More from The Great God Divide: European Secularism and American Religiosity: the following comments were excited by the speaker's impressions of the Great Arch of La Defense, President Mitterrand’s monument to the bicentennial of 1789.
"And that put a question in my head . . . which culture could give a better account of its commitments to the rights of men, which was being memorialized here, the culture that produced this rational, striking, but essentially featureless cube, or the more complicated culture that had produced gargoyles and flying buttresses and crosses and the holy unsameness, if you will, of Notre Dame.
It’s a question of what a society loses when it completely and self-consciously cuts itself off from those civilizing and civilizational roots, represented in this case by the cathedral, and attempts something that I think is quite unprecedented in human history; namely, the creation of democratic political community on an essentially religiously featureless social and cultural terrain."
This remark is yet another example of a romantic apology for religion. Certainly, the flying buttresses of Notre Dame (at top), for example, are much more visually interesting than even the most interesting view of the Great Arch (below). However, few rational people would argue that 13th century Paris gave a better "account of its committment to the rights of man" than 21st century Paris, its frustrations with Muslims notwithstanding.
I think that the speaker was ignoring the fact that the cost of stone masons and the time required to construct a cathedral such as Notre Dame, and not secularist politics, preclude the construction of another such cathedral. Construction on the cathedral began in 1163 CE. Does anyone wish to guess when the cathedral was completed? [answer]
All of which brings me to thinking about the so-called New Atheism. Atheism as nonbelief about the existence of deities (or belief of nonexistence if you recognize what disbelief actually means) is scarcely new. The new element lies in the refusal to be polite about the content of religious delusions and emphasis on the dangers posed by religionist elements (not by religious moderates, but by religious fundamentalists).I don't think that there is any paucity of empirical historical evidence that links religious extremism to harm. Nor do we lack evidence that links dictator-exploited ideological extremisms such as communism or, its mirror, fascism to harm.
I think that the key element of any harmful -ism lies in extremism in its application – perhaps I should say misapplication. Obviously, this is also true of the harmful misapplication of scientific advances, particularly those in military technologies, that have caused damage and distress. Alfred Nobel invented gunpowder in the hope that such a dangerous weapon would prove to be a deterrent from warfare. Clearly he did not succeed, and nor has the 'atomic' bomb succeeded, except insofar as gunpowder conflicts have so far stopped short of nuclear holocaust.
Sam Harris' Islamophobia smacks of paranoiac visions of annihilation such as followed 1945. Ironically, and nontheless tragically, the greatest recent Islam-related deathtoll is of innocent Iraqi civilians brought about as a result of the stupid decisions of a president not-elected largely as a result of the politicking of the Conservative Religious Wrong.
The Middle East has presented a political problem ever since Zionists decided that Jewish problems could be solved by turning Palestine from a Jewish symbol of exile into a homeland. This is not to dismiss the influence of earlier capitalist exploitation of the Middle East nor to ignore the long-standing perceived threats of imposed secularization within Islam. In other words, it is not only religion that causes harm. The problem is that religion perpetuates ancient divisions that exacerbate political schisms.