Blog Post Content

Protesting Pope Benedict XVIProtesters rally against Pope Bendedict XVI in London, England. Photo by Loz Pycock/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The review in question is not a fundamentalist screed against defamers of the faithful, but the voice of Rutgers professor Jackson Lears, whose critics describe him as a “man of the left” in a “magazine of the left.” Lears reviews three books by Sam Harris, who to Lears is a “scientific fundamentalist.” Harris, in turn, has responded that Lears’s review is “idiotic.” It isn’t.

We can only hit some high spots of Lears-on-Harris and hope that readers will all follow through by reading the whole article, one of the best short criticisms yet of the old/new or new/old atheism.

Lears locates the genre in a “back-to-1910” cultural fashion in which now “deregulation” and “starvation of the public sector” have returned to the pre-World War I style. The key in philosophy, including manifestly in Harris’s works, “depends on the reductionist belief that the entire universe, including all human conduct, can be explained with reference to precisely measurable, deterministic physical processes.” The positivists, their outlook revisited by Harris, “assumed that science was the only sure guide to morality, and the only firm basis for civilization.” With them came “pop-evolutionary notions of progress,” “scientific racism and imperialism” and, most measurably, “eugenics” and the like.

Sociologists of knowledge (Karl Mannheim, Peter Berger, Thomas Kuhn and others) countered positivism, but it has come back in the works of authors Lears cites. They were also countered, in turn, by fellow scientists who found it philosophically and scientifically weak. But since 9/11 it is back again in Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and, of course, Harris, who now “press the case against religion with renewed determination and fire.”

The Christian Right’s absolutism next provided a fat target, and Islamic fundamentalism one even fatter. Its presence legitimates torture — in Harris’s books, at least — while “multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance,” writes Harris, hobbles “the West” in its war against “radical Islam.”

Harris argues that to be un-hobbled, the West must reject “both religion and cultural relativism, and [embrace] science as the true source of moral value.” Lears praises sciences but rejects the implicit (and sometimes explicit) metaphysic, which the new atheists do not discern in their putatively scientific empirical approach to morality. How Harris roots his metaphysic in brain research, which is his main work, and how Lears criticizes it is a story too complex for this brief article, but is available in Lears’s essay.

The title term “Infidelity,” the colonial and early modern word for atheism, agnosticism, and radical religion through three centuries, was the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation in 1956 in “The Uses of Infidelity.” Protestant conservatives would show how unmoored Christianity and faith in general were when infidels, never great threats on their own, got a hold of them. Now again, it is usually “infidels” who do the most telling reviews of fellow infidels’ books. Conservatives through the decades hollered, and gave those of other faiths and no faiths a potency they had otherwise not known. Now, again?

Martin Marty

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Leave a Comment

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><span><div><img><!-->
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Embed content by wrapping a supported URL in [embed] … [/embed].

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.


Sam Harris and all the other "fundamentalist atheist" need to recognize the scope of science: it is a DESCRIPTION. It does not tel us WHY. The WHY and all other truly interesting questions can only be found in theology. Science cannot tell us who banged the BIG Bang or why there is any meaning in our lives. This moral compulsion to live a life that is "good" is not the result of a mindless, random existence. Does the human mind come from the mindless? Does human love comes from the loveless? Does life come from the lifeless? My answer is no, because faith in God is not only reasonable, but found all around us.

Science can say something about good and evil if you equate them to "healthy" and "viable". Viable societies are populated by people who behave morally (don't kill, steal, etc.), which in turn gives those societies an advantage over immoral ones. Game theory is a good place to see this happening.

Science does not tell you "why" because "why" is (respectfully) a stupid question. Just because you can ask a question does not mean it has an answer. What is the colour of anxiety? You understand the question, but it is nonsense. Such is the nature of the question "What is the meaning of our lives" in any context outside the meaning you yourself give it. Meaning is a human mental construct, looking for meaning in nature is futile. Just because you want the universe to have meaning does not make it so; the universe does not care what you want. In fact, the universe does not care at all.

Our moral compulsion to live a good life seems perfectly coherent in the context of the evolutionary biology of social primates. There has been no shortage of science on the subject in the past few years.

Particle physics has a pretty good idea of the physics of how the Big Bang "Banged". Unfortunately, the supporting math and science is pretty difficult for the layman to understand (I'm not sure why we would assume the underpinnings universe should be easily explainable or should conform to common sense). Physicists are on the doorstep of unlocking the history and the building blocks of the cosmos, and like all scientific discovery before it, the light of science will send the god(s) scurrying into another gap in scientific knowledge.

The term fundamentalist atheist is kind of incomprehensible to me, but I would support the description of "fundamentalist rationalist". I see nothing wrong with basing your beliefs on the foundation that if they are not reasonable and supported by evidence, that they are not valid.

While Harris' position may warrant criticism, Lear's Nation's review is little more than a cherry-picking diatribe in its own right. And Marty extolling Lear's polemics is, in turn, nothing more than the sound of Marty's own axe grinding.