Harris’ heresies: The Hussain-Bensinger dialogue, part two

This is the continuation of Robby Bensinger and Murtaza Hussain’s discussion of Sam Harris and Islam. Click here for part one.

3. Science and Politics

Murtaza Hussain
GGSideDocs

In response to another of Robby’s points, the United States is not propping up a “benign dictatorship” in North Korea but is certainly doing so in Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia (none of these in my opinion really pass the “benign” test, but I digress) and many other Muslim countries. The bigoted and ignorant trope that Muslims are inherently incapable of responsible self-governance has been trotted out again and again and now finds Harris as another defender. Again, he knows what he is doing as he is stridently political (as Glenn so incisively pointed out, he pushes “atheism sprinkled on a neoconservative worldview“) and to see him claim ignorance of the geopolitical reality he speaks to is an absurd game on his part.

I don’t begrudge Robby for making what he felt was a good faith argument and defending someone he obviously admires. In fact he admires him so much that it has led him to effectively exonerate Harris in every circumstance from the real-world consequences of his own words. If Harris were not stridently political I would give him the benefit of the doubt – maybe his words are simply being misappropriated and he is speaking in terms of pure theory. However this is not the case, and as I’ve shown in my piece just because you are a “scientist” doesn’t mean you are immune from the pull of ideology. Harris is not only political, he subscribes to a particularly virulent neoconservative worldview which – as I pointed out – dovetails extraordinarily well with his supposedly impartial philosophical arguments.

Robby BensingrAgain, my point wasn’t that Sam’s view on the values of democracy v. dictatorship (borrowed from Fareed Zakaria) was correct. It’s that your presentation of his views was demonstrably inaccurate. The passage you cited to make your point discusses North Korea as one example, yet you presented that passage as your central case study in anti-Muslim racism. (Racism which, presumably, you will also want to ascribe to Zakaria?) There’s no contesting that.

This is a particularly extreme instance of misconduct on your part. You simply don’t present Sam’s views in an honest and clear way. It’s fine if you disagree with the guy, but that’s no reason to caricature him. When you use sociological context to try to motivate a broad theoretical interpretation of a text that is not apparent in the text itself, ethics demands that you do so explicitly and make clear where the text’s overt claims end and your extrapolation or interpretation begins. You’ve instead wholly concealed and distorted the original content, for anyone who doesn’t painstakingly explore every one of your links. (And, in a few cases, even for those who do follow your links.) That’s a singularly corrosive habit to fall into.

Murtaza Hussain
GGSideDocs

If you like Harris for his neuroscience work or his work arguing against the existence of God; good for you. Even though I disagree on the latter point I think it is a subject worthy of continuous debate and – to burn this strawman for the millionth time – it is never bigoted to criticize ideas, including Islam. Although Harris is unfortunately a deeply dishonest intellectual who has made a career of “quote-mining” the Quran (something he, without apparent irony, accused me of doing to him), this is not what is perfidious about him. The fact is that he is a demagogue and hatemonger, who takes his most courageous moral stands against the weakest and most oppressed people he can find. He uses his intellectual authority as a scientist to act as an advocate for exceptions for the most despicable policies ever devised by humanity – seemingly arguing that whatever humans have previously decided is an absolute wrong in fact does not need to be. And again, he argues in the present tense, in the context of *these* ongoing wars fought against Muslims.

Simply put, it is not me who has decontextualized Harris’ words but rather those who have ignobly chosen to defend him.

Robby BensingrIs Sam Harris political? Of course he’s political. No one has ever claimed otherwise. No one has said that he’s ‘just a neuroscientist’, or used this to argue that his political views are a matter of empirical fact and not open to dispute. (He didn’t didn’t even have his neuroscience Ph.D. back when he wrote The End of Faith.) The position you’re attacking is simply not to be found in the words or thoughts of your interlocuters.

I haven’t even defended most of Sam’s positions of substance, much less defended them because ‘he’s a scientist and scientists are always right’. My focus has instead been (in my first post) on your explicit misrepresentations of his positions, and (in my second post) on your and Glenn’s conflation of militant and anti-Islamic positions with anti-Muslim bigotry. I don’t consider either of your positions so weak that you should need to resort to straw-men of this sort, and I think I (and many of your and Sam’s readers) would gain a great deal from this discussion if it were not polluted with hyperbole and distortion. And I wouldn’t be taking so much time to try to improve the tone and content of the discussion if I didn’t think all of the participants reasonable and well-intentioned enough to step up their game.

Murtaza Hussain[A]s I said, if there wasn’t a war going on where actual innocent people are being tortured, killed and may indeed be wiped out in a nuclear explosion as some on the fringe right has suggested in Iran this might just be benign academic philosophizing, – but unfortunately those things are going on and being fiercely debated right now. Viewed in this light his views are little more than a political treatise.

Robby BensingrSam is a political writer, and his arguments do have important societal ramifications. Once more, no one has ever denied that. The whole point of Sam’s nuclear apocalypse scenario, for instance, is that the scenario is realistic, and hence that we should do everything in our power to prevent it. If the question were merely academic, why would anyone have written about it? You repeatedly confuse the ‘it’s realistic’ part of the claim with an imagined Archetypal Racist Neo-Con’s ‘it’s desirable’. As long as you keep falling into that habit, you won’t understand the argument you’re trying to attack.

Philosophy and science are relevant to our politics. But sometimes that relevance is positive. Science has been used to rationalize and promote racism. But it has also been used to powerfully undermine it. ‘Philosophy’ is not a bad word. ‘Science’ is not a bad word. Nor, I should note, is ‘political treatise’ a bad word! What’s wrong with your claims is that they’re false, not that they’re true-but-merely-academic.

Murtaza HussainUltimately, unless he offers a disclaimer on all his views that he is not an objective academic philosopher but a neoconservative political analyst that, it’s not benign. As far as I’m aware he’s never published a political tract or put his cards on the table with regards to the ideological milieu from which he springs (something which is obvious only to a politically-adept reader), those who are liable to take his views in good faith on a variety of other issues are liable to do so here as well.

4. Profiling

Murtaza Hussain
GGSideDocs

Harris magnanimously offers that under racial profiling he would fit the description of the type of person being profiled. How anyone could possibly find this absurdly disingenuous claim to be credible is beyond me. I will pause here for one moment because I think some degree of common sense should apply in profiling and would like to separate the concept from the man. In response to this article Harris printed an email he received from a Muslim lawyer, the content of which I believe made good sense. Muslims should do their part to be patient with certain fears and concerns (even if exaggerated) and not take offense if they are respectfully scrutinized for a greater period than average. However what I found disturbing about Harris’ own flagrantly irresponsible commentary on the issue was that he feels we should profile anyone who “looks Muslim”. Given that Muslims come from every ethnic background on Earth – though, as I noted, they are overwhelmingly black and brown – how exactly would we discern who “looks Muslim”? Long flowing robes? Large beards? Grandiose turbans? There is simply no natural way to do so. It is a flippant yet highly dangerous statement made by Harris; the only effective solution to which would be having Muslims carry special ID cards or wearing crescent-moon armbands for easy identification.

Robby BensingrI don’t see what your argument is here. Are you saying that racially profiling Muslims logically couldn’t involve profiling light-skinned people? But a large portion of the Muslim world is light-skinned, and otherwise ‘looks European’ in a variety of ways. Your argument is inconsistent with your own acknowledgment that Muslims are more diverse than racist caricatures would suggest.

Murtaza Hussain[T]here is a standard view of who “looks Muslim” and it seems disingenuous to deny that. Light-skinned European Muslims (ostensibly naturalized Arabs and Eastern Europeans) may not fit that look but they are generally still identifiable by Muslim names etc. Given that Sikhs and Hindus (and notably, not white people who might look like European Muslims) are in many cases targeted just as harshly as actual Muslims, it would take a real suspension of disbelief to think that when he says we should go after those who “look Muslim” the image which comes into ones mind would be a blue-eyed white man such as him. If that were the case we’d just have to profile every human being on earth, which I suspect is not what he’s saying here.

Robby BensingrHave you actually read the “In Defense of Profiling” article you’re criticizing, or are you just going by the quotation in isolation? Sam explicitly includes himself in the group of people he thinks should be profiled three times in the space of the article. And it’s a really short article! If anyone actually reading the article started off with the naïve assumption that Sam wanted to profile all and only the people who fit an Archetypal Racist Neo-Con’s uneducated stereotype of a ‘Typical Muslim’, they would have to quickly revise that view by the time they finished reading.

What Sam endorsed was negative profiling — e.g., not cavity-searching 80-year-old Iowan women of Taiwanese descent with the same frequency as people who look like Sam Harris. Your argument is that in doing so, Sam was secretly being racist, on the grounds that if he were a racist, then he’d have had a racist stereotype in mind when he said “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim“. But one of your main reasons for thinking that he’s racist is the fact that he endorses negative profiling in the first place. This is clearly circular. If something only counts as strong evidence for your view once you’re convinced that your view is already right, it’s probably not very good evidence.

5. Understanding Islam

Murtaza HussainSam doesn’t seem to know what Islam is and has created a terrifying visage in his own mind that thus necessitates great violence and the suspension of normal moral considerations. As he’s said himself on the subject “some ideas are dangerous enough that you may need to kill people for believing them” – hence a War on Islam. Again, if you viewed this entirely divorced from context I’d say its not such an objectionable viewpoint and perhaps could be entertained in good faith. However when viewed in the entire context of his public statements about the subjects and his sweeping generalizations about “Muslims” – this is reprehensible. Imagine someone else so flippantly using “the Jews” or “the Blacks” as a basis point for criticism; they’d rightly be excoriated. Crudge bigot that he is, he is unable to restrain himself from the same behaviour regarding Muslims.

There is a large exegesis on Islam just as is there is on Christianity and so forth. You can’t just pick up the Quran (especially an English translation), skim through it on the weekend and then start talking down to people who’ve spent lifetimes of study on it. Perhaps one may argue religion and exegesis is pointless and merely clouds the picture; and if that’s what you feel then fair game. However aside from absolute extremist illiterates and isolated individuals including those aligned with the Taliban (Harris’ favourite Muslims) there is absolutely no mainstream group of practicing Muslims anyway who practices Islam as he understands it. One doesn’t flip through a neuroscience textbook on the weekend and start expounding to neuroscientists that they’re a bunch of ape-ish morons, because who would be so arrogant? I think this is good evidence of Harris’ truly bold stupidity, fostered by his privileged upbringing and the years he’s spent insulated from the harder edges of the meritocracy. He’s basically a spoiled little kid with an opinion and tons of fears and prejudices.

Robby BensingrYou’re still falling too readily into the habit of quote-mining. I mind it less when Glenn provides strings of quotations, because they’re mostly (though far from always) fairly representative of Sam’s views, and he often takes the time to note nuances and complications in his presentation. In your case, on the other hand, the quotations you cite are mostly misleading, i.e., they provide a mostly false picture of Sam to anyone who isn’t familiar with the quotations’ context or with Sam’s general publicly stated positions. That’s… genuinely alarming. I’m spectacularly unimpressed by ‘gotcha!’ politics of this kind. Your brand of rhetoric really does have a chilling effect on honest, open political discourse.

In this case, you’re neglecting the fact that Sam only thinks some beliefs are that dangerous inasmuch as they directly cause violent behaviors. If an armed burglar believes I’m reaching for a gun instead of for a wallet, then his belief is very dangerous, and may cause my death. If a cultist believes that she must kill herself in order to please God, then her belief puts her own life in danger, as well as the lives of anyone she can convince. It is only those sorts of beliefs Sam has in mind here, and his point is a general one about the importance of dogma in human behavior. If you think beliefs on their own can’t motivate violence, then spend your time defending that position, not attacking a straw man.

Murtaza HussainThere are people who spend their lives devoted to studying all the various source materials for Islamic exegesis; he has literally picked up the Quran, flipped through it, decided these people are violent idiots and now feels his advocacy for suspending their inalienable rights if and when they get out of line is warranted. I believe in Islam, he wants a war against it, so is that then an idea dangerous enough to kill me for? Based on his arrogant belief that he knows what it is it certainly seems to be. Coupled all of this with his noxiously partisan and hateful views on issues such as Israel and Palestine (where he wholeheartedly denies both the actual facts as well as the basic humanity of the latter) and a bad picture begins to emerge. He seems to think its obvious that he speaks and acts in good faith, I don’t think such a thing is obvious at all.

Robby BensingrGood grief. No, Sam does not think your beliefs are that dangerous. What matters is whether anyone’s could ever be.

He thinks the beliefs of the 9/11 hijackers were that dangerous. He also thinks those people’s views are easier to justify using the Qur’an and hadith than are yours. So he associates ‘Islam’ or ‘real Islam’ with extreme militant Islamism. (This, I think, is a reasonable point on which you and he can disagree. I invite you to shoot Sam an e-mail and try sussing out just how much he knows about the Qur’an. Don’t just assume he’s ignorant because he disagrees with your Qur’anic exegesis; test your hypothesis!)

Murtaza HussainI wanted to bring this particular quote up during the interview and the host basically brushed it off but I think it is representative of undeniable bigotry and demagoguery on his part:

In our dealings with the Muslim world, we must acknowledge that Muslims have not found anything of substance to say against the actions of the September 11 hijackers, apart from the ubiquitous canard that they were really Jews.” ( The End of Faith, p. 134)

Given this, this, this and this, these sound like the words of a man more interested in demonizing a vulnerable minority group than addressing actual issues in good faith. Making up such slanderous canards himself to demonize Muslims, while also hint-hinting that we may be able to discard our normal aversion to certain unconscionable tactics in our conflict with them, combines to be something quite reprehensible.

I understand you admire Harris for a variety of reasons, and I also understand that for many people who are devoutly irreligious his views seem to offer some alternative means of salvation sans “God”. In this light I can see why he continues to have such staunch defenders despite everything and why in many cases such an emotional response has been provoked. However if you really find these kinds of statements about Muslim people to be palatable, responsible and in good faith, we do not have as much in common in our socio-political views as you may have come to believe.

Robby BensingrWhen Sam speaks of a ‘war on Islam’, he in practice means a war on radical Islamism. That’s why he writes, “At this point in human history, Islam simply is different from other faiths. The challenge we all face, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is to find the most benign and practical ways of mitigating these differences and of changing this religion for the better.” and, as he wrote in 2006 regarding “moderate Muslims“, the fundamental question we face is “[H]ow can we best empower them?” Ironically, Sam sees legitimately moderate Muslims as our most important allies in the ‘war on Islam’.

It’s important to note that fact, because it’s possible to disagree with him on the one count without disagreeing on the other. For instance, you might agree with him that we should aggressively combat certain (pseudo-?)Islamic teachings by Muslims, like the murder of apostates and the virtue of suicide bombing, while still disagreeing with him about whether those people’s views are in accord with Islam Proper. The question ‘Is violent jihadism a perversion of Islam, its one true fulfillment, or something in between?’ is surely something you and Sam strongly disagree about, but I suspect that this disagreement is masking the more important practical issues you independently disagree about.

Sam’s view is that we need more bad Muslims, more people who nominally follow Islam but regularly reject many of its core doctrines. You might disagree strongly with his view that moderate and liberal Muslims aren’t being as true to the traditional doctrines of Islam, while nevertheless agreeing with him that moderate Islam is something we desperately need to promote.

I join you in criticizing Sam for the last quotation you cited. Indeed, I find it refreshing to finally see you not quoting him in a misleading, wholly context-insensitive way! The quotation looks like a clear case of hyperbole to me.

But my response was to talk to Sam about it, citing a list of Muslim responses to 9/11. If you refuse to have such conversations, you’ll stand a chance neither of convincing others nor of understanding what you’re criticizing. Sam replied:

As you must know, there was (and probably still is) a very popular conspiracy theory circulating in the Muslim world that 4000 Jews didn’t show up to work on the morning of September 11th, 2001. I certainly didn’t make this up. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a few hundred million Muslims believe it at this moment.

If there were prominent Muslims who were speaking honestly and substantively about the problem of jihadist violence in the aftermath of 9/11, I missed it. The truth is, I’m still missing it. Declarations of the sort you linked to in your email mean very little — there are even some terrorist organizations co-signing on that page. Should we really care that Jamaat-e-Islami and Hamas declare themselves against terrorism?

An example of what I meant by “substance” can be found here, in the hypothetical words I put into the mouth of Imam Abdul Rauf after the Ground Zero Mosque episode.

http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/silence-is-not-moderation

I think I can count on two fingers the number of Muslims I’ve heard speak this way in public.

Actually, I found something of substance last night: http://bit.ly/189EdeT

The question is, why isn’t every non-jihadist Muslim saying this?

So it seems that his intent was to criticize Muslims for failing to fully repudiate and come to grips with the causes of the hijackers’ conduct. He didn’t mean to suggest that Muslims have had nothing bad to say about the 9/11 bombing at all! Sam is largely responsible for the confusion here, but, importantly, the damage and waste caused by that confusion is greatly diminished when our first instinct is to try to sort out the facts, rather than to just score rhetorical points. It is possible to harshly criticize or dissent from others without stretching the truth. There’s a lesson to be learned here, if you’re ready to learn it.

I hope that you and Glenn will retract the other, inaccurate characterizations you’ve made of Sam’s views. It would demonstrate a whole lot of good faith, and clear up misunderstandings you’ve caused for a lot of your readers. Even better, it would make it much easier to move the discussion on to more substantive areas of disagreement. Or, if you remain more interested in ad hominem questions of Sam Harris’ character and religio-political expertise, we could at least begin to have such a discussion in a way that remains in contact with reality.

Murtaza Hussain[T]his argument only works if you accept a very shoddy premise which isn’t borne out much by facts. I’m not going to restate the arguments made by Big White Ogre but they are absolutely legitimate. One thing I will point out when you suggest that perhaps he has done more study on Islam than it seems is that his views on what is “Islamic” correspond almost exactly to what the Taliban believes. They have the excuse of being illiterate, Harris is a rich privilege individual with access to the world on a level completely unparalleled. That he has apparently come to the same conclusions as them reeks of either cynicism or remarkable ignorance.

Harris’ response above is beyond parody, and I truly enjoyed his back and forth gushing on Twitter (actually parodied here) with Tarek Fatah. Jamaat-e-Islami is a hardcore “Islamist” organization but they run in elections and are not designated by anyone on earth as a terrorist group. What’s notable is that even people on the far right in the Muslim world condemned the 9/11 attacks, to say nothing of ordinary people.

In Iran tens of thousands of people held a spontaneous candlelight vigil for the 9/11 victims, while Tahir-ul-Qadri w/Minhaj-ul-Quran (signed by and representing thousands of Islamic scholars around the world) issued an unequivocal and wide-reaching fatwa denouncing the act and suicide terrorism in general. Harris doesn’t know or care about the details of any of these things because he’s more interested in putting forth a narrative which helps buttress his own neoconservative politics and allows him to publicly explore his own neuroses about the scary brown people who live abroad.

Best part about this is that the only person Harris thinks speaks sensibly about the subject is someone widely considered in Canada to be a buffoonish opportunist (old Uncle Tarek), who is himself aligned with the extremist Jewish Defence League. This is indeed Harris’ natural group and these are his ideological fellow-travellers; I hope to see him publicly embrace them more closely as time goes on and drop the shallow pretence of his liberalism

Robby BensingrHere’s a quote from BigWhiteOgre’s blog post:

But Christians don’t practice that and Muslims do, says Harris.  Yeah, but they did practice it in the past.  Today they exegete it away just as many Muslim scholars exegete that Hadith away.  Maybe the difference in behavior has more to do with the fact that suffering (they have been attacked and subject to dictators for many years) leads people into a more radical form of religion.  Maybe the problem isn’t Islam itself.  So if the inferiority of Islam isn’t obvious, people are going to question Harris’ motives.  Perhaps he is a bigot.

Sam would actually agree that a few hundred years ago, Christianity and Islam were comparably bad. In fact, one of the basic conceits of The End of Faith is that 21st-century Islam has a great deal in common with the Christianity of the past, and that we need to work to moderate and secularize Islam much as we did Christianity. I think that’s a point of consensus between all of us.

From what I’ve seen, Sam is also perfectly open to discussing the extent to which secular violence and oppression directed at Muslims (both internally and externally) have played a major role in its radicalization. As he put it, “[N]othing about honestly discussing the doctrine of Islam requires that a person not notice all that might be wrong with U.S. foreign policy, capitalism, the vestiges of empire, or anything else that may be contributing to our ongoing conflicts in the Muslim world.” We can discuss data points like Tibetan Buddhism and try to come to more of an agreement about how much of a causal role metaphysical doctrines play in human psychology and in world affairs. Reasonable disagreement can be had here.

Where he and I get off the boat is at the fallacious inference from ‘the suffering and oppression of Muslims plays a larger role in Islamic radicalism than does Islam itself’ to ‘Islam isn’t a problem’. Islam and secular oppression are both contributing to the problem. And where this fallacy becomes outright dangerous is in the second leap to ‘since it’s plausible that Islam isn’t a problem, it’s equally plausible that Harris is a bigot’. No. As I noted in my piece on Islamophobia:

If harsh critiques of Islam are not deranged across the board, then demonstrating [D] ‘His concerns about Islam are exaggerated.‘ will not suffice for demonstrating [C] ‘He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Islam.‘, independent of the fact that neither establishes [B] ‘He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Muslims.‘ […]

There remains the large dialectical onus of showing that Harris’ most severe criticisms of Islam are all false; the even larger burden of showing as well that they are outright irrational; and the even larger burden of showing that they are, each and every one, so wildly irrational as to rival sexism, homophobia, or clinical phobias.

That’s quite a project. Importantly, if any of these burdens can’t unambiguously be met, then resorting to immediate name-calling, to accusations of bigotry or malice, will remain an irresponsible tactic, one deeply destructive of reasoned debate.

You don’t get to call everyone who disagrees with you a bigot merely because you’ve demonstrated that not every reasonable person thinks that the purported bigot’s beliefs are obviously true.

I should also note that BigWhiteOgre clearly isn’t getting the problem with the ‘fascism’ quotation. Anyone new to the topic who reads that quotation out of context will reliably come to genuinely mistaken views about Sam, such as that he’s an explicit, out-of-the-closet fascist and white supremacist. Insofar as it’s your job as a journalist and commentator to try to inform and educate your readers, you should be very concerned about a quotation that promotes false beliefs more than true ones. Particularly when you’ve recontextualized it in a way that maximally encourages readers to arrive at that false conclusion, with sensationalist claims like “[T]he most prominent new atheists slide with ease into the most virulent racism imaginable.” or “[Harris is in a] class with the worst proponents of scientific racism of the 20th century“.

If you, Glenn, or BigWhiteOgre expect me or your readers to miss the very clear implications of your quote-mining — after all the time you’ve spent insisting that Sam is efficiently communicating such a symphony of content entirely between the lines! — then you must not think very highly of my or your readers’ intelligence.

6. Conclusion

Murtaza HussainYou afford Sam’s views a superhuman amount of nuance which paradoxically enough he makes a specific point of not extending to the subjects which he covers. We have learned through bitter historical experience not to throw around generalizations about “the Jews” or “the Blacks”, but he takes full license with “the Muslims”. This type of rhetoric is dangerous and actually causes harm to many innocent people. Because I know he is not historically ignorant I have to assume that he knows what he is doing when he does such things, and frankly it is repulsive. We are trying as a community to keep our head above water while cynics such as Sam consciously try and push us back under.

Although I used Sam as the prime example the article was intended to be a not about “him”.  It was written with the intention of stigmatizing casually violent and derogatory language towards Muslim people. We are rightfully very careful in the media of talking about Jewish people, Black people or any other ethnic minority; and this is due to the great efforts of the people in those communities to make it socially unacceptable for such language to be publicly aired. I do not think if you threw around statements like “The Jewish World’s Most Scarce Resource is Honesty” you would be able to show your face in polite society afterwards, no matter how you try and finesse the rest of what you say. I don’t see why a double-standard should exist towards us. If I had written “Scientific Racists, Militarism and Sam Harris” it would have been a different article; my goal is to stigmatize hate-mongering and discrimination (of which Sam is absolutely today a purveyor) and I’d say to some degree its been accomplished.

The scientific racists of past really do have a lot in common in the sense that they were propagandists of a certain type (for slavery) while their modern iterations are propagandists of another type (for war). Sam is definitely a bigot who is intentionally trying to fan the flames of hatred against Muslims, but he is also an intelligent man who knows that this has to be done in a sophisticated way to convince people who would otherwise reject it. In practice there is little difference between his end prescriptions or his race-baiting about demographic trends and those of skinheads, but unlike them he knows how to present himself and present his arguments in a way which will be accepted in polite society.

One usually offers their opponent a golden bridge to redemption at the end of a piece though I did not do overtly that here. My hope was that he’d offer a statement of contrition or at least a forceful repudiation of bigotry towards Muslims and he did not do so. Tellingly when Glenn confronted him in that email exchange on the “fascist” quote, he stated that he doesn’t support fascists because upon further looking into such groups he found that they often target others too. This was a nice window into his psychology, he didn’t cite any objections to the facts of what fascists may say or do to Muslims, just that there might be some other collateral damage. I really don’t think he’d mind.

Robby BensingrSam is generally careful to focus his attacks on Islam, not on “the Muslims” as a monolith. That said, where there are obvious cases of critics crossing that line, I’ll gladly join you in criticizing them. That’s part of why I consider us allies in core values and goals. It’s only in methods that we sharply disagree.

We agree that the marginalization of racism and bigotry has been a colossal boon to humanitarianism and social justice. I think we should also be able to agree that the recent stigmatization as racist of critiques of ideologies has been a huge obstacle to moral and intellectual clarity in progressive (and not-so-progressive) circles. I was raised Jewish, but it horrifies me to see all criticisms of Judaism, Zionism, or Israel dismissed as ‘anti-semitism’. Those are social institutions and dogmas, not ethnic groups, and it is of profound importance that we not immunize everything associated with Jews from informed critique in the course of routing out the bona fide bigots.

My position on Islam is the same: Just as I harshly criticize Jewish scripture, doctrine, and political apocalypticism for making the world a more dangerous place, I harshly criticize Islamic scripture, doctrine, and political apocalypticism for making the world a more dangerous place.

That doesn’t mean that my criticism must ignore history, social context, demographic variation, or the distinction between a religion and an ethnic group. Judaism and Christianity are, on the whole, forces for evil, just as Islam is, though not all individual Jews, Christians, or Muslims are. If it is important for us to continue to spread tolerance and multiculturalism, it is correspondingly important for us to reverse the overreach of this moral heuristic into domains where we are ethically required to engage in harsh verbal attacks and debate, not in reverent silence.

We must not allow the truth to become taboo. We must not even allow non-obviously-false falsehoods to become taboo. (Fortunately, white supremacism qualifies as obviously false. Taboo away.)

Heck, let’s come out and say it: Honesty is one of the Jewish world’s scarcest resources! Have you seen rabbinic theodicies or militant pro-Israel apologetics? Good god. When it comes to intellectual authenticity, they’re a hall of mirrors, a lunatic’s scrawl. Speaking truth to power requires that we critique religious authorities, and not just secular ones.

If you think Sam Harris’ positions are radically different from the above, then consider quotations of his like “As a secularist and a nonbeliever—and as a Jew—I find the idea of a Jewish state obnoxious.” or “Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their ‘freedom of belief’ on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East. They will be a direct cause of war between Islam and the West should one ever erupt over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.“.

A final straw: You say that Sam “stated that he doesn’t support fascists because upon further looking into such groups he found that they often target others too”.

That decidedly is not what he said.

His stated concern with fascists and like-minded “lunatics” isn’t that they “target others too“; it’s that even when they target Muslims, they do so for inane and grotesque reasons, like racism, Christian extremism, or reflexive anti-immigrant paranoia. After all the errors third parties have pointed out in your writings, you’re still falling like clockwork into this habit of misstating others’ words. This is really discouraging. Do you not see the disparity between the words and your paraphrase? It’s fine if you want to advocate an unusual interpretation, but you can’t even begin that project without first taking the time to recognize the prose’s clear sense.

If you want Sam to be willing to make serious revisions to his views when called out for them, then on grounds of consistency alone you should be willing to make the same concessions when an error is spotted in your work — particularly when those concessions are procedural matters, and don’t require that you actually change your basic outlook on the world. It should always be possible to make your point in a public debate without distorting others’ stated positions, no matter how depraved you’re convinced your conversation partners are. Anything less will be perfectly destructive of the very conversation you’re trying to begin.

__________________________________________________

Further reading
Terror?” Rounders and Rogues.
Harris, Sam (2004). “Holy Terror“. Los Angeles Times.
Harris, Sam (2005). “Verses from the Koran“. TruthDig.
Harris, Sam (2011). “Dear Angry Lunatic: A Response to Chris Hedges“. Sam Harris Blog.
Zachary, Justin (2013). “Thoughts on the Greenwald/Harris debate over Islam“. Daily
Kos.

How to be a god

What are gods?

In some ways, the question is more important for atheists than for theists. If I’m a theist, after all, I don’t need to understand what it takes to be a ‘god’ in general; I just need to know that my pick of the litter is a bona fide god. It’s the atheists who must speak in broad strokes of all gods, in order for their chosen self-label to even be contentful. These six criteria do the job of pinpointing gods quite well:

1. They are people, capable of thought and action.

2. As a rule, they are (or normally appear) roughly human-shaped and human-sized.

3. They can sometimes be weakened or killed, but by nature they are significantly more powerful and long-lived than a human.

4. As a rule, they are associated with some domain they have dominion or strong influence over, be it a place, a natural phenomenon, or an abstract category.

5. They are natural objects of worship.

6. They are in some way ‘magical‘ or ‘supernatural’.

Within a religion, the gods often form a natural grouping. So, as an added complication, otherwise similar beings may be construed as non-divine if they lack a certain ability or lineage that unifies a tradition’s paradigmatic deities.

Borrowing from E.B. Taylor’s 1871 Primitive Culture, many anthropologists have distinguished ‘god’ worship (theolatry) from ‘spirit’ worship (animism). However, this division, predicated on the theory that cultures naturally ‘evolve’ from animism to polytheism to monotheism, has increasingly fallen out of favor. Cultures have often been labeled ‘animistic’ more because they were seen as ‘primitive’ than because they unambiguously saw everything as intelligent or alive. And even world-views with myriad all-pervading minds can easily blend into world-views with a single all-pervading super-mind. (Compare brahman in India.)

If we do wish to distinguish lesser spirits and monsters from gods, it will need to be because the former are weaker, or less authoritative, or lack human form, or just have a different lineage and name. However, none of these is sufficient on its own. The classification we use will always be arbitrary to some extent, and will depend on the structure of the overall belief system.

Not amused.

Gods interact with humans, and with each other, leading to myths and communicative or transactional rituals. Gods can become human, and humans can become gods, so the human/god distinction can become just as fraught as spirit/god one.

The requirement that gods be ‘natural objects of worship’ distinguishes them from magical beings that lack the power, authority, or virtue true reverence demands. For instance, powerful daemonic spirits may fail to be gods if they cannot or ought not be worshiped, but exist instead to be opposed, manipulated, or befriended. However, some traditions recognize evil gods, and most traditions fail to clearly distinguish religious worship from magical manipulation, so the line between the divine and the demonic is again fuzzy.

Linguistic and conceptual divides mean that lots of interpretive work is required to find a common classification for legendary beings across religious traditions. To see how this works in practice, I’ll present four examples, which I encourage you to treat with some skepticism.

Abrahamism: Early Judaism was henotheistic, believing in many gods but worshiping only one, Yahweh. It shifted from polytheism to monotheism as it came to see rival magical beings as increasingly unworthy even of foreign worship, identifying gods with evil spirits. At the same time, Yahweh’s heavenly court of gods became identified with Yahweh or with his angelic messengers. And the angels themselves, initially treated as manifestations or incarnations of Yahweh, lost their divine status and became lesser spirits. In Christianity, this process worked both ways, as Jesus acquired a status similar to the original angels’.

Buddhism: Buddhas — particularly in their ‘truth body’ (dharmakāya) — are often ascribed attributes similar to the modern Abrahamist God, whereas devas resemble the gods of Greek mythology. (Following the Hindu Paranas, a distinct group of gods, the asuras, were seen as lesser wicked spirits.) However, the word ‘god’ is restricted to the devas so as to highlight buddhas’ unusual features. Upper case ‘God’ is generally reserved for a creator deity like Brahmā or Īshvar. Since Buddhists believe the world has no beginning, it can be said that they deny ‘God’ (issara) but accept ‘gods’ (devas).

Zoroastrianism: Here, the Indian progression is reversed. The supreme god is an asura (Ahura Mazda), while the daēvas are wicked lesser gods, eventually downgraded to demons and ogres. Such developments are often unpredictable or historically contingent; in Germanic religions, asuras again became the ruling gods, the æsir.

Raëlism: This UFO religion, founded in 1974, has no creator gods, spirits, magic, or souls. It is physicalistic, atheistic, and emphasizes science over the supernatural.  The existence of such religions suggests that skeptical and antireligious movements shouldn’t narrowly focus on ‘atheism’. However, Raëlians do believe that we were intelligently designed by a powerful, benevolent alien race, the ‘Elohim’.

Simulation hypotheses posit even more extraordinary creators than Raëlism does. They suggest that we are in a Matrix-like virtual reality, meaning that our entire universe is the product of a transcendent designer. Yet we do not ordinarily think of powerful aliens or computer programmers as ‘gods’. What sets them apart will ultimately rest on the most important criterion I haven’t talked about here, the ‘magical’ or ‘supernatural’ element. Defining the ‘natural’ is a very difficult and messy task, far more problematic than any of the issues I’ve raised above. That story will have to wait for another post.

Why are we so bad at talking to each other?

This is a revised version of a Friendly Atheist post.

Whether the secular movement flourishes will depend on how well it can carry on a dialogue with its religious friends and foes. It’s through conversation that we will change our public image, negotiate political gains, and form alliances on specific issues. It’s conversation that will determine whether our numbers expand.

But the stakes are drastically higher than that. In an increasingly interdependent world, our ability as human beings to resolve disputes verbally is the only abiding safeguard against violence, against polarization, against seeing informed democracy degenerate into shouting matches.

Why, then, are we so averse to talking to those with whom we disagree? Why do dialogues fail? Why are we so rarely persuaded? If we can understand why we’re so bad at resolving our differences, maybe we can do a little to change that fact.

Greta Christina noted at the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference that “arguing about religion is not a waste of time.” Although debaters themselves may be bewilderingly obstinate in the heat of battle, onlookers remain surprisingly receptive to new ideas. This suggests that the best way to promote atheism is to argue before a large audience.

However, there will always be cases where we need to get a point across to someone directly. Most interactions between theists and nontheists will be in small groups, or one-on-one. And it is these direct chats that are ideal for reaching out to those individuals who are least informed about atheists, least inclined to waste time on the Internet perusing atheist blogs or YouTube debates. Aside from the occasional prime-time atheological sound bite, person-to-person discussion will be what tends to define our image and plant the earliest seeds of doubt. So the question retains its urgency. What makes discussion break down? Judging by the debates I’ve seen and participated in, there are two main culprits.

I. Our discussions aren’t collaborations.

We see debate as an opportunity to defend ourselves, attack another position, fight for dominance and power and respect. We see it as something either I win or you win, not as something both sides succeed or fail in together. Our discussions are antagonistic because we enjoy being right, we take pride in the strength of our reasoning — and we feel shame and dismay when we are proven wrong.

Why don’t we feel the happy excitement of a new discovery when someone corrects a mistake of ours? Because the discussion has been framed as a competition, not as a mutual pursuit of deeper understanding. It’s not enough to make overtures of camaraderie; even exchanges between the best of friends can become bitter squabbles if either side becomes too invested in who is right, overshadowing what is right. A healthy discussion should feel like trading recipes or researching a common interest; each side should keenly (or casually) desire to understand the other, to learn and not just to teach. We have plenty to learn from the religious; if nothing else, we have plenty to learn from them about other religious people, and how to better reach out to them and find common cause. This sort of cheerful shared curiosity must drive discussions. A religious exchange motivated only by the evangelical desire to banish ignorance, however well-meant, is doomed to failure.

Remember: It’s not fun to be wrong. Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Sam Harris suggests that our brains process falsehoods with an experience akin to disgust. It’s a delight to encounter beliefs you agree with. It’s a pleasure to hold beliefs which seem to make sense of your experiences. At the same time, it’s not easy living with contradictions and lacunae; cognitive dissonance is unpleasant. A discussion of deeply held beliefs is more like an affective rodeo than like trading indifferent data points.

What’s the take-away? Be nuanced. Be moderate. ‘Nuanced’ doesn’t mean ‘complicated’. Express your views clearly and concisely, but follow up a negative comment with a positive comment, to mitigate the inevitable emotional sting while leaving the intellectual content intact. And ‘moderate’ doesn’t mean ‘wishy-washy’ on points of substance. You will come across as moderate if you are willing to make concessions, ask sincere questions, compliment the other side, and admit your own shortcomings, even if these sugar-coated asides are irrelevant to your central argument, and even if the argument itself is a radical one. A very little friendliness and good humor goes a very long way. Indeed, just coming across as a nice person tends to do a lot more to attract skeptics and allies than even the most devastating logic. And, of course, it leads to way better conversations.

II. Our discussions aren’t specific.

When we speak of persuading people about atheism, we aren’t really speaking about some isolated bit of theology. Atheism here is code for a very broad and complex world-view, rich in methodological and theoretical commitments. This is our long-term strength, because it provides something with which to fill the epistemic void left by deconversion. But it’s our short-term weakness, because it makes our discussions too all-or-nothing. It forces us to demolish a towering world-view in one fell swoop, when we’d be better off chipping away slowly at the foundations.

We are at our strongest when we can debate particular, relatively weakly held claims. This allows us to show off the power, the richness, the appeal of scientific and philosophical reasoning — without drowning out that appeal in the backlash of immediate outrage. Why leap to debate God when you can sharpen Ockham’s razor first on ghosts, or homeopathy, or climate change denialism? In this way you can teach the intellectual methods motivating atheism, which are in any case far more important and life-saving than atheism itself. If the methods manage to take root, they will do more to eat away at dogma from within than any argument made by another ever could.

Sticking to specifics makes it easier to convince the other side of some particular claim; and even if the issue is a trivial one, there is much value simply in the act of learning to inquire skeptically and revise one’s views. Moreover, it is on these innumerable factoids, far more than on deep and unshakable moral convictions, that theists and atheists disagree.

The same, surprisingly, is true of American liberals and conservatives. If a discussion were had on interpreting some specific data or theory, the dialogue could advance and both groups could come away better educated. Because the debate is instead halted at incredibly broad topics — we don’t debate some claim about abortion, we debate abortion itself — no progress is made. Instead, both sides fall into the well-rehearsed rituals of their cherished established beliefs, camouflaging a mass of negotiable factual disagreements as a monolithic dispute of irreconcilable values. This is how sides in a dispute fossilize into factions. There are indeed real conflicts over values — but these are as dust compared to the mountains of cost-benefit analyses, empirical generalizations, and causal interpretations on which the two sides would first diverge. When the discussion stays in vague, well-trodden territory, we do nothing but go in circles.

How does this work in practice? Paul Veyne, in “Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?”, quotes the missionary Évariste Huc’s account of Tibet:

We had adopted a completely historical mode of instruction, taking care to exclude anything that suggested argument and the split of contention; proper names and very precise dates made much more of an impression on them than the most logical reasoning. When they knew the names Jesus, Jerusalem, and Pontius Pilate and the date 4000 years after Creation, they no longer doubted the mystery of the Redemption and the preaching of the Gospel. Furthermore, we never noticed that mysteries or miracles gave them the slightest difficulty. We are convinced that it is through teaching and not the method of argument that one can work efficaciously toward the conversion of the infidel.

Set aside the manipulative evangelism and notice the lesson in psychology. Even the best arguments tend to fail when they’re pitted against the deepest convictions of a competing religion, cemented by habit and guarded by stereotyped, mantra-like counterarguments. Non-argumentative, factual accounts, on the other hand, slip through the cracks quite easily. This is not simply because they are framed as indisputable facts, nor because they are too idiosyncratic and exotic to brook easy retort. It is because they are friendlier, less confrontational. They invite listening and learning, rather than intellectual combat.

Such a technique, of course, can easily be abused. It merely replaces one authority with another. We want to encourage productive and dynamic dialogues, not just a one-sided soliloquy. Yet if we want the communication without the rancor, we must make argument its own reward. It must be a happy act aimed at real discovery and mutual enrichment.

If our only goal were to make everyone believe the same thing we believe, we’d be better off relying on the rhetorical power of facts and figures and jargon. But orthodoxy, even scientific orthodoxy, isn’t our goal. Our goal is a world of open-minded critical thinkers, of people who have made a habit of questioning, and of seeking, and of imaginatively advancing the human discussion in science and in politics. However you envision secularism’s end-game, no path is possible in the absence of civil and productive dialogues between people with radically different world-views.

This is not to say that such dialogue is easy. It is to say that we have no choice. We have to talk.