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The NS Profile: Sam Harris

Sam Harris, one of the “Four Horsemen” of new atheism, believes that science can never be reconciled

Sam Harris, the American writer, neuroscientist and leading proponent of the new atheism, rarely invites indifference. The novelist Marilynne Robinson wrote recently that his "aspirations . . . contain much that is not laudable". The writer and commentator Andrew Sullivan once accused Harris of a "form of intolerance that reminds me of some of the worst aspects of fundamentalism". The columnist Theodore Dalrymple said of a passage from Harris's first book, The End of Faith, that it was "quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist".

His supporters are no less voluble. The jacket of his latest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, carries gushing testimonials from Ian McEwan ("Reason has never had a more passionate advocate") and Richard Dawkins ("As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet").

When I meet Harris - a dapper man of 43 who bears a decided resemblance to the actor Ben Stiller - at the office of his English publishers in London, the bayonet is out more or less straight away, even though he is suffering from jet lag after a flight from New York.

A few days before our meeting, the news had broken of the award to Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, of the £1m Templeton Prize. The prize, given annually by the John Templeton Foundation, rewards individuals who have made "exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension" - or, as Harris puts it in The Moral Landscape, "split[ting] the difference between intellectual integrity and the fantasies of a prior age".

“Rees looks like a cagey and successful choice from the Templeton Foundation's point of view," Harris tells me. "He's certainly not who you'd expect to be shilling for the cause. He is on the record as being a non-believer, but is too politic for his own good, or for our common good. He thinks science shouldn't be in the business of criticising religion, and that scientists can do their job perfectly happily without ever engaging in a contest with religion - but I think that's fundamentally untrue."

Zero-sum game

That "religion and science are in a zero-sum conflict with respect to facts" is one of the central contentions of The End of Faith, the book with which Harris, then aged 36, made his name when it was first published in 2004. He was followed into print in 2006 by the philosopher Daniel Dennett (with Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) and by Dawkins, who argued in his bestseller The God Delusion that religion is the enemy of science. Dawkins, like Harris, meant all religion - not just the fundamentalist, apocalyptic varieties whose adherents are indifferent to the fate of this world because they await imminent transposition to another.Dawkins, Dennett and Harris later made common cause with Christopher Hitchens, whose polemic God Is Not Great was published in 2007. That year, the quartet convened at Hitchens's apartment in Washington, DC for a discussion, conducted over cocktails, that was filmed and subsequently released as a DVD under the title The Four Horsemen.

As Harris observes in The Moral Landscape, somewhat ruefully, there is now a "large and growing literature" attacking "the so-called New Atheists" (a term coined in 2006 by Gary Wolf in an article for Wired magazine).

“It is often said that we caricature religion," he writes. "We do no such thing. We simply . . . take the specific claims of religion seriously." What Harris means is that the New Atheists treat religion - of the kind espoused by the mildest Anglican as much as the ravings of the most incendiary Islamist - as consisting of a set of purportedly factual claims about the nature of reality, the origins of the universe and so on, to which believers assent as they would to an ordinary empirical proposition about the weather or the colour of my trousers. If that is what religion is, then it conflicts with science by definition.

When I try to suggest that there might be more to religious faith than this description allows, Harris is emphatic. "Look at the New Testament," he says. "It makes a variety of claims that are by definition at odds with what we know to be scientifically plausible."

Yet there are many eminent scientists who also happen to be religious believers - John Polkinghorne, for instance, the mathematical physicist and Anglican priest who won the Templeton Prize in 2002, or Francis Collins, formerly director of the National Centre for Human Genome Research in the United States, who was appointed director of the National Institutes of Health by President Obama in 2009. Why, if atheism is the world-view that best accords with the scientific evidence, do so many intelligent people persist in faith?

For Harris, this can be explained only as a "failure of intellectual honesty". He is parti­cularly scathing about Collins. "There's something repugnant about the fact that he [is a believer] and one of the most prominent and influential representatives of science in the United States," he says. "And he's not some weak-tea Christian - he thinks the dead will walk again and will be remade out of new matter. And not only that, he doesn't keep those crazy convictions private. He publishes on the mutually reinforcing character of those two world-views [science and religion]."

However, it is not Christians such as Collins who are the most vociferous critics of Harris and the other New Atheists. The most powerful assaults have come from fellow atheists and secularists. Take the literary critic James Wood, who was brought up in an evangelical Christian household but is now an atheist. Wood has written of the "parochialism" of new atheism. Religion, for Harris and the others, he argues, "seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity". More "relaxed or progressive" forms of Christianity tend not to register - nor do Hinduism or Buddhism, both of which Harris flirted with in his early twenties after dropping out of an English degree at Stanford University, or Judaism, the faith into which he was born.

Harris swats away the criticism when I put it to him. "If you want to take that tack, at least do me the courtesy of acknowledging that at least 50 per cent of the American population is fundamentalist. This is not a fringe problem. And in the Muslim world it's the same.

“But if you want to talk about some far more relaxed, noncommittal, non-dogmatic form of Christianity or Islam, then let's talk about what it's committed to, because it's committed to some propositional claims. If it's committed to none, then we're just talking about someone who happens to like the Bible as literature, or who happens to like going to St Paul's because he likes the architecture." The problem with this response is that it does not address whether there is more to religion than beliefs about the world. The philosopher Philip Kitcher, an avowed secularist, thinks Harris is attached to something he calls the "belief model of religion", which he finds wanting.

“Besides beliefs," Kitcher wrote in a paper on "militant modern atheism" published last October, "there are emotions, aspirations, desires and actions . . . Those who merely believe, if there are any such people, are not full participants in the religious life." In other words, living in a moral community in which one engages in shared practices is as important to the religious person as believing in a set of dogmas about the metaphysics of transcendent entities.

Beyond belief

Harris does not dispute that religious concepts articulate a moral vision as well as purport to describe the world. But he wishes that scientists wouldn't leave morality to those of faith, and The Moral Landscape is devoted to explaining why they need not do so. "Secular scientists very commonly think that science has nothing to say about morality and human value, and so it's not science's job to tell people what constitutes a good life," he argues.

In the new book, Harris tries to give a scientific answer to the question of atheist morality. "Questions about values", he writes, "are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures" - and well-being is something that is measurable, scientifically verifiable. The "science of human flourishing" that he lays out in the book is an updated version of utilitarianism, in which well-being replaces pleasure as the source of moral value. Crudely put, in the view that Harris defends, an action is right to the extent that it promotes well-being.

Judging the rightness of an action by its consequences in this way seems to lead Harris, however, to countenance practices that most of us would regard as morally repugnant - such as torture. His arguments about this in The End of Faith caused such controversy that he now maintains a page on his website devoted to the topic. He describes his position thus: "collateral damage is worse than torture across the board". If we bomb civilians, then why are we squeamish about waterboarding?

His opinions are shaped by what seems to him the biggest threat to western civilisation today: radical Islam. The irony is that, in this struggle, he finds himself on the same side as the Christian right. "It's inconvenient, certainly," Harris says laconically. "When I talk to Christians about Islam, they're running the same software. They know how it feels to be sure that the Book is the word of the Creator."

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special

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What did the suffragette movement in Britain really look like?

The new film Suffragette has been accused of "whitewashing" the movement to get women the vote. But is that fair?

The release of Suffragette has reopened a conversation about diversity in feminism, the whitewashing of the film industry, and attitudes to race in the women’s suffrage movement. 

When Time Out interviewed the cast of Suffragette this week, it photographed Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Romola Garai and Anne-Marie Duff in T-shirts emblazoned with an Emmeline Pankhurst quote: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” Many commented on the racial insensitivity of this, emphasising that comparing white women’s oppression to slavery, or implying that the slavery could be a choice, betrays an lack of concern for the experiences of non-white women. (Pankhurst's use of the term “rebel” also translates particularly badly to an American audience: the Confederate flag is often called the “rebel flag”.)

“It was very insensitive, I thought,” says Dr Paula Bartley, a historian focusing on women in history and the suffrage movement and biographer of Emmeline Pankhurst. “Although though she said it, I don’t think even Emmeline Pankhurst would have been so crass as to wear that T-shirt if she were around now. It was a different time.”

The photoshoot has formed just one part of the controversy surrounding Suffragette’s release. The all-white cast have faced accusations of erasing the role of people of colour in securing the vote. But what did the suffragettes actually look like at the time?

“Britain was a white society in the main,” Dr Bartley tells me, “and the movement reflected that.” Dr Sumita Mukherjee, a fellow at King’s College London researching Indian suffragettes, notes that the women’s suffrage movement in Britain was “very different from the American case or the Australian case or the New Zealand case, because although there were ethnic minorities in Britain at that time, there wasn’t the same scale or the same questions of citizenship as there were in other countries”. 

Dr Bartley agrees. “The American women’s suffrage movement was very different, and was in some respects very racist: they often refused to have black women included in it. Race was a much bigger issue in the United States, and you can’t compare the two movements, because of that issue.”

Anita Anand, author of Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, tells me that there were women of colour working alongside more famous white suffragettes, most notably the subject of her book, the Indian princess Sophia Duleep Singh. “There were many overlaps between the Indian suffrage movement and the British suffrage movement. Sophia Duleep Singh had every reason to hate the British. They had taken everything from her: her father’s kindgom, wealth, future, everything. But she believed in this sisterhood, and she sacrificed everything to fight for British women’s vote, and also then fought for Indian women’s emancipation as well.”

“I would have loved her to be in the film,” Anand admits. “I’d love her to be all over the place, I’ve spent the last five years of my life righting that wrong and trying to put her back in history. But Suffragette focuses on one woman’s story, and you can't involve everyone in that.”

Sophia Duleep Singh selling The Suffragette in 1913

The involvement of Indian women in the British women’s suffrage movement extended beyond just Princess Sophia, Anand tells me: “Herabai Tata and her daughter Mithan Lam came to know the suffragette movement through Sophia, and they were absolutely tireless in bringing the organisation and the means of putting pressure on government bodies to India.”

Dr Mukherjee adds: “There’s a popular image of Indian women in 1911 involved in a suffragette procession [see above]: they were Indian women living in Britain at the time living with their families. What’s interesting about that photo is that they’re part of a procession campaigning for the vote for British women, but in that procession they had an Empire section with Australian women, New Zealand women and Indian women. British suffragettes tried to convince women from other areas of the British Empire that if they got the vote, they could look after Indian women and other women in the other communes of Britain.

“There’s an implication that white women felt they were more able to speak for Indian women than Indian women themselves. So although I’m not sure I’d say it’s overtly racist, it is imperialist.”

Anand adds: “British suffragettes were fighting for the rights of women in India: for example, Millicent Fawcett led the campaign against the horrific abuse of Indian sex workers outside British cantonments. But it’s also true to say that some suffragettes had a real passion for Empire, and Emmeline Pankhurst was one of them. You can’t get away from that. There were some who were outright fascists: Norah Elam, who earlier in her life happily worked alongside Sophia Duleep Singh, turned into a Blackshirt later.” Suffragettes like Mary Richardson followed this same pattern from women’s suffrage to fascism. “Like other organisations at that time, some people involved held racist opinions,” Anand tells me. “That was a strain that ran through society.”

There were also members of the suffragette movement who resisted this. Earlier, in the 1880s, a suffragette named Catherine Impey founded Anti-Caste, sometimes described as Britain’s first anti-racist journal, which attempted to speak “with” rather than “about” people of colour, highlighting racism in the US and the British Empire. Its letters page was a space in which diverse voices from Australia, Africa, the US and Europe could be in dialogue, and the journal suggests there were Asian, black and white activists working together to form an anti-racist community in Britain in the 1880s and 1890s. Sadly, this journal failed to become an orgainised movement after Impey and her fellow activist Isabelle Mayo fell out (reportedly out over the disputed affections of one of their male readers).

Catherine Impey

Although the nuances of the Suffragettes' relationship with race are not addressed by the film, Dr Mukherjee tells me that she is pleased that Suffragette focuses on the story of a working class woman. “The diverse nature of class backgrounds in the suffragette movement isn’t usually taught. In terms of the British movement, it was very diverse, in that it involved people of all social backgrounds.”

Dr Bartley agrees. “If you look at any political movement, whether its the the Bolsheviks or the Labour party, it is often led by the middle class, and the members are often working class. The Suffragettes were largely no different. That was incredibly important and shouldn’t be overlooked, because how does an organisation continue without a vast membership? Certainly, at grassroots level and local levels you see the movement has a very heterogenous composition.”

The suffragettes did have working class women in their leadership: most notably Annie and Jessie Kenney, activists from a poor family in Oldham. Annie was the only working class woman to become part of the senior hierarchy of the Women's Social and Political Union, becoming deputy in 1912. “She did play a huge role in the Suffragette campaign,” Bartley says.

Annie Kenney in 1909

The story of Annie Kenney is also interesting when discussing diversity, as she seems to have been involved in several lesbian relationships within the movement. Although she eventually married a man after women won the vote, in the activist Mary Blathwayt’s diary she “appears frequently and with different women”, according to Professor Martin Pugh. “Mary writes matter-of-fact lines such as, ‘Annie slept with someone else again last night,’ or ‘There was someone else in Annie's bed this morning.’” Pugh's research shows that her name can now be linked to up to ten other suffragettes.

There are many other suggestions of gay relationships within the movement, including Mary Blathwayt herself, Christabel Pankhurst, and Dame Ethel Smythe. “Dame Ethel had realised early on in life that she loved women, not men, and was fairly bold about things,” Pugh adds.

Composer and activist Dame Ethel Smyth

As Anand points out, Suffragette does not claim to be a comprehensive exploration of every activist who falls under that broad term, but instead “revolves around one working class woman’s story”. Ultimately, it is unsurprising that full detail and nuance of a mass movement has been lost in the transition to the big screen.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.