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From Sam Harris, Evangelizing Advocate of Scientific Atheism, Some Welcome Common Sense


It's a pleasure to be able to commend something written by evangelizing atheist Sam Harris as highly as I would his essay "Why Don't I Criticize Israel?"

Why do I bring it up here? The last we heard from Harris, he had contributed one of the chapters, "Science Must Destroy Religion," in a book full of atheist diatribes being taught as the sole text in a course at Ball State University. That was while physicist Eric Hedin was being silenced on the same campus for putting some information about intelligent design in a bibliography for a class he was teaching.

The essay about Israel is worth reading not only because it's carefully and powerfully argued but because Harris had to write it at all. (Actually it's the edited transcript of a podcast.) His bottom line is not much different from a point many sensible people have made, including our friends Michael Medved and George Gilder: If Israel today put down its arms, the country's Palestinian Muslim neighbors who support Hamas would immediately seek to commit genocide against Israel's Jewish citizens. So says the Hamas charter. If the Palestinians put down their arms, Israel would immediately seek to do business with them, forming a relationship like America has with Canada and Mexico.

Turn your neighbors into corpses or turn them into trading partners. That's the yawning moral difference between the ultimate goals of Hamas and the ultimate hopes of Israel.

In a sane world this would be blindingly obvious. As Ann Gauger observes in her current cover article for us, there are some things that really shouldn't need to be said. This is one. Harris's article merits attention because he feels that in his community of aggressive materialists and atheists, the obvious isn't obvious at all.

He writes that he's often asked why he doesn't firmly condemn Israel and Judaism. "Now," says Harris, "this is an incredibly boring and depressing question for a variety of reasons." Judging from the essay, which includes frequent added statements in square brackets trying to reassure his followers and further clarify his views, defending Israel's right to defend herself is an inflammatory stand in his community. Indeed fellow New Atheist PZ Myers goes after Sam Harris here, while Jerry Coyne largely agrees with Harris. It may or may not be relevant that Coyne and Harris are both Jewish by birth.

Coyne observes, "If there are two hot-button topics in the liberal atheist community, they would be Sam Harris and Israel. For reasons I have yet to fathom, Sam evokes an extraordinary amount of rancor among atheists." The pro-Israel essay "will surely provoke outrage."

So in the New Atheist community, common sense provokes "rancor." Check. On Israel it illicits particular outrage. Interesting.

Last week, with due acknowledgements to Dennis Prager, I posed a question to Coyne (no reply) that I would put to Harris or PZ Myers as well. Thought experiment: You're transported back in time to Poland seventy year ago where you are a Jew on the run from the Nazis. In a Warsaw street, two doors lie ahead of you. You have just enough time to knock on one, seeking aid, as the scuff of pursuing boots draws closer. One door belongs to a Catholic priest or nun. The other to a biologist -- better yet, an atheist evolutionary biologist. On whose door do you knock?

You've got 5 seconds to decide. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Go.

I can't picture our publishing an essay like Harris's, needing to publish it, at ENV partly because we try to stay on the topic of science and the culture of science rather than venturing into Middle Eastern affairs. (Though see the excellent commentary of our colleague Bruce Chapman, Discovery Institute's Chairman of the Board, at Discovery News.) But also partly because sympathy for Israel would not, I think, provoke controversy among ID advocates. In general, ID accommodates common sense remarkably well.

The theory of intelligent design is a theory about cosmic and biological origins, and that's all. Yet every community organized around an idea has a culture that includes much else not directly following from that idea. The culture of scientific atheism is conflicted at best over whether to sympathize with a Muslim terrorist movement devoted to murdering every man, woman and child in Israel. That is noteworthy.

You could reformulate the aforementioned thought experiment accordingly. Say you're a Jew today in a European city, on the run from an anti-Semitic mob that is marching to support Hamas. Two doors lie ahead of you. Seeking safety, you can knock on one and only one. One belongs to a biologist inclined to doubt Darwinism in favor of intelligent design. The other to a New Atheist acolyte and Darwin supremacist.

Which door do you choose? You have 5 seconds to decide. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Go.

I'm on Twitter. Follow me @d_klinghoffer.

Photo source: Wikipedia.