June 2013 – Reacting to Fundamentalism

In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), Sam Harris states:

The End Of Faith

“Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? … In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe … We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry.”

The problem Harris raises, the appropriate reaction to a nuclear threat from a fundamentalist (Islamic, Christian or whatever) regime or group, formed the basis for our June discussion. Aspects of fundamentalism that could lead to such a situation were discussed, including the possibility of it being a manifestation of our biological ‘herd’ instinct, an instinct tempered by activities such as sports but whose faults are dificult to overcome through reason and rational thought. Fundamentalism as a subject for neuroscience research (and the morality of possible neurological intervention) was mentioned, as was possibility of  belief systems engendering religious fundamentalism having evolutionary benefits (perhaps now vestigial).

Assessment and response to such a threat is nominally the responsibility or our political and military (and corporate?) leaders. Individuals have a responsibility to avoid blindly following such leadership (herd mentality), and to be informed and aware, each finding their own moral and ethical path.

Two video excerpts were viewed. The first was Chrisopher Hitchens in 2009 warning of the immanent nuclear threat from Iran (if only as blackmail leverage) , the interests of Hezbollah, and the lack of any international body capable of counteracting the threat. The second showed a series of Christian speakers announcing the “end of time” or immanent apocalypse, with Sam Harris calling such speakers intellectually dishonest.

The degree to which Harris’ statement in the End of Faith reflects Humanist values was questioned. The suggestion was made that the concerns of Harris and others  might be moot, as nature may eliminate the species that created the problem. It was a lively, upbeat discussion, despite the darkness of the subject.