Sam Harris – mistackles critics

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:

Glenn Greenwald: Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus

Sam Harris: Response to Controversy

PZ Myers: Head and Heart Atheists

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.

Foreign Policy

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

Follow @JPSargeant78



Filed under atheism, Hitchens, Sam Harris, secular, World

3 responses to “Sam Harris – mistackles critics

  1. Pingback: Sam Harris Writes About Debating Ben Affleck on Real Time | Homo economicus' Weblog

  2. Pingback: Maajid Nawaz: My Fellow Muslims, I Am Not Your Enemy | Homo economicus' Weblog

  3. Pingback: Sam Harris and Omar Aziz Email Exchange | Homo economicus' Weblog

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