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Sep 19 2012

Sam Harris does a spot of carpentry

I often find Sam Harris irritating, but he can be very good at hitting the right nail on the head. He is in his new piece on the freedom to offend.

I’ll just give a few examples of nail-hitting.

Whether over a film, a cartoon, a novel, a beauty pageant, or an inauspiciously named teddy bear, the coming eruption of pious rage is now as predictable as the dawn. This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas.

The contagion of moral cowardice followed its usual course, wherein liberal journalists and pundits began to reconsider our most basic freedoms in light of the sadomasochistic fury known as “religious sensitivity” among Muslims. Contributors to The New York Times and NPR spoke of the need to find a balance between free speech and freedom of religion—as though the latter could possibly be infringed by a YouTube video. As predictable as Muslim bullying has become, the moral confusion of secular liberals appears to be part of the same clockwork.

Unlike the founders of most religions, about whom very little is known, Mormonism is the product of the plagiarisms and confabulations of an obvious con man, Joseph Smith, whose adventures among the credulous were consummated (in every sense) in the full, unsentimental glare of history. Given how much we know about Smith, it is harder to be a Mormon than it is to be a Christian. A firmer embrace of the preposterous is required—and the fact that Romney can manage it says something about him, just as it would if he were a Scientologist proposing to park his E-meter in the Oval Office.

The moment one adds seer stones, sacred underpants, the planet Kolob, and a secret handshake required to win admittance into the highest heaven, Mormonism stands revealed for what it is: the religious equivalent of rhythmic gymnastics.

The point, however, is that I can say all these things about Mormonism, and disparage Joseph Smith to my heart’s content, without fearing that I will be murdered for it. Secular liberals ignore this distinction at every opportunity and to everyone’s peril.

The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. And the only forces on earth that can recover it are strong, secular governments that will face down charges of blasphemy with scorn. No apologies necessary.

He’s right you know.

59 comments

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  1. 1
    thephilosophicalprimate

    The moment one adds seer stones, sacred underpants, the planet Kolob, and a secret handshake required to win admittance into the highest heaven, Mormonism stands revealed for what it is: the religious equivalent of rhythmic gymnastics.

    That’s just rude! Rhythmic gymnastics is more respectable and less embarrassing than Mormonism in every possible way.

  2. 2
    Anonymous Atheist

    Yes, great article except for dissing rhythmic gymnastics. Rhythmic gymnastics is a graceful display of artistic athletic coordination. Mormonism is more like an amateur juggling attempt tripping over itself and sending balls flying wildly to hit the audience in the head. ;)

  3. 3
    Anthony K

    The point, however, is that I can say all these things about Mormonism, and disparage Joseph Smith to my heart’s content, without fearing that I will be murdered for it. Secular liberals ignore this distinction at every opportunity and to everyone’s peril.

    Add the Danites to the list of things about religion about which Harris has no clue.

  4. 4
    Anthony K

    If Harris ever hit a nail on the head, it was only because the nail was being held by a Muslim, and Harris was blindly swinging as always.

    Contrast his paean to the Freedom to Offend with his comments on the Ground Zero Mosque.

    Harris has one, exactly one point, and it’s the only one he ever seems to want to make: Muslims are some sort of unique breed of savage, based on certain magical properties of their holy book (making the Inquisition and the Crusades what? Abberations?), and that we should hound them, pursue them, profile them, restrict them, treat them as unlike every other human being at every opportunity because this will bring us peace.

  5. 5
    thomascaldwell

    A firmer embrace of the preposterous is required. Traditional xtianity is only the preposterousness we’re used to. It’s all preposterous.

  6. 6
    jedibear

    No, fuck Sam Harris. Where he’s right, he’s right for the wrong reasons, and his mendacity here is disgusting.

    The man is incapable of clear thought on the subject of Muslims. He gives atheists a bad name.

  7. 7
    Anthony K

    He gives atheists a bad name.

    Let’s not go that far. Atheists, including the ones who hang on Harris’ every word nodding sagely that he has the spine to stand up to the bleeding-heart liberals and agree with Fox News, give atheists a bad name.

    Harris is just in generally good company.

  8. 8
    steve oberski

    @Brownian

    Are you aware of any recent Danite vigilante actions ?

  9. 9
    Argle Bargle

    Harris has decided that Muslims are a rabidly angry, murderous mob ready to riot at the slightest provocation. The point that the US and Europe have been pissing on Islamic countries since before World War I is something Harris (and many other Islamophobes) either ignore or are ignorant of.

  10. 10
    Vijen

    I often find Ophelia Benson irritating. I very occasionally find Sam Harris irritating. Many people find me irritating nearly all the time. Irritation is the spice of life, or at least one of them.

  11. 11
    Anthony K

    Are you aware of any recent Danite vigilante actions?

    Wait, you mean that there’s some function of time and place that seems to affect the activities of religiously affiliated people?

    Well, that blows the theory that the Qu’ran is evil magic out of the water.

    There must be something else going on that explains why Islam is the most dangerous religion at this time. Hmm, sounds like something that learning, rather than bloviating, could teach us.

    Hey, wait. Here’s someone who’s willing to do a little more than repeat Bill O’Reilly talking points.

  12. 12
    Anthony K

    The point that the US and Europe have been pissing on Islamic countries since before World War I is something Harris (and many other Islamophobes) either ignore or are ignorant of.

    Huh? What? Historical and current political factors?

    Let’s go back to those Danites.

  13. 13
    steve oberski

    @Brownian

    No. I mean have Mormons rioted and killed people recently over criticisms of their faith ?

    An intersting group those Danites, one I had not heard of before, believed by many not to have been active since 1847.

    Is one required to know about this group before it’s permissible to criticize the current tenents of Mormonism ?

  14. 14
    Anthony K

    Is one required to know about this group before it’s permissible to criticize the current tenents of Mormonism ?

    No. But should be required to know about them before one makes claims about the particular murderousness of various religions, as Harris does.

    I’m assuming you did some reading after I mentioned them. Did you notice anything interesting about the time and place in which the Danites were active against non-Mormons?

  15. 15
    steve oberski

    @Brownian

    Sam Harris was making claims about the violent tendancies of various religions in the current time.

    Do you think he should have added information about the Danites, last known sighting over 150 years ago, in his “On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God” article when he was making the comparison to criticizing Mormonism ?

    And why do you assume he knew nothing about the Danites ?

    Perhaps he just did not consider this relevant to the issue at hand.

    If one were to write an article on how (some) religions have become less violent over time then perhaps a reference to the Danites would be germane, assuming you were using Mormonism as a example.

    And Mormonism would be a good example of how religion in general becomes less toxic as the moral zeitgeist of the general population changes, for example abandoning polygamy was a condition for Utah statehood and lo and behold the supremeo bishop had a revelation and polygamy was a no-no (bad news for Romney’s grandfather) and with the passing of the ERA another revelation and suddenly Negros had souls.

  16. 16
    Anthony K

    Sam Harris was making claims about the violent tendancies of various religions in the current time.

    Sam Harris makes claims about the violent tendancies of various religions in the current time without ever considering historical context. Hell, half the time he admits he has no data:

    Consider what is actually happening: Some percentage of the world’s Muslims—Five percent? Fifteen? Fifty? It’s not yet clear—is demanding that all non-Muslims conform to the strictures of Islamic law.

    Jesus Sam, you’re that fucking clueless about the motivations of some 1.6 billion people, and yet we’re all absolutely convinced that these riots were of course motivated by religious criticism? Hell, when women say they’d like to attend conferences free from molestation the atheoskeptic community puts their claims through the ringer with more vigour than we treat the claim that this political situation is religiously motivated. How many rioters are Muslims offended by criticisms of Islam? Five? Fifteen? Fifty?

    Now, that would be fine if he were just some bloviating ass noting that hey, Mormons in the US in 2012 seem to riot at a much lower rate than Muslims in the Middle East. But he doesn’t. Based on his lack of knowledge and his allergy to consulting experts, he endorses policies that deny people human rights. Now, that’s nothing new. In fact, it’s very American to defend the faith by attacking the freedoms of others.

    But he’s supposed to be some sort of laudable thinker. Fuck, half the time he resorts to the ol’ “we have to stand tough against these bleeding heart liberals” defence.

    Well fuck me, if that’s the case, then Bill O’Reilly’s right about the goddamn tides.

  17. 17
    dereksmear

    Brownian is spot on. It is absurdly funny when a man who claims that ‘Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them’ starts lecturing people about freedom of expression.

  18. 18
    dereksmear

    I notice Harris has said nothing about his Buddhist chums and their campaigns of ethnic cleaning against Muslims in Burma. Actually, I am surprised he wasn’t cheering them on.

  19. 19
    Trends

    Apparently, criticisms of Democrats and slight praise for Romeny negates what Harris is saying.

    I think Sam Harris is absolutely spot-on, and I find the comments above criticising this article eerily similar to both the tone and content of the postings of leftwing apologists for islamists one finds all over publications like CIF.

    Three days ago to protest the U-Tube clip some violent thugs in Afganistan, who’d no doubt ever seen the film, dentonated a bomb blowing a minibus some 160 feet and killing all occupants on board, aid workers from South Africa, 12 of them.

    When “Piss Christ” was shown in a New York gallery some 13 years ago, the literati praised it for being transgressive and challening. the atmosphere back then was free of death threats.

    I have no illusions about the cowardice of elites in both Europe and America when it comes to defending free speech against predatory islamists invoking religious sensitivity and calling for restraint when criticising “prophet” Mohammed.

    Had some enraged Catholics blown up that New York art gallery 13 years ago and killed the owners, those Catholic would have been portrayed as rabid, bigoted theocrats and calls would have gone up for their imprisonment.

    With “Muslim Innocence”, however, we portray the authors as bigoted bastards and we imply that the insane rage demonstrated by islamists all across the globe is somehow justified and understandable, seeings their religious sensitivites.

    Finally, and I’m sure most here are unaware of this, but the house, near Giza, of the aged egyptian mother of one of the film makers is, as we speak, surrounded by enraged Islamists and they’re threatening to burn her alive inside it.

    She,s in her 80s.

    But as obama said in his Cairo speech, women in Egypt have the right to wear a hijab…

  20. 20
    Anthony K

    When “Piss Christ” was shown in a New York gallery some 13 years ago, the literati praised it for being transgressive and challening. the atmosphere back then was free of death threats.

    That’s certainly not the case when it was produced in the 80s. Serrano and gallery officials indeed received death threats.

    Throughout its existence, church officials and protestors have sought to have it prevented from being displayed, and it’s been the target of vandals right up until last year.

  21. 21
    Anthony K

    Apparently, criticisms of Democrats and slight praise for Romeny negates what Harris is saying.

    Right, that’s exactly what’s happening here, he responded with rolling eyes.

  22. 22
    dereksmear

    Observe the insane Jews, why does the US continue to send money to these people? It is an act of moral cowardice. Bla bla bla.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gn5mrHS08hw

    http://digitaljournal.com/article/31676

  23. 23
    Anthony K

    Finally, and I’m sure most here are unaware of this, but the house, near Giza, of the aged egyptian mother of one of the film makers is, as we speak, surrounded by enraged Islamists and they’re threatening to burn her alive inside it.
    She,s in her 80s.

    As horrible as that is, I’m sure even conservatives are aware that immolating elderly women is hardly a practice confined to Islam.

    But, let’s say your example is compelling, and that we’re all agreed something must be done about the people committing the thought-crime of believing that Allah is god and Mohammed his prophet.

    Well, don’t wimp out now. Tell us all exactly what must be done. Pre-emptive nukes? Arrests and detainment for carrying a Qu’ran? Detention camps? What’s your final solution to the Muslim menace?

  24. 24
    PatrickG

    Brownian said:

    Well, don’t wimp out now. Tell us all exactly what must be done. Pre-emptive nukes? Arrests and detainment for carrying a Qu’ran? Detention camps? What’s your final solution to the Muslim menace?

    And that right there is where Harris stopped short. Perhaps piling on, but what, exactly, do you, Trends, think should be done?

    Seriously, it is possible to hold two thoughts in mind at once:
    - some Muslims are batshit crazy and a menace
    - calling all Muslims batshit and crazy and advocating a stronger belligerent stance towards all Muslims is stupid.

    These are not contradictory thoughts, and holding them simultaneously does not signify a “quivering lip”, to quote Harris.

  25. 25
    dereksmear

    What can be done?

    Harris has all the answers: getting rid of the Constitution, racial profiling, indefinite detention, torture, drone strikes, mass bombing, and other related killing. Heck it’s doing wonders so far. Maybe in the future we might have to consider pre-emptive nuclear strikes on Muslims.

    What we really need is Harris is a position of political power. I can see no possible down side to this suggestion.

  26. 26
    Anthony K

    Maybe in the future we might have to consider pre-emptive nuclear strikes on Muslims.

    He advocates that very thing in The End of Faith:

    What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.

    See? Only he has the guts to think the unthinkable. The rest of us are too busy passing the Sudetenland around like a bong at a Phish concert and pining over clubbed baby seals, I guess.

    Oh, wait, no, the chickenhawks beat him to it.

  27. 27
    dereksmear

    Well, looks like President Harris is the only option. Shame we can’t have Ayaan Hirsi Ali as Veep.

  28. 28
    Trends

    And that right there is where Harris stopped short. Perhaps piling on, but what, exactly, do you, Trends, think should be done?

    We should disengage as much as possible from the entire Muslim world.

    No more free food, free medecine or free money, m,ilitary harware or spare parts.

    If you haven’t the technological ability to manufacture rerplacements parts, let alone a whole fighter jet, then put an upturned saucepan on your head and flap your goddamend arms.

    I also think that muslim immigration should be severely curtailed.

    The islamic world is creaming for understanding and tolerance, terms that same world doesn’t even undestand.

    Turkey, a country that has yet to even acknowledge the Aremenian Genocide, wants criticism of mo declared a “Crime Against Humanity”.

    And you’re telling me that HARRIS is over the top?

    Seeings the character content and the spine of America’s and Europe’s current leadership, considering criticism of mo a “Crime Against Humanity” could well become a reality.

    And so here’s the question I put to commenters here: is being limited to merely lampooning the pope sufficient cause to support, maintain and sustain a robust atheist movement?

    Afterall, “Piss Christ” is now about as transgressive and as engaging as an “I Love Lucy” re-run.

    Sam Harris is great…as is Pat Condell.

  29. 29
    peicurmudgeon

    One of the things I disagree with Harris on in this post is suggesting that Mormonism and Islam are different than some other religions. First of all, it is easier to condemn Mormonism as the creation of a con man because Smith lived recently enough to for his ‘facts’ to be checked. In Christianity, there is a strong debate about the historicity of many of the main players in the mythology. However, the time frame is such that proofs on either side are more difficult to come by. I suppose that, plus it’s age, make standard Christianity more easily believable than Mormonism, at least for many.

    I would suggest that the intolerance exhibited by extreme Muslims that is exhibited in some countries today is based upon relative power. They are not more violent and intolerant simply because the teaching of the religion are more barbaric, but because the rhetoric of believers has the active or tacit support of the government. When, in the past, Christians were in the same circumstance, (e.g. pre-Enlightenment Europe) the situation was not so terrible different.

    Sermons against homosexuals can influence violence against gays. Rhetoric in support of male privilege can influence violence against women. It is when speech such as this is condemned (which is different from restricted) that freedom is advanced.

    In other words, violent intolerance in Islamic countries proliferates because it can.

  30. 30
    Anthony K

    Yawn.

    Chest-beating bigots are boring.

  31. 31
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    No more free food, free medecine or free money, m,ilitary harware or spare parts.

    You want to let innocent people starve. Nice.

    I also think that muslim immigration should be severely curtailed.

    So… You don’t actually care whether any given person born in a Muslim country actually supports the violent contingent. They’re all the same to you. No thoughts about immigrants who are leaving precisely because of the violence? Because they want their families to be safe and don’t really believe the west will corrupt them or any similar crap? THey can stay there and get fucked simply for the unfortunate circumstance of being born in a Muslim country.

    I hope someone sics Walton on you.

  32. 32
    Anthony K

    No more free food, free medecine or free money, m,ilitary harware or spare parts.

    Well, nothing curtails religious fanaticism like poverty and starvation. I mean, nobody in the history of the world has ever been attracted to extremist groups as a result of economic disenfranchisement.

  33. 33
    dshetty

    @brownian
    See? Only he has the guts to think the unthinkable.
    I don’t agree with Sam Harris but your reasoning is faulty.
    Since India/Pakistan both have nukes and are often on the verge of war – the question does come to me many times as what would one do if there is actually a war and you have evidence that the other side is planning on using its nukes. Would you authorize a preemptive strike or not? Its unthinkable to do so – and its unthinkable to not do anything either.
    Harris is describing a dilemma and it would exist for most sane people.

  34. 34
    dereksmear

    @dshetty

    Which is the one country in the history of the world that has dropped nuclear bombs?

  35. 35
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Hey, US has nukes and is virtually always on the verge of war in a war. I’m horrified that Americans so very rarely give a second thought to that.

  36. 36
    PatrickG

    We should disengage as much as possible from the entire Muslim world.

    Considering that we get a lot of oil from there, that’s easier said than done. Or are you advocating that we simply entrench into occupying vital regions and shooting people who come too close?

    Yeah, that’ll work.

    And so here’s the question I put to commenters here: is being limited to merely lampooning the pope sufficient cause to support, maintain and sustain a robust atheist movement?

    What a ridiculous question, but no, of course not. The mere fact that you would ask this question at all leads me to believe that’s all you’re doing.

    Look, from the linked piece:

    At moments like this, we inevitably hear—from people who don’t know what it’s like to believe in paradise—that religion is just a way of channeling popular unrest. The true source of the problem can be found in the history of western aggression in the region. It is our policies, rather than our freedoms, that they hate. I believe that the future of liberalism—and much else—depends on our overcoming this ruinous self-deception. Religion only works as a pretext for political violence because many millions of people actually believe what they say they believe: that imaginary crimes like blasphemy and apostasy are killing offenses.

    Perhaps there are people arguing this is the sole reason for political violence in the Muslim world. I don’t agree with them (I’m not even sure they really exist, and if they do, they’re being as irrational as you and Harris). I would argue that religion is a way of manipulating populations to achieve certain goals. This isn’t unique to Islam; see, for example: the Vatican, the USCCB, the Southern Baptist Alliance, the various hate groups right here in our midst that use religion to foster intolerance of gays, immigrants, and woman.

    So, to Sam Harris and crew: this is irrational thinking. This violence does have roots in our policies that you so cavalierly dismiss. It also has roots in cynical religious manipulation that we in the West are still struggling with in politics today. I agree that people who believe ridiculous things act on those ideas, to the point of violence and murder. But come on. Isn’t that why most of us call ourselves skeptics and rational thinkers? Isn’t the whole point of a “robust atheist movement” changing the way people think?

    We push back and fight against particular groups that are engaging in religious manipulation, and we should do the same with Islam. To do that, we need to learn more, engage with progressive elements in Muslim nations, and advocate for change as hard as we can.

    Look, we can engage with the “islamic world”, as you put it. We can work to improve the situation. It’s not going to be easy, and of course we have to address and condemn violence by some Muslims. But what Harris sees as a monolithic religious bloc bent on violence to me looks like a world suffering from religious profiteering, lack of education and mobility, and indeed, rage at the conditions of living in those countries. Rage that is being exploited by exactly the same kinds of power-seeking regressivists that occupy the Vatican.

    But this kind of reactionary and irrational thinking is useless. A strategy that combines putting your fingers in your ears and screaming ‘GET THEM BEFORE THEY GET US’ isn’t going to be effective. We’ve done that before, we know where it leads.

  37. 37
    Anthony K

    Since India/Pakistan both have nukes and are often on the verge of war – the question does come to me many times as what would one do if there is actually a war and you have evidence that the other side is planning on using its nukes. Would you authorize a preemptive strike or not? Its unthinkable to do so – and its unthinkable to not do anything either.
    Harris is describing a dilemma and it would exist for most sane people.

    Yeah, I remember the Cold War too.

    Hey, US has nukes and is virtually always on the verge of war in a war. I’m horrified that Americans so very rarely give a second thought to that.

    Don’t look at me. I’m all for ending the US as a global force.

  38. 38
    Ophelia Benson

    Ugh. This is a very unproductive discussion.

  39. 39
    Anthony K

    Was it productive when it was simply “See how religion == bad”?

  40. 40
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Don’t look at me.

    I wasn’t.

  41. 41
    dereksmear

    I think the conversation would be far more productive if people uncritcally accepted Harris’ article as brilliant and that be the end of it.

  42. 42
    Ophelia Benson

    When was it simply “See how religion == bad”?

  43. 43
    Ophelia Benson

    And by the way I meant it was unproductive in both directions.

  44. 44
    Trends

    Considering that we get a lot of oil from there, that’s easier said than done.

    Patrick, you’ve heard of the Keystone pipeline that was reccently mothballed?

    It was meant to transport 2 million barrels of oil every day from Canada’s tarsands to the lower forty-eight.

    Saudi Arqabia only supplies Americ with 1 million barrels of oil every day…

    You want to let innocent people starve. Nice.

    Beatrice, Pakistan imports half its foodstuffs, but nonetheless has more nuclear warheads than the UK.

    That nuclear programme was largely financed by diverted western money originally earmarked for disaster relief, developement projects and, yes, emergency foodstuffs.

    In fact, so much aid money is siphoned off in Pakistan by corrupt officials and whatnot that many aid organisations ( whose memebers are sometimes killed as we just saw in Afganistan three days ago) now simply refuse to operate in the country in any capacity.

    Anyways, this thread is about Sam Harris, and I apporve of the guy’s messsge…

  45. 45
    plutoanimus

    It’s a shame Ophelia’s readers aren’t as sharp as she is.

    Sam Harris speaks a truth that some people refuse to hear.

  46. 46
    Anthony K

    It’s a shame Ophelia’s readers aren’t as sharp as she is.

    Sam Harris speaks a truth that some people refuse to hear.

    The skeptickest of skeptics simply declare their correctness.

    After all, that’s how science does it.

    Wait, is that how science does it, or…

    No, Ophelia’s right. This is unproductive.

  47. 47
    AJ Milne

    PatrickG/36, you’re making a lot of the points I keep trying to hack into some kind of coherent and actually useful comment on this.

    I still don’t really have one, but I’ll contribute these broken (and probably mostly obvious, sure) bullets anyway, I guess:

    1) Agreed re religion as a tool of popular manipulation. Yes it is.

    2) That’s definitely part of what’s happening here, but remember the roots of resentment now run pretty deep. It’s not like the local cleric even has to say ‘Death to the Americans’, anymore. The mob is likely enough to get that idea on their own anyway, and go figure. And I’m not even sure how much I blame them.

    3) This manipulation and this misdirection–go forth and rage about religion as we’ve nothing better for you to do, and it’ll keep you busy–doesn’t work nearly as well when people actually have otherwise rewarding things to do with their lives. And in opposition to this, it’s crack especially when that badge of belonging is all you have. Given that and nothing else but time on your hands, yes, you do get angry young men burning things.

    (Well, like I said: a lot of it’s a mite obvious.)

    4) Actually expecting western governments to stand up for the freedom to offend real loudly and proudly here is… iffy. It’s not really their priority, exactly.

    4a) Call me cynical if you must, but: oddly enough, I often figure the only real reason a lot of them will is for the same reason certain voices will among our own number. That they figure it can look so dashing, done right. And that can be good for votes, too.

    5) And remember that, given that our societies are no more monoliths than are the places where the embassies are under fire, there’s also lots of people on our own side that never really signed on with this notion that being able to call religious bullshit bullshit–or just laugh at it however you damned well please–up to and including just being able to draw dreadful and all-but-illiterate parodies of the religious icons of rival sects–is terribly important a value exactly.

    6) Actually, there’s lots of figures on our side of the pond–and not most of them particularly Islamic–who really are rather fond of blasphemy laws. The only thing that probably bothers them about the new calls for laws against this sort of thing is the optics are bad: rioting brown people aren’t likely to sell their constituents on it. They probably look at stuff like Erdoğan’s recent statement, and ask ‘emselves: okay… could be useful… but how can we make this work for us? May take some gymnastics, but maybe we can still work with this thing. Remember: the Vatican and the conservative imams and some of the slimier uglies that served under BushCo™ in foreign policy could get on surprisingly well at the UN when the subject was reproductive rights.

    7) The cynic in me says there’s also lots of interests who are actually pretty happy with the Middle East being a messy powder keg, too. Riots in the streets are okay so long as the strongman who climbs to the top and tamps it down is signing contracts for petrol shipments with you at the end of the day. And hey, war can be good for business, too. Just gotta step lively, unload the right stocks early, make sure you make it perfectly clear your door is open when they’re looking for fresh new missiles ‘n jets.

    8) The big losers in this are actually going to be, as usual, those on the bottom in the countries in question. Incensed in the defense of an actually pretty useless right–the right to demand not to hear anyone saying ‘poppycock’ when they prostrate themselves before the ghost they’ve been told to keep their attention on while they’re being robbed blind by the local oligarchs and their clients–however it goes, they still lose.

    9) Freedom of expression in our own societies, in this view of it, is really just getting hit on the ricochet. But, again, as above: there’s lots of folk over here sure as hell won’t mind how deeply that wound bleeds, anyway.

    10) Disengaging isn’t going to help. It’s not really possible, and it’s not even on point. I’m not sure it would do harm or good, at this point, but probably more the former, on balance. While we do have a way of pissing people off on the Arab street practically every time we open our mouths, talking is still probably in everyone’s interest, rather than crawling back behind our respective walls and worrying about what might be happening on the other side. Let’s keep talking. Feet will be placed in mouths the same way the sun will keep coming up, and feelings will be hurt all over the damned place, but at least we’ll keep what we can out in the open.

    11) Also, remember: secular forces and theocratic religiosity have actually waxed and waned a fair bit even in a lot of the countries in question. It’s not that there’s no secular movement in any of ‘em–just that they’re pretty well muzzled by the political reality right now. Erdoğan doesn’t speak for all of Turkey, nor do the angry mobs speak for all of Egypt. If disengaging says to the surviving secularists therein ‘we’re hereby walling you off over there with the Islamists ‘cos we’re collectively pissed at your entire country’, yeah, I’m not real comfortable with doing that.

    12) We still do have a certain obligation if we believe in it to speak up in favour of the freedom to offend, the freedom to criticize any religion, including Islam, freely and without fear, all the same. I’m a mite pissed about this stupid movie myself–it’s such an awful poster child over which to have to speak for the concept, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out it’s a total fucking troll just meant to start fires–but the principle is what the principle is. I think of all the people who started talking shit about Rushdie like oh he’s an awful novelist, oh he’s a drama queen or whatever the hell it was to avoid talking to the point that, y’know, we really can’t sign off on anyone sending death squads for a novelist who just did what novelists do and wrote a novel, and frankly, it makes me throw up in my mouth a bit. I don’t want to be looking back at this time and think, geez, I copped out the same way. Shitty art or good art, deliberately inflammatory or no, we do not get to join in saying to them ‘Shut up so no one gets killed’, even if it is pretty obvious they already even knew that when they made it.

    And hell, there’s enough people saying that anyway. Me, I’m just gonna stick with saying, to the relevant civil authorities: someone murders someone over this, find them and arrest them. Let them swear out how offended they were. Fine. So you’re offended. Noted. You’re still a murderer.

    13) Longer term: freedom of conscience isn’t some abstract ideal, some talking point for a speech in the graduate student club or high school debating. Nor even is it just a pragmatic matter, in that compromising it tends to have some knock on effect for scientific inquiry, progress, and so on.

    It’s a vital thing, a real thing, a thing without which life quickly becomes pretty incredibly miserable. The right to say ‘this religion is bullshit and disgusts me; I do not believe it one fucking bit and I will not be forced even to imply otherwise’ isn’t a luxury. And being compelled by force never to say it–indeed being forced continually to avow the converse, to pretend to swear fealty to a god you don’t believe in, being kept closeted and terrified by prevailing social forces that overwhelm you, is a bit like having a bucket of shit forced down your throat daily.

    I don’t wish that on anyone. So I do have to say, as a matter of principle, in solidarity with anyone who needs to say that: you absolutely should have the right; I do not regard it as negotiable.

    … Like I said: a mite disorganized. To borrow a phrase: I didn’t have time to write you a shorter letter.

  48. 48
    PatrickG

    Anyways, this thread is about Sam Harris, and I apporve of the guy’s messsge…

    Well, that’s your prerogative, so I won’t derail the thread with a discussion of the Keystone pipeline and global oil markets.

    Harris trivializes the role of policies of the so-called West in exacerbating the already troubling tendencies of some Muslims to use violence and terrorism. I find that shortsighted, even morally culpable. But hey, you’re certainly entitled to your opinion, as parsimonious, devoid of nuance, and irrational as it may be.

  49. 49
    dereksmear

    Sam Harris is arguing against censorship? Well, this is a change.

  50. 50
    AJ Milne

    … and not to pull any scabs off or nothin’ (yanks it anyway), but I do think Kenan Malik’s view that a lot of this is about Islamist groups jockeying for power has a distinct ring of plausibility, and does seem to match up well enough with what I think I do know about events*.

    Paraphrasing: issuing fatwas, inciting mobs over stuff like this, being the biggest rage-monger in the room is a handy form of demagoguery for anyone running under an Islamist banner. Red meat, essentially, by which you can hope to energize your following, distinguish yourself from and shame your more moderate foes. Want to grab headlines and political clout? Scream louder than the other guy that the West has insulted the One, True God yet again, and you, for one, are going to stand up for the faith. You, for one, aren’t going to take it anymore. Dunno about those lily-livered losers over there (gesture with your thumbs, here), but our party, we have principles. So I guess we probably should be running things, rather than them, shouldn’t we?

    … a strategy, I might add, which should be familiar enough watching Dominionists work their schtick. It’s the same essential game–a cocktail made with a similar mix of politics, religion, and resentment.

    (*/Granted, not much. Or not as much as I’d like.)

  51. 51
    Eamon Knight

    @50: ….a strategy, I might add, which should be familiar enough watching Dominionists work their schtick. It’s the same essential game–a cocktail made with a similar mix of politics, religion, and resentment.

    I have had similar thoughts. I also don’t understand as much as I would like, but I’m unimpressed by those who explain the rioting exclusively in terms of geopolitics OR theology (and Sam Harris specifically has to my mind emphasized the latter too much in the past). So at the risk of mis-translating a foreign phenomenon into Western terms, I also tend invoke an analogy to the American Christian Right. Without American exceptionalism, a certain subset of Protestants would still be paranoid, anti-woman, anti-sex, homophobic authoritarians. And without fundamentalism, some Americans would still be jingoist, imperialist, quasi-fascist assholes. But allow such people to read their socio-political aspirations into a book they hold as Divinely authoritative, and you get the toxic brew which today dominates the Republican Party, and which is easily manipulated by the powerful (who themselves may not believe a word of it).

    It’s not religion vs. politics, it’s religion as the Useful Idiot of politics.

  52. 52
    Trends

    Harris trivializes the role of policies of the so-called West in exacerbating the already troubling tendencies of some Muslims to use violence and terrorism

    Harris doesn’t trivialise that role because that “role” is a myth.

    What we do or do not do has virtually no bearing on the islamist rage we see all over the planet.

    The current flak over the 14 minute film is entirely manufactured; it’s been on U-Tube for well over a year now, and was only invoked to jusfity the vicious murder of America’s ambassador to Libya, an act that had been planned weeks in advance.

    We should remember that islamists in The Sudan wanted to execute a teacher from Britian because one of her students had named a teddybear after Mohammed.

    It doesn’t take much at all, does it?

    When Harris stated that we’re living in a age where it’s as though a time portal to the 14th century has opened and that the denizens of that era are pouring onto our shores, he was far from wrong.

  53. 53
    Anthony K

    When Harris stated that we’re living in a age where it’s as though a time portal to the 14th century has opened and that the denizens of that era are pouring onto our shores, he was far from wrong.

    Boy, Harris sure nailed those primitives.

    Thanks, Ophelia, for giving Harris even more exposure and helping normalize the ravings of this charming bigot.

  54. 54
    PatrickG

    What we do or do not do has virtually no bearing on the islamist rage we see all over the planet.

    Seriously? From puppet regimes to funding military dictatorship, from US-sponsored coups to sanctions that cause human suffering, from fragmentation grenades to drone attacks to “Made in USA” tags on tear gas used on protesters in Egypt… it’s good to know this has “virtually no bearing” on anything.

    The current flak over the 14 minute film is entirely manufactured; it’s been on U-Tube for well over a year now, and was only invoked to jusfity the vicious murder of America’s ambassador to Libya, an act that had been planned weeks in advance.

    Well, we agree on something. I, too, think the controversy was manufactured and used for political/religious power grabbing. However, this didn’t happen in a vacuum; there are reasons why that ridiculous film could be used as provocation.

    And yes, a lot of that lies in 14th century attitudes, to use Harris’s timing. But it’s not useful to just point a finger, say “MUSLIM”, and abandon any critical thinking skills at that point.

    We should remember that islamists in The Sudan wanted to execute a teacher from Britian because one of her students had named a teddybear after Mohammed.

    We should remember that ‘christianists’ in the US breathlessly wait for nuclear war in the Middle East to bring about the apocalyptic end times. What’s your point? Irrational religious people promoting hatred and violence exist everywhere. It’s one of those things we condemn religion for, so why are you dogmatically promoting hatred and violence yourself?

    You know, one of the people killed in the Benghazi attacks worked for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. I highly suggest you check out their work; you might begin to get the idea that religious ideology and 14th century attitudes aren’t just a problem with Islamic militants.

  55. 55
    Nick Gotts

    A.J. Milne,

    I’m a mite pissed about this stupid movie myself–it’s such an awful poster child over which to have to speak for the concept, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out it’s a total fucking troll just meant to start fires–but the principle is what the principle is.

    Of course it’s a total fucking troll just meant to start fires – which means that calling it stupid completely misses the point: it has had exactly the intended effect so far as the riots are concerned*. Look here, here, and here for information on the Christofascists responsible making the film and ensuring that it was available for their counterpart Islamist extremists to use. These two groups, despite their professed hatred for each other, are symbiotic.

    Incidentally, I’ve seen the claim that the film has been on YouTube for a year before, but no evidence for it. According to the BBC, it was first posted there on 1st July. Whatever, its existence did not become public knowledge in the countries where riots have happened until around 2 weeks ago, when a press release about a planned event by Terry Jones, and mentioning the film, was distributed around the world.

    Shitty art or good art, deliberately inflammatory or no, we do not get to join in saying to them ‘Shut up so no one gets killed’, even if it is pretty obvious they already even knew that when they made it.

    That’s easy for you to say, because you’re not one of those likely to be killed. What’s most remarkable about a lot of the atheist commentary on this issue is that those making the film are criticized, if at all, for “shitty art”, or “stupidity”. Not for deliberately setting out to provoke violence for the benefit of their own religious-extremist project, which anyone but a fool can see is exactly what they have done. They apparently have the legal right to do this (although it seems Nakoula Basseley Nakoula may have violated his parole conditions in the process), and it’s certainly arguable that they should have that legal right, but if you think they have the moral right to do it, you’re a moral imbecile – like Sam Harris.

    *It may not have had the intended effect on US politics. It was almost certainly intended to damage Obama’s re-election campaign, although those behind it consider Romney a wimp. It may still do so; but Romney seems to have managed to put yet another bullet through his foot when firing from the hip.

  56. 56
    Nick Gotts

    AJ Milne,

    Clarification: I know you didn’t make the claim about it having been available on YouTube for over a year – I should have made clear that came from Trends.

  57. 57
    PatrickG

    What’s most remarkable about a lot of the atheist commentary on this issue is that those making the film are criticized, if at all, for “shitty art”, or “stupidity”. Not for deliberately setting out to provoke violence for the benefit of their own religious-extremist project, which anyone but a fool can see is exactly what they have done.

    QFT.

  58. 58
    AJ Milne

    That’s easy for you to say, because you’re not one of those likely to be killed.

    Well, a lot easier than being killed, sure.

    But well enough enlarging the moral playing field, I guess. Tho’ I do hope you’d get I’m already well aware of that.

    It is interesting to me, at this point, that it’s so clearly deliberate incitement. Didn’t strictly know it was so nailed down, in all honesty. But, as above: it’s not at all surprising, either.

    It’s a lovely little ecosystem, it is. One group of extremists to create the insult, the better to stir up their base. Then another to snatch it up, to stir up theirs. Efficient. Win win. Somewhere, someone’s manager is impressed.

    But what continues to bother me here is it really does seem to me people keep finding reasons not to speak up for free expression, keep finding distractions from doing so. Which is precisely why I brought in Rushdie, and all that noise about whether he was a properly worthy victim, and complained (and will complain again) about all this essentially distractionary ‘but it’s a terrible film’ stuff…

    Fine. Say also it was deliberate incitement, and lobby X profits thereby. Show you’re all sophisticated, you get who’s pulling the strings and who’s enlarging their clout, show you get the dynamics, you see the fnords, whatever, lovely…

    But don’t be seen at the end of the day to deliver the message that what may provoke violence or what may offend may not be said. For what I’d hope would be obvious reasons. That, to my mind, is reacting to a complicated crossfire by putting your unhelmetted head in its way.

  59. 59
    dereksmear

    Elsewhere, atheists in Turkey continue their campaign of brutal violence.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19650034

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