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Sam Harris writing about Sarah Palin

You know, it's kinda funny. I feel a considerable amount of irritation with the extremism of the so-called "New Atheists." Of their four cardinal representatives, I had a fairly strong pre-existing affinity for three of them prior to the rise of their celebrated campaign. Richard Dawkins, author of the Selfish Gene, was an intellectual hero of mine for the better part of a decade. I had read quite a bit by Daniel Dennett while studying the philosophy of mind in grad school, and I really appreciated his ability to infuse humor and readability into his writings on topics which frequently, in the hands of intelligent but humorless academics, results in absurdly abstruse and thankless reading material. I had admired Christopher Hitchens since I first heard him on Alternative Radio recounting documentable but un-speakable (in the corporate media) facts about the crimes of Henry Kissinger.

The one "New Atheist" with whom I had no prior experience and felt no initial inclination to cut some slack was Sam Harris. Before I read any of his writings, I had read that he was the most extreme and uncompromising of the bunch. To this day I have not read any of his books, but I'm on his mailing list, and I've read a fair number of the things that he has published on-line and in periodicals like Newsweek.

Of the four chief representatives of New Atheism, I find Sam Harris the least irritating on the topic of religion. He seems willing to make more nuanced distinctions than does Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, and he acknowledges that every instance of someone offering up a prayer or practicing meditation does not represent the moral equivalent of witch-burning.

What's more, he seems the least prone to repetition on the topic of religion, and I find that his writing, like this excerpt from his recent Newsweek piece about Sarah Palin, exhibits an admirable level of clear thinking and clear communication:
Ask yourself: how has "elitism" become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn't seem too intelligent or well educated.


Link: http://www.newsweek.com/id/160080/page/1

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
sinvokasha
Sep. 21st, 2008 06:53 pm (UTC)
Of the four chief representatives of New Atheism, I find Sam Harris the least irritating on the topic of religion.

My knowledge of the 'New Atheists' is somewhat limited, but I'm currently under this impression also.
kmo
Sep. 22nd, 2008 02:22 pm (UTC)
feeling irritation
I wrote:
I feel a considerable amount of irritation with the extremism...
Now that I reread that sentence I realize that it isn't true. I remember feeling irritation with them, and that feeling peaked as I was reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, but I don't really feel it any more. From an emotional standpoint, I'm over it.
jwm207
Sep. 22nd, 2008 11:57 pm (UTC)
Re: feeling irritation
I'm still irritated. Perhaps it's the thymos of a guardian.

But I think you are right to set Sam Harris somewhat apart. After reading an article on the new atheists in an issue of the Christian Century a few months back, I discovered Harris' post on "Rational Mysticism" (http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?page=harris_25_6§ion=library) and found an unexpected toehold. If he is willing to consider contemplative experience a valid source of data he is really in a different class. Now he just needs to go deeper down the rabbit hole.

In the meantime I think Harris, like many commentators, has been caught in exactly the net of hype and controversy that Palin was designed to catch him in. Palin, like our current President, is a pawn, and she has been moved brilliantly into play. We needn't trouble ourselves about the quality of her executive judgment because she's unlikely to ever make any real decisions. Those decisions will be made by advisors behind the scenes. So now that we know what the right hand is doing...what's the left one up to?
jwm207
Sep. 23rd, 2008 11:42 am (UTC)
Re: feeling irritation
I didn't phrase that well. As a question (with which I am struggling, and propose not as a mountaintop know-it-all): is it wise for a shepherd to blame his flock for being sheep, while all around the wolves are circling?
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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