Secular thinkers don’t have the tools to un-brainwash terrorists, or even to bring them down to moderate theists.

Sam Harris

The birth of ideology

Theory of child development tells a tale of the child’s mind continually constructing a new reality built on previous experiences, warped by social and environmental influences. New inputs are interpreted through comparison with memory, itself a fallible and fragmented storage system. They then fortify the existing construct if they resemble known truths or deconstruct and reconstruct it if they conflict.

This construct is initially fairly fluid as the child has everything to learn and little experience to build upon, but its plasticity fades with age. A young child is like human clay waiting to be moulded, so culture is hereditary. It’s one of the reasons human progress lack agility, some would argue necessarily. Each generation is stifled by the lawmakers and ideologues of the previous.

Heredity of culture is simultaneously positive and negative, keeping alive traditions, ideologies and language. Without it, history’s lessons are dust on empty bookshelves. It gives us context for our present and future lives. But worldviews in conflict with our own also persist through it.

For atheists, accepting that others have faith and comprehending the reasons for such beliefs is challenging. In a similar way, theists do not accept the beliefs of different faiths. But an atheist’s reality is liberated to be constructed around what is understandable and knowable, either because something was personally encountered or else it has been discovered through the ‘scientific method’ of peer review and open discourse. Of course, theists argue that in itself constitutes a form of faith, but it is at least based on evidence.

Atheists are free to agree or disagree with any idea and have their opinions swayed by persuasive argument. But their underlying truth (if they want it to be) is based on the sum of human knowledge. This truth is not incontrovertible, but greater minds will find its flaws if there are any. It goes without saying that being an atheist does not automatically either lead someone to seek the truth or help them to recognise it when it’s staring them in the face.

The challenge of empathy

For an atheist to empathise with a theist is to imagine another reality, to accept that someone else’s construct – what they know to be true – is entirely different to what they themselves hold true, and that their Venn diagram isn’t going to have a significant overlap. The greatest challenge is to do this without judgement. The theist’s truth may be attractively simple and it might make them feel happy or hopeful or empowered in a way that an atheist will never understand. But for balance, indulging such jealousies would also require the indulgence of feelings of pity over freedoms lost and so on. Jealousy and pity are emotions, not empathies, and with such feelings inevitably comes judgement.

The UK is largely secular, but even so, the majority of its people spent their formative years enjoying or enduring school assemblies with Christian songs and readings. This is the legacy of culture, a residue of the lawmakers of previous generations. In some senses, the nation still regards itself as a Christian one.

So it’s not entirely surprising that the average citizen cannot easily empathise with a religious viewpoint. It’s even less likely that they could empathise with the beliefs of people of non-Christian faiths like Islam. It’s completely understandable that modern Britain cannot fathom fundamentalist views. And it’s frankly ridiculous to imagine they could empathise with a jihadist. The temptation to simply judge grows with the distance between ideologies.

On Tuesday this week following the Manchester attack, I posted something on Facebook, declaring jihad a ‘monstrous clusterfuck ideology’. Obviously, I now realise this underlines my own point about judging, that it was reactionary and emotive. That is not to say that I have since developed any sympathy for what led Abedi to do what he did. I simply elected to explore, in as dispassionate way as possible, the mindset of someone who makes a conscious decision to do such a thing.


The insight of Sam Harris

If hate can be defeated by knowledge, then it seems appropriate to tap into the best minds and the clearest thinkers on the subject of jihad. Ascertaining who these thinkers are is itself a cause for questionable judgement, and the people we learn to turn to are usually those who reinforce our existing reality construct. For me, this journey of discovery often starts with the ‘Four Horsemen’, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. What the four share is a powerful combination of clarity of thought, scientific method and objectivity, zero tolerance for bullshit and an extraordinary talent for communicating their thoughts in a meaningful way.

By coincidence, Sam Harris has more than a passing interest in this subject of Islam. In fact, he co-authored Islam and the Future of Tolerance with Maajid Nawaz in 2015, a book New Statesman described as “Islamism and jihadism from a historical as well as a philosophical angle, with no trace of sentiment or dogma”.

Here is a thoughtful piece by Harris in his audio series, the Waking Up podcast. He is eloquent as ever here, giving a valuable and forthright insight into jihad including the attraction of jihadism to those with susceptible ears and a sufficient lack of grey matter, particularly men. If you’re interested in this topic, you’ll need 48 minutes to listen, but longer to digest the implications.

Barking up the wrong tree

Rhetoric from all political persuasions; extreme, moderate, left and right all seem to be failing to talk about the real problem with jihad. As we try to grasp the tragedy, rationalising feelings, considering future preventative measures, maybe trying to explain events to our children, it’s apparent that jihadists defy rationality. They interpret their sacred text in such a way that it incites them to kill anyone with a different interpretation. It requires them to do so. They hate us.

This ideology cannot be defeated, discouraged or reasoned with. Solutions, if they exist at all, are complex and have a timescale of decades or generations. In delivering a clear appreciation of the enemy we face (and by ‘we’, I mean everyone on this earth who is not a radical Islamist, including the vast majority of Muslims), Harris has provided a valuable starting point for discussions about what such solutions might look like. That’s all it is though; a starting point.

Simply hoping this will all go away, whatever unity or cohesive condemnation it has this week inspired, does not make one iota of difference to the likelihood of its repetition. Jeremy Corbyn was right today to bring attention to the long-term incendiary effect of ill-judged foreign policy, but Harris suggests the impossibility of diplomacy could necessitate a military solution. Although there is logic in this argument, we have seen before that it is riddled with complexity and has a tendency to fan the flames yet further.

There is also some merit in our efforts to deter radicalisation on home soil, particularly since it feels like a cancer within. But anyone who tries to understand the real motivations of jihadism must also recognise that the main threat is not impacted by policy decision, neither is Theresa May’s government morally culpable for this week’s attack. Such suggestions simply put us further back from the starting point.