The recent death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il brought to mind a claim by Sam Harris that I had wanted to write about some time ago, but never found the time to. Sam Harris’ statement was in his September blog post on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He wrote:
Whatever else may be wrong with our world, it remains a fact that some of the most terrifying instances of human conflict and stupidity would be unthinkable without religion. And the other ideologies that inspire people to behave like monsters—Stalinism, fascism, etc.—are dangerous precisely because they so resemble religions. Sacrifice for the Dear Leader, however secular, is an act of cultic conformity and worship. Whenever human obsession is channeled in these ways, we can see the ancient framework upon which every religion was built. In our ignorance, fear, and craving for order, we created the gods. And ignorance, fear, and craving keep them with us.
Here Harris engages in unprecedented sophistry. Obviously in and of itself the fact that Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and the Ils killed tens of millions of people and imprisoned tens of millions more is itself ‘evil’. It is in fact the worst sort of evil in human history. And the regimes that conducted this evil did so without ever resorting to a belief in God or gods – which is the ordinary definition of a religion. Harris of course realizes this but to say so would show that atheism is as capable of atrocities as any other belief, so he twists that definition. Instead of the ordinary view of religion, Harris re-defines religion as any act of cultic conformity and worship of a leader. In saying this Harris displays an egregious, and sadly all too typical weakness amongst New Atheists, that being ignorance of history. The Marxist ideology which led to these regimes was wholly secular – and the movements which installed Stalin and Mao and the Ils weren’t mere devotions to particular leaders, but were the result of the acceptance of the truth of Marxist ideals. These leaders gained power because of the acceptance of a bad secular political and economic philosophy; they didn’t impose this philosophy on the societies in which they ruled. The fact that Harris misses this is wrong-headed and dangerous because it is precisely this sort of ignorance that allows such ideals to grow and metastasize into monstrous regimes.
Contra Harris, the existence of places like the Soviet Union and North Korea show us the critical importance of transcendent beliefs. Rights and liberties that don’t emanate from an immaterial order (as those in the US do) invariably must emanate from the state, and the state is invariably subject to the corruption of human ambition. This is why in declaring their independence from Britain the American founders didn’t appeal to democracy or science or economics in and of themselves, but instead rooted the rights liberties of man in an endowment by a transcendent Creator. That is in fact the only reasonable place from which certain rights can emanate.
North Korea and South Korea are perfect exemplars of these principles in action. Though not explicit in its Constitution, historically the South Korean notion of rights developed as a product of Western (particularly American) influences on political thought. Rights in South Korea are inherent, not bestowed by the state. North Korea on the other hand was modeled after a Soviet style totalitarian society. The ascendency of the Dear Leader in North Korea was a product of the dominance of the secular state not particular religious behaviors. Such ‘cultic conformity’ occurs whenever humans have no authority to answer to but their own coupled with the power to carry out their will.
The only bulwark against such monstrous behavior is the very thing Sam Harris and his co-secularists would eliminate – a set of transcendent truths rooted in the nature of God and his purposes for humanity.