Archive for the ‘Sam Harris’ Category
Having seen Sam Harris misrepresented at an atheist conference, though fortunately in a Q and A so he could quickly correct and explain that no he did not believe in a soul nor that we should not be atheists (just do not use in public policy debate) it was about time he responded to current critics. The articles in question should you want more background are:
All quotes from articles come from above sources.
My contention is Sam does well in parts, but does shoot himself in the foot on some key issues as PZ Myers mentioned. It’s an impressive looking tackle in flight till you realise the critics are still going to score. Largely because of how Harris wrote his thoughts on an unsuspecting public his clarifications really do not recover the ground well enough.
Say what you think
In debates with people on twitter I have been called a colonialist by some Muslims for suggesting that a secular state allows people to have their faith without anyone imposing religion or atheism by law on others. I have been told that being critical of an Islamic belief is islamophobia. This is nonsense. Discrimination and hatred based on someone’s faith, and treating people as a group not an individual would be. Criticising a belief or practise is not the same as oppressing a people. Sam observes:
The truth is, we have already lost our First Amendment rights with respect to Islam—and because they brand any observation of this fact a symptom of Islamophobia, Muslim apologists like Greenwald are largely to blame.
Remember we face this sort of view as tweeted by the Muslim Brotherhood:
Suggesting faith is a private belief not enforceable by the state on it’s citizens is enough to have insults thrown at you – at all times in public you must adhere to the faith. As bloggers in Bangladesh are sadly finding out.
Think how you say it
It does however become harder when you say things as Sam does on torture, far right on immigration making more sense, killing people for a belief. When you need paragraphs to put in context, even then Harris’ observations still stick out as uncomfortable reading. Take how he dismisses qualms about water boarding:
Again, which is worse: water-boarding a terrorist or killing/maiming him? Which is worse, water-boarding an innocent person or killing/maiming him? There are journalists who have volunteered to be water-boarded. Where are the journalists who have volunteered to have a 5000-pound bomb dropped on their homes with their families inside?
I suppose it is too much to suggest that those journalists water boarded once like Christopher Hitchens suggest a very different view point on using such torture for example in a ticking time bomb situation (link to Hitchens’ Vanity Fair piece on). Speaking of Hitchens his remark on Sam saying the far right only ones making sense on immigration “not while I’m alive they’re not” sums up a horrible line by Harris. With Hitchens’ passing others are making the positive case for immigration.
The military command hopefully aim to reduce civilian casualties – torturing a person is about applying the level of torture necessary to get information on purpose. That suffering is potentially limitless, deliberately intended and doubtful whether reliable or not once extracted.
Killed for a reason
Did that point a few paragraphs back where I mention Harris saying people can be killed for their belief sink in? It is a bold claim for one so quick to say their own first amendment rights are restricted by the behaviour of others. To quote Sam:
The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.
His following response to critics misses that we would still target a terrorist leader for reasons beyond their belief. They intend to organise further terrorist attacks unless hindered, arrested or killed. We would not ask what is their theological motivation when considering such action against them:
This paragraph appears after a long discussion of the role that belief plays in governing human behavior, and it should be read in that context. Some critics have interpreted the second sentence of this passage to mean that I advocate simply killing religious people for their beliefs. Granted, I made the job of misinterpreting me easier than it might have been, but such a reading remains a frank distortion of my views. To someone reading the passage in context, it should be clear that I am discussing the link between belief and behavior. The fact that belief determines behavior is what makes certain beliefs so dangerous.
When one asks why it would be ethical to drop a bomb on Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda, the answer cannot be, “Because he killed so many people in the past.” To my knowledge, the man hasn’t killed anyone personally. However, he is likely to get a lot of innocent people killed because of what he and his followers believe about jihad, martyrdom, the ascendancy of Islam, etc. A willingness to take preventative action against a dangerous enemy is compatible with being against the death penalty (which I am). Whenever we can capture and imprison jihadists, we should. But in many cases this is either impossible or too risky. Would it have been better if we had captured Osama bin Laden? In my view, yes. Do I think the members of Seal Team Six should have assumed any added risk to bring him back him alive? Absolutely not.
He is dangerous because he is a terrorist, and the leading terrorist at that. Otherwise, what Harris is implying is reading and believing the Koran could make you a terrorist – save for cherry picking, being less devout and secular. So belief is enough for suspicion and the use of state power against you (McCarthy suggested that on the left and Sam also uses such thinking for profiling too). In reality, religion is a powerful idea for hegemony and legitimising unthinkable suffering in the name of the old ideas of territorial conquest. Notice Al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq calling for them to become one nation as part of a growing one empire – an Islamist one naturally allied and run by Al Qaeda.
Greenwald is right to be concerned that Harris believes Arab international relations is based mainly on devout Muslim literal understanding of the Koran and Hadith. Glenn mentions a particular quote of Sam’s:
“The outrage that Muslims feel over US and British foreign policy is primarily the product of theological concerns. Devout Muslims consider it a sacrilege for infidels to depose a Muslim tyrant and occupy Muslim lands — no matter how well intentioned the infidels or malevolent the tyrant. Because of what they believe about God and the afterlife and the divine provenance of the Koran, devout Muslims tend to reflexively side with other Muslims, no matter how sociopathic their behavior.”
Polls suggest what we may expect; the majority of people are political animals and the Arab world is no exception, with a long history of the world being involved in it’s affairs. So before we say its down mainly to an ancient manuscript it may be useful to take account of history, sociology, economics, culture, and politics not just religion.
Sam while not saying whether Iraq was a good or bad thing mentions my concern that it was a distraction from other things (dealing with Afghanistan, nuclear non proliferation eg North Korea, Iran).
End of Suffering
Perhaps the real issue is Harris trying to rationalise what are on the face of it horrendous propositions: legitimate use of torture, being targeted for elimination based on your belief let alone extra security measures at an airport, the far right being more spot on about immigrants than everyone else.
PZ Myers makes a good point that new atheism should be empathising traditional humanist principles – key ones being an abhorrence for war and the suffering of others:
No excuse can justify nuking or torturing my people, so no excuse can justify nuking or torturing anyone else…especially considering that the United States has more blood on its hands than any other nation.
This is not the time to invent elaborate philosophical justifications for abhorrent actions — it is time to unhesitatingly reject them, to express our grief and shame and horror at these options. It is not enough to bloodlessly pretend it’s a philospher’s penchant. We need to consider the human cost, and weight that most heavily.
I wish Sam well as he studies further the wisdom of Buddhist philosophy on this point. It sounds like he has further to go for enlightenment.
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog
The Dalai Lama:
All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.
The idea that ethics must be set within in religious belief is losing ground, for those that regard themselves as spiritual or not. Ethics being good or bad are not dependent on a religious belief. Whether they are beneficial or harmful is not dependent on someone, either clad in resplendent apparel on earth or sitting in a cloud above telling us, or a book written in a bygone age that can never be improved upon.
So where do we go from here?
The New Atheists are right of course when they fault religion for not living up to its own ideals. They would get no argument from the Dalai Lama on this. But His Holiness would be quick to point out that the moral principles themselves are not to blame—it’s our failure to act on them.
The Dalai Lama recommends a radical new approach: a religionless religion, if you will, stripped of myth, superstition, and narrow dogmatism, and focused on the practical work of transforming human behavior. He wants to incorporate the insights of the hard sciences as well as psychology, philosophy, and sociology into a broad-based new discipline to address our current moral crisis.
But can religion be rationalized into a pure system of ethics without losing its (historically) persuasive power?
Says Richard Schiffman. I am reminded though that persuasive power he mentions was heavily reliant on superstition, fear, intimidation and the force of law at arms through the ages. Not least due to intolerance:
“Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road.” – Voltaire
There is a tradition in Buddhist thought that if something hinders you on your journey, it is time to disregard it and move on. The new road that we can travel on will seem hard due to the baggage we carry, but increasingly people will be going along, spiritual or not, atheist or believer. Because it leads to a society that can embrace diversity while allowing people to have their beliefs.
The future is bright, the future is secular.
“The reality, however, is that in so far as a person really believes that the book he keeps at his bedside is the perfect word of the Creator of the universe, he will be motivated to take the contents of this book very seriously. As a result, Iron Age ideas about everything high and low — about sex, cosmology, gender equality, immortal souls, the validity of prophecy, etc. — will continue to subvert our public discourse. Many of these ideas, by their very nature, will constrain science, exacerbate human conflict, and divert public resources.” – Sam Harris
Related blogs: Why I am not a Buddhist
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog
David G McAfee facebook post going viral, who states on his blog in the about section:
“Not only do I believe that it is possible to maintain moral standards without the crutch of religion- but I would argue that it is the only way to achieve true goodness. Free from the constraints of organized religion, a human being is able to express true decency from one’s self- as opposed to attempting to appease whatever higher power he or she may believe in. Personal spirituality is to be admired, but the biases and closed-mindedness spawned by all religions have acted negatively on each and every society throughout history.” –David G. McAfee
Speaking of which, I have finally started reading Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Whether you agree or not, one of those books to read as a challenge to the conventional thought that science cannot inform on moral choices.
The picture above is from the Spiritual Science Research Foundation – (SSRF) – considering the site gave no results for neuroscience think the foundation name is overreaching. Neuro science is a pioneering scientific field that Sam Harris is involved in, which can examine prayer scientifically. Yet we should not be too surprised they do not use this:
The old “We say we use science (sounds good) but it cannot go beyond what humans understand in the spiritual dimension. There lies greater understanding of ancient mysteries and divine realities, and actually that is what we do not science”. Thus people are succoured into an imaginary world rather than using science to have a fascinating understanding of the world we do live in. As Douglas Adams remarked:
Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
I remember when the local Born Again Christians were trying to save my family from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they regularly prayed for us. A neighbour a few doors down was responsible for such things. They offered to help out my disabled brother with buying a car which at the time seemed like buying our allegiance (not souls, souls are just another word for body, SOS could just as easily be Save Our Skins to a Jehovah’s Witness), though I’m sure this was kindly meant. Thankfully the welfare system changed shortly after, recognising the need of people who might be able to walk, but not safely get about without their own transportation, deserved help. Based on need rather than creed.
Anecdotal record is not by itself evidence, but I doubt becoming an atheist was what they had in mind when they prayed for me. Still, life goes on. The thing is working out what sort of life to live.
In a very old blog, Don’t Say a Prayer for me Now, I observed:
Now Leicester Secular Society has a banner that reads – “Hands that help are better than lips that pray.” Good intentions are admirable but actions have consequences. I have always thought that it lacked moral responsibility to delegate tasks you should be doing to others. Asking god to make the world a better place misses the point no matter how good it makes you feel making such demands.
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog
Secularist, humanist, Rawlsian, liberal, vegetarian, cyclist environmentalist, economist, free thinker.
Plenty of labels that come across when talking about public policy, a way of life or moral issues.
As Sam Harris has said, there is not always a need to wear your atheism on your sleeve to win an argument rationally. As a tactic, not falling into the atheist/theist trap is a winning one for public policy.
Thing is, it is not clear to a large number of people that religion is an antiquated and bizarre way of looking at the world – one that may be counter productive when facing humanity’s problems.
When you go beyond atheism then it descends into trying to herd cats. It is not enough of an idea for mass political mobilization.
But if there is one thing that may make more sense it is pushing secularism and it’s benefits to a free and equal society of liberty. That is one that can include more than atheists. Where numbers matter that could be the winning approach.
Sam Harris – do not cast the first stone his speech at Atheist Alliance International Conference, Washington DC, 2007 where he articulated his ideas on not using atheism in public debate.
With regards Palin on the Bush doctrine, that Sam Harris mentions see blog here. The tactic of winning over Hillary Democrats seems to be working with Lynette Long. Also, considering Sam Harris mentioned that we should consider not using the term Atheist when there is a more central goal to be won (in Palin’s case lack of experience) I wonder why he agreed to the title.
When Atheists Attack
by Sam Harris in Newsweek
Let me confess that I was genuinely unnerved by Sarah Palin‘s performance at the Republican convention. Given her audience and the needs of the moment, I believe Governor Palin’s speech was the most effective political communication I have ever witnessed. Here, finally, was a performer who—being maternal, wounded, righteous and sexy—could stride past the frontal cortex of every American and plant a three-inch heel directly on that limbic circuit that ceaselessly intones “God and country.” If anyone could make Christian theocracy smell like apple pie, Sarah Palin could.
Then came Palin’s first television interview with Charles Gibson. I was relieved to discover, as many were, that Palin’s luster can be much diminished by the absence of a teleprompter. Still, the problem she poses to our political process is now much bigger than she is. Her fans seem inclined to forgive her any indiscretion short of cannibalism. However badly she may stumble during the remaining weeks of this campaign, her supporters will focus their outrage upon the journalist who caused her to break stride, upon the camera operator who happened to capture her fall, upon the television network that broadcast the good lady’s misfortune—and, above all, upon the “liberal elites” with their highfalutin assumption that, in the 21st century, only a reasonably well-educated person should be given command of our nuclear arsenal.
The point to be lamented is not that Sarah Palin comes from outside Washington, or that she has glimpsed so little of the earth’s surface (she didn’t have a passport until last year), or that she’s never met a foreign head of state. The point is that she comes to us, seeking the second most important job in the world, without any intellectual training relevant to the challenges and responsibilities that await her. There is nothing to suggest that she even sees a role for careful analysis or a deep understanding of world events when it comes to deciding the fate of a nation. In her interview with Gibson, Palin managed to turn a joke about seeing Russia from her window into a straight-faced claim that Alaska’s geographical proximity to Russia gave her some essential foreign-policy experience. Palin may be a perfectly wonderful person, a loving mother and a great American success story—but she is a beauty queen/sports reporter who stumbled into small-town politics, and who is now on the verge of stumbling into, or upon, world history.
The problem, as far as our political process is concerned, is that half the electorate revels in Palin’s lack of intellectual qualifications. When it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country. “They think they’re better than you!” is the refrain that (highly competent and cynical) Republican strategists have set loose among the crowd, and the crowd has grown drunk on it once again. “Sarah Palin is an ordinary person!” Yes, all too ordinary.
We have all now witnessed apparently sentient human beings, once provoked by a reporter’s microphone, saying things like, “I’m voting for Sarah because she’s a mom. She knows what it’s like to be a mom.” Such sentiments suggest an uncanny (and, one fears, especially American) detachment from the real problems of today. The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security … the list is long, and Sarah Palin does not seem competent even to rank these items in order of importance, much less address any one of them.
Palin’s most conspicuous gaffe in her interview with Gibson has been widely discussed. The truth is, I didn’t much care that she did not know the meaning of the phrase “Bush doctrine.” And I am quite sure that her supporters didn’t care, either. Most people view such an ambush as a journalistic gimmick. What I do care about are all the other things Palin is guaranteed not to know—or will be glossing only under the frenzied tutelage of John McCain’s advisers. What doesn’t she know about financial markets, Islam, the history of the Middle East, the cold war, modern weapons systems, medical research, environmental science or emerging technology? Her relative ignorance is guaranteed on these fronts and most others, not because she was put on the spot, or got nervous, or just happened to miss the newspaper on any given morning. Sarah Palin’s ignorance is guaranteed because of how she has spent the past 44 years on earth.
I care even more about the many things Palin thinks she knows but doesn’t: like her conviction that the Biblical God consciously directs world events. Needless to say, she shares this belief with mil-lions of Americans—but we shouldn’t be eager to give these people our nuclear codes, either. There is no question that if President McCain chokes on a spare rib and Palin becomes the first woman president, she and her supporters will believe that God, in all his majesty and wisdom, has brought it to pass. Why would God give Sarah Palin a job she isn’t ready for? He wouldn’t. Everything happens for a reason. Palin seems perfectly willing to stake the welfare of our country—even the welfare of our species—as collateral in her own personal journey of faith. Of course, McCain has made the same unconscionable wager on his personal journey to the White House.
In speaking before her church about her son going to war in Iraq, Palin urged the congregation to pray “that our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God; that’s what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan, and that plan is God’s plan.” When asked about these remarks in her interview with Gibson, Palin successfully dodged the issue of her religious beliefs by claiming that she had been merely echoing the words of Abraham Lincoln. The New York Times later dubbed her response “absurd.” It was worse than absurd; it was a lie calculated to conceal the true character of her religious infatuations. Every detail that has emerged about Palin’s life in Alaska suggests that she is as devout and literal-minded in her Christian dogmatism as any man or woman in the land. Given her long affiliation with the Assemblies of God church, Palin very likely believes that Biblical prophecy is an infallible guide to future events and that we are living in the “end times.” Which is to say she very likely thinks that human history will soon unravel in a foreordained cataclysm of war and bad weather. Undoubtedly Palin believes that this will be a good thing—as all true Christians will be lifted bodily into the sky to make merry with Jesus, while all nonbelievers, Jews, Methodists and other rabble will be punished for eternity in a lake of fire. Like many Pentecostals, Palin may even imagine that she and her fellow parishioners enjoy the power of prophecy themselves. Otherwise, what could she have meant when declaring to her congregation that “God’s going to tell you what is going on, and what is going to go on, and you guys are going to have that within you”?
You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps. In the churches where Palin has worshiped for decades, parishioners enjoy “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” “miraculous healings” and “the gift of tongues.” Invariably, they offer astonishingly irrational accounts of this behavior and of its significance for the entire cosmos. Palin’s spiritual colleagues describe themselves as part of “the final generation,” engaged in “spiritual warfare” to purge the earth of “demonic strongholds.” Palin has spent her entire adult life immersed in this apocalyptic hysteria. Ask yourself: Is it a good idea to place the most powerful military on earth at her disposal? Do we actually want our leaders thinking about the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy when it comes time to say to the Iranians, or to the North Koreans, or to the Pakistanis, or to the Russians or to the Chinese: “All options remain on the table”?
It is easy to see what many people, women especially, admire about Sarah Palin. Here is a mother of five who can see the bright side of having a child with Down syndrome and still find the time and energy to govern the state of Alaska. But we cannot ignore the fact that Palin’s impressive family further testifies to her dogmatic religious beliefs. Many writers have noted the many shades of conservative hypocrisy on view here: when Jamie Lynn Spears gets pregnant, it is considered a symptom of liberal decadence and the breakdown of family values; in the case of one of Palin’s daughters, however, teen pregnancy gets reinterpreted as a sign of immaculate, small-town fecundity. And just imagine if, instead of the Palins, the Obama family had a pregnant, underage daughter on display at their convention, flanked by her black boyfriend who “intends” to marry her. Who among conservatives would have resisted the temptation to speak of “the dysfunction in the black community”?
Teen pregnancy is a misfortune, plain and simple. At best, it represents bad luck (both for the mother and for the child); at worst, as in the Palins’ case, it is a symptom of religious dogmatism. Governor Palin opposes sex education in schools on religious grounds. She has also fought vigorously for a “parental consent law” in the state of Alaska, seeking full parental dominion over the reproductive decisions of minors. We know, therefore, that Palin believes that she should be the one to decide whether her daughter carries her baby to term. Based on her stated position, we know that she would deny her daughter an abortion even if she had been raped. One can be forgiven for doubting whether Bristol Palin had all the advantages of 21st-century family planning—or, indeed, of the 21st century.
We have endured eight years of an administration that seemed touched by religious ideology. Bush’s claim to Bob Woodward that he consulted a “higher Father” before going to war in Iraq got many of us sitting upright, before our attention wandered again to less ethereal signs of his incompetence. For all my concern about Bush’s religious beliefs, and about his merely average grasp of terrestrial reality, I have never once thought that he was an over-the-brink, Rapture-ready extremist. Palin seems as though she might be the real McCoy. With the McCain team leading her around like a pet pony between now and Election Day, she can be expected to conceal her religious extremism until it is too late to do anything about it. Her supporters know that while she cannot afford to “talk the talk” between now and Nov. 4, if elected, she can be trusted to “walk the walk” until the Day of Judgment.
What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents—and her supporters celebrate—the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance. Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world’s only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth:
“Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child’s brain?”
“Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I’m an avid hunter.”
“But governor, this is neurosurgery, and you have no training as a surgeon of any kind.”
“That’s just the point, Charlie. The American people want change in how we make medical decisions in this country. And when faced with a challenge, you cannot blink.”
The prospects of a Palin administration are far more frightening, in fact, than those of a Palin Institute for Pediatric Neurosurgery. Ask yourself: how has “elitism” become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn’t seem too intelligent or well educated.
I believe that with the nomination of Sarah Palin for the vice presidency, the silliness of our politics has finally put our nation at risk. The world is growing more complex—and dangerous—with each passing hour, and our position within it growing more precarious. Should she become president, Palin seems capable of enacting policies so detached from the common interests of humanity, and from empirical reality, as to unite the entire world against us. When asked why she is qualified to shoulder more responsibility than any person has held in human history, Palin cites her refusal to hesitate. “You can’t blink,” she told Gibson repeatedly, as though this were a primordial truth of wise governance. Let us hope that a President Palin would blink, again and again, while more thoughtful people decide the fate of civilization.
Harris is a founder of The Reason Project and author of The New York Times best sellers “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation.” His Web site is samharris.org.
Sam Harris (author of End of Faith and Letter to A Christian Nation) has conducted a survey of belief from Atheists and Christians – 36,781 people took part:
The primary purpose of this poll was not opinion research, in fact. Rather, we were designing stimuli for an experiment that we are now running on atheists and Christians using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The goal of survey was to produce stimuli of two categories – factual and religious – which would behave appropriately once we put members of each group inside our MRI scanner. We needed factual statements that both atheists and Christians would accept with the same order of confidence and religious statements that would divide them more or less diametrically.
In addition to vetting our experimental stimuli, however, we took the opportunity to solicit the opinions of believers and nonbelievers on many psychological and social topics that are not strictly relevant to our neuroimaging work. Many of these results are now available for viewing on my website.
The idea of secularism being supported by people of faith and none shows some promise here.
Pluralism as to ideas that lead to a good life seems to be rejected at the faithful end with Christianity as the real thing.
The idea of a Christian God that can be called on to interfere with the problems in the world is strong with 80% of believers agreeing.
If you really believe this about the after life, then a fear of death is a powerful incentive for faith.
90% proclaim the second coming of Jesus. Not sure whether on a horse is optional – but believers profess it as a real future event – to be prepared for.
Majority of believers disregard the poetry notion of Virginity that the Archbishop of Canterbury told Dawkins. 95% of respondents that were Christian think it actually happened.
In many ways the point being drawn out is that there are a lot of believers that literally think Jesus rose from the dead and literally was born of a Virgin, that Armageddon is literally going to happen, that literally Christianity is the only truth that will save you.
Sam Harris said of the Koran after quoting numerous passages:
But there is no substitute for confronting the text itself. I cannot judge the quality of the Arabic; perhaps it is sublime. But the book’s contents are not. On almost every page, the Koran instructs observant Muslims to despise nonbelievers. On almost every page, it prepares the ground for religious conflict. Anyone who can read passages like those quoted above and still not see a link between Muslim faith and Muslim violence should probably consult a neurologist.
With many quotes from the Koran in the link above that make you think that, should you wish to commit violence in the name of Allah, you will find references for such actions that you do so on behalf of god. While there are Muslims that do not believe in using violence and are secularist – not less the Bangladeshi community in my town who fled fundamentalism – the question of how we take away the oxygen that make people feel the Koran is a book that orders Jihad rather than one of metaphor, poetry and a history of a people living in a superstitious supernatural world is one that needs answering without fearing to ask the question.
I still remember when Ayaan Hirsi Ali was receiving death threats at a conference in Washington DC that they did think about cancelling her talk, but she went ahead. I am so glad that we got to hear what she had to say.
The treading on egg shells when a teacher allows her class to name a teddy bear Mohammad faces a murderous mob, a journalist student suffering imprisonment and the threat of the death penalty for starting a debate on feminism and the Prophet, the drawing of cartoons and over the top reaction to when people say that Islam is wrong need challenging.
This can be done without concern for sensitivities or treating people like they need wrapping up in cotton wool for fear that they cannot cope with rational debate without strapping explosives to themselves in response to have the last word. We do not help moderate Muslims that keep their faith in the private sphere if we fear making such criticism or scrutinizing what the text and belief are of Islam. That forgets how Christianity developed to where it is now in the UK.
To this end we need more articles like that of Johann Hari, from The Independent which I re post below:
Johann Hari: We need to stop being such cowards about Islam
Thursday, 14 August 2008
This is a column condemning cowardice – including my own. It begins with the story of a novel you cannot read. The Jewel of Medina was written by a journalist called Sherry Jones. It recounts the life of Aisha, a girl who was married off at the age of six to a 50-year-old man called Mohamed ibn Abdallah. On her wedding day, Aisha was playing on a see-saw outside her home. Inside, she was being betrothed. The first she knew of it was when she was banned from playing out in the street with the other children. When she was nine, she was taken to live with her husband, now 53. He had sex with her. When she was 14, she was accused of adultery with a man closer to her own age. Not long after, Mohamed decreed that his wives must cover their faces and bodies, even though no other women in Arabia did.
You cannot read this story today – except in the Koran and the Hadith. The man Mohamed ibn Abdallah became known to Muslims as “the Prophet Mohamed”, so our ability to explore this story is stunted. The Jewel of Medina was bought by Random House and primed to be a best-seller – before a University of Texas teacher saw proofs and declared it “a national security issue”. Random House had visions of a re-run of the Rushdie or the Danish cartoons affairs. Sherry Jones’s publisher has pulped the book. It’s gone.
In Europe, we are finally abolishing the lingering blasphemy laws that hinder criticism of Christianity. But they are being succeeded by a new blasphemy law preventing criticism of Islam – enforced not by the state, but by jihadis. I seriously considered not writing this column, but the right to criticise religion is as precious – and hard-won – as the right to criticise government. We have to use it or lose it.
Some people will instantly ask: why bother criticising religion if it causes so much hassle? The answer is: look back at our history. How did Christianity lose its ability to terrorise people with phantasms of sin and Hell? How did it stop spreading shame about natural urges – pre-marital sex, masturbation or homosexuality? Because critics pored over the religion’s stories and found gaping holes of logic or morality in them. They asked questions. How could an angel inseminate a virgin? Why does the Old Testament God command his followers to commit genocide? How can a man survive inside a whale?
Reinterpretation and ridicule crow-barred Christianity open. Ask enough tough questions and faith is inevitably pushed farther and farther back into the misty realm of metaphor – where it is less likely to inspire people to kill and die for it. But doubtful Muslims, and the atheists who support them, are being prevented from following this path. They cannot ask: what does it reveal about Mohamed that he married a young girl, or that he massacred a village of Jews who refused to follow him? You don’t have to murder many Theo Van Goghs or pulp many Sherry Joneses to intimidate the rest. The greatest censorship is internal: it is in all the books that will never be written and all the films that will never be shot, because we are afraid.
We need to acknowledge the double-standard – and that it will cost Muslims in the end. Insulating a religion from criticism – surrounding it with an electric fence called “respect” – keeps it stunted at its most infantile and fundamentalist stage. The smart, questioning and instinctively moral Muslims – the majority – learn to be silent, or are shunned (at best). What would Christianity be like today if George Eliot, Mark Twain and Bertrand Russell had all been pulped? Take the most revolting rural Alabama church, and metastasise it.
Since Jones has brought it up, let us look at Mohamed’s marriage to Aisha as a model for how we can conduct this conversation. It is true those were different times, and it may have been normal for grown men to have sex with prepubescent girls. The sources are not clear on this point. But whatever culture you live in, having sex when your body is not physically developed can be an excruciatingly painful experience. Among Vikings, it was more normal than today to have your arm chopped off, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t agony. If anything, Jones’s book whitewashes this, suggesting that Mohamed’s “gentleness” meant Aisha enjoyed it.
The story of Aisha also prompts another fundamentalist-busting discussion. You cannot say that Mohamed’s decision to marry a young girl has to be judged by the standards of his time, and then demand that we follow his moral standards to the letter. Either we should follow his example literally, or we should critically evaluate it and choose for ourselves. Discussing this contradiction inevitably injects doubt – the mortal enemy of fanaticism (on The Independent’s Open House blog later today, I’ll be discussing how Aisha has become the central issue in a debate in Yemen about children and forced marriage).
So why do many people who cheer The Life Of Brian and Jerry Springer: The Opera turn into clucking Mary Whitehouses when it comes to Islam? If a book about Christ was being dumped because fanatics in Mississippi might object, we would be enraged. I feel this too. I am ashamed to say I would be more scathing if I was discussing Christianity. One reason is fear: the image of Theo Van Gogh lying on a pavement crying “Can’t we just talk about this?” Of course we rationalise it, by asking: does one joke, one column, one novel make much difference? No. But cumulatively? Absolutely.
The other reason is more honourable, if flawed. There is very real and rising prejudice against Muslims across the West. The BBC recently sent out identically-qualified CVs to hundreds of employers. Those with Muslim names were 50 per cent less likely to get interviews. Criticisms of Islamic texts are sometimes used to justify US or Israeli military atrocities. Some critics of Muslims – Geert Wilders or Martin Amis – moot mass human rights abuses here in Europe. So some secularists reason: I have plenty of criticisms of Judaism, but I wouldn’t choose to articulate them in Germany in 1933. Why try to question Islam now, when Muslims are being attacked by bigots?
But I live in the Muslim majority East End of London, and this isn’t Weimar Germany. Muslims are secure enough to deal with some tough questions. It is condescending to treat Muslims like excitable children who cannot cope with the probing, mocking treatment we hand out to Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. It is perfectly consistent to protect Muslims from bigotry while challenging the bigotries and absurdities within their holy texts.
There is now a pincer movement trying to silence critical discussion of Islam. To one side, fanatics threaten to kill you; to the other, critics call you “Islamophobic”. But consistent atheism is not racism. On the contrary: it treats all people as mature adults who can cope with rational questions. When we pulp books out of fear of fundamentalism, we are decapitating the most precious freedom we have.
In the USA there is I think something that may unite the Religious Right and the Secularist community – a fear that Europe is being swallowed up by Islam. The Archbishop’s comments that Sharia Law should have an accommodation in UK law, and other examples do seem to add to that perception – and it is one played on in Europe by anti immigration parties.
One such Dutch politician is Wilders who has spoken about making a film that will depict him decimating the Koran. Which if he did it would be nothing new – youtube has plenty of films of people doing that. How analytical such a film about the Koran will be I am not sure, but the background of course is that four years ago the Dutch film “Submission” was shown on Dutch TV and the director of the film Theo van Gogh was stabbed to death with a letter between his dead body and blade stating that the screenplay writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be next.
Now I am concerned with how some people want to accommodate Islam. That women are given less human rights due to their cultural tradition (a German court ruled that a woman was correctly beaten according to cultural custom but thankfully that decision was overturned). If this is multiculturalism, then it needs to be defeated because it allows people to be treated differently, against the notion of justice as fairness, and leads to the treatment of people that would not be allowed by law on other citizens.
However there is a fight back – witness the condemnation that met the very surprised Bishop of Canterbury (as parts of the Anglican community may refer to him when the schism is complete). Then there is Ayaan herself who though her life is under threat while she lives in the USA, speaks out but with authority because she has has lived it. Sam Harris in “End of Faith” in a chapter talks about the concerns of a literalistic interpretation of Islam.
Tolerance is a wonderful thing, but it does not cover everything. Some things will be beyond a society to accept, the question is only if there is a moral basis. Ethical consideration would be to do with harm and suffering, and the welfare of people. As such, for example, decisions based on divorce and financial arrangements which did not consider genders to be equal parties would be a cause for concern.
However, the xenophobia that exists is out of proportion to the threat posed, which is more within their own community then to wider society. That of genital mutilation, less likely for women to be educated or fluent in the native tongue, and customs such as honour killings which do not deserve the adjective. 7/7 happened, but much of that is ignoring what was happening within a community until it was too late.
In a global communication network, it will be difficult to censor the message of hate that Islamic fundamentalists use. Yet we can perhaps counter their message of hate, with rational passionate discourse about the benefits of human rights and liberal democracy. Hate crimes that encourage harm and the breaking of the law require zero tolerance.
Because it seems the key opponents in politics of Islam are the xenophobic politicians. The other politicians in power seem keen to move public policy to an accommodation with “moderate” faith groups in an attempt to take the sting out of the tail of extremist belief – based on fear. Few of political standing seem able to create a vision of an open country that will stand up for liberal values with a veer and vigour. They seem prepared to sacrifice these values for a better nights sleep after an election, reducing liberties and allowing values out of step with a modern state.
If I am wrong, by all means link them here in the comments – I would like to hear such politicians who will stand up for such values. I doubt that it will be popular with the electorate though it may be correct. But the case has yet to be made in the manner like below:
We live but a brief existence on this earth. We want the best for ourselves and our children. It is part of the human identity to better ourselves. By education. By hard work. The will to sacrifice today for a better tomorrow. Much do we owe to those that came before us and may we strive that the future generation will say the same of us.
When people overcome obstacles and hardship to come here to make such a better life for themselves, to become a productive member of society that they become as one with us – this is a cause of celebration that the liberty and opportunity that we have created attracts such people that add to both commercial wealth and spirit in the land.
This does not mean that the light of liberty, freedom and opportunity that attracts so many to our shores should be dimmed on the say so of those that would replace our ancestors hard won rights with customs and beliefs that go against enlightenment values. Nor should we let mistrust and hatred allow us equally to do away those same values that allow us the freedoms to be who we are. Let us not sleep walk into thinking these rights are everlasting; may we ever be watchful of the demagogue that will promise us something with one hand while taking away the rights that gave us everything we love and appreciate. Rights that make our country great.
All equal before the law, the right to be tried by your peers, the right to a fair trial, the freedom to religious belief and none, that your private life is yours, the freedom to speak your mind and be challenged in that opinion, that all have the liberty to make their own way in this life and that by doing so shall the greater good be best served within such laws that are in accordance to the common good.
I ended my blog The Way We Are by calling on us to recognise that we can use the fact that we have a common ancestor to embrace our common humanity in order for life to survive on this planet. Sam Harris’ article Mother Nature is Not Our Friend follows on from there that it really is up for us to do the best we can in the face of a non existent god and the indifference of nature.
Mother Nature is Not Our Friend
by Sam Harris
Like many people, I once trusted in the wisdom of Nature. I imagined that there were real boundaries between the natural and the artificial, between one species and another, and thought that, with the advent of genetic engineering, we would be tinkering with life at our peril. I now believe that this romantic view of Nature is a stultifying and dangerous mythology.
Every 100 million years or so, an asteroid or comet the size of a mountain smashes into the earth, killing nearly everything that lives. If ever we needed proof of Nature’s indifference to the welfare of complex organisms such as ourselves, there it is. The history of life on this planet has been one of merciless destruction and blind, lurching renewal.
The fossil record suggests that individual species survive, on average, between one and ten million years. The concept of a “species” is misleading, however, and it tempts us to think that we, as homo sapiens, have arrived at some well-defined position in the natural order. The term “species” merely designates a population of organisms that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring; it cannot be aptly applied to the boundaries between species (to what are often called “intermediate” or “transitional” forms). There was, for instance, no first member of the human species, and there are no canonical members now. Life is a continuous flux. Our nonhuman ancestors bred, generation after generation, and incrementally begat what we now deem to be the species homo sapiens — ourselves. There is nothing about our ancestral line or about our current biology that dictates how we will evolve in the future. Nothing in the natural order demands that our descendants resemble us in any particular way. Very likely, they will not resemble us. We will almost certainly transform ourselves, likely beyond recognition, in the generations to come.
Will this be a good thing? The question presupposes that we have a viable alternative. But what is the alternative to our taking charge of our biological destiny? Might we be better off just leaving things to the wisdom of Nature? I once believed this. But we know that Nature has no concern for individuals or for species. Those that survive do so despite Her indifference. While the process of natural selection has sculpted our genome to its present state, it has not acted to maximize human happiness; nor has it necessarily conferred any advantage upon us beyond the capacity raise the next generation to child-bearing age. In fact, there may be nothing about human life after the age of forty (the average lifespan until the 20th century) that has been selected by evolution at all. And with a few exceptions (e.g. the gene for lactose tolerance), we probably haven’t adapted to our environment much since the Pleistocene.
But our environment and our needs — to say nothing of our desires — have changed radically in the meantime. We are in many respects ill-suited to the task of building a global civilization. This is not a surprise. From the point of view of evolution, much of human culture, along with its cognitive and emotional underpinnings, must be epiphenomenal. Nature cannot “see” most of what we are doing, or hope to do, and has done nothing to prepare us for many of the challenges we now face.
These concerns cannot be waved aside with adages like, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There are innumerable perspectives from which our current state of functioning can be aptly described as “broke.” Speaking personally, it seems to me that everything I do picks out some point on a spectrum of disability: I was always decent at math, for instance, but this is simply to say that I am like a great mathematician who has been gored in the head by a bull; my musical ability resembles that of a Mozart or a Bach, it is true, though after a near fatal incident on skis; if Tiger Woods awoke from surgery to find that he now possessed (or was possessed by) my golf-swing, rest assured that a crushing lawsuit for medical malpractice would be in the offing.
Considering humanity as a whole, there is nothing about natural selection that suggests our optimal design. We are probably not even optimized for the Paleolithic, much less for life in the 21st century. And yet, we are now acquiring the tools that will enable us to attempt our own optimization. Many people think this project is fraught with risk. But is it riskier than doing nothing? There may be current threats to civilization that we cannot even perceive, much less resolve, at our current level of intelligence. Could any rational strategy be more dangerous than following the whims of Nature? This is not to say that our growing capacity to meddle with the human genome couldn’t present some moments of Faustian over-reach. But our fears on this front must be tempered by a sober understanding of how we got here. Mother Nature is not now, nor has she ever been, looking out for us.
Article re posted from here.
Oh to have been a fly on the wall I thought, as we marched from Jefferson Memorial to the White house during the Atheist Alliance International Conference 2007, as I had got wind of this Round table discussion happening but kept my mouth shut sworn to secrecy. So it is with great delight that the discussion between Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens is now available to watch on the internet, and will be on DVD next month.
In many ways the Round table discussion is better than the talks. Because they are bouncing off ideas, anecdotes, and experiences between them back and forth – and dealing with the common criticisms that they have encountered. Do enjoy, about two hours split in two parts below or watch via this link here