical Christians, to whom he looks so similar. Like them, he is in no doubt about his faith. Like them, he has his devoted followers. Like them, he wants to convert the world.’ Then, a final rhetorical pout: ‘Well, I’m sorry. I am not a believer.’

In this, Fraser is a man of his time as well as of his church. Harris points out in an aside that New Atheism was an aberration. ‘There is now a large and growing literature – spanning dozens of books and hundreds of articles – attacking Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and me (the so-called New Atheists) for our alleged incivility, bias, and ignorance of how ‘sophisticated’ believers practice their faith.’ Intellectual discourse is dominated by a smug and diffuse pro-faith advocacy, reinforced by dozens of pseudo-liberal pundits – Madeleine Bunting, Andrew Brown, Sholto Byrnes, Terry Eagleton, John Gray, Karen Armstrong, Mark Vernon, Bryan Appleyard – who differ from the evangelical shriekers on the Tory press only in degree. Their favourite cliche about atheists is that we are just the mirror image of the fundamentalists we profess to despise. Only they don’t oppose fundamentalists: in fact the bores and charlatans on Comment is Free can be relied upon to defend the very worst in religious behaviour, from Islamic suicide bombers to Catholic child rapists.

You can understand how the left fell in love with religion. There is a longing for a more ‘spiritual’ alternative to our nasty godless materialist society with its wars and recessions and reality TV. The fashion has a historical echo in the Western anthropologists of the 1920s and 1930s, who ‘exaggerated the harmony of folk societies and ignored their all too frequent barbarism or reflexively attributed it to the malign influence of colonialists, traders, missionaries and the like.’ The parallels with the Western intellectual approach to Third World religious traditions are too obvious to be laboured.

There’s a lot to be said for the anti-imperialist analysis of Margaret Mead and Franz Boas – the crimes of the British Empire still reverberate today – but it took away the human element: how does it feel for the Aztec child on the block? Does the Aztec child not bleed? Harris uses a passage from the anthropologist Donald Symons to underline the cruelty and absurdity: ‘If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished.’ But if a million people do such things – it becomes culture!

When it comes to morality the human species has a huge advantage – we know what we’re aiming for. The big truth is already obvious, we know that we should not kill, or steal, that we should try and make life good for others as well as ourselves. We don’t look down on animals for eating each other – it’s nature’s way, we say – but in the human morality is hardwired and absolute. (And even animals will risk their lives to protect their children, dogs and cats have been known to demonstrate empathy for a human in pain, and Harris can list examples of moral recognition in mice and monkeys.)

What Fraser dismisses as ‘reheated utilitarianism’ is an attempt to bring morality off the altar and back to the nerve endings. Harris poses the vital question of moral philosophy: what do you want for people and why? Put this way, if I wrote that ‘I don’t give a fuck whether most people live or die’ you would probably think I was a typical hipster misanthrope. If I told you that ‘I want everyone, except me, to live in a state of constant suffering. The idea of this gives me a great deal of pleasure and amusement’ you’d probably think I was Ian Brady, who recently told a forensic criminologist that ‘I wish this place and this country and this world ill.’ What do you want for others?

At the very least, you want them to have clean drinking water, a warm place to sleep when it gets cold and a reasonable chance of avoiding predatory diseases: you would probably also want to give everyone a reasonable chance of finding love, happiness and fulfillment. That we feel this is down to imaginative empathy, the nerve endings of the heart. From that empathy we derive compassion, and morality, and ultimately civilisation. All this comes from the involuntary wince, the suck of air through teeth, when we see another man kicked in the balls.

Religion severs the nerve endings of imaginative empathy. It allows people to think they can break the rules, that ‘We should not kill, in general – but I am allowed to kill, even obliged, because I believe in the right god.’ Rather than help us develop an absolute morality, religion subverts it because its ideas prioritise the law of God over the needs, desires, flesh and blood of actual living human beings. It also holds that life is a mere prelude to death. So what happens to human beings in such transitory existence hardly matters.

This is why religious campaigners in secular countries write angry letters about social issues like gay adoption rather than, say, the housing crisis or the victims of civil war. Outside the protective umbrella of pluralism, these campaigners have more power and can deal with gay people in more direct ways – and not just gay people but women, freethinkers and the wrong kind of coreligionists. British atheists should thank the god of small things that we live in a country where we just get patronised and sneered at rather than tortured and murdered for our heresy.

It’s a central tenet of the pro-faith consensus that there is nowhere religion shouldn’t go and nowhere that its influence will be anything but benign. The idea is that science can take care of high-speed broadband while faith addresses the metaphysical needs; this is why atheists are generally thought of as soulless, as if you have to believe in ancient propaganda to fall in love with someone or enjoy a poem or be touched by the evening slant of summer light. So intelligent people waste their time in long debates in whether science and religion can complement each other (the answer is always ‘yes’) governments commit tranches of public money to promote all faiths except none to a confused electorate and the Templeton foundation gives out millions to scientists who can tick the pro-faith boxes and jump the pro-faith hoops. For Harris this mad dance reached its height of unreality with the presidential appointment of Dr Francis Collins, who says he can ‘demonstrate a ‘consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony’ between twenty-first century science and evangelical Christianity.’ 

In his bestseller, The Language of God, Collins writes that he had experienced doubts about the existence of God until he read the classic passage from children’s author C S Lewis about the divinity of Jesus: ‘A man who was merely a man and said the sort of thing Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says He is a poached egg – or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.’ If someone claims to be the son of God, it must be so, and Collins stepped out of the magic wardrobe convinced he was ‘being called to account… I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.’ Harris finished The Language of God with a sense ‘that I had witnessed an intellectual suicide’:

It is, however, a suicide that has gone almost entirely unacknowledged: The body yielded to the rope; the neck snapped; the breath subsided; and the corpse dangles in ghastly discomposure even now – and yet polite people everywhere continue to celebrate the great man’s health.

But intellectual life is a Jonestown of suicides. Twenty-first century religious advocacy is like Marxism without the recantations. Here we have a system that claims to guarantee absolute morality and happiness, and yet every time it’s been implemented it has produced mountains of corpses. Incredibly, the Arab uprisings have not dented the contemporary assumption that what people need more than anything is faith-based societies. Such assumptions have to be challenged, or humanity’s journey through the twenty first century will be down the same old sorry road of human bones.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 25th, 2011.