suicide-of-reasonThis is a review of a strange and fascinating book.   The book is the The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West by Lee Harris.

Because Harris’ book is so unusual, it goes over the heads of some.

This simplistic, muddled, frustrating and loopy analysis of Islam and the West contends that history has been hijacked by alpha males, high on testosterone, who, as fanatics dedicated to a cause, will easily ride roughshod over the rational, reasoning West. We have underestimated the realities of such fanaticism, and “for reason to tolerate those who refuse to play by the rules of reason is nothing else but the suicide of reason.”

Who’s tolerating such fanatics?  (continued here)

In The Suicide of Reason, Harris expands upon two subjects he discussed in Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History (my review here).

  • Tolerance:  Human beings have difficulty tolerating those outside the family and tribe, but the rise of civilization depended upon expanding the definition of tolerance.  Western Civilization further expanded the definition of tolerance.   How?  Harris referenced John Locke‘s A Letter Concerning Toleration.   Locke explained we should tolerate any willing to abide by the ideal of tolerance.  Since Locke’s time the goal has become mutual toleration.  We have learned to tolerate any willing to leave others in peace.
  • The Shaming System:   Harris described how the social conscious of each of us has been educated through shame.  When children, we were each taught to be trustworthy by being shamed when we violated the values of our society.   With the shaming system, our adherence to social values becomes “anchored at the visceral level in our automatic and mechanical sense of shame and pride” (pg 183 of Civilization and Its Enemies).

In The Suicide of Reason, Harris wants us to consider the implications of tolerance as now taught in the West and the fanatical intolerance of Islamic societies.  What happens when these two cultures meet.   As a New York Times book review observes, Harris perceives a lopsided contest.

“The Muslims are, from an early age, indoctrinated into a shaming code that demands a fanatical rejection of anything that threatens to subvert the supremacy of Islam,” he writes. During the years that this shaming code is instilled into children, the collective is emphasized above the individual and his freedoms. A good Muslim must forsake all: his property, family, children, even life for the sake of Islam. Boys in particular are taught to be dominating and merciless, which has the effect of creating a society of holy warriors.

By contrast, the West has cultivated an ethos of individualism, reason and tolerance, and an elaborate system in which every actor, from the individual to the nation-state, seeks to resolve conflict through words. The entire system is built on the idea of self-interest. This ethos rejects fanaticism. The alpha male is pacified and groomed to study hard, find a good job and plan prudently for retirement: “While we in America are drugging our alpha boys with Ritalin,” Harris writes, “the Muslims are doing everything in their power to encourage their alpha boys to be tough, aggressive and ruthless.”  (from here)

The New York Times book reviewer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then goes on to disagree with Harris’ pessimistic analysis and argues that Muslims can learn learn to be tolerant.  Not until months latter does Ayaan Hirsi Ali start to appreciate that Harris’ pessimistic analysis is as much an indictment of the West as it is of Islam (see here).  For example, the book contains this all too accurate description of public education.

Today, however, our modern system of education refuses to recognize that the modern liberal West might also have core traditions that cannot be overturned without destroying the foundation of liberalism itself.  Here again the consumerist model is implicit in our theory of educating children:  They are taught to think of themselves as ideology consumers, picking whatever religion or politics appeals to them.  Inevitably even the most intelligent consumer, especially a child, will be unconsciously swayed by the clever sales techniques of those peddling their own brand-name ideology, just as they are swayed when buying footwear and blue jeans.  Indeed increasingly our education system is being turned over to teachers who are frankly salesmen for the ideological brand that is in vogue among the interlectual elite.   (from page 196 of The Suicide of Reason)

What does Harris think is being lost?  Janet Levy puts it this way for

In The Suicide of Reason, Harris explains the evolution of America’s enlightened culture as a natural development originating from the ideal circumstances of pioneer life. He describes how America was settled by stubborn, rugged individualists who fled to the New World to escape religious persecution and freely practice their religion. These early settlers were mostly Protestant dissenters who valued hard work, were determined to hew their own path and refused to take orders from anyone. While the Old World remained a hierarchal society of landowners and serfs with a strong military and government enforcing laws and maintaining the status quo, the North American continent was a wilderness unburdened by history and rife with opportunity. It was geographically separated from Europe and free of threats except for Indians. It couldn’t be conquered, only settled, and every pioneer was in charge of his own destiny. While the Old World admired the life of the idle rich and military strength and subjugation were the keys to wealth and power, in America, a settler with a Protestant ethic cleared his own land or paid someone else to do it. He held in contempt those who subjugated others to do their work. Hard work was honorable and the route to freedom, wealth and the good life. These unique characteristics of the New World — the right to keep the product of your labor, religious freedom and the lack of imposition on others — spawned American liberalism. Thus, America became fertile ground for the creation of a culture of enlightened reason.  (from here)

Harris thinks the Bible played a critical role in the development of America’s enlighten culture.

Beverage (Author’s note:  Senator Albert Beverage in his biography of John Marshall) notes the importance to the formation of the American republic of the stubborn individual, who insisted on doing all his own thinking.  But where did this trait come from?  Was it because of the pioneers and frontiersmen carefully followed the development of advanced European thought of the time?  No, the only book they read was the Bible.  And because the American pioneers were mainly made up of Protestant Dissenters, they each were fully convinced that they themselves could determine the conduct of their own affairs.  They did not need priests or experts to tell them what the Bible said:  No matter how simple and uneducated they might be, they had been raised to believe they could figure out what the Bible said for themselves.

Strange as it may sound, the Bible idolatry of the Protestant Dissenters played a critical role in the formation of America’s culture of reason.  As we discussed in Chapter 10 (Author’s note: entitled Reason and Autonomy), the tradition of the Protestant Dissenter is one in which each child has not merely a right but a duty to make up his own mind.  The American Baptists, for example, did not believe in forcing the child to submit to his parent’s religion; children had to accept Christianity into their own hearts;  it is not permissible to ram it down their throats.  (from page 170 of The Suicide of Reason)

So “Bible idolatry” is the source of American rugged individualism?  For the most part Harris succeeds in his effort in writing a book where he appears to be thoughtfully objective observer.  With this strange turn of words, “Bible idolatry,” I suspect Harris betrays his own inner struggle.   Harris frankly explains that a culture of enlightened reason is a freakishly unlikely event, one he must attribute to a particular book.  Yet he apparently finds it difficult to share the views of the Protestant Dissenters.

Hence The Suicide of Reason considers three raging struggles.

  • The cultural/philosophical conflict between the West and Islam.
  • The ideological battle within the West over the cultural values.
  • The puzzling of one man over what he should believe about God and reason.

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