Monday, April 3, 2006

Harris, Phillips, Dennett: A review

I put down Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith, just in time to go hear Kevin Phillips talk last night. Both Harris and Phillips have books out on religion and politics in America and experiencing the two back to back is like being hit by a one-two punch. No doubt more will come. People are taking the gloves off. High time.

Phillips is on a tour pushing his latest book, American Theocracy, but I’ve been impressed by his authoritative voice since I first read Postconservative America when it first came out in 1983. I also like that he is (well, was) a Connecticut Republican and lives not far from where I grew up, in Litchfield. There is a small (very small) conservative side of me that yearns for the days when Connecticut was my home, Republicans were people you could look up to, and a faith in government seemed justified. My best friend in high school went to work for Lowell Weickert. Republican Weickert lost a Senate race to Democrat Joseph Lieberman in 1988, and I’ve often wondered if I had never migrated to California how closely my political ideas might still resemble Tommy’s. Would I have worked for Weickert over Lieberman in 1988?

Considering I would certainly vote for Weickert over Lieberman if I had to choose between them today, it’s not a wild question.

The absence of admirable Republicans is not a cause for celebration. It strikes me much more as a national tragedy. The takeover by Bush and the neocons has got to hurt Republicans of conscience as much as any democrat I know, more if they have a sense of loyalty to the party. And given the readiness by democrats to lie down in the road and let them march over them, blaming the conservative republicans for the disaster doesn’t hold a lot of water for me. We’re both in the same mess and we both let it happen.

Which brings me to Kevin Phillips. Editor and publisher, historian and political analyst, he is a man of amazing accomplishments. In the 70s and early 80s he gave his all to Republican interests and became a voice to listen to in the Reagan administration. Somewhere in the 80s, however, he began to disassociate from the republican world view and focus on the gap between the American rich and the American poor. He left the party officially, is now registered as an independent, and articulates my view that the system is broken. With the takeover by the neocons, he is now convinced we have the first ever American religious party. And that means we are in big trouble.

Phillips’ argument is that we are in the throes of a deadly combination of incompetence and religious zealotry. We have overreached our grasp in the world, have lost all credibility as a moral force because of our need for oil, and have fallen prey to one deception after another. One of the worst features of the current government is the gap between what Bush says about big government (that we need to cut back) and what he does with big government (takes us into the biggest debt in history). Our problems cannot be addressed because so many of the power base can excuse hints of an apocalyptic outcome as nothing unexpected.

Harris provides some of the details of the problem:

· Only 28% of Americans believe in evolution; 72% believe in angels
· 120 million Americans believe the big bang took place 2500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer.
· Nearly 230 million Americans believe that a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity.

While most of us laugh at the endless listing of examples of human folly, it’s time, Harris and Phillips both argue, to break the taboo against questioning people’s right to hide behind the safe screen of religious tolerance to dictate U.S. policy in the world. Thousands die in Africa because we cater to religious forces in withholding condoms and insisting they “just say no.” Roe v. Wade is collapsing before our eyes because officials forget they put their hand on the bible and swore to uphold the Constitution and not the other way around. Religion has become toxic in America and, (Harris quoting Yeats), “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Harris takes religion by the horns. Religions – all religions – are intrinsically hostile to one another. Where they appear otherwise, he says, it is because secular knowledge and secular interests restrain “the most lethal improprieties of faith.” Islam is the worst offender (something we’ve got to learn to stop being too timid to say), because it never underwent exposure to an Enlightenment, or something similar, where large numbers of the populace were exposed to the idea that an environment of open inquiry leads to greater possibilities for human growth and freedom than blind obedience.

Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained also has a new book out on the same issue, Breaking the Spell, aimed at convincing his readers of the danger in adherence to any system which insists there are whole areas of human experience which must remain immune to scientific inquiry. Rather than being a stabilizing influence, as is the common wisdom, religion, he says, is more like the common cold.

What the three have in common is a conviction that we have been hijacked by religion, whether just the wrong kind of toxic religion (Phillips) or religion tout court (Harris, Dennett). “To presume knowledge where one has only pious hope,” Harris says, is a species of evil. To allow ourselves to be governed by scripture, they all agree, is possibly the worst mistake we have ever made.

“So what can we do,” comes the question from the audience. “Will the democrats win back the House and Senate?”

“I don’t know,” says Phillips. “Probably they will win enough to stall government, but not enough to turn things around, and we will have a government dead in the water until the next election and beyond.” Meanwhile, Bush will continue to appoint judges that will take us back to the 19th Century, aided by forces which would be quite at home in the 16th.

April 3, 2006

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