How to Blame Poor People For the World’s Problems

A couple of weeks ago, Sam Harris — standard-bearer for New Atheism, advocate of science-based morality — gave an interview to the New Statesman. Here’s an exchange from that interview:

NS: Richard Dawkins wrote a piece for the New Statesman at Christmas praising the King James Bible precisely as a work of literature.

SH: And we would have no problem if everyone read these books the way we all read Shakespeare. There are no wars being fought over rival interpretations of King Lear.

The implication is clear — as Harris sees it, the salient distinction between scripture and literature is that people take scripture to heart. It has a kind of meaning to them that propels them to action. Literature, by contrast, is benign — something pretty which we can appreciate for its prettiness but from which we, as political animals who act in the world, are removed. This sentiment underlies the Dawkins piece too, which highlights particularly familiar and elegant passages from the King James, but says nothing of substance about what makes them powerful or beautiful — he praises in the negative: Ecclesiastes appeals at least in part because it’s “hardly religious at all.”

This pattern of thought is one that sees science as much more than a method for seeking scientific truths about the natural world, but as a model for a way of approaching being. Within this framework, aesthetic and normative truths — which are experienced by what they think of as the subjective individual — are subordinated to the empirically objective, and ought to be cast off the moment they impede the pursuit of empirically objective truth.

Within the scientific disciplines (as well as those disciplines, like much of economics, that would ape it) an accusation of non-objectivity is equivalent to a denial of validity. What is objective, is. What “isn’t,” if it motivates any kind of social action, ought to be flushed along with all the religious bullshit. This works within science, but as a way of approaching life, not so much. It’s fundamentally in conflict with reality as we experience it.

Think, for example, about what “is” outside of the present tense — take the infinitive: what it is to “be.” Plenty of things that can be said to “be,” can’t be said to “be” in the present simple (the tense in which the empirical functions).

We’ve known about this issue with the empirical for thousands of years, but somehow the Harrises of the world forget (maybe because what “was” can’t be said to be what “is” and therefore must be religious bullshit?) Here’s Plato writing two and a half millenia ago about what it is for a thing to be:

Socrates: Let us take any common instance; there are beds and tables in the world — plenty of them, are there not?

Glaucon: Yes.

S: But there are only two ideas or forms of them — one the idea of a bed, the other of a table.

G: True.

S: And the maker of either of them makes a bed or he makes a table for our use, in accordance with the idea — that is our way of speaking in this and similar instances — but no artificer makes the ideas themselves: how could he?

G: Impossible.

S: And there is another artist, — I should like to know what you would say of him.

G: Who is he?

S: One who is the maker of all the works of all other workmen.

G: What an extraordinary man!

S: Wait a little, and there will be more reason for your saying so. For this is he who is able to make not only vessels of every kind, but plants and animals, himself and all other things — the earth and heaven, and the things which are in heaven or under the earth; he makes the gods also.

G: He must be a wizard and no mistake.

S: Oh! you are incredulous, are you? Do you mean that there is no such maker or creator, or that in one sense there might be a maker of all these things but in another not? Do you see that there is a way in which you could make them all yourself?

G: What way?

S: An easy way enough; or rather, there are many ways in which the feat might be quickly and easily accomplished, none quicker than that of turning a mirror round and round — you would soon enough make the sun and the heavens, and the earth and yourself, and other animals and plants, and all the other things of which we were just now speaking, in the mirror.

G: Yes, he said; but they would be appearances only.

S: Very good, I said, you are coming to the point now. And the painter too is, as I conceive, just such another — a creator of appearances, is he not?

G: Of course.

S: But then I suppose you will say that what he creates is untrue. And yet there is a sense in which the painter also creates a bed?

G: Yes, he said, but not a real bed.

S: And what of the maker of the bed? were you not saying that he too makes, not the idea which, according to our view, is the essence of the bed, but only a particular bed?

G: Yes, I did.

S: Then if he does not make that which exists he cannot make true existence, but only some semblance of existence; and if any one were to say that the work of the maker of the bed, or of any other workman, has real existence, he could hardly be supposed to be speaking the truth.

G: At any rate, he replied, philosophers would say that he was not speaking the truth.

S: No wonder, then, that his work too is an indistinct expression of truth.

G: No wonder.

Check Out Ian McKellen As Gandalf In The Hobbit (Photo)Let’s similarly interrogate the fruits of our craft as authors of our own identities: When we describe our aspirations for ourselves to ourselves, is it not weird to call what we’re describing “true”? That I describe my future self as a happy old man with a long grey beard (basically, I want to be Gandalf) doesn’t make a factual happy old man with a long grey beard — either now or in the future (I could die in a car accident tomorrow). It doesn’t make a factual happy old man with a long grey beard any more than painting a happy old man with a long grey beard would. But it’s just as weird to call these aspirations/mind paintings false. Why? Because they’re not making a claim to objective factuality. But that doesn’t mean they’re making a claim to divine magic either. And they are motivating. They make me want to take action to set up my life to maximize the likelihood that I’ll be an old man who is happy and has a long grey beard. What can empiricism tell me about the validity or invalidity of that pursuit? I think it’s a safe bet to say at most very little, and likely nothing.


Let’s look at literature: Literature inspires us when and because it speaks to us about what it is to live as embodied beings in the world — beings able to interpret the past and project about the future, but beings also for whom the only real factuality is that of the present. Literature broadens our perspective as self-reflective beings. The abstracted, disinterested subjectivity people like Harris imagine themselves into blinds them to the incredible significance of this; of implication. And they’re happy to be blinded, but I’ll get back to that.

For people who don’t deny the validity of their own embodiment and implication, a poem can have incredible motivating power even without the kind of vulgar literalist claims to divine authority.

Which brings me to my point: one need not read the King James Bible as the literal word of an objectively extant (though unprovably so) magic GOD for it to have all kinds of implications for how we ought to live our lives and conduct our politics. Many of its claims fail to speak to our world (coming as they do from the completely differently structured social and technological worlds of the ancient Mid-East, filtered through the less different but still very different world of the King James’ 17th Century English authors), and I tend to think that those who claim to be inspired by these aspects in their beliefs are being disingenuous; that what’s really behind their actions against gay rights, for example, is a pre-rational conception of what’s normal and what’s not that’s cultivated from early childhood by parents, classmates, advertisers, and the content creators at the Family Channel. One need only try to engage these people in a serious discussion of what the text has to say about such issues to realize that their beliefs are hardly developed or made more profound by the text at all, their beliefs are just sanctioned by their association with it. Meanwhile, they happily disregard any number of other biblical rules that don’t so jive with their preconceptions.

But, there are many respects in which the human lifeworld hasn’t changed in the last several millennia. We still die. We still have to deal with other people who we can never really know who have varying degrees of power over us and over whom we have varying degrees of power. We’re still confronted with a universe that seems indifferent to us. We have to deal with the reality of a world and life containing cruelty and pain; etc. And it’s the wisdom it contains — the truths it articulates regarding these matters (e.g.) — that makes the Bible fundamentally compelling, so motivating for artists, writers, philosophers, and everyday people, and ultimately, I would claim, why it has remained so legitimately vital in human society for so long, despite its many many many misappropriations at the hands of power seekers.

I can’t help but feel a strong antipathy towards people who, like Sam Harris, would have us treat the source of some of the most elegant articulations of existential truth we have at our disposal as something benign. And although my antipathy is not so animated as to drive me to pick a war with Harris just yet, it might if he were in charge.

To distill the point: Scripture, like any literature, inflames because it speaks to us about the as-experienced (not objective!) facts of our lives. What supplies the fuel isn’t the text, — it’s the fact of injustice, unfathomability, pain. When it inflames politically, the fuel is the fact of injustice and pain being constituted by the social system — something over which, through politics, we can, if we dare, have some influence.

Texts that make claims to divine authority have particular power in the context of profound social injustice because those who would benefit from change have so little power to effect it (and so wish for a benevolent higher agent who does), while those who benefit from the status quo don’t want to accept the power or responsibility to change it (and so wish for another agent onto whom responsibility can be sloughed). The poor appeal to God in despair or because they’ve been distracted away from the real agents affecting the injustice shaping their lives. The rich appeal to God because they can so rarely deal with the fact of their implication by their economic privilege in the same injustice. Or maybe they go in the other direction and turn to extreme egotism, bending over backwards to pretend like because they’ve worked what they consider “hard,” they’ve earned their privileges for themselves, that the world is fair and luck had nothing to do with their success. Or they appeal to something else to distract themselves from their culpability. They, perhaps, devote themselves to denying the relevance of the moral agency of the embedded, embodied human subject. Maybe they come up with a way to indirectly blame poor people for the worlds problems. Maybe by elevating religious belief above systemic exploitation as the prime source of injustice in the world.

It’s because this kind of denial of reality is so pervasive and systematic that this Louis CK bit is so potent:

He’s articulating the morally pertinent detail of a major aspect of our lived reality stripped totally bare of rationalization — naked in a way such truths never are in our discourse, because they beg that we take action to resolve them, and confront us with how much we really really really don’t want to.

The fact is that the lives of both the privileged and the not are being warped by this injustice — in the case of the rich, either by the acceptance of culpability, or the extraordinary effort of abstracting away from reality to deny it. But propagating the denial of the pain of this injustice, — which is what Sam Harris, whether he realizes it or not, is doing with his distracting crusade, — won’t make it go away. And as Oscar Wilde pointed out, until that pain is resolved, the only kind of authentic, in-the-world individualism — the kind Kierkegaard meant on his tomb stone — will be one that is oriented towards, or at least by, this pain (why I think Louis C.K. is the maybe one of the ultimate individuals of our time).  He wrote about this from his perch at the end of the 19th Century — an era whose uncut socio-economic brutality seems to be our return destination, though I guess there are iPads now, so things are totally different.

And so my concern is this: What happens when the Sam Harrises of the world realize that literature in an unjust world isn’t benign at all? That even eradicating the pseudo-literalist rhetoric of modern fundamentalism leaves the bite of texts like the Bible intact? Or clears the way for other, possibly more radicalizing sources of inspiration? (See, for example, the literature of early communism, or the nationalist poetry of Radovan Karadzic.) Do they follow Plato? Do they banish the poets? Do they burn the books? I’m worried because this is exactly the kind of solution that social misdiagnosis leads to. And it’s because people like Sam Harris have so tied the word to an ideology committed to such wrong-headed pursuits that, even though I don’t believe in a magical God who created the universe and who cares about whether I’m naughty or nice, I hate calling myself an atheist.


(Note: I’m working on a more direct rebuttal to Sam Harris’ moral philosophy. In the mean time, I’m going to re-recommend this Nation piece on Harris by cultural historian Jackson Lears.)