Tag Archives: Religion

Sam Harris Writes About Debating Ben Affleck on Real Time


Sam Harris has just written a blog post about the debate on Bill Maher’s show with Ben Affleck. He addresses when he mentioned that most Muslims do not take their faith seriously:

[The Video and full analysis can be read here]

Although I clearly stated that I wasn’t claiming that all Muslims adhere to the dogmas I was criticizing; distinguished between jihadists, Islamists, conservatives, and the rest of the Muslim community; and explicitly exempted hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t take the doctrines about blasphemy, apostasy, jihad, and martyrdom seriously, Affleck and Kristof both insisted that I was disparaging all Muslims as a group. Unfortunately, I misspoke slightly at this point, saying that hundreds of millions of Muslims don’t take their “faith” seriously. This led many people to think that I was referring to Muslim atheists (who surely don’t exist in those numbers) and suggesting that the only people who could reform the faith are those who have lost it. I don’t know how many times one must deny that one is referring to an entire group, or cite specific poll results to justify the percentages one is talking about, but no amount of clarification appears sufficient to forestall charges of bigotry and lack of “nuance.” [my emphasis]

Misspoke? In an earlier post (September 10 2014) Sam Harris had this to say about the 1.5 billion Muslims attitudes to Islam:

No doubt many enlightened concerns will come flooding into the reader’s mind at this point. I would not want to create the impression that most Muslims support ISIS, nor would I want to give any shelter or inspiration to the hatred of Muslims as people. In drawing a connection between the doctrine of Islam and jihadist violence, I am talking about ideas and their consequences, not about 1.5 billion nominal Muslims, many of whom do not take their religion very seriously. [my emphasis]

Harris still appears to be saying that Muslims who do not believe in blasphemy, apostasy, jihad, and martyrdom, are not taking their religion seriously.

Maybe Sam is just articulating himself badly in two blog posts, and a TV appearance. His writings however, suggest that a serious Muslim believes these things. Ergo you are not a serious Muslim if you do not.

As I pointed out in my previous post, this does not help the pluralist secular minded muslims to challenge the theocratic societies they live in if we call them not serious muslims ourselves. Just like the people who use that as a criminal charge against them. (For more on that read here)

Sam has put himself into a bind by suggesting that Muslims who do not believe these things are either ignorant of scripture, or not serious believers.

This makes his support rather problematic for Muslims fighting extremists when Sam’s view of Islam is in line with those very extremists.

Extremists that want to kill them for not being serious Muslims.

The reason this matters is the very concerns and critiques we have on Islam will be ignored if we continue to suggest that the extremist position is the serious one for muslims to follow. When most of them do not already.

But then Sam once said the far right were the only ones talking sense about immigration. Hitchens replied “not while I’m alive they’re not.”

I hope Sam starts talking sense soon about how Muslims can be serious about their faith and promote secularism. Otherwise, theocracy will remain much longer than it should.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

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Why Banning Extremists Is Wrong


The British Government thinks we are children. Easily led by those that know the art of oratory. Gullible. To be twisted round the finger of any subversive sectarian megalomaniac. Theresa May, British Home Secretary, wants to ban people for subversive speech. We the people, cannot be trusted to act responsibly based on what we hear. Our elected representatives can filter for us. Long live big brother.

If we are really concerned about the likes of Anjem Choudary poisoning minds to take up violence to overthrow democracy, banning him from our television screens is the wrong way. Britain tried that with Sinn Fein. We ended up with either subtitles but no sound; and then an Irish actor lip synching when they were talking.

Ian Hislop, editor of satirical Private Eye, remarked he wanted to hear Gerry Adams to see if he smiled when asked about the people the IRA had killed. There really is no better way to hold anyone to account by knowing exactly what someone has said, how they said it, in what context.

We make much of the liberty to think and voice our opinions. The line that most free speech advocates draw is an incitement to kill. For which laws currently exist, along with counter terrorism legislation. The Home Secretary risks making Choudary a victim for Islamists to rally for with the new proposals. Young people, with radical religious notions of changing the world, will have an officially state stamped underground movement. How nice of us to signal that for them.

We should be concerned that the Conservative Coalition Government’s first instinct is to gag people to save democracy. Rather than to tackle the ideology from the ground upwards – with education and a direct path to civil society engagement. In an internet global communication age, ideas spread. Force people underground, the darkness becomes less penetrable. Beware what grows down there.

Personally I like knowing who the extremists are and what they are saying. It allows for a counter narrative. Civil society knows how to respond to people who are anti-pluralistic, hate filled, loathsome parasites. Who feast on the freedoms we offer, in order to try and destroy it.

Responding with utter contempt and derision. We need to promote people engaging with the wider community and adopting values of pluralism. That we can disagree about religion, and many things, yet live together in peace. That democracy is not weakened by individuals having many different thoughts in the market place of ideas. It makes us stronger.

This is not about tolerating the intolerable. We have laws designed to deal as I have said with counter terrorism. We are now moving to where certain insensibilities will be made illegal. A democratic government will always try to undermine human rights with a populist move. Anjem Choudary banned from the airwaves would be popular. As would banning neo-nazis.

Except I have not seen skinheads with swastika tattoos on Newsnight. I have seen plenty of Islamists being interviewed. Crucially also, seen them challenged. Giving a platform for sensationalism and ratings is irresponsible. I would argue however, that the media are the ones revealing what Islamism is, and countering it.

The government is not. It will state Islam is a religion of peace. It will not publicly countenance that within Islam is the seed of theocracy, violence and intolerance. As it exists in all religions. The rise of religious extremism – that even Buddhists are massacring Muslims in Burma with monks approving – should be a wake up call.

The need for a counter narrative is there. That though means challenging such concepts as divine revelation, the infallibility of scripture, that human discourse has moved on since angels took their place on the battlefield with men. That though makes people like Mo Ansar call Maajid Nawaz an extremist, and accuse Tom Holland of trolling Islam.

The government recognises the problem, but not the solution. One of the reasons is preciously because it is the government. A body of conflicting needs to be met: electability, foreign relations and domestic public relations. Let alone conflicting ideas how to meet these challenges.

There is however agreement that you, dear citizen, cannot be trusted to act responsibly. It is not that the government distrusts Anjem Choudary. Rather, the government distrusts you to react correctly.

That should concern you as much as the media giving a public platform to fanatics. You have a right to listen, to speak, and think for yourself.

Never let anyone take that away from you. Or else democracy has been overthrown.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

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Dawkins Has Been Culturally Christian For Ages

The faithful are rejoicing. Praise be that the arch nemesis is on the road to Damascus! For Richard Dawkins has said at the Hay Festival 2014 that he is a secular Christian:

“I would describe myself as a secular Christian in the same sense as secular Jews have a feeling for nostalgia and ceremonies,”


[Daily Telegraph]

Before we start suggesting this is a journey to religion or signs of the professor going dotty in old age, he has described himself in this way ever since he started his Foundation. Here for example in 2007:

Prof Dawkins, who has frequently spoken out against creationism and religious fundamentalism, replied: “I’m not one of those who wants to stop Christian traditions.


“This is historically a Christian country. I’m a cultural Christian in the same way many of my friends call themselves cultural Jews or cultural Muslims.


“So, yes, I like singing carols along with everybody else. I’m not one of those who wants to purge our society of our Christian history.


“If there’s any threat these sorts of things, I think you will find it comes from rival religions and not from atheists.”


[BBC News: Dawkins I’m a cultural Christian]


The blogger His Grace prior to this [story in Daily Telegraph] has tried to suggest that Dawkins, by belatedly adding his signature to a letter denouncing David Cameron calling Britain a Christian country, was two faced:

Not so much the attention-seeking redaction or desperate retrospective inclusion, but the fact that the eminent Professor Richard Dawkins has put his name, rather sadly, to a letter which states unequivocally that “Britain is not a ‘Christian country'”.

Because previously he has said – equally unequivocally – that Britain most assuredly is a Christian country.


Did you hear that?

[Dawkins in video:] “(The Bishop is) absolutely right – this is a Christian country: historically it’s a Christian country..”

Taking out of context what Dawkins was getting at. The extent to which we have a christian legacy impacting our politics, culturally by language, music and literature, we can describe the country as culturally Christian still. David Cameron was suggesting that our ethics and sense of morality are framed and understood by Christianity; his Easter message was one of sectarianism that has the cross in one hand and the flag in the other. That was what the letter criticizing him was getting at. Tom Holland points out that there is no real coincidence that secular countries in the world were almost exclusively Christian countries prior:

 as the historian Tom Holland pointed out recently, even our secularism is, in a way, Christian: render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s; the separation of Church and state is an idea that first gained strength in Christianity, even if several centuries’ worth of popes weren’t too keen on rendering anything to anyone. The letter-writers are absolutely correct to say that “Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces”, but it’s silly to deny that Christian thinking has been the largest single religious/philosophical input over the last millennium and a half or so.

[Daily Telegraph]


Lastly the above photo is from an article by Dawkins “Atheists for Jesus” in 2006 which you can read here which tries to see if we can take the niceness of Jesus without the supernatural. The photo is missing there but I managed to find a screenshot of the article from an old post by someone here. My own essay on when is a christian not a christian can be found here.

I can only assume that the recent heatwave made the media have an early silly season. The idea that atheists are so fundamentally opposed to spiritually that holy water will scold them, the crucifix will make us cower, and a carol service bring on a brain hemorrhage is ludicrous.

Update Magnetic Pull

Talking to Tom Doran on twitter after posting reminded me of this gem from Damian Thompson’s (aka @Holysmoke) article in The Daily Telegraph “Richard Dawkins Is Moving Towards Christ” where he states:

His comments may explain claims from friends in Oxford that they’ve seen someone looking remarkably like Richard Dawkins sneaking into services. But he goes a bit further. As our science correspondent Sarah Knapton reports:

Dawkins, 73, also said that he believes humans are destined to take a certain path in life, and that if they veer from it a “magnetic pull” will bring them back to their fate.

Gosh. Is this “magnetic pull” explained by the theory of evolution through natural selection (which I accept completely, by the way, having been convinced by Dawkins’s brilliant Blind Watchmaker 30 years ago)? It doesn’t strike me that way. It sounds as if it’s inspired by the Christian teaching that human beings are endowed with a conscience.

This seems to be a misquote from Dawkins’ autobiography where he uses the term discussing whether genes, education or environment had an impact on whether the man he is and things he would do:

But perhaps life has a tendency to converge on a pathway, something like a magnetic pull that draws it back despite temporary deviations. As a biochemist, might I have eventually returned to the path that led to “The Selfish Gene,” even if I had then given it a more molecular slant? Perhaps the pull of the pathway would have led me to write (again biochemically slanted) versions of every one of my dozen books. I doubt it, but this whole ‘returning to the path’ idea is not uninteresting and I shall . . . er . . . return to it.

Taking on board the contingent frailty of the event chain that led to our existence, we can still go on to ask – as I did a moment ago – whether the course of a named individual’s life is sucked back, magnetically, into predictable pathways, despite the Brownian buffetings of sneezes and other trivial, or not so trivial, happenings. What if my mother’s joking speculation were really true, if the Eskotene Nursing Home really had muddled me up with Cuthbert’s son and I had been brought up as a changeling in a missionary household? Would I now be an ordained missionary myself? I think geneticists know enough to say no, probably no.

If you read the extract from Dawkins “An Appetite For Wonder” you can see this is again a reporter trying to make up a story by misquote, with a lack of context for a sensational “revelation.”

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Critiquing Islam


Brandeis University offered an honorary doctorate to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then withdrew it after protest because on further scrutiny “We cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” Absolute shambles whatever your view of Ayaan. The giving then not giving undermines the notion of being “a world-class research institution with the intimacy and personal attention of a small liberal arts college” if they could not work this out for themselves.

Dialogue between ex Muslims and Muslims is important. In a pluralistic society that values religious freedom it is possible to exist and interact with each other. The death threats that Ayaan Hirsi Ali experiences are unacceptable. Bomb threats were made against her, not Hitchens, Dawkins or Harris, when I attended a conference they were all speaking at. As volunteers we were asked if we should cancel, I said no. If Ayaan Hirsi Ali was prepared to speak then we should be prepared to listen.

Which is difficult to hear if you think she demands military action against 1.5 billion Muslims to crush them. A variant of this is doing the rounds on the Internet, taken from an interview in 2007. The person that interviewed Ayaan agreed with Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta’s view:

It takes a very uncharitable interpretation of Hirsi Ali’s words to think her goal of “defeating Islam” means we should commit violence against peaceful law-abiding Muslims or descends into hate speech. Her goal is full-scale reform of Islam, not genocide against all Muslims.

When the quote is reproduced it might be useful to have the context, especially as first paragraph (which I emphasise) of her answer is on a different page, so does not appear in a screen shot of the quote from Reason:

[Bottom page 2:]

Reason: Should we acknowledge that organized religion has sometimes sparked precisely the kinds of emancipation movements that could lift Islam into modern times? Slavery in the United States ended in part because of opposition by prominent church members and the communities they galvanized. The Polish Catholic Church helped defeat the Jaruzelski puppet regime. Do you think Islam could bring about similar social and political changes?

Hirsi Ali: Only if Islam is defeated. Because right now, the political side of Islam, the power-hungry expansionist side of Islam, has become superior to the Sufis and the Ismailis and the peace-seeking Muslims.

Reason: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?

[Page 3:]

Hirsi Ali: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.

Reason: We have to crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot? In concrete terms, what does that mean, “defeat Islam”?

Hirsi Ali: I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself; at present, there are native Westerners converting to Islam, and they’re the most fanatical sometimes. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You stop that. You stop the symbol burning and the effigy burning, and you look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, “This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.” There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.

Reason: Militarily?

Hirsi Ali: In all forms, and if you don’t do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed.

So no, she does not want all Muslims murdered by Black-Ops, or bombed into submission, nor did she say crush 1.5 billion Muslims. She does employ an atheist carpet bombing critique covering all Muslims. That moderate Muslims are a problem too as Islam lends itself to violent extremism, and by it’s nature looking to dominate society. Islamism rather than something within Islam becomes one and the same thing. This view of all Muslims is justified by this critique because an atheist reading of the Koran is the true canonical definition, as if a literalist interpretation by them is the truth. Any Muslim that promotes pluralism, or questions a literalist or atheist interpretation, is declared to not be a true Muslim. Or one that has been secularised first to be more civilised than the text promotes. In effect fundamentalists are the true belivers. Needless to say, I find such a view horrid, misleading and willfully inaccurate of how most Muslims I meet articulate what Islam means.

For more of a critique on such black and white thinking do read Qasim Rashid’s opinion piece: A Muslim’s invitation to the new atheists: Dawkins, Ali and Harris.

Whether gender segregation at British Universities, the Al-Madinah school in Derby, and the British Government admitting it has not done enough to help tackle Islamic extremism these issues are not that of a bigot to raise. Theses issues concern us all whether Muslim or not. The solution is working together, not targeting Muslims with special measures that amount to discrimination.

The language of the interview above being critiqued does not take into account that Ayaan has evolved in her thinking, and especially expression, from that 2007 interview to now. For example watch this 25 minute debate between her and Tariq Ramadan:

To my mind, she brings out an interesting discussion with Ramadan, and he does well to respond. The sticking point in rhetoric though is that carpet bomb approach to Muslims. It offends by suggesting to people: well you are not a real Muslim are you, because if you were you would be a bigot, racist and misogynist would you not? Ramadan points out that is unhelpful let alone wrong when talking about Muslims in Europe and America.

A much longer panel discussion with Ayaan (about an hour and a half before a local studio discussion of debate) took place in December 2013 featuring Maajid Nawaz and Feisal Abdul Rauf:

Here is more detail about the jurisprudence being up for revision and discussion. Rather than an eternal set in stone idea from God. Maajid comments that reading such scholarly work from about seven centuries ago helped him to renounce his extremism.

The approach that religion and all it’s followers are the issue period, will not work if we cannot take seriously people of faith being secularists and human rights activists. Muslims are at the forefront of tackling Islamism, not atheist best selling authors that cannot read Arabic, let alone have not read a translation of the Koran. They are not the ones on the front line literally laying down their lives.

In turn, vilifying the critics of Islam as islamophobes and haters does not help engage with constructive criticism and legitimate points they raise. Ex Muslims and Muslims have much to discuss as Maajid mentions in the above video. It is going to be painful, perhaps offensive. But it needs to happen if a free society is going to celebrate pluralism and challenge extremisim. Free speech means hearing something and deciding how to deal with what we hear. Making the degree a free speech issue is ludicrous; as the two videos show she is being heard and the university invited her to speak when available in a debate. Thing is, being offended is not a licence to defame back in a discussion.

Brandeis University have not helped that discussion by their actions. Ayaan’s work on FGM and women’s rights is worthy of honor (as I am sure many other people’s are), and an atheist view on religion being the problem is no reason to deny an honor because it is applied to Islam. The icing on the cake is twisting Ayaan’s words as wanting the slaughter of Muslims and seeing all Muslims as blood thirsty savages waiting for the right moment to strike – that to defeat Islam ideologically is code for genocide. Watch the videos above – this is not true.

If the honor had been for promoting secularism then I would concede there is something to be concerned about. Her recommendations on immigration, citizenship, come across as close to  being anti-Muslim rather than promoting freedom of religion. We cannot defend human rights by undermining the very liberties everyone deserves, even to those we may wish to ideologically oppose. Any rhetoric that sounds like war or the battle for civilization is counter productive. I can understand a nonsectarian Jewish sponsored University having second thoughts, though it looks more like they lost their backbone with the protest rather than just found out about statements already available via Google.

The dialogue which is clearly happening with Ayaan is not going to be easy. It will not be welcomed by some. Ayaan has a credible death threat on her head. Disagree with her, agree with her, use the democratic process for that. As protesters of the honorary degree did rather well.

Ayaan has a platform, and watching the videos above the discussion will reach more people because of the engagement by Muslims with her. It is a discussion worth having. Long may it continue, as we learn to understand each other rather than give in to tribalism hate mentality. Because the persecution ex Muslims face is real enough, as is anti-Muslim sentiment.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

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Filed under America, atheism, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Religion

Video: How Do We know What Is True?


Short two minute animated video narrated by Stephen Fry contrasting a humanistic view of the world compared to a supernatural view of existence.


Hat tip Jerry Coyne

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

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