Edmund Burke, meet Sam Harris

Everyone has heard the famous quote by the British 18th century parliamentarian/intellectual Edmund Burke:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

What about evil thoughts that lead to evil deeds? It is of course impossible to know when such thoughts are taking place and if they will be acted upon but I think we can all agree that if we knew they were happening we should speak up. If a friend of mine confesses that he is thinking about robbing a bank then it’s appropriate for me to tell him that doing such a thing would be really crazy. I wouldn’t wait for him to actually rob the bank. I wouldn’t say something stupid like “well everyone is entitled to their own ideas.” What did all of the people who knew Timothy McVeigh say to him when he went off, denouncing the government as an evil force? All those who just walked away shaking their heads should feel guilty.

Before the action there is always a thought and it is usually expressed. It’s hard to keep quiet about things you feel strongly about. Religious thought is somewhat of a sacred cow. I am allowed to argue about extreme political positions like guns or welfare but hands off the Mormon at the end of the table regarding his magic underwear. Why? Is it because I don’t want to have to defend the list of unprovable religious beliefs I have?

Sam Harris wrote a book about ethics and how we should judge cultural values objectively and not allow ourselves to look the other way when it comes to issues like the suppression of women. No, it’s not just a different way of doing things. If my neighbor wants to believe in a 3 headed snake god that he says lives in his garage, then I’m supposed to be OK with that. Who am I to disabuse him of such insanity? What if he tells me that the little guy is very angry at the neighborhood and that the best thing would be to burn it all down? Burke and Harris would agree – I must engage this crazy man to try to get him back to reality or into an asylum. I must either be the impolite bearer of bad news -“sorry but your snake – god Does Not Exist!” or be prepared to explain to my neighbors (after the conflagration ) why I failed to mention to the police the intentions of the nut-job living next door.

If someone’s version of God is telling them (or allowing them to think it’s OK) to nuke Iran, pollute the planet, kill abortion doctors or bomb a marathon then they are NOT entitled to practice their religion quietly without my involvement. Anyone who knew these mad Chechen murderers and heard them wax on about Allah, evil America and holy war should be ashamed.

It turns out that “harmless” religious ideas can often turn out not to be so harmless and the fact that they come from magic books written in the iron age doesn’t render them unchallengeable. Quite the contrary.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about art – not about Jihad.











One thought on “Edmund Burke, meet Sam Harris”

  1. Your premise has a serious flaw in a society which purportedly values free speech. The Police, FBI, and other agencies are limited in their ability to arrest and detain people who haven’t actually committed a crime yet. Defining when the line is crossed between merely thinking (or speaking) about a crime and actually PLANNING it out is tricky business, and can easily become a legal slippery if limits are not in place. If hateful and aggressive speech were enough to warrant detention, many more crackers south of the Mason-Dixon line would be behind bars than teenage Chechen immigrants.

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