Monday, April 23, 2007

The Problem with Humans

In his chapter “The Problem with Islam” Sam Harris says that Islam is inherently violent, and that all Muslims are truly vicious towards non-believers. However, I will argue that humans are inherently violent but also peaceful at the same time, and in understanding this one can achieve a more objective understanding of religion as a whole and find inconsistencies in Harris’s argument.

Harris argues that “Islam, more that any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.” (Harris pg.123) He suggests here that it is the religion itself that is the sole source of the violence. Thus, it is important to recognize that in order to make an argument against Harris one must show that humans are violent and peaceful completely independent of religion. This is possible using previous works we have read for class.

It is easy to find examples of human violence that is not fueled by religion. The book of lamentations, while a religious text, describes the secularly driven Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem. Another example that perhaps better shows the inescapability of violence in humans was discussed in class, the extinction of the Neanderthals. Humans slaughtered the Neanderthals when they did not pose any threat.

Despite a tragically apparent violent nature, humans are also peaceful beings. Robin Marantz to some extent explains this in his article “Why do we Believe,” arguing for the idea of group theory in humans. Group theory says that altruism is beneficial to the survival of a species and is therefore part of their ‘hardware’. The existence of altruism eliminates competition within a species. One could argue that the elimination of competitive survival is what humans have come to call peace.

I am proposing that in analyzing any religion one must take this into account; humans are both innately good, and innately bad. Major world religions cater to these strengths and weaknesses, and exist to reduce negatives and bring out the good in people. In some ways they are tools for altruism—tools for peace.

What does this have to do with Sam Harris’s argument? Harris says that people act violently because of Islam itself and uses many examples from the Koran. However, he completely disregards all of the positive elements of the religion. Violent acts committed by Muslims cannot be used to generalize all of Islam. Islam recognizes the innate violence in humans, however, acknowledging this does not mean that it supports it. Harris has grossly missed the point, and while many of his arguments are good, they are completely one-sided.

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